Pāṭihāriya (Supernormal Abilities) of a Buddha – Part II

Pāṭihāriya (prātihārya in Sanskrit and ප්‍රාතිහාර්ය in Sinhala) is a supernormal ability or a miracle. Several suttās in the Tipiṭaka discuss them.

July 24, 2020


 1. A different paradigm involves controlling material phenomena in Buddha Dhamma compared to modern science. For example, scientists have developed rocket technology to travel to the Moon. The Buddha could travel much further and much faster with “mind power” 2600 years ago. We discussed some examples in the previous post; see “Pāṭihāriya (Supernormal Abilities) of a Buddha – Part I.”

  • The mind-based approach of Buddha Dhamma is much more powerful. Such unimaginable powers MAY ARISE automatically by cleansing or purifying one’s mind. However, only certain people can develop such abilities to control material phenomena. They had cultivated such powers in recent past lives.
  • What is the use of being able to fly through the air like a bird or travel to the Sun instantly and touch it if one is to be born as an animal or worse in a future life?
  • Controlling material phenomena is of no use in getting a resolution to the universal problem of suffering associated with the rebirth process.
  • That is why the Buddha explained to Kevaṭṭa that the miracle of instruction is the most important. Only a Buddha or a true Buddha disciple can provide guidance as to how one can understand the problem of saṃsāric suffering and learn how to overcome it.
The Miracle of Instruction (Anusāsana Pāṭihāriya)

2. In the Kevaṭṭa Sutta (DN 11), the Buddha explains to Kevaṭṭa that a Buddha (Tathāgata) arises in the world with the perfect knowledge about the world. Then anyone could learn his teachings and follow them to fully release from future suffering via attaining Nibbāna (Arahanthood.) The Buddha, in that sutta, describes the steps a Bhikkhu would go through, but the process is similar (and less strict) for a lay follower.

  • He would Iive a moral life, abstaining from killing/hurting other living beings without using improper speech and controlling greed and anger. Most of all, he would learn the true nature of this world and remove many ingrained wrong views about this world. See, “Micchā Diṭṭhi, Gandhabba, and Sōtapanna Stage.”
  • Most of the first half of the sutta describes a bhikkhu‘s recommended (more strict) lifestyle. It is a good idea to read the second half starting with the section on “Restraint of the Sense Faculties.” See the English translation, “To Kevaṭṭa (DN 11).”
  • The Buddha advised a “middle-of-the-way” lifestyle that is away from both making one’s body to hardships AND indulgence in sense pleasures.
  • While following the Buddha’s path, some people may also be able to control material phenomena with psychic power (iddhi pāṭihāriya.) Let us specifically discuss that briefly now.
What Are Iddhi?

3. Iddhi means “to cultivate,” “to grow,” or “to make better.”

  • Those “supernormal” abilities we discussed in the previous post result from cultivating four mental capabilities (Cattāro Iddhipādā.) They are chanda (desire for spiritual development/to attain Nibbāna,) citta (the mindset for that goal,) viriya (the effort,) and vīmaṃsā (figuring out the way by investigating.) The “Vibhaṅga Sutta (SN 51.20)” discusses those factors in detail.  It is a good idea to read the English translation and “Iddhipada-vibhanga Sutta: Analysis of the Bases of Power.”
  • Note that chanda here does not refer to the desire for sensual pleasures (icchā.) Instead, it relates to a yearning for spiritual progress (for anariya yogis) and the desire to attain Nibbāna for those on the Noble Eightfold Path.
  • While anariaya yogis can attain some supernormal powers, those achieved by Ariyā (Noble Persons with magga phala) are much more potent. Furthermore, an anariya yogi could lose those abilities (like the ability to get into anariya jhāna) even in this lifetime.
Anariya Iddhi Powers Are Temporary

4. The Tipiṭaka account of Devadatta clearly illustrates this point. He cultivated anariya jhāna and developed some supernormal powers (iddhi).

  • By performing some supernormal tasks, Devadatta was able to impress Prince Ajātasattu. Having assumed the form of a young boy clad in a girdle of snakes, he appeared in Prince Ajātasattu’s lap. Prince Ajātasattu was highly impressed and became a devout follower. Devadatta started thinking about “replacing Buddha to lead the order of Saṅgha.” With that thought, Devadatta lost his supernormal capabilities.
  • Still, Devadatta did not lose his ambition to “become the Buddha.” Later, he tried to take the life of the Buddha in several attempts. In the end, he was born in an apāya.
  • The details are in the section starting with “The story of Devadatta” at “Schism in an Order (Saṅghabheda).” It is a long read up to the end of the post, but it is worthwhile.
What Is the Basis of Such Iddhi Powers?

5. This is where we start understanding the basis of “mental power.”

  • A mind burdened with greed, anger, and ignorance (about the real nature of this world) has no “strong and beneficial” abilities. Instead, such minds create “dark kammic energies,” leading to unpleasant kamma vipāka and rebirths in “bad realms.” We know those undesired realms are the apāyā or the four lowest realms. The Pali terms for those three bad causes are lobha, dosa, and moha.
  • If a mind is absent from those three primary defilements, then actions (kamma) by such a “non-contaminated mind” create “clean kammic energies.” Those lead to good kamma vipāka and rebirths in the 27 “good realms” lying at and above the human realm. In the absence of lobha, dosa, and moha, a mind creates kammic energies with alobha, adosa, and amoha. Those are the three good causes.
Births in the Four Lowest Realms Arise Due to Actions with Lobha, Dosa, Moha

6. The “dark energies” associated with thoughts associated with lobha, dosa, and moha create “kammic energies” that can bring births (jāti) in the apāyā. Those energies are “bhava” in the Paṭicca Samuppāda process. Therefore, “bhava paccayā jāti” means a “bad bhava” leads to a corresponding “bad birth.”

  • The more robust the level of ignorance (moha) is, the easier it is to do the seven akusala kammā. Those are false, hurtful, deceitful, vain speech, killing, stealing, and sexual misconduct.
  • A mind that is free of lobha, dosa, and moha (i.e., with alobha, adosa, and amoha) is a “moral mind.” It would know the difference between moral deeds and immoral deeds. In particular, it would try to avoid the seven akusala kammā done with speech and bodily actions.
Births Above the Human Realm Arise Due to Actions with Alobha, Adosa, Amoha

7. There are 26 realms above the human realm (six Deva, sixteen rupāvacara Brahma, and four arupāvacara Brahma realms.) Such births arise due to bhava energies created with thoughts devoid of greed and anger. Here profound ignorance or moha is absent and, thus, amoha. However, as we will see, there is still ignorance about the world’s true nature (avijjā).

  • In other words, births in the 26 “good realms” arise due to the three root causes of alobha, adosa, and amoha.
  • Because of that, lives in those realms are relatively free of harsh suffering.
  • If we look at the lifetimes of those realms, they become longer for higher realms. See “31 Realms of Existence.”
  • The human realm is also “good,” but significant suffering exists. So, we must treat the human realm differently from the other 30 realms. We will discuss that now.
The Human Realm is Unique

8. Human births could arise due to combinations of all six root causes.

  • There are three main types of humans. Some have tihetuka births, meaning that particular human birth was due to a kamma with the three “good roots” of alobha, adosa, and amoha. Another set of humans has only two good roots (dvihetuka births): alobha/amoha or adosa/amoha. The third type has only one good root of amoha. Those are ahetuka births because they are “unfortunate births.” (The word “ahetuka” here does not mean the absence of even a single good root)
  • It is not possible to distinguish between tihetuka and dvihetuka births. But it is relatively easy to identify ahetuka births because they have little intelligence.
  • All three types of humans experience both good and bad kamma. Even tihetuka people can come down with disease or injury. Even though the Deva realms also belong to the kāma loka (just like the human realm,) the bodies of Devā are not dense enough to cause any diseases/injuries.
  • The root causes and how they lead to rebirth are discussed in “Six Root Causes – Loka Samudaya (Arising of Suffering) and Loka Nirodhaya (Nibbāna).”
Second Uniqueness of the Human Realm

9. The human realm is also unique in the following way. Most rebirths are determined while in the human realm. Then they spend their lives in either lower or higher realms until the corresponding kamma vipāka are “paid off.” For example, a given human may do some evil deeds suitable for births in apāya but may change the lifestyle and cultivate jhāna. So, he/she would have created both good and bad bhava. Since developing a jhāna is an anantariya kamma, a Brahma birth will come at his/her death. But unless he/she had attained a magga phala, a birth in an apāya will result after exhausting time in the Brahma realm.

  • As we remember from the post, “Buddhism and Evolution – Aggañña Sutta (DN 27),” a newly-formed Earth would be entirely populated by humans (with Brahma-like subtle bodies.) But with time, cravings arise due to anusaya, and those with “bad gati” will be reborn in lower realms. Most humans end up in the lower realms sooner if a Buddha does not appear in a given eon. It is a complex issue.
  • More details on anusaya at “Āsava, Anusaya, and Gati (Gathi).”
Living Beings in Lower Realms Have Denser Bodies in General

10. Generally, living beings in the kāma loka (four lower realms, the human realm, and six Deva realms) have dense bodies with five sensory faculties. In most cases, sensing odors, tastes, and bodily touches REQUIRE dense bodies.

  • Most living beings have a craving for those “close-proximity” sense pleasures. They like to eat tasty foods, smell sweet odors, and engage in sex. As long as a living being does not lose cravings, they WILL NOT be free from the kāma loka. Now, some may cultivate anariya jhāna and be born in a Brahma realm but will return to the human realm at the end of that life.
  • As we mentioned earlier, Devās do enjoy such ‘close contacts.” Still, those contacts are “softer.” In Pali, the word “olarika” implies “close contacts with dense bodies in human and lower realms.” In the Deva realms, the contacts and bodies are “sukuma” or softer. Devā also can be born in the apāyā after they exhaust their Deva lifetimes.
The Journey Among the 31 Realms Has No Beginning

11. The above process has been going on for us for a time that is impossible to trace back. That is the saṃsāric journey or the rebirth process.

  • Unfortunately, most births are in the four lower realms or apāyā. But, of course, we would not know all this unless we learn it from a Buddha or a disciple of the Buddha.
  • The “suffering” in the First Noble Truth is the harsh suffering in the apāyā. Any pain and suffering that we FEEL NOW are due to past causes. We need to use appropriate medical treatments to alleviate such suffering.
  • The First Noble Truth of Suffering refers to the harsh FUTURE suffering associated with rebirth. The good news is that the Buddha also explained how to stop that future suffering.
The Miracle of Instruction (Anusāsana Pāṭihāriya) of a Buddha

12. The above description of the true nature of our world with 31 realms and a beginning-less rebirth process is not known to the world in the absence of a Buddha. Only a Buddha can discover them and explain them to the world. Furthermore, a Buddha also provides instructions on how to stop the perpetual suffering in the rebirth process.

  • Those two aspects involve the “Miracle of Instruction (Anusāsana Pāṭihāriya)” of a Buddha.
  • The other two “miracles” of psychic powers and telepathy are just two byproducts. But, as the Buddha told Kevaṭṭa in the Kevaṭṭa Sutta (DN 11), those are not that different from “magic tricks.” They are real and not magic, as I have explained in “Pāṭihāriya (Supernormal Abilities) of a Buddha – Part I” and “Mystical Phenomena in Buddhism? ” Still, they are not of long-term value.
  • What is the use of being able to fly through the air like a bird or travel to the Sun instantly and touch it if one is to be born as an animal or worse in a future life?
  • In the same way, what is the use of the accumulation of billions of dollars in this life, only to be reborn an animal in a future life?
  • This is why the Buddha advised us to focus on attaining Nibbāna. At least the Sotapanna stage of Nibbāna.
  • We will focus on the “Miracle of Instruction of a Buddha” in the upcoming posts. Then it will become apparent, from yet another angle, the uniqueness of Buddha Dhamma.
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