A (Short) Course in Miracles
Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about miracles. One person I know is praying for one for her 13-year-old daughter, who has an aggressive brain tumor. Another person I know is convinced one just happened for his wife, who had a heart attack but was released home just three days later.
When I adopted my children from China, none of my Chinese friends talked about miracles. Miracles aren’t a core of Buddhist or Confucian or Daoist thought. Instead, it was yuanfen – karmic fate – that brought us together. What seems to be a miracle is instead a manifestation.
The difference focuses on who is doing what. Buddhism, generally speaking, has no supreme God to perform miracles. The Buddhist is the “doer.” The power of mind is how the thing is done.
In contrast to Chinese religions, Hinduism does believe that miracles can occur. They are attributed to God or avatars of God or saints. A famous story of a Hindu miracle dating back a thousand years concerns a young man named Nambi, who filled in for his father at a temple to Ganesha. When Nambi begged, the statue of Ganesha ate the food offerings before it.
Jainism walks a kind of middle ground between the Chinese religions and Hinduism. On the one hand, Jainism believes nothing happens randomly. On the other, not all can be explained through reason. For some acts, faith is the only explanation, such as happened five years ago, when saffron water inexplicably began to trickle forth from a stone carving of a saint’s feet housed in a Jain temple.
Western religious thinking allows for more overt miracles. To be canonized as a saint in Roman Catholicism, for example, a candidate must be proven to have had “heroic virtue” while alive and to have performed two separate miracles after death. According to the Oblates of the Virgin Mary, “The Church must thoroughly investigate each miracle, working with the scientific community and medical experts—including non-believers—to determine that there’s not a natural explanation.”
Judaism, especially as developed in the Torah, would at first seem to be a no-brainer for miracles. We see stories of a burning bush that talks, various plagues visited on Pharaoh, the parting of the sea, manna falling from the sky. What is all that if not miraculous?
In fact, Judaism accepts the possibility of miracles, but it doesn’t focus on them and doesn’t document them to “prove” anything. First, Judaism tends to reject the idea that miracles can change the past. That’s different from the view in Christianity, where we see New Testament stories such as Jesus raising a man from the dead. Second, Judaism focuses on the rational. That means what seems to be a miracle might just be a natural effect that we don’t understand. In that respect, Jewish thinking is not too far removed from Jain thinking on the topic.
In Islam, the great miracle that matters is Muhammad’s bringing the Quran to humankind. Any and all miracles, according to Islam, stem from God.
Miracles at first seem to be beautiful and wondrous things. When a person prays for an outcome, and that outcome happens, rejoicing follows. But what of the person who prays for an outcome that doesn’t happen? Can we assume that prayer was not heard, or was not good enough, or that God or the gods did not care?
Perhaps it’s safer just to say that we cannot always know why things happen as they do.
-Originally published in the Bennington Banner, 1/18/2020