When it comes to playfulness in the realms of dharma, Robert Thurman is a Western master, delighting audiences and students everywhere with his infectious wonderment. We asked him to comment on the magic and delight available in Buddhist texts.
In my reading of the texts, I find that the Buddha often plays the performance artist, coming up with special effects in order to get his teaching across. For instance, in Tibetan accounts of his life, from sources like the Damomurkha Sutra, he has an encounter with his father, who’s upset because Siddhartha didn’t take over the kingdom and conquer the world. To Dad, it’s as if George W. Bush had gone and joined the Hare Krishnas. So the Buddha says, “Look, Dad, I know you’re unhappy because you think I didn’t conquer the world, but here, take a look at this.” And then he does the miracle of the multiplication, where two Buddhas come out of his heart, and then two Buddhas come out of each of their hearts, and then two Buddhas come out of theirs, and then two and two and two and two. Pretty soon the father and everyone present see Siddhartha in every subatomic particle in the universe. The place is swimming in Shakyamuni Buddhas. And the Buddha says, “I’m omnipresent, wouldn’t you say, Dad? I didn’t conquer it, but I’m everywhere all over it.” Then the father is happy because he realizes that there’s a way of conquering the world that doesn’t involve sending out the armies.
Dharma is not just a refuge from the suffering of the world; it’s also a means of creating a new world, a world of joy and delight. In the Mahayana sutras, the Buddha is always doing something magical to reveal this truth, such as in the Lotus Sutra, where he turns the Earth’s surface into sapphire lined with golden veins and filled with trees made of jewels. Millions of buddhas then come from throughout the universe to sit under the trees and listen as Shakyamuni offers his teaching. So the Buddha is like a shamanic wizard who does magic in order to put beings into a different frame of mind.
The magic also happens in the Pali Canon, where the Buddha regularly performs miracles, like flying off here and there with the 500 arhats. In the Digha Nikaya, the Buddha is constantly going up to the thirty-three heavens to teach the gods, including Brahma and Indra, and they all sit in rows, very enthralled that he came. Anyone can follow the Buddha, as revealed in the Samanaphala Sutta, where he tells people why they should become yogis, ascetics, wanderers. After describing the different things that you achieve, he says that right before nirvana you get to take your subtle mind-made body out of your ordinary body like you take a reed out of its sheath, and then with that mind-made body you can go to the heavens and visit Brahma, or go anywhere you want. Who could ask for anything more?