When I was a first year student at Kent State University in Ohio, I was really interested in finding out what religions were all about. I was raised without one — not as an atheist, just in a family that didn’t care about religion. I wanted to know what religions were and why people believed them.
I clearly remember a conversation I had in the student center with a person from some on-campus ministry. He told me that Jesus Christ had done a whole bunch of miraculous things like feeding a multitude with two fishes, raising people from the dead, and even being raised himself from the dead. This proved that Jesus had a super connection with God and therefore we should worship him.
I wasn’t convinced. The only evidence for those miracles was a single book written a very long time ago supposedly by people who knew people who remembered someone who once saw Jesus do this stuff. I couldn’t base my life on something as sketchy as that.
But it continues to fascinate me how incredibly well this approach works on such a vast number of people. In cultures all over the world we find exactly the same thing going back thousands of years. Some guy is reported to have done miraculous stuff a long time ago and millions of others believe these stories and worship that guy.
The miracles don’t even have to be in the distant past. The stories of Joseph Smith’s supposed miracles are absurdly dubious, and yet the Mormon religion is a huge success. L. Ron Hubbard’s crap about Xenu and the Thetans is laughable nonsense. But the Scientologists just built a giant media center right down the street from me.
I’ve been working on a follow-up to my book Don’t Be a Jerk, in which I’m taking a close look at some more of Dogen’s writings. I decided to work on an essay of his titled Jinzu. This title is usually translated as something like “Miracles,” “Marvelous Spiritual Abilities,” or “Spiritual Powers.” My teacher titled his translation “Mystical Powers.” I approached the piece thinking it was kind of a one-idea essay, the idea being something like; there are no miracles, real life is the real miracle, get over it.
I was wrong. What Dogen does in this essay is far more interesting and is an approach I think a lot of people today could learn from.
What usually happens when folks like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris or the late Christopher Hitchens and their followers try to convince people religions are wrong is they mock those old miracle stories and point out how flimsy the evidence for them is. Then they belittle those who believe in such ridiculous stuff as being stupid and naïve.
This never works.
In fact, in spite of what I just told you, it didn’t even work on me. I could see for myself that the evidence for Jesus’ miracles was inadequate. Yet when I heard smarty-pants guys sneer at that stuff, that actually made me want to believe in it. The problem for me was that I just couldn’t. I tried. I really did.
Dogen never heard of Jesus. But he was well acquainted with the miracle stories attributed to Buddha. He was aware that a lot of Buddhist monks and teachers believed those stories and based their interest in Buddhism on the idea that they actually happened. And even if some of those guys might not have believed the stories themselves, they used them as ways of hooking their audiences in.
In his essay on Buddha’s miracles, Dogen never denies that they happened and he never mocks or belittles those who believe in them. It’s not clear if Dogen believed those stories himself or not. It’s quite possible he did believe that the Buddha once flew up into the sky in front of a multitude and shot water out of the bottom half of his body and fire out of the top half, to name one miracle story he references. He certainly appears to have believed that you could develop psychic powers and paranormal abilities through meditation.
Yet he takes a completely different approach to this stuff from our contemporary atheists. He allows that these kinds of miracles happen but says they are “small stuff” (shou-shou in Japanese) miracles. He urges us to be more awed and impressed by much bigger miracles.
As I said, Dogen never heard of Jesus. But I’ll assume most of you have heard more about the miracles of Jesus than about the crazy supernatural stuff the Buddha supposedly did. So I’m gonna try using Dogen’s approach as applied to Christian miracle stories.
Jesus fed a multitude with two fishes and five loaves of bread (Matt. 14: 13-21), he raised Lazarus from the dead (John 11: 1-44), and was himself raised from the dead three days after his crucifixion (Mark 16: 1-13, Luke 21: 1-53, Matt. 28: 1-8, John 20: 11-18). These are indeed great accomplishments. But they are examples of small miracles, not the great miracle.
It is only because of the great miracle that such small miracles exist. The great miracle includes small miracles, but small miracles do not know the great miracle. Small miracles are bound by time and space. They occur in one place but not in other places. The happen at one time but not at other times. They are witnessed by some people but not by others. They are believed by many people but doubted by just as many.
Without the great miracle, even the most spectacular of smaller miracles could not occur. Jesus worked great wonders. But the greater wonder is that there is a world in which Jesus could have been born, that there is a universe in which that world exists, that you and I are alive to hear about his miracles. It is only the great miracle of existence itself that allows smaller miracles to occur.
That’s why we say things like, “the mystical power and wondrous function is carrying water and lugging firewood.” Your own real, three-dimensional existence with all of its joys and sorrows, its pleasures and pains, it’s spectacular times and its mundane times, that’s the most impressive miracle of all.
Whether you believe in small miracles or not doesn’t really matter. Some folks believe in them and some folks don’t. But the great miracle cannot be doubted by anyone. It exists everywhere and at all times and all places.
You can’t directly investigate small miracles that happened long ago and far away. But you can directly and immediately examine this one great miracle in detail for yourself using your own body and your own mind just as they are right here and right now.
I think if Dogen had ever been asked about Christianity, he might have responded like that.
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September 10-11, 2016 Belfast, Northern Ireland 2-Day Retreat
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