Is Buddhism Bewitched with Superstition?


Is there superstition in Buddhism?  Buddhism as a religion can seem like a double-sided coin.  On one side, we see it as this ancient philosophy rooted in the mind and practical pursuits, devoid of omnipresent gods.

On the other side, we see that there is a myriad of rituals and ceremonies, vivid supernatural imagery, and prayer to various beings.

What’s going on?  Is Buddhism truly “superstitious” and do they believe in the “supernatural”?

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Buddha, the Exorcist

Before we begin on this topic, we need an old monk and a young monk.

Just kidding, that reference was a nod to the movie, The Exorcist, but it goes to highlight the extremes we can find in Buddhism today.  In 2011, a teenage girl died during an “exorcism” by a monk of a Buddhist sect in Japan who was trying to rid her of ‘evil spirits’.

Buddhist monks performing exorcisms?  That was a new one for me because the Buddha specifically rejected superstition.  In some ways, he was the exorcist of superstition.  He once said that his followers should follow this example:

They do not get carried away by superstition; they believe in deeds, aspiring to results from their own deeds through their own effort in a rational way; they are not excited by wildly rumored superstition, talismans or lucky charms; they do not aspire to results from praying for miracles.  ~  Buddha (Anguttara Nikaya III, 206)

The Buddha is saying that we should not fall into the trap of superstition, but instead pursue and gain wisdom.

Where Did That Come From?

I wonder if a car wash comes with this blessing? Photo by Justin Yoshida on Flickr
I wonder if a car wash comes with this blessing? Photo by Justin Yoshida on Flickr (CC License)

The Dharma is a great ocean which we enter by faith and cross by the power of wisdom. ~ from the Mahaprajnaparamita Shastra

Like all major religions, beliefs, and traditions of society often “creep” into the doctrine and practices.

For example, Christians celebrate the birth of Christ on “Christmas” which is December 25th each year.  Why?  Because before the conversion to Christianity, the Romans loved their popular holiday on the Southern Solstice (called Bruma), which was celebrated on December 25th (it’s also where the “gift-giving” comes from).  Fast forward to today, and it is widely believed that December 25th is the true date of the birth of Jesus, yet every scholar admits nobody knows the true date of the birth of Jesus.

Buddhism (of a particular school, country, or society) can be much the same way.  Often when Buddhism started to become part of a society, local customs, traditions, and beliefs became part of the practice.  Eventually, it became widely accepted to be part of “Buddhism” itself by the population.

Ven. S. Dhammika explained:

Many things seem strange to us when we don’t understand them. Rather than dismiss such things as strange, we should try to find out what they mean. However, it is true that Buddhist practices sometimes have their origins in popular superstition and misunderstanding rather than the teachings of the Buddha. And such misunderstandings are not found in Buddhism alone but arise in all religions from time to time. The Buddha taught with clarity and in detail and if some fail to understand fully, the Buddha cannot be blamed.

Bathing the Buddha

Buddha Birthday Photo by Paul Stein on Flickr
The Buddha gets really clean on his Birthday! Photo by Paul Stein on Flickr (CC License)

When it comes to the Buddha himself, some scoff at Buddhists praying to statues or pictures of him.  But that’s not what’s really going on.

To non-Buddhists, it may seem that bowing or prostration to an image or statue of the Buddha is treating the Buddha as a god or supernatural figure.

Actually, when a Buddhist bows or prostrates to the Buddha, this is how we show our humility, appreciation, and respect, for the Buddha as our teacher.

  • The Buddha is a teacher because he understood the true nature of things and taught others
  • He became a respected person because he vowed to liberate all sentient beings from suffering
  • He showed humanity how to better themselves by teaching love, kindness, and compassion

When a Buddhist bows before the Buddha, they are doing the following:

  • Reminding themselves of their own Buddha-nature
  • Examining their own mind
  • Renewing their vow to remove any obstacles from their mind and life that prevent them from becoming enlightened
  • Manifesting kindness and compassion
  • Vowing to benefit all sentient beings
  • Letting go of their own ego

There are those who do not see it this way and are taught to “pray” to the Buddha (as if he is a supernatural being) for health, wealth or other things the person wants.  This, of course, has nothing to do with Buddhism.

What about bathing the Buddha?  When I first saw this a long time ago, I initially thought “oh there is yet another pointless ritual”.  But in fact, this is a highly symbolic way for a practitioner to symbolize these concepts:

  • Purifying the body
  • Purifying the speech
  • Purifying the mind

So, you’re not really “cleaning” the Buddha (he had his shower today, thank you very much), but instead you are showing that you aspire to “cleanse” your “inner” mind of greed, hatred, and delusion.  It’s easy to clean the “outer” dirt off your body, but your mind is the key to enlightenment (so start cleaning)!

So, what’s going on during this practice and why does it occur?

Hsi Lai Temple explains the ceremony and purpose as follows, and is a good guide if you want to participate:

On April 8, over 2,600 years ago, Queen Maya of Kapilavastu gave birth to Prince Siddhartha under an Asoka tree in Lumbini Garden. He was to become the Buddha after leaving worldly life behind and attaining enlightenment.

After his birth, with one hand pointing to the heavens and the other to the earth, the prince said, “Heaven above and earth below, I am the World-Honored One” which meant in all the universe, only realizing our own Buddha-nature is the most noble and the most valuable. At that moment, the Four Heavenly Kings and nine dragons rained fragrant water from the sky, bathing the body of the prince.

Therefore, on this day every year, Buddhists prepare a sweet tea from fragrant herbs and spices and bathe statues of the Buddha in celebration of the Buddha’s birthday.

The Significance of Bathing the Buddha

As we hold the ladle of pure water in our hands facing the statue of Prince Siddhartha, we should sincerely pray for the merits of bathing the Buddha, purifying our afflictions and defilements of greed, desire, anger, and hatred. We should pray for peace in the world, and an end to violence, deceit, and evil. We should pray for our troubled world to be transformed into the pure land and all minds to be guided onto the bodhi path.

This is the true meaning of bathing the Buddha.

The Benefits of Bathing the Buddha

In the Sutra on the Merit of Bathing the Buddha, the benefits are as follows:

  1. You will have wealth, happiness, good health, and longevity
  2. All your wishes will be fulfilled
  3. Your relatives, friends, and family will all be at peace
  4. You will bid a long farewell to the eight difficulties and forever escape the conditions of suffering
  5. You will attain quick enlightenment

What Kind of Mind Should We Have When Bathing the Buddha?

  1. Faith–we should give rise to a joyful mind and have deep faith in the merit of bathing the Buddha. When we pour water over the Buddha, we are also cleansing our own minds.
  2. Sincerity–When we bathe the statue of the Buddha, it is as if the Buddha is before us and we have cultivated the greatest merit in the world. We should transfer this merit to all sentient beings, grow in wisdom together, and create positive conditions.
  3. Righteousness–We wish to be rid of karmic obstructions and to purify our minds. We wish for the merits of bathing the Buddha and pray for peace in the world and happiness for all humanity.

That’s Some Skillful Magic

The Buddha knew that all of us have extraordinarily strong attachments to beliefs and things and that we also try to find the easy path (often due to our clouded vision of the truth).  Just like how Albert Einstein would explain complex concepts in the park using things such as balloons, the Buddha did the same thing.

When not riding bicycles or coming up with the equation for the speed of light, Einstein would explain complex theories in a way that people like you and me would understand.
When not riding bicycles or coming up with the equation for the speed of light, Einstein would explain complex theories in a way that people like you and me would understand.

In Buddhism, there is a term known as “Upaya” which is often translated to mean “Skillful Means” (or Expedient Methods).  The Buddha would help people at all levels of understanding, walks of life, and situations, understand the truth in a way that made sense to them.

In this way, rituals and ceremonies in Buddhism are skillful means.  They help us “connect” and “belong” which is a strong and ingrained trait of sentient beings, especially in humans.  This way, the faith of the practitioner is strengthened so they can learn more about the teachings in Buddhism.

Rituals and ceremonies also help us get rid of our ego (or at least tell it to take a nap), which is important as we progress in Buddhism.  By “bowing” to a statue of a Buddha, giving food and other items to monks during their alms walks, putting out food, water, and other items, and other rituals all help to make us understand that it’s not all about us.

Barbara O’Brien explained this very well in her article on rituals in Buddhism:

Rituals in Buddhism are a upaya, which is Sanskrit for “skillful means.” Rituals are performed because they are helpful for those who participate.

Barbara also explained:

Through the experience of Buddhist practice you come to appreciate why it is the way it is, including the rituals. The power of the rituals manifests when you engage in them fully and give yourself to them completely, with your entire heart and mind. When you are fully mindful of a ritual, the “I” and “other” disappear and the heart-mind opens.

We should not look at others (or even yourself!) as following rituals and ceremonies in Buddhism as unnecessary, unusual, or “nothing to do with Buddhism”.  In fact, if we open our minds and self to them, we may discover they actually have benefits because they are upaya.

Heaven (and Hell) Can Wait

CC0 photo via Pixabay

Buddhism has “heavenly realms” (you do hear a lot about this in Mahayana) along with “pure lands” in Mahayana Buddhism.  A lot of this has to do with rebirth, which I cover in another article and the continued misunderstanding about it.

You can be “reborn” into heavenly realms (to include pure lands), and there are also hells.  Celestial beings are known as “devas” even reside there (nope, we are not talking about Devas like Mariah Carey!)

Because the concept of rebirth is a bit difficult to grasp…and reincarnation is easier to grasp (yet is a Hinduism term, not Buddhist) …the two get mixed.  Because of this mixture, laypersons often will try to make sense of and keep a connection to their deceased loved ones (and to their own mortality as their time approaches).

What is easier to understand than knowing “you” will continue, or that there is a “path”, or a “place” you go to?  All of these have been intermingled to various degrees by all branches of Buddhism, but to a larger extent in Tibetan Buddhism, and in Mahayana Buddhism.

Pure Lands

“Pure lands” (popular in, of course, the Pure Land branch of Mahayana Buddhism) is meant to explain a mental state and achievement…not a place you go after you die.

These pure lands are places where you can achieve enlightenment without hindrance, for example.  While the popular concept that you “go” to these pure lands after you die is unlikely to go away, monastics help guide the laity often by reinforcing a “pure land in the here and now” (because, after all, that’s what it is really talking about).  By helping persons make “this” world better (and themselves better) through Buddhism, the desirable thought of some heavenly pure land that probably doesn’t exist becomes less important.

Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh explained that there are different ‘levels’ of Pure Land practice.  While most laypersons practice chanting to be reborn in the Western Pure Land, this is the very first level.  The highest level is understanding that the Pure Land is not a place you go to but is actually your own mind.  Chanting is therefore a form of meditative concentration.

Tibetan Book of the Dead

Tibetan Buddhism has a long history…and teachings…about what happens after you die (popularly referred to with the “Tibetan Book of the Dead“, which is not what it actually is called).  An elaborate and detailed set of “instructions” about how to achieve a better rebirth, what family should do, etc.

Unfortunately, this often reinforces “reincarnation” (which doesn’t exist in Buddhism), rather than rebirth.  As Barbara O’Brien said:

There is no question that many Buddhists, East and West, continue to believe in individual reincarnation. Parables from the sutras and “teaching aids” like the Tibetan Wheel of Life tend to reinforce this belief.

Heavenly Realms in Your Mind

When we talk about “heavenly realms”, it is all part of the “Six Realms of Existence“.  These six realms of existence are all “dukkha” (suffering) and are transient.  So despite thinking “oh I’d love to be reborn in a heavenly realm!”, it is still dukkha, still temporary, and is not this perfect heavenly place you are thinking of.

The visual imagery regarding heavens and hells in Buddhism, along with commentary, often do lead one to believe these are places you get “reborn” into…but this once again goes back to rebirth and other concepts in Buddhism that are misunderstood.  You…right now…choose which of these heavenly realms, or hells, you will reside in.  No god, demon, entity, etc, determines this…you do!

Hells in Your Mind

And, of course, Buddhism has “hell” as well, which is part of the six realms of existence.  But this isn’t a place you go (which may be the first thought or even a place feared by Buddhists who don’t fully understand this concept), but a place that exists in your mind due to your actions.

Yet these “hell(s)” can be escaped.  Ven. Master Hsing Yun explains:

There are different kinds of jails in the world, and offenders are committed according to their crimes. There are juvenile halls, halfway houses for minor offenders, maximum security prisons for hardened criminals, and death row blocks for murderers. In Buddhism, however, there are eighteen hells according to the sutras. There are eight cold hells, eight hot hells, the solitude hell, and the hell on the fringe. Actually these hells all represent the jails in our mind. For instance, there are the “jails” of desire, anger, hatred, attachments, guilt, and remorse. In addition, there are jails of fear, hopelessness, sorrow, and vexation.

These many hells come from the “self,” born of the five aggregates. The “self” is a prison, just as the burning of the five components of existence is also a prison. That is why a Buddhist sutra states, “The Three Realms have no peace. They are like a prison. Those who have no achieved liberation are shackled to the realms, never to enjoy a moment of ease.”

So, how do we free ourselves from the prison of the mind? Faith, compassion, wisdom, and morality are all keys that can unlock the door of our mind. These keys can bring us to the heavenly realm of joy, lead us to the ground of peace, guide us to the pure land of brightness, and direct us to the world of perfection.

To summarize this entire section of heavens, hells, and lands you get reborn into – rebirth happens during your life, not just after you die.  Therefore, these heavens and hells are determined by you, and you can affect which one you “live” in right now (and as you recognize this, you can bring yourself to the better realms to help you reach towards enlightenment).

To learn more about rebirth in Buddhism (and why it is NOT reincarnation), please read my article here.

Hungry Ghosts, Demons, Fairies, and Flying Monks

When I first heard of “ghosts”, “demons”, and other things in Buddhism, I couldn’t help but wonder why and where they came from?  This sounded more like supernatural and religious additions rather than about meditation and other things the Buddha taught.  Heck, I’m wondering where Harry Potter is right about now!

However, like most things the Buddha taught in ways to help people understand the teachings.  For example, you can’t just start off showing a child how to build a rocket ship, but first show them some basic skills and chemical reactions that they can associate with.  For example, NASA produces a series for children on just that sort of thing!

However, if they went straight into all the in-depth knowledge it truly takes to make a huge rocket actually leave our planet would be overwhelming and hard to associate.

Typically, “ghosts” and “demons” refers to the “hungry ghosts” category, but these aren’t really ghosts at all.  It is often a metaphor or teaching aid to show that we…as sentient beings…are always “hungry” (greedy, attached, etc.) for all these desires.

Yet, we will never be satisfied.  So hungry ghosts are often depicted with large bellies with small mouths and necks (because of their insatiable appetite for something new) that they cannot swallow.  I always love this teaching aid as it is a visual (and scary) depiction of sentient beings’ thirst, hunger, greed, attachment, and desire…things that Buddhism aims to help rectify.

Hungry Ghosts by Timothy
Hungry Ghosts by Timothy (CC License)

Yet, like other things we talked about in this article, as Buddhism spread…local traditions crept in.  “Ghosts” (and everything else) became part of “Buddhism”, but it really isn’t part of Buddhism.

For example, in China and other countries, rebirth may be confused with reincarnation among the laity.  So, they often wanted to know where their loved ones went, and what they were doing.  Thus, the rise of “ghosts” (good, bad/demon, etc.) rose up.

So in China, for example, you will have stories about “ghosts” who feed on humans, go through our trash, can be seen at certain times of the day, wander in and out of hell, etc., all while they wait to be reborn.  Does this have anything to do with Buddhism?  Nope.  Yet, it is a mixture of misunderstanding teachings and local cultures.  Buddhism can’t aim to rectify all these things that crept in, so you rarely see monastics berating their practitioners (although they will use skillful means to help them move away from those delusions).

When a monastic talks about such things, it may not be that they necessarily believe it to be a fact but are using it as a way to keep the dialog going with the laity…otherwise, the connection would be lost and people could not be emancipated.

A remarkable story by Ven. Master Hsing Yun (page ‘x’ in the foreword of The Core Teachings) was when he was just a new monastic and returned to visit his grandmother and let her know that the ‘grumbling’ noises in her stomach were not due to the “mastery of her practice” like she had long believed.   He reflected:

My grandmother looked at me for a long time.  Beneath her kindly old gaze, my certitude dissolved completely.  The worst thing was that she had believed me!  Her decades of solitary practice were the foundation of her faith.  Though it may have been true that the growling of her stomach was doing little for the morality of the human race, it was also true – and this was a far deeper truth – that her practice was all that she had.  It had been everything to her.  In a single thoughtless moment, and with just a few words, I had managed to cause her to doubt the very foundation of her faith.  I could hardly bear to look up on the disappointment in her eyes.  I was young and I had traveled beyond our little village, so she had believed me.  We continued to talk, and yet I could see that nothing that I could say would ever remove the pain I had caused her.  That memory troubles me to this day.

So, while Buddhists may burn “hell money” for their ancestors, talk about ghosts as if their deceased loved ones are roaming around, etc., may not be part of Buddhist teachings as fact (but as a teaching guide), it is ok that they believe that as long as their faith and morality stay in-tact and there is no unwholesome karma caused by it.  As they progress in Buddhism, and if they are open to it, the teachings will help them with a deeper understanding.

Oh, and about Harry Potter.  I love the Harry Potter series, but unfortunately can’t find him anywhere in Buddhism! 😉 But you can find him here if you are truly looking.

Superman Has Nothing on Supernatural Buddhist Powers

According to the sutras, the supernatural is a supernormal, unlimited, unimaginable power attained during meditative practice. ~ Ven. Master Hsing Yun

When I first heard about “supernatural” powers in Buddhism, my eyes rolled (perhaps supernaturally to the back of my head along with a sigh).  But there is more to this story than what you think.

There are six “supernatural” powers discussed in Buddhism:

  1. Celestial Vision: “Seeing through walls, mountains, in total darkness, etc.”
  2. Celestial Hearing:  “Hear sounds clearly regardless of the distance, understand all languages, etc.”
  3. Power of Knowing Other’s Minds:  “Know precisely what others are thinking”
  4. Power of Performing Miracles: “Go through fire, water, travel through the ground, become invisible, etc.”
  5. Power of Knowing Past Lives:  “Remember events from previous lives, know the past of other sentient beings, etc.”
  6. Power of Eradicating All Defilement:  “No longer suffer any affliction”

Now, if you are like me, you’re probably going “um, ok?” to these “powers”.  And at first glance, they do sound farfetched.  However, here is what I’ve learned:

  1. The supernatural is all around us and becomes normal when we understand it
  2. Buddhas, Arhats, and Bodhisattvas have all used “supernatural powers” to help lead others from suffering

Let’s focus on the first part:  the supernatural is all around us.  I like this explanation from Ven. Master Hsing Yun:

The supernatural is not limited to the unusual acts of causing rain and storms or riding on clouds.  It is everywhere in our lives.  We can recognize it if we look carefully.  When we are exhausted and thirsty after a long journey, a glass of water can quench our thirst.  Is that glass of water not like a supernatural potion?  A non-swimmer sinks like a rock after falling into water despite frantic yet fruitless struggles.  In comparison, a good swimmer simply makes a few easy strokes and kicks to move around like a fish.  Is this not miraculous/  Beginning bicyclists may grip the handles with all their might and still fall off their bicycles.  The experts can let their hands go and remain securely on their fast moving bicycles.  Does this not seem supernatural?  We can also describe those amazing circus performances as supernatural.  According to sciences, the body itself is a miracle.  Tears flow when one is sad and laughter comes when one is happy.  Hunger can be cured by food.  Cold sensation can be alleviated by clothing.  Are all those phenomena not supernatural?  A woman’s mammary glands not only secrete milk but also vary the nutrient composition and amount according to the changing needs of the baby.  Once the baby stops nursing, all milk production stops automatically.  Is this not amazing?  The supernatural is not limited to tricks and sorcery; it is everywhere.  The change of the four seasons, the blooming and wilting of flowers, the changing faces of the moon, the large and small sizes of the animals, are they not all expressions of wonder?

To put it simply, things are supernatural to us when we don’t understand them…but they are entirely natural when we do understand (and master) them!

So, when we look at those six “supernatural” powers, they are actually all very normal things.

The “Power of Knowing Other’s Minds” is basically “understanding someone” and knowing what they are thinking, feeling, etc.  The Buddha was able to do this not due to some superhuman strength, but through his understanding of the world/life, how sentient beings are, and connecting with them.

For example, I can sometimes be oblivious to what someone may be feeling and thinking, but others around me will often tell me “you really couldn’t tell?!” as though it was entirely obvious.  To me, my friends have the “Power of knowing other’s minds”, and that is a supernatural power to me since I couldn’t tell the difference.  In reality, they may have been able to detect naturally facial expressions, tone of speech, body language, etc., as “read” it as easily as a large billboard.

In this way, these supernatural powers can be achieved through meditation as this “works out” and “strengthens” our mind and perception of the world, but can also be obtained in other ways (or “with” other ways) such as following the “Middle Way”, karma, etc.

The key point is that supernatural powers are entirely normal…we just don’t understand them.  Imagine if you were a caveman…someone who knew how to “create fire” must have seemed like someone with supernatural powers (after all, rubbing two sticks together creates fire?!  It requires skill and a technique that if you don’t know, you can’t duplicate).

Or perhaps you see sailors who are able to skillfully navigate anywhere they want…day or night…using a compass.  If you never have seen such a thing before, you’d wonder how they do it without using the sun during the day and starts at night.  It must seem like some supernatural device!

Now let’s focus on the second part:  the supernatural is used to help lead others from suffering.

Once again, Ven. Master Hsing Yun says:

Supernatural power is usually more readily accepted by the masses than reason.  In history, highly esteemed Buddhist masters utilized supernatural power as an expedient method of spreading the Buddhist teachings under unusual circumstances.

He then gave an example of during the regime of Emperor Ming, Buddhism was introduced in China, but would not have otherwise have occurred if the traveling Buddhist missionaries didn’t “win” during a public duel using supernatural powers against the Daoists.  Even during this “duel”, the Buddhist missionaries “supernatural powers” used was controlled and focused on 1) only using what was necessary to gain the attention of the audience, and 2) expressing teachings to help others learn and become enlightened.  The Buddhist missionaries refused to use supernatural powers just to “impress” people like the Daoists did, but only for the purpose of promoting the Dharama to help sentient beings.

As an article on Buddhanet states:

This advice to Kevaddha was also extended to the Vinaya rules that forbid monks from performing miracles to impress people and gain converts, without helping them to be enlightened. This was clear in the case of Pindola.

As blunt as the following sounds, Ven. Master Hsing Yun explains this truth about human beings:

Why is supernatural power needed for emancipating people?  It is because most people are ignorant, they do not cherish the truth of the ordinary, and they only pay attention to the extraordinary.  Bodhisattvas have to use miracles as an expedient means to impress people.

This is not to say that people do not want to be emancipated (enlightened), but the teachings (Dharma) can often be like sitting through a lecture on a complicated subject like physics or quantum mechanics.

Most people will simply “tune out” and go for something easier.  The “ignorance” of people is not a derogatory term, but just an observation of basic human nature.

In this way, Buddhism is perhaps the “hardest sell” of any religion because it requires the practitioner to devote large amounts of energy towards their emancipation as only they can achieve it (and no god, deity, etc., can give it to them).

And Buddhism does not advocate “supernatural powers” as the ultimate goal, as some Westerners might think (and thus might want to “achieve” these powers).  Instead, supernatural powers that are used for anything beyond helping others become emancipated, compassion, wholesome karma, etc., are against the ways of Buddhism.  In-fact, supernatural powers are “powerless” to the main teachings of Buddhism:

  • Supernatural power is not the ultimate
  • Supernatural power cannot mitigate the force of karma
  • Supernatural power is inferior to virtues
  • Supernatural power cannot surpass emptiness

So “supernatural powers” aren’t as supernatural as we may think.  Are there stories of monks flying around, the Buddha vanishing and reappearing on another side of a river, etc?  Sure.  Do I personally believe any of that happens?  The honest answer is:  it doesn’t matter to me, personally, but if it helps someone begin to learn about Buddhism then that’s ok.

And here’s why:  no matter what ritual, supernatural power seen, etc., the person learning about Buddhism will eventually toss all those aside as they learn and develop with the teachings of Buddhism.  While all these things can help “grease the wheels” of adoption, and Buddhism knows this is needed due to how human beings are, they can and will eventually not need them.  Just like training wheels on a bike, you eventually outgrow them.

Supernatural Showdown in China

According to Ven. Master Hsing Yun, supernatural powers are used for expedient teachings, and never for “showing off”.  He gave this example in his book (refer to page 16) about how Buddhism took hold in China based on a “duel” with the Daoists at the time:

The supernatural is usually more readily accepted by the masses than reason. In history, highly esteemed Buddhist masters utilized supernatural power as an expedient method to spread the Buddhist teachings under unusual circumstances. During the reign of Emperor Ming in the East Han dynasty, Buddhism was introduced into China. Daoists resisted and challenged the Buddhist missionaries to a public duel using supernatural powers. The Emperor facilitated and presided over this historic contest. The Emperor ordered two rows of tables to be placed 17 in a great hall. The Buddhist scriptures and some of the Buddha’s relic were placed on one row of the tables and the Daoist scriptures on the other. Daoist priests proudly arrived either by flying or materializing. Buddhist representatives, Kasyapamatanga and Dharmaraksa, slowly walked inside the hall. The crowd was betting that the monks could not beat the Daoist priests. After both sides settled into their respective seats, the Daoist priests initiated the attack by using spells to incinerate the Buddhist scriptures. Nothing happened. Instead, the Buddha’s relic emanated brilliant light. When the light reached the Daoist scriptures, these books instantly caught on fire and were consumed. At this point, Kasyapamatanga flew up into the sky and spoke:

A fox cannot be compared to the majestic lion; A lamp cannot match the brilliance of the sun and the moon; A pond cannot be as all-encompassing as the ocean; A hill cannot be as tall and grand as a mountain. The clouds of the Dharma cover the world, Enabling those with seeds of goodness to sprout and grow. 18 The manifestation of supernatural powers is but a means for delivering the ignorant throughout.

These words declare that the spirit of Buddhism is as dignified and majestic as the lion, the king of all animals. How can the fox-like, crooked tendencies of Daoists compare? Daoism is like an oil lamp; its wisdom cannot match that of Buddhism, brilliant as the light of the sun and the moon. A pond definitely cannot hold the vast quantity of water in a great ocean; a small hill is no match to a great and tall mountain; how can Daoism compare with the superb realm of Buddhism? The auspicious clouds of the compassionate Buddhist teachings cover the world, enabling those with roots of goodness to sprout and grow the seeds of bodhi, eventually attaining the supreme fruit of Buddhahood. Supernatural power can be used as an expedient means to direct ignorant living beings toward the right path. But supernatural power is not the ultimate way. Upon hearing this verse, the Daoist priests were petrified. They tried to escape, but their supernatural powers failed completely. Emperor Ming was impressed by the virtues and powers of Kasyapamatanga and Dharmaraksa. He then built seven temples, four inside the city, three without, for nuns and monks respectively. This was the beginning of pure 19 cultivating monks and nuns in China. Because of this duel of supernatural powers, Buddhism finally took root in China, where it eventually grew and blossomed. Again, the use of supernatural powers is not the final solution, But it can be an expedient means for spreading the teachings.

Now we must ask, did the Buddhist missionaries actually have a Buddha relic that was able to emit this bright light and burn the Daoist scriptures?  Did Kasyapamatanga (a golden deity) suddenly appear and spoke to those in attendance?

Perhaps none of that even happened (to include the Daoists flying around the room and popping in and out of existence), but it sure makes for one fascinating story.  In-fact, the story is more of expedient teaching itself:  it doesn’t matter if any of that really happened, but it captures the intended audience’s attention, there is something ‘supernatural’ there which helps a portion of the human mind to more readily accept it, and it relays teachings.

If everyone could just accept the Buddhist teachings as truth without these expedient teachings and methods, it would be much simpler.  However, humans need to have a bit of “flare” to catch their attention and gain excitement.  As a practitioner learns more about Buddhism, any expedient teachings become less important compared to the truth of Buddhism (a little “grease on the wheels” if you will).

Get Yourself Some Magical Mustard Seeds

If it is not harmful, deadly, or against the teachings, rituals, and ceremonies can help a lay practitioner (like you and me) with walking the path of Buddhism.  Join in these rituals and ceremonies, experience them, learn from them, and especially learn to let go and allow your mind to be open.

When I took my refuge ceremony, we performed several ceremonial things that were new and unusual to me, but I cherish the experience it gave me.  Eventually, as we learn more about the teachings and concepts, we progress more easily and lose those attachments.

So, as a special reward for reading this article, I want to give you a supernatural power that only exists in Buddhism.  What is it?  Read on.

There is a popular Buddhist story of Kisa Gotami, a mother whose child had died.  The story illustrated that even in the Buddha’s time superstition and belief in the supernatural was rampant.  She was told by an old man to go to the Buddha because he would be able to save her child.

Because the Buddha knew that superstition and belief in supernatural powers were very strong attachments people had, he responded to Kisa Gotami in a very skillful way.  The Buddha, knowing Kisa would not believe he did not have supernatural powers, told her that he could bring her child back to life.  But first, she must find white mustard seeds from a family where nobody has died.  Kisa went desperately from house to house to find a family where nobody has died but only learned that they all had experienced death and that everyone was subject to mortality.

Kisa went back to the Buddha understanding what she was asking for was impossible.  The Buddha comforted her and taught her the truth (Dharma) which allowed her to become awakened and enter the first stage of Arthatship (and she eventually becomes an Arhat).

And that’s the true “supernatural power” you should be seeking.  In Buddhism, the true power comes from within in the form of wisdom (“prajna”) which allows you to achieve awakening (enlightenment).  And it already exists within you, so go find it!

Faith to a practitioner is like sun and water to a plant; in the beginning those factors are extremely important and they remain necessary throughout the life of the organism.  Faith is the factor that constantly allows us to reach beyond ourselves.  Faith shows us again and again that the only path in Buddhism is the path of constant growth.  ~ Ven. Master Hsing Yun


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