Monday, September 10, 2012

Miracles or Magic?

People often conflate two classes of phenomena that I call "miracles" and "magic."  The following is an exert from Chapter 11 ("Impractical Magic") of my book Jesus and the Religions of Man.  The previous chapter argues that miracles really do happen, sometimes.  (In a personal,  usually anecdotal manner, rather than the detailed recent study of Craig Keener, which I recommend to readers who would like to study the empirical data in more depth, or in  the philosophical insight of C.S.Lewis' classic Miracles)  In this chapter, I set forth five criteria by which to distinguish magic from miracles.  After opening with a long personal introduction (I ask your pardon, later sections get to the point more quickly -- but some readers may find this interesting), this post describe the first of those criteria. 

How do Christian miracles differ from supernatural acts performed in non-Christian religions?  Are pagan miracles an equally valid set of experiences by which people seek God?  Counterfeit signs by angels of darkness eager to usher in a New Age of Satanic tyranny?  A usually harmless but potentially psychosis-inducing exercise in delusional thinking?  Or are supernatural acts all fraudulent, alike illustrating the suggestibility and gullibility of the human race?  Such questions remained in the back of my mind as I conducted two research projects on Asian religion. 

Hong Xiuquan, founder
of the Taiping Movement.
The first was a study of the great pseudo-Christian Taiping Rebellion that almost overthrew China's Qing Dynasty in the mid-19th Century.  Tai Ping theology mixed Christianity, mostly Old Testament themes as filtered through the mind of an ambitious but dreamy young teacher named Hong Xiuquan, traditional Asian spiritualism, and Confucian ideology, into a dynamic and surprisingly successful religion.  Some modern scholars assume that, apart from doctrinal differences, Biblical and occult traditions draw from the same psychological mechanisms.  They depicted Tai Ping ideology as a "form of Christianity," or even “evangelical Christianity"[1] distorted only by Hong's ignorance, poor translations of the Bible, and the limitations of the blue
collar Christian whose pamphlet introduced western religion to Hong.  One claimed the Taipings copied healing, speaking in tongues, and "fits of ecstasy" from Protestant revivalism.[2]  (Without offering any evidence that missionaries Hong met practiced any of these.)  The most famous scholar who wrote about the Taipings, Jonathan Spence, mischievously entitled his study God's Chinese Son. 
            Yet Hong explicitly and deliberately rejected orthodox Christianity.  The most striking parallels were not with any Christian church, but, oddly enough, with Mormonism.  Even odder was the attitude of western scholars who, eager to reduce all supernatural events to a single category, overlooked the actual pattern of the data. 
            If for most scholars all miracles ought to be equally false, many ordinary believers would rather see them as equally true. 
My second project was to research a popular new sect of esoteric Buddhism
Lu Shengyan
that grew out of Chinese spiritualism and emphasized psychic "response," a lot like the Fa Lun Gong sect whose suppression in China has been widely reported.  Many of the followers of this sect also seemed to implicitly reduce all supernatural phenomena to a single category, which however they were eager to accept rather than reject.
            Master Lu Sheng-yen, a self-proclaimed Living Buddha, came to America with the ambition of blending Taoism, the four main schools of Tibetan Buddhism, Chinese folk religion, and direct communion with spirit guides in a single "practical path to enlightenment.”  His movement, described as "one of the most if not the most, dynamic and interesting contemporary Chinese schools of Buddhism,"[3] alleged four million followers around the world. 
            Lei Zang temple, the sect's home just down the hill from Microsoft east of Seattle, was a building of conventional Chinese religious architecture, except for Tibetan prayer wheels out front.  Two colorful mandalas covered the side walls.  On the mural on the right, bodhisattvas and gods with fiery or round halos gathered around a throne with Siddhartha Buddha seated on top.  Master Lu himself occupied the central throne of the facing mural.  On the back wall of the worship hall more than sixty large idols were arranged in three rows, tall golden Buddhas behind them.  These beings were an eclectic marriage of heaven, hell, and everything in between: Indian elephant gods, Taoist patriarchs, gruesome Tibetan dharma protectors with garlands of human skulls, calm and compassionate bodhisattvas with dozens of arms uplifted to save.  The smallest figure in the Pantheon was the most incongruous: a six-inch statue of Jesus, set almost within grasp of a fierce monster-god from India.  But Master Lu’s own figure was the most human and attractive, handsome, a bit portly, a trademark cheerful smile on his face.  Lu seemed to bridge the inhuman and the human.
            To the right of the temple lay a little "dragon palace" where, on one visit, a monk and a nun were engaged in painting the multi-hued scales of a beautiful green dragon on a large yellow boulder.  It edged incongruously against the unpainted picket fence of the neighbor's soggy and shady Northwest backyard.
            Master Lu lived closer to the mountains and his beloved nature in an enormous, tastefully decorated Mediterranean style mansion about a half mile north of Interstate 90: in Hobbit terms, the last habitable home before you strike the Cascade mountains.  Surrounded by mountains of Twin Peaks fame, spruce and fir forests, and meadows of  lupine where elk came to graze, Master Lu meditated and wrote.  He had written over 130 tales of his adventures in the spirit world.  Many followers had read the entire corpus.  When the weather cleared and "no thought" took him, (his disciples said, "We never know if he's going to come"), he would arrive at his temple for the four o-clock Tong Xiu Hui, mutual-cultivation meeting.  News of his arrival swept through the
temple, and followers dropped to the floor.  When the meeting began, I got a taste of how Master Lu's Buddhism mixes philosophy and magic. 
            A young nun from Hong Kong nervously gave a simple, moving homily on the "Eight-fold path.”  Master Lu followed by launching into a seemingly irrelevant but intriguing story, full of humorous asides, about the "dragon palace" outside, and the reason temple workers had just painted a fourth dragon.  The first had been very responsive; Master Lu yelled "rain," and it rained; he put his hands together, and the dragon god descended to meet him.  But some people complained a green dragon wasn't sufficiently "Buddhist," so the former director of the temple painted in his place a beautiful but surly yellow dragon.  American reptile that he was, the new dragon hardly ever came when called, and was cheeky and flippant when he did show.  "Don't blame me.  Someday you'll understand," said the replacement third dragon when he, too, failed to act on Lu's commands.  Finally Lu's voice, which had been the slow, modulated, naturally-articulate voice of a traditional Chinese story-teller, raised for the punch-line, delivered by the third dragon.  "You tore down the old dragon palace and built a new palace.  But the money used to build this palace came from a person who deceived people to get it."  (I was dumb-struck.  Was this all about a temple scandal?)  Finally Lu brought closure to the original theme of the lesson: "We were talking about the eight-fold path.  If you take dishonest gains and do something good with them, does that have any merit?"
After a pre-emptive strike like that, (one of Lu’s favorite tricks, it turned out),
who would dare accuse him of deception?)
            Master Lu's books were full of such adventures.  In one, he told how, during a prolonged drought in the Northwest, the god of Mount Rainier appeared to him and bowed (thinking it proper etiquette when dealing with Asians), begging him to exert his psychic powers to save the trees and animals of the mountain.  The narrative contained a dig at another Tibetan teacher, whom the god approached with the problem but found "a blind teacher of the blind."  Lu proved himself a true LivingBuddha, and the Living Buddha across town a dead-beat, by bringing rain, killing with the kiss of his trademark Taiwanese humor. 
            Awe of the numinous and fear of the uncanny were both absent from the experiences Master Lu related about the other world.  This is unusual among Taiwanese mediums.  One anthropologist noted, "Nearly all tang ki maintain that they tried every possible inducement to persuade the possessing god to select someone else," even at the risk of their own lives.[4]  Master Lu, on the contrary, breezed through encounters with traditional Chinese ghosts, gods, and bodhisattvas with a
swagger reminiscent of martial arts fighters or the Monkey King.
            As a young man, Lu Sheng-yen had been a Christian for a few years, until he met a Taoist god in a vision.  The next day he went to a temple in central Taiwan, where an old lady with crooked eyes commissioned him in the following terms:
            "Some wicked people have deliberately put on the coats of the Buddhas and gods
to engage in affairs that harm others.  Under the guise of psychic counseling,
these people take financial and sexual advantages of their fellow beings . . . 
The Bodhisattvas know that you have a kind heart and that your behavior is
proper; therefore they want to entrust you with their mission."[5]

            Many would call that ironic.  "Taking financial and sexual advantage of peopleunder the guise of psychic counseling" were precisely the charges made against Master Lu in the Chinese community.  Several people told me Lu was simply using religion to get rich.  How could a real Buddhist wear a gold watch, drive a Mercedes, or demand that his followers fall on the floor at his feet?  Not only Christians and atheists questioned his behavior.  One Zen nun told me True Buddha "might have some sense to it, but it's not Buddhism, and if he wants to preach it he should call it something else."  She was especially offended by the fact that Lu's followers ate meat. 
            And yet it became clear, as I talked with people in the sect, not only that they were sincere in their commitment to Buddhism, but that the reason they were attracted to this particular sect was because they experienced greater supernatural power in it thanelsewhere.  Not everyone in True Buddha experienced it, but in general the sect seemed boiling over with signs and wonders.  The same is true of popular gurus like Sai Baba,Yogananda, Qing Hai, and Jim Jones.  The most controversial cults are not less supernatural than more respectable forms of Buddhism or Hinduism, but more so.  That is one of their attractions. 

The Supernatural Attraction of Master Lu
            For some, Master Lu's supernatural powers confirmed and developed psychic powers they had begun to realize on their own before meeting him. 
            "A lot of time I go by feeling," an American doctor raised by an Aleut grandmother told me.  His grandmother had taken him through the woods in Alaska and taught him the deities of trees and plants.  "One dream that was really kind of telling, was after I had taken refuge." (i.e., submitted himself to Master Lu’s spiritual authority) "I was in a kneeling position.  Guru Lu held his hand out and light emitted over the crown (of my head.) It was as clear as you and me standing here."
            Others joined True Buddha after finding spiritual power they had not encountered elsewhere.  Master Lu combined wu wei (go-with-the-flow) of Lao Zi with the wu chang (impermanence) of Buddha in an optimistic blend that a mechanic from Brunei found attractive.  He credited the school's meditative practices and easy-going philosophywith helping him sleep better.[6]  His faith was enhanced four years before, when his carhit a house and was crushed, while he was thrown clear.  A more somber confirmationcame the previous year: "My father-in-law was sick.  My Grand Master said he would die in six months. Even the doctors don't know.  In six months, he die."
            "I needed to go back to Thailand," a Cambodian woman told me as a small child slept beside her on the floor during a Saturday worship service.  "It popped into my head to ask Buddha, the dharma and the sangha to help me and bam!  I got the visa done just like that."  Her first meeting with the Master had been enough to persuade her of his power.  "I asked Master Lu about something no one would know –a certain secret that no one knew and I asked him, and he knew it.  The following weeks I kept having dreams about him manifesting himself, telling me it was time to be awakened."  While she had read those of her teacher's books that had been translated into English, she learned his other teachings telepathically, she said. 
            A young Chinese Indonesian lady with a Catholic background told me, "I met him once and he told me to chant the guru mantra a million times.  I said, OK, he told me to do it, I'll do it.  Not very long after that, I began getting responses, the spiritual responses people had talked about before but I didn't believe in.  “Responses” seemed to mean feelings, and a general ability to succeed.  Sitting with me in the doorway of Lu's multi-million dollar mansion, she reflected that Buddha was a state of mind,and this state, while bringing earthly benefits, was itself the primary goal.  "Our teacherteaches that whatever realm you are in, whether heaven or hell or human, if you achieve that state of mind, you are Buddha.  You want to be successful, so you don't want to worry about money, you want to have more wisdom, be at peace -- there are tons and tons of things along the way."
            An older lady from Indonesia noted that "Other Buddhism is all very good," butour mijiao is ling (psychically powerful), very ling.  Right away you feel it."  She had read about twenty or thirty of the Master's books, and believed the stories in them "one hundred percent."  When she joined the sect, she suffered from chest pains, and had an operation.  "As soon as I read my Master's incantation, I immediately had ganying. (responses) It didn't feel as painful."
            What did I conclude from my study of the True Buddha movement?  Not that Master Lu was telling the truth about his visions.  I can't guarantee Master Lu's visions were an invention, but after reading his stories and seeing him at work, the supernatural sign that would have seemed most fitting would have been to see his nose grow.  The critics appeared right to this extent, anyway: Lu struck me as a scoundrel.
             The True Buddha Sect was engaged in vigorous, even cutthroat, competition with similar Chinese sects: Supreme Master Qing Hai, a Buddhist nun from Vietnam who offered salvation to five generations of ancestors through herself, "Modern Day Savior and Living God Almighty,"[7] Xing Yun’s Light of Buddha network, and arch-rival Lin Yun, founder of Black Sect Tantric Buddhism, a mild-mannered gentleman in a tie who poses with movie stars and politicians, and offers a similar blend of feng shui, popular Taoism, and Tibetan esoterica.  Master Lu called that school the "five poison sect," claiming Lin engages in black magic.
            I found the disciples’ stories more persuasive than Lu's own.  None absolutely compelled belief, but some seemed fairly convincing.  Even a couple who left the sect and Buddhism when it began using human skulls and semen in its rituals told me they still felt spirits were "all around that place."        
            I came to the conclusion Master Lu was an entertaining but unscrupulous liar, who may or may not keep a few devils in the closet.  He seemed to enjoy the miraculous mostly in private, and always in a way that affirmed the importance of the "Holy Red-Crowned Grand Vajra Lotus-Born Master Lu Sheng-yen."  He was an artist, and I might have enjoyed his stories if I had not seen for myself the depth of faith his followers put in him and seen the inside of his mansion.  As with the Taipings, supernatural power seemed to charge the air of his camp like static electricity before a mountain storm.  But also like Hong Xiuquan's adventure, though more subtly, it seemed likely a great amount of human debris would be left behind in the end.  If the figure of Jesus seemed incongruous among the idols of Lei Zang temple, the contrast between Master Lu and Jesus, and the signs they performed, could not be more complete. 
Jesus said, "The thief comes only to kill and destroy.  I have come that they might have life, and have it more abundantly."(John 10:8,10)  That is the contrast I mean to describe by the words "miracle" and "magic."         
            By magic, I mean an event that claims supernatural origin but shows by its character that it is not from God.  By miracle I mean an supernatural event that strongly suggests (though, as in Pauline Hamilton’s story of the papaya, or mine of the hamburger, does not always deemed) the hand of God.  The two differ, I believe, in at least five ways, that can be verified both in Scripture and in human experience.

(1) Miracles ask to be verified: Magic insults the intelligence.

             Several years ago, on a drive through Hawaiian Volcanoes National Park, I noticed a sign beside the highway: "Road Closed."  That was a quite understatement, I found when I stopped my car and got out to look.  The road in question was buried several feet in lava.  I walked across a field of hardened magma and found only a few yards of road remaining, the yellow line down the middle leading incongruously to a heap of stiff black rock with a line of ferns sprouting around the edges.
            The highway people makes signs clear and simple, to keep people on the road. 
            God formed the mind, as the government builds roads.  The Bible assumes that human beings ought to be in control of the vehicle of their lives. (“Self-control" is oneof the "fruits of the Spirit." Gal.5:22, 23 NIV)  Thus, miracles engage the mind, senses, and human testimony, rather than either disengage or deconstruct these primary channels of access to reality.  This is why, when Biblical prophets talk about miracles, they used verbs like "consider," "think," "try," and "test." As if even the evidence of sight and hearing were not immediate enough, Jesus told Thomas, "Reach your finger here” to touch.(John 20:27) As Christian apologist Bernard Ramm put it, a miracle in the Christian
sense "must be a sensible event."[8]  Intuition and psychic visions do not qualify. 
            True, those who believe without seeing are called "blessed."  The Gospels are second-hand evidence for us.  But they are good second-hand evidence.  Even as they recorded a sequence of astounding supernatural events, the authors show commitment to truth in many ways: by basic agreement within differing points of view, attention to detail, fairly recording doubts and objections, and by laying down their lives to affirm their testimonies.  Paul never told anyone, "Take the Gospel on faith," nor to pray for irrefutable psychic experience.  Rather, he spoke of communally-verifiable events: "The king knows about these matters.  They have not occurred in a corner." (Acts 26:26)
            Verifiability is what Christian miracles are all about.  When Tertillian said, "I believe because it is absurd," he wasn't speaking the same language as the Bible.
            This is the language of the more gaudy forms of paganism, however.  Wild yarns, whether from Shirley MacLaine or a two thousand year old guru someone claims to have met in the Himalayas, may be believed according to taste without a scrap of evidence.  Lu's followers accepted his stories based not on external evidence, but on internal responses.  This attitude is ubiquitous among monist gurus.[9]
            While I was researching the True Buddha school, bones from the body of the Grand Master's mother, who had passed away a few months previously, were exhibited in a glass case in front of the temple.  The accompanying text explained that the bones, the bones, most white but some a light green or yellow, were shelizi, sariras, that appear in the body of one who has attained enlightenment and passed to the world of the Buddha.  This is not the first time Master Lu made use of this form of apologetic. In 1992, he published a booklet called Sariras -- Buddhist Relics Among Executed
Prisoners, that described the conversion of four death-row inmates in Singapore to True
Buddha.  The booklet quoted their effusively grateful letters, and noted between four and thirty shelizi were found in their bodies after execution.  Lu concluded: "Therefore, beyond any doubt, Living Buddha Lian-sheng . . . is a true Living Buddha . . . the True Buddha Tantric Dharma is a Correct Buddhist Dharma.  This is supported by the fact that people who cultivate this Dharma, even including death row prisoners, all will obtain great spiritual achievement.  What can slanderers say about this?"[10]
            What any objective bystander would say, of course, is that this is no evidence at all.  What does the color of bones have to do with the direction the spirit sales on death?  And what fool does not know chemicals you can buy in the hardware store could do the same thing in five minutes?  (A Chinese Christian alternatively suggests that sitting in the lotus position concentrates mineral deposits in the bones.[11])  This kind of grotesque coroner's evidence, popular in the Middle Ages in the West, but absent from the New Testament, has been a staple of popular Buddhist apologetics for
thousands of years.
            Magic posits a relationship between cause and effect which relies on the suggestibility of the audience.  Perhaps this is one reason karmic theory is popular. A twelve year old Vietnamese girl whose life ambition is to be a doctor, has a disease that makes her to age like a seventy-five year old woman.  A South African baby is found by the side of a road with a bottle filled with wine.  An American father watches his child die in agony of leukemia.  Why do terrible things happen to the
innocent?  The doctrine of rebirth gives a clear explanation.  You reap as you sow.  No one is punished except for what he or she has done in a previous life. 
            Three foundational figures give more restrained replies.  Socrates and Confucius knew the limits of their wisdom, and kept to them.  Jesus knew the needs of his followers, and kept to them.  He was master of the therapeutic non-sequitur.  When people asked the wrong question, he answered the right one .  "Where should we worship?"  "God is looking for people who worship in spirit and truth. . . Go, bring your husband."  "Should we stone this guilty woman as the law requires?" "Let him
who is without sin cast the first stone."  "Give us a sign!" "I will give you no sign, except the sign of Jonah . . . " "Who sinned, this girl, or her parents?"
            Such a question is not irrational.  In fact birth defects -- alcohol fetal syndrome, AIDS, crack babies -- do sometimes result from the careless lifestyles of parents.  But the doctrine of karma pushes one explanation too far.  Jesus answered by changing subjects from cause of disability to purpose.  Stop standing around asking questions.  Make yourself useful.  That’s God’s purpose for you now.  And yet in healing those he encountered, he did provide reason to trust God.

Did Buddha Work Miracles?

            The historical success of Buddhism probably owes quite a bit to the likes of Master Lu.  The history of Asian religion is not, primarily a history of ideas, but of magic: esoteric teachers who wooed emperors with magical defeat of enemies, Phadmasambhava who conquered the demons of Tibet, Japanese faith-healers.
            What model of guru-hood did Buddha himself follow?  Was the historical Siddhartha miracle-worker, magician, philosopher like Susuki, or statesman like the Dalai Lama?  The wonders recorded of Buddha show a certain innocent and ungainly beauty more reminiscent of mythology than magic.  It is said that from the body of the Buddha shown the rays of the sun.  Buddha became a white elephant, and entered his mother's womb trumpeting loudly.  Ten thousand worlds quaked at his birth and all musical instruments sounded on their own accord.  His mother's mind had no sexual desire and did not suffer from exhaustion.  When born, Buddha said, "The chief am I in all the world," and carried in his hand medicine that healed all who sought it.  He said, "Pray, mother, is there anything in the house?  I want to give alms."  A devil threw rocks, live coals, or flaming mud at him, but they changed into bouquets of flowers or celestial ointment.  Elephants, horses, birds, and other animals gave forth melodious sounds when they saw him.[12]
            It would be pedantic to say such stories, or those of Mithras, Ram, Osiris, or Guan Yin, are false, exactly.  It would be churlish to deny their charm.  They are poetic sketches of salvation.  We want a savior who loves, heals, overcomes the forces of darkness, and acts in the natural world with sagely mastery.
            No one with sense would treat the miracles of Buddha and the Gospels as the same kind of thing.  Even some Buddhist teachers frankly object to the attempt on the grounds that history is irrelevant to Buddhism.  It does not matter whether these things happened to Buddha two and a half millennia ago.  What matters is whether we today can reach a state of consciousness in which we experience the blooming of the flower, hear the trumpet of the elephant, or feel the healing touch of Buddha.
      Asians and Westerners alike admire the goddess Guan Yin as a beautiful ideal of mercy, love and salvation.  Hundreds of stories tell how she sacrifices herself to save anyone who calls on her name -- like Jesus, may say.
            Buddhist thinkers admit the history involved in these stories is dubious, and even make a virtue of necessity.  "If we cling to the phenomena, we will lose the truth," argued the 5th Century Buddhist philosopher Zhu Daosheng.[13]  An American worshipper said he thought he heard Guan Yin’s idol speak, though he wasn't sure. "Thenceforth I was her devoted follower, which does not mean, however, that I quite believed in her."[14]  And no wonder: one of the points of monism is precisely that separation between fact and myth is impossible. 
            To compare such stories with the Gospels would be like comparing the Journey to the West with Lewis and Clark's field notes.  Not only do the Gospels set Jesus set firmly in history – under a Roman politician we know, in villages archeologists uncover, judged by a priest whose bones have apparently been dug up.  They also set the dialogues and acts of Jesus in an atmosphere of baffled uncertainty that it is hard to believe anyone would invent.
            The New Age makes a virtue of "going out on a limb."  Statues often show Buddha with his eyes closed, in the release of an enlightened death.  But Jesus made even the blind see.  That is what God gave eyes for.

Note: To continue reading this paper, please see here

[1]  Rudolf G. Wagner, Reenacting the Heavenly Vision, 1982, p.103
[2]  Ibid., p.12
[3]  Tam Wailun, University of Hong Kong Department of Religion, personal communication, April, 1998
[4]  Jordan, Gods, Ghosts, and Ancestors, 1972, p. 70-75.
[5]  Lu Sheng-yen, Encounters With the World of Spirits, 1995, p. 9
[6]  He still had trouble sleeping, however.  He told me he woke up at midnight and a gui, devil or ghost, was at the door.  He interpreted this visitation as a test of faith.
[7]  Master Ching Hai, News No. 19, 1991, p.76
[8]  Protestant Christian Evidences, Moody Press, 1953, p. 125
[9]  See Vishal Mangalwadi, The World of the Gurus; Anthony Storr, Feet of Clay. 
[10]  Lu Sheng-yen, Sariras – Buddhist Relics Among Executed Prisoners, 1995, p. 5-6
[11]  Liang Yancheng, Dao Yu Mo, p. 122-3
[12]  Kametani Uenu and Ohori Michihata, Buddhist Priests Choose Christ
[13]  C. N. Tay, Kuan-Yin: The Cult of Half Asia, Tsai Tuan Fa Ren Hui Lu Publishing, 1987, p.5
[14]  John Eaton Calthorpe Blofeld, Bodhisattva of Compassion: The Mystical Tradition of Kuan Yin

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