Are Thai Buddhists More Heretical Than the Heretics?

Part 1: The Twin Miracle

In Lap-Lae district at the edge of Uttaradit town, there is an important group of three temples. While the most prominent one, Wat Phrataen Sila-at, houses a rock seat the Buddha reportedly sat on, Wat Phra Yuen keeps a stone base imprinted with what's believed to be the Buddha's standing footprints and Wat Phra Non is home to the rock bed that the Buddha supposedly reclined on.

I'd visited these temples many times since childhood without realising their significance as a group, until one day I looked at the newly repainted murals inside Wat Phra Yuen.

Among the many wall paintings depicting the life of the Buddha, one panel has multiple Buddhas in three postures - sitting, standing and reclining. It's the scene from an important episode that supposedly took place on the full moon of the month of Asalhi like today.

The event has also been considered somewhat paradoxical. The story, according to the Dhammapada Commentary, goes like this. A senior Buddhist monk performed a flying miracle in order to show Buddhism's superiority over six rival schools of the "heretics". When it was found out, the Buddha admonished him and laid down a rule forbidding the performance of supernatural acts.

The heretics were delighted to hear the news and started blowing their horns about their superior supernatural powers. So the Buddha raised the bar with a promise to perform a miracle himself under a mango tree in the city of Savatthi.

The heretics then went ahead and uprooted all the mango trees in that city. When the time came, however, the Buddha miraculously made a giant mango tree spring up within the blink of an eye from the seed of a mango he was given and had eaten.

He then performed what's now known as the "twin miracle" involving the creation of a double. As one Buddha stood, sat or lied down, the other would take a different posture, both taking turns asking each other questions concerning dharma. It was said that as a result, thousands "entered the stream" toward nirvana. This episode is considered the turning point when Buddhism claimed a decisive victory over rival religions.

Most modern Buddhists don't literally believe in such miracles. However, there's still the fact that the Buddha seemingly broke his own rule that needs explanation. According to tradition, the Buddha answered this question of inconsistency by insisting that the owner of a mango garden can consume all his mangoes while prohibiting others from doing so.

This traditional way of answering one paradox with another is hardly satisfactory, especially in light of the Buddha's strong condemnation of miracles elsewhere in the Canon.

Even when we consider the thousands who benefited from the event, the miracle still appears un-Buddhist because for the Buddha a charitable end can never justify an undesirable means. Dharma is known to be "good in the beginning, good in the middle and good in the end".

It could be argued that the purpose of the miracle was to ready the minds of the audience for the dharma being taught. Ironically, the content of the Buddha's teaching on that occasion has never been described by tradition. Some may even counter-argue that the miracle is more distracting than conducive to the ongoing sermon.

An exception

Here I propose that the "content" of that sermon has been there all along and the key to solving the paradox lies within the context of the occasion.

It helps to recall that when the Buddha condemned miracles, he made an exception for one: supernatural ability in the art of teaching. During the twin miracle, the Buddha reportedly "looked into the hearts of the great multitude and preached dharma and performed a miracle in accordance with the temper and disposition of every such person".

Many in the audience must have been followers of the six rival schools. Deserving a special mention are the Niganthas or followers of early Jainism - an Indic religion which antedated Buddhism and has survived in India until today.

The Niganthas had their own theory of karma with a distinct flavour. For them, karma encompasses all physical and mental acts regardless of intention. In order to attain deliverance from the cycle of rebirths and suffering, they practised non-performance of new karma and annihilation of past karma by asceticism, which included fasting and various kinds of self-torture. Before enlightenment, the Buddha himself experimented with very similar ascetic practices.

But once enlightened, the Buddha re-defined karma in psychological terms as the motivations behind actions. Therefore, rather than the Niganthas' ascetic practices of physical and mental immobility, the Buddhist way out of suffering involves the eradication of desire (kilesa) - the root cause of karma, rebirths and suffering.

The twin miracle may seem innocuously content-free to a Buddhist, but its specific connotation would not have been lost to the Niganthas and other heretics. To them, when the Buddha created a doppelganger, he was not only rejecting their non-action approach to extinguish karma - according to their definition - but shockingly doubling it! From Buddhist perspective, however, the Buddha had extinguished all karma and, mathematically speaking, his zero karma would always remain zero regardless of the multiplier.

So if we are to take it literally, the miracle can be understood as a Zen-style goan used by the Buddha to jolt the predominantly Nigantha audience into questioning their view of karma and opening the way for an alternative theory. As a result, they were "blown away" by the miracle. The miracle, therefore, falls under a type of educational tool, which is praised rather than condemned by the Buddha.

However, a better reading is to regard the episode as a teaching device directed at Buddhists. Seen in this light, it is a brilliant repudiation of the Niganthas' contending doctrine of karma, so that latter-day Buddhists will not fall for such heresy.

To confirm this reading of the miracle, one remembers that the heretics tried to destroy all the mango trees before the Buddha's arrival. In Buddhist literature, trees and fruits are frequently used as metaphors for karma and its result. The Buddha's miraculous mango tree, therefore, was an in-your-face reminder of the heretics' failure to uproot karma. This reading also explains why one fantastical miracle after another, which his disciples proposed to perform on his behalf, was rejected by the Buddha.

The fact that this message seems to have been lost to most Thais, therefore, is tragic, as many now seem to adhere to concepts of karma that are more heretical to Buddhism than those of the heretics.

This is the first of a two-part series. The second part will run tomorrow.

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