Abhijñā/Ṛddhi (Extraordinary Knowledge and Powers)

David Fiordalis

in Buddhism

ISBN: 9780195393521
Published online January 2013 | | DOI:
Abhijñā/Ṛddhi (Extraordinary Knowledge and Powers)

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Abhijñā (Pali: abhiññā) is a Buddhist technical term that refers most specifically to a set of extraordinary powers and knowledge, including remembrance of past lives, telepathy, clairaudience, clairvoyance, telekinesis, various other “supernatural” powers, and, importantly, knowledge of the true nature of reality and certainty that one has attained awakening, the highest goal of the Buddhist path. Ṛddhi (Pali: iddhi) is a Buddhist term that literally means “success” or “accomplishment,” but it usually refers, in a technical sense, to a subset of powers contained within the overarching category of abhijñā, including flying through the air, passing through solid objects, walking on water, appearing in multiple places at the same time, visiting hells and heavenly realms, and so on. These and other related concepts (adhiṣṭhāna, vikurvaṇa, vidyā, etc.) cover a variety of “spiritual attainments” and “extraordinary knowledge and abilities,” some unique to buddhas, some shared with other Buddhist “saints,” some possessed by divinities and other “supernatural” beings, and some thought to be achievable by ordinary or gifted human beings through a variety of techniques, both Buddhist and non-Buddhist, ritual and otherwise, including the practices of meditation and asceticism. How can one best conceive of these sets of powers and types of extraordinary knowing—more broadly and in connection to a plethora of such powers and knowledge both within the Buddhist tradition and in closely related historical traditions in South, East, and other parts of Asia, not to mention contemporary Europe and North America? These remain issues lacking consensus among scholars, particularly the place and significance of these powers. Various terms are used to describe or define abhijñā, such as supernormal faculty, higher knowledge, superpower, super-knowledge, yogic power, mystic wonder, thaumaturgy, wonderworking, supernatural gnosis, and so forth. For ṛddhi, one commonly finds descriptive terms such as psychic power, magical power, miraculous power, supernatural power, superhuman power, mystical ability, and ṛddhi power, among others. These various translations attest to some of the slipperiness of the terms themselves, as well as the lack of consensus among scholars as to their proper place within Buddhist path theory and the tradition as a whole. In some ways, this lack of scholarly consensus reflects an apparent ambiguity within some classical expressions of the Buddhist tradition as to the role and significance of these powers and modes of extraordinary knowing. Appreciating their broader significance across different times and contexts thus requires looking comparatively and at narrative, art, and ethnographic analyses of contemporary practice, in addition to the varied evidence of classical scripture and scholastic or philosophical works.

Article.  8540 words. 

Subjects: Buddhism ; Tibetan Buddhism ; Zen Buddhism

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