As soon as the Bodhisattva was born, he stood firmly with his feet on the ground; then he took seven steps northwards and, with a white sunshade over him, he surveyed each quarter. He spoke the words of the Leader of the Herd: “I am the Highest in the world, I am the Best in the world, I am the Foremost in the world; this is my last birth; now there is no more renewal of being in future lives.”
(Majjhima Nikaya 123 & Digha Nikaya 14)
Wow, what a fantastic tale: a new born babe able to walk unaided…and speak meaningful words, describing himself in such grandiose terms. Even the infant Christ couldn’t do that! And, which bodhisattva is being portrayed here? It is the Bodhisattva, of course; the Buddha, who’s birth story is apparently being recited to him by his faithful companion Ananda, much to the former’s approval. Are these miraculous events literally true, however, and are Buddhists expected to believe them as historical facts that actually took place?
In the same parts of Buddhist scripture as the above quotations are taken, further revelations are revealed to the pious believer: a ‘measureless light’ pervaded all the world, including those places where the sun & moon cannot reach; deities attended the birth; no blood or other bodily fluids were on his ‘pure body’; and, he did not touch the earth upon being born, but kind of hovered above it, so not to become soiled. Are these amazing events fact or fiction?
If factual, then the birth of the Blessed One was truly a supernatural occurrence, beyond the understanding of the human mind, and fitting, no doubt, for the founder of a world religion. If fiction, what is their purpose? To glorify the Buddha in the eyes of the world, as a myth that would inspire millions to believe in his extraordinary status as the Enlightened One, perhaps? Maybe, in the world of the religious, wondrous occurrences sell. That is, if Buddhism wanted to flourish – or even survive – in a country dominated by miraculous holy figures and events, it needed to incorporate amazing elements into its accounts of the Buddha’s life.
Earlier, Christ was mentioned, and for many of his followers every word found in the Bible is true, and beyond doubt. So-called Christian fundamentalists are well known for their literal interpretation of both the Old & New Testaments, from Genesis to Revelation. No mythology, no symbolism, but solid historical facts to be believed as central parts of their religious faith. Literal interpretations of the Koran have recently come to light also, as certain Islamists assert their understanding of that book in various ways, sometimes peaceful and sometimes violent.
Buddhists do not generally, if ever, use scripture to support acts of violence or intolerance, however, most likely because there are no sources of such justification therein. Nevertheless, from the viewpoint of presenting Buddhism to the modern world, with its emphasis on scientific facts and empirical knowledge, the continued reference to marvelous and magical happenings isn’t likely to engage the ‘enlightened’ world. A Buddhist dialogue with modernity which is centered on the verifiable benefits of morality & meditation, including the central experience of not-self, would appear more important than clinging to ancient cosmologies and beliefs that may well ‘turn-off’ society at large.
Throughout Buddhist scripture, there are uncountable accounts of marvelous incidents, involving not only the Buddha, but many of his senior, and not so senior, disciples. Oftentimes, Buddhists speak as though we are a breed of fundamentalist, also, quoting the Tripitaka as if it were the infallible word of the Buddha. Does such a thing as infallibility exist in Buddhism, or are the events in the life of the Buddha and his disciples symbolic of the Buddhist Path? Is making such a distinction even important to walking and sharing this Way? What do you think, dear reader?
Footnote: In exploring the above issues, the writer may inadvertently offend a reader; that is not his intent, and he humbly asks for the reader’s understanding of this. May we grow together in exploration of the Dharma.