Often Buddhism has been portrayed as a rational religion/philosophy devoid of the magical or mystical. When magical practices in Buddhism have been discussed, they have primarily been articulated either within the context of Tantrism or divergent forms of lay practices that have been shaped by outside influences. Nevertheless, magical abilities are well attested in early Buddhist scripture, wherein it has been recorded that the Buddha and many of those who attained liberation (arhat) had acquired several magical or supermundane powers.
In the Pali Sutras the magical abilities of the Buddha and arhats are primarily discussed within the context of two magical groupings – namely, the supernormal powers (iddhi) and the higher knowledges (abhinna) (In the Pali canon the iddhi are oftentimes included among the abhinna).
THE SUPERNORMAL POWERS (IDDHI)
Most often the supernormal powers (iddhi) appear in standard lists or roughly eight components throughout the Pali scriptures. These are:
1. The ability to multiply one’s body into many bodies and then return to a single body.
2. The ability to become invisible.
3. The ability to pass through solid objects.
4. The ability to rise and sink within the ground.
5. The ability to walk on water.
6. The ability to fly.
7. The ability to touch anything no matter the distance.
8. The ability to travel to the highest realms of existence.
According to Nathan Katz, the supernormal powers (iddhi) are cultivated by means of a practice known as “The Four Steps Leading to Supernormal Power” (cattaro iddhipada).*
THE HIGHER KNOWLEDGES (ABHINNA)
When the supernormal powers (iddhi) are excluded from among their ranks, the higher knowledges (abhinna) are five in number. These are:1. clairaudience.
3. The ability to recall one’s own past lives.
4. The ability to know the karmic destinations of other beings.
5. The knowledge of the extinction of the blockages to liberation.
According to Katz, the higher knowledges (abhinna) begin to arise from absorption (jhana) practices, specifically with the onset of the fifth absorption (jhana).**
Katz, Nathan, Buddhist Images of Human Perfection: The Arahant of the Sutta Pitaka Compared with the Bodhisattva and the Mahasiddha, Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1982.*Katz, p. 108.
**Katz, p. 106.