Gautama Buddha's miracles are supernatural acts attributed to Shakyamuni Buddha by the Buddhist scriptures. In contrast to divine miracles, they were performed thanks to superpowers obtained through meditation.
The superpowers that the historical Buddha possessed include the six highest cognitions (abhinnya, Sanskrit अभिज्ञा, Pali abhiññā): psychic powers (ang. (iddhi-viddha, pali iddhi-vidhā), the divine ear (dibba-sota, pali dibba-sota), telepathy (cheto-pariya, pali ceto-pariya), memories of their past lives (pubbe-nivasanusati, (pāli pubbe-nivāsanussati), seeing past lives and the rebirths of other beings (dibba-chakkhu, pāli dibba-cakkhu), and neutralizing mind-poisoning substances (asavakkhaya, pāli āsavakkhaya).
The miracles described in the Mahayana sutras usually illustrate one or another of the doctrines of that school.
The Pali Canon ("Mahavagga") mentions that the Buddha performed 3,500 miracles. And the Sanskrit agamas sarvastivada ("Chattushparishatsutra") mentions 18 miraculous deeds.
Accounts of Gautama Buddha's miracles include healings, teleportation, creating copies of himself, power over the elements, and other supernatural phenomena. Many disciples of the Buddha, as well as some non-Buddhist hermits and yogis who reached a high state of meditative immersion, are believed to have possessed some of these abilities.
Many Buddhist traditions claim that the first five Abhinnyas are available to non-Buddhists, but that all six can only be acquired by those who follow the Buddhist path. Some schools of Buddhism disagree with this and believe that only Buddhists can gain superpowers through meditation, while non-Buddhists can only perform miracles through magical charms.
According to Buddhist texts, the Buddha used these powers, but spoke negatively of them as a method of conversion. Instead, he emphasized that the highest method of conversion was the "miracle of instruction" or the preaching of the Dhamma.
Buddhist texts describe several miraculous incidents that happened to Prince Siddhartha before he became an enlightened Buddha.
The miraculous birth
It is said that immediately after birth the infant Gautama stood up, took seven steps northward, and uttered:
I am the eldest in the world, The eldest in the world. This is the last birth. [Henceforth for me] there will be no more rebirth.
Wherever the infant put his foot, a lotus blossomed.
The halting shadow.
One day Prince Siddhartha's father, King Shuddhodana, brought his young son to the village for a feast of plowing. The nannies seated the prince under a tree. During the feast, the boy noticed the suffering of the peasants and oxen, as well as the worms and insects that were plowed over with the plow and eaten by birds. Seeing this, he fell into a meditative state and achieved dhyana.
Time passed, but the shadow of the tree miraculously remained in place, sheltering the prince from the sun moving across the sky. According to another version, Siddhartha fell asleep under the tree during the feast. The shadow cast by the tree remained motionless, shielding the young prince from the sun while he slept.
The flying bundle of hair.
After Prince Siddhartha left the palace, he cut his hair to signify his intention to lead an ascetic life in search of enlightenment. His remaining two finger-length hair was curled to the right and wrapped tightly around his head.
He then took the bundle of severed hair and tossed it up with the words, "If I become a Buddha [enlightened], let it remain in heaven; but if not, let it fall to earth. The bundle soared.
The Golden Bowl.
Shortly before his enlightenment, Gautama, abandoning the practice of extreme asceticism, accepted rice porridge served to him in a golden bowl by a village girl named Sujata. It is said that when he finished his meal, he took the bowl and threw it into the river, saying: "If I attain enlightenment, let this bowl float upstream." And the golden bowl swam against the flow of the river.
After enlightenment, the Buddha is believed to have possessed several superpowers that can be gained through meditation. These include the ability to walk on water, penetrate walls, become invisible, levitate, and create copies of himself.
The Buddha discusses these abilities in several suttas, such as the Samannyaphala sutta (DN 2), the Kevatta sutta (DN 11), the Lohichcha sutta (DN 12), and the Mahasakuludaya sutta (MN 77). In the Vibhanga sutta the Buddha states:
When the four bases of spiritual power have been developed and nurtured in this way, the bhikku masters different kinds of spiritual power: being one, he becomes many; being many, he becomes one; he appears and disappears; passes unhindered through walls, bastions, mountains, as if walking through empty space.
He dives in and out of the earth as if it were water. He walks on water and does not sink as if the water were dry land. Sitting cross-legged, he flies through the air like a winged bird.
With his hand he touches and strikes even the sun and the moon, so strong and powerful is he. He so influences the body that he reaches even the worlds of Brahma. Vibhanga sutta: Analysis. SN 51.20.
He says that abilities such as passing through walls, levitation, and telepathy can be developed through concentration, but the prerequisite for them is the attainment of the four dhyans or higher states of meditative immersion.
Nevertheless, the Buddha described most of these powers as completely down-to-earth. Only the power of eradicating mental obscurations (asavakkhaya, pāli āsavakkhaya), which the archanthas attain, is superworldly and allows suffering to cease.
Miracles in the Tripitaka
The Tripitaka describes numerous instances in which the Buddha performed miracles after his enlightenment. Religious scholar David W. Fiordalis believes that such descriptions were useful for the conversion of neophytes and proved the Buddha's holiness. In the text, a miraculous apparition is often followed by a Dharma sermon, which in Buddhism is considered the greatest "miracle."
The Invisible Yasa.
Shortly after first preaching to the five ascetics who later became the first five Buddhist monks, the Buddha meets and trains a young merchant's son, Yasa. He reaches the level of sotapanna, an early stage of enlightenment. In search of his son, Yasa's father follows his footsteps to the Buddha's site.
When the Buddha sees him approaching, he makes the nearby Yasu invisible to his father. The Buddha then gives a sermon, which the father and son listen to.
This leads to Yasu attaining arhatship, and his father gaining insight into the nature of things, becoming a disciple of the Buddha and inviting him to dine at their home. The Buddha makes Yasa visible to his father. During the meal, the Buddha speaks with Yasa's mother and his first wife and they become his worldly followers.
The fiery subjugation of the naga and other miracles associated with Uruvela-Kassapa
While visiting Uruwela, the Buddha came to the abode of the fire-worshipping ascetics and asked one of its leaders, Uruwela-Kassapa, permission to stay the night in the hall where the sacred fire was burning. Uruwela-Kassapa warned the Buddha that a dangerous naga lived in the hall, but the Buddha insisted and obtained permission.
The Buddha entered the hall and begins to meditate. An angry naga appeared and began spewing smoke. In response, the Buddha used his psychic powers and also produced smoke.
The Naga then started spewing fire, to which the Buddha responded by entering into meditation on the element of fire and also emitting flames. The entire hall was engulfed in flames.
The next morning, the Buddha came out of the hall with the naga peacefully curled up in his alms bowl and told Uruwela-Kassapa that he had "suppressed the flames of the serpent with a flame."
Later Uruwela-Kassapa witnessed the coming to the Buddha of the Four Great Kings, the lord of the gods Sakka and Brahma Sahampati, who appeared before him in the form of huge masses of fire.
Then through telepathy the Buddha comprehended the thoughts of Uruwela-Kassapa and did not appear at the great sacrifice where the people of Anga and Magadha had gathered, so as not to diminish the glory of the leader of the fire-worshippers.
When the Buddha found the dusty garment, Sakka palm dug a lake and brought a large stone so that the Tathagata could wash and hang it up. He also bent the branches of the kakudha tree so that he could hold on to them. Next, the Buddha preceded Uruwela-Kassapa several times, instantly transporting himself to the fire hall from various places.
At his will, five hundred lights went on and off. When there was a flood, the Buddha parted the waters and passed through the earth.
After this, Uruwela-Kassapa and the 300 hermits decided to devote themselves to a life of righteousness and threw their shorn, tangled hair and various paraphernalia for fire offerings into the river. The Buddha ordained them as monks and then gave the "Sermon on Fire" (Adita sutta SN 35.28)
Crystal Bridge to Kapilavastu
The Nidana Katta hagiography states that Siddhartha's relatives had not given up hope that he would return to his native kingdom of Kapilavastu. He did return, but no longer as a prince, but as an enlightened Buddha accompanied by 60,000 followers of both sexes.
He used his superpowers to create a crystal bridge in the sky from the eastern to the western borders of Kapilavastu. Then, soaring into the air, he walked across this bridge, touching the sun and the moon. The Buddha's astonished tribesmen of the Shakya clan, led by his father, King Shuddhodana, bowed respectfully before him.
After the Buddha stooped and sat down, it suddenly poured with rain, droplets falling only on those who wished to get wet, and not a single drop on those who wished to remain dry. After this miracle the Buddha gave a sermon, preserved in the form of Vessantar jataka 547.
Ahead of Angulimala
One day while meditating, Buddha had a vision that unless he intervened, the serial killer Angulimala would kill his mother on the same day. To prevent Angulimala from committing such a grievous sin, the Buddha intercepted him just before he committed the act and forced the murderer to follow himself.
He made it so that no matter how hard Angulimala tried, he failed to catch up with the Buddha walking at a calm pace. One text says that the Buddha squeezed and widened the ground, thus maintaining distance with the brigand.
Confused, Angulimala exclaimed: "Stop, hermit!" To which the Buddha replied, "I am standing, Angulimala, you stand! The puzzled Angulimala asked the Buddha to explain what he meant. After the sermon, the brigand repented of his wrongdoings and became a monk.
Teaching Khema about impermanence
One day the Buddha met the beautiful consort of King Bimbisara Khema. The beautiful woman was not interested in spiritual matters, indulging in sensual pleasures. Then the Buddha, with the help of superpowers, revealed to her the image of a young and beautiful woman who, before her eyes, turned into an old woman, having lost her attractiveness.
In this way he led her to understand the nature of impermanence. The Buddha then preached to her about the impermanence of beauty and the suffering associated with attachment to worldly desires, and eventually Khema became a bhikshuni and later one of his chief disciples.
Knowing Anathapindika's real name
When Anathapindika, who later became the chief patron of the Buddha among the laity, first came to him, the Buddha called him by his birth name "Sudatta," which was not known to the general public.
On hearing his real name, the astonished Anathapindika concluded that it could only be the Enlightened One before him, on whose call he had appeared.
The Double Miracle at Sawatthi
The greatest miracle manifested by the Buddha. It is believed that only Buddhas have the ability to perform such miracles.
According to Buddhist texts, the Buddha performed the miracle at Savaththi after a group of six leaders of rival religious sects challenged him. The Buddha first created a path in the air decorated with jewels, and then began to spew fire from the upper part of his body and water from the lower part, and then alternated between the two.
Fire and water then soared upward, illuminating the cosmos, while the Buddha preached the Dhamma to observers. In one version of this story, he created several of his spears that walked, lay, and sat.
Then it was the turn of rival religious leaders, but they retreated. After the miracle, Buddha created one single copy of himself and answered the questions he was asked by witnesses to the miracle to teach them the teachings.
Ascending to Heaven and Creating Copies of Himself
The Buddha ascended to Tavatimsa Heaven to preach Abhidhamma to his late mother. He read the Abhidhamma to the devas throughout the rainy season, taking a break each day to collect alms and food. For the duration of this break the Buddha created a copy of himself who preached in his absence.
The Descent from Heaven in Sankassa
It is said that the Buddha descended from Tavatimsa heaven to earth in the city of Sankassa. The texts tell that the lord of the devas, Sakka, created three ladders for the descent: a golden, a crystal, and a silver one. It is believed that the Buddha descended the crystal ladder in the middle, the devas descended the golden ladder on the left, and the Brahmas descended the silver ladder on the right.
During the descent the people and the various beings of Buddhist cosmology could see each other. A temple was erected on the spot where the Buddha is said to have placed his right foot on the ground.
According to the English classicist Edward J. Thomas, Chinese pilgrims who visited the site several centuries later reported that by the time of their visit the stairs had almost completely fallen into the ground.
Levitation over the Rohini River
One day, while exploring the world with his superpowers, the Buddha saw that war was about to break out between the Shakya clan and a neighboring kingdom. There was a drought in the area, and the two kingdoms were on the brink of war over drawing water from the Rohini River for their own needs.
When the two armies assembled on opposite sides of the river, the Buddha went through the air to stop them, and appeared before them, hovering over the river. He then asked the rulers of the opposing sides what was more valuable, water or human life. Each of them replied that human life was more valuable, then the Buddha persuaded them to make an agreement and divide the water.
Teleportation across the Ganges
The Mahaparinibbana Sutta DN 16 recounts how the Buddha and the monks who accompanied him crossed the river Ganges, disappearing and reappearing on the other bank, instead of looking for boats or building rafts as other people did.
Invocation of Brahma's being
The Brahmanimantanika sutta MN 49 tells us that Brahma Baka deluded himself into thinking that he was immortal and had reached the highest state. Buddha went to Brahma's realm to show him the fallacy of his views.
With superpowers he revealed to Brahma Baka areas unknown to him, determined the full extent of his abilities, detected Mara whenever he possessed the mind of a member of Baka's retinue, and, having become invisible, proved that Buddha's powers were superior to those of Brahma Baka.
Neutralizing Gandhara's spells
The Pali commentary states that the ascetic Pilindavachcha possessed the "Little Spell of Gandhara" (Pali cūḷagandhāravijjā), which enabled him to levitate and read minds. After the Buddha's enlightenment, however, Pilindavacha discovered that the spell had lost its power.
He then went to the Buddha, thinking that he possessed stronger spells, but instead became a monk and reached the stage of arhat. According to religious scholar Knut A. Jacobsen, this story suggests that the Buddha's presence neutralizes lesser magic, and that lesser magic is abilities not gained through meditation.
Taming a Drunken Elephant
Buddha's cousin Devadatta, jealous of his success, gave Nalagiri the elephant intoxicating liquor and released it to trample on the Buddha. One version of the story says that when Nalagiri lunged at the Buddha, he created an image of two lions and a sea of fire in front of him, frightening and stopping the elephant.
In another account, the Buddha emitted a roar similar to that of the elephant queen, which stopped Nalagiri and caused him to bow down to the Buddha. Some sources mention that Ananda tried to protect the Buddha by standing in front of him and the enraged animal.
Buddha ordered Ananda to get out of the way of the elephant, but he refused. Then Buddha used supernatural powers to move Ananda to safety. Thereafter the Buddha gently tamed Nalagiri with loving kindness.
Suppiah, a believing laywoman, promised to feed the sick monk meat. Learning that there was no meat in the market that day, she cut off a piece of flesh from her thigh to make the offering and concealed her wound.
After realizing what had happened, the Buddha asked Suppiah to be brought to him. Suppiah saw the Buddha and a miraculous healing occurred: the laywoman's flesh recovered and the wound healed without even leaving a scar. After this the Buddha made a rule forbidding his monks to accept offerings in the form of human flesh.
Putting out a forest fire
The Buddha was walking through the forests of Magadha accompanied by a large crowd of monks when a great forest fire broke out. The monks, who had not yet reached any stage of enlightenment, panicked, while their enlightened brethren remained calm and said that there was nothing to fear from walking beside the Buddha.
Then the monks gathered around the Buddha, who stopped in front of the fire. Each time the flames approached the Buddha, the fire miraculously went out. The Buddha explained this by the protective effect of the satcha-kirya or solemn proclamation of truth he had made in a past life, and then told a story which has been preserved as Vattaka jataka 35.
Even fire cannot overpower a word imbued with truth; remembering this, one should strive with all one's strength to speak the truth.
Attempting to save the Shakyas
Observing the world with his divine eye, the Buddha saw that the Shakya clan was threatened by the Kosala ruler Virudhaka, who had hated them since childhood.
According to some versions, the Buddha had once already stopped King Virudhaka and persuaded him to turn back, but the king later changed his mind and continued the invasion.
In other accounts Buddha intercepted King Virudhaka twice or even three times and only then stopped interfering. Seeing that the Buddha was inactive, Maudgalyayana, one of his two principal disciples, proposed to save the Shakyas with supernatural powers, but the Buddha did not approve, saying that the massacre was the result of the Shakyas' past kamma and nothing could stop the kamma power.
Despite this, Maudgalyayana, who also possessed superpowers, tried to save some of the Shakyas by moving several hundred people to safety, but found that they died anyway.
According to one source, the kamma that caused this massacre was due to the fact that in a past life the Shakya clan people had poisoned the river of an enemy city-state. After the massacre, the Buddha predicts that King Virudhaka will die in a fire in seven days.
Upon hearing this, King Virudhaka ordered a house to be built on the water to spend the next week in it. On the last day of the appointed term a ray of sunlight fell on the magnifying glass on the pillow, a fire broke out and the house burned down with the king.
Miracles in the Mahayana Sutras
Miracles generally play a greater role in the Mahayana than in the Theravada, and they are often used to directly illustrate their own doctrines. The descriptions of miracles in the Mahayana sutras contain much more symbolism and an emphasis on the direct application of superpowers to teach and help other sentient beings.
Showing the Buddha's worlds
In the Vimalakirti Sutra, the Buddha performs a miracle by showing people on earth "Buddha worlds." He does this to demonstrate the purity of mind that a bodhisattva must attain in order to attain Buddhahood.
The sutra describes how bodhisattvas perform various miracles, such as exchanging bodies, magically moving objects, and transforming, to explain Mahayana concepts such as non-dividateness. The Vimalakirti Sutra states that all buddhas possess a divine eye that allows them to see the lands of other buddhas.
Earthquake and Luminosity
The Lotus Sutra describes how the Buddha shakes the earth and emits light that illuminates thousands of "buddha fields" in the east. In the text, bodhisattva Manjushri explains that the single beam of light symbolizes that the different practices and paths of Mahayana Buddhism can be found in a single meaning throughout the universe.
The light also symbolizes the equality of all buddhas. Manjushri indicates that he learned the light from a previous Buddha who performed the same miracle in the distant past, and it is a sign that Gautama Buddha is about to expound his final teachings.
Levitation over the Ganges
The Lalitavistara Sutra describes how, soon after enlightenment, the Buddha heads to Varanasi to deliver his first sermon. On reaching the river Ganges, he asks a ferryman to ferry him across the river. The ferryman demands a fee for the ferry. The Buddha replies that he has no money and is carried across the river by air.
The Buddhist view of miracles
Most of Gautama Buddha's miracles are seen in Buddhism as the result of supernatural psychic abilities obtained through advanced meditation, rather than magic or divine intervention. According to Buddhist texts, many disciples of the Buddha, as well as some non-Buddhist hermits and yogis who reached high meditative states, also possessed some of these superpowers.
Although texts say that the Buddha sometimes resorted to his supernatural powers and that they are considered signs of spiritual progress, the Buddha himself regarded them as dangerous qualities, provoking self-glorification.
One text relates that when he met an ascetic who proudly demonstrated his ability to walk on water (it is mentioned that the Buddha was also able to do this), the Buddha rebuked him and said that the ascetic's feat was worth little more than the few coins constituting the fee for crossing the river on the ferry.
In Vinaya the Buddha made a rule forbidding his monks to demonstrate superpowers before laymen, and, comparing the conversion of laymen by different methods, said that learning was far more valuable than manifested miracles.
In the Kevatta sutta the Buddha describes three types of miracles: the miracle of psychic powers, the miracle of telepathy, and the miracle of instruction. Although the Buddha acknowledged the existence of the first two types of miracles, he stated that a skeptical person might mistake them for magic charms or cheap tricks.
The Buddha recognized the "miracle of precepts" as the highest. According to the Kevatta sutta, the miracle of guidance can lead the observer to the path of non-doing evil, virtue, and meditation, and even eventually to gaining the ability to perform the first two types of miracles.