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When the Buddha was once living at Nalanda in the Pavarika Grove, a man by the name of Kevaddha went up to him, paid homage, and said, “Lord, Nalanda is a successful city. The people living in Nalanda are prosperous, and they have confidence in the Blessed One. Lord, it would be good if the Blessed One appointed a monk to work a marvel of supernormal power, so that the people of Nalanda might become much more confident in the Blessed One.”
The Buddha replied, “Kevaddha, I do not teach the Law to bhikkhus in that way.” The Buddha gave the same reply when the question was put to him the second and third time. After the third question, the Buddha replied that there were three kinds of supernormal levels:
1. The marvel of supernormal power to appear as many persons, to pass through walls, to fly through the air, walk on water. All these are physical actions the ordinary people cannot perform.
2. The supernormal power to read other people’s minds.
3. The supernormal power to be able to guide people according to their mental development, for their own good, using suitable methods to fit these people.
The first two supernormal powers, if displayed for their own sake in order to impress people, are no different from the performance of magicians. A monk who practices such worldly miracles is a source of shame, humiliation and disgust. Such actions may impress and win converts and followers, but they do not bring enlightenment to help them put an end to suffering.
The third kind of supernormal power, though, which may be called a “miracle”, helps people to get rid of suffering. This is the only supernormal power that is fit to be practiced.
The only miracles that should be performed are these: when you see a man full of passion, craving and greed and you teach him to free himself from passion, craving and greed; when you see that a man is a slave to hatred and anger and you use your powers to help him control his hatred and anger; when you come across a man who is ignorant and who cannot see the true nature of the world (everything in this world is impermanent, sorrowful and egoless) and you use your powers to help him overcome his ignorance. These are worthy “miracles” you can perform.
This advice to Kevaddha was also extended to the Vinaya rules that forbid monks from performing miracles to impress people and gain converts, without helping them to be enlightened. This was clear in the case of Pindola.
Arahant Pindola Bharadwaja was famous for miraculous psychic powers. A rich man, wanting this monk to prove his psychic powers, placed a beautiful bowl at the top of a high place and challenged any holy man to get the bowl down. If he could do it, he could keep the bowl.
Pindola Bharadwaja flew up and took the bowl down easily. This was also done to prove to the rich man that there are saints in the world, a fact that the rich man did not believe. When the Buddha came to know about this incident, he called Pindola Bharadwaja to bring his bowl. He broke the bowl into pieces in front of a large gathering of monks, saying, “I am displeased about the demonstration of your psychic powers. You must never show off your powers just to impress simple ignorant people.”