While the overriding emphasis in the EBTs is clearly in rational, psychological, and ethical teachings, there are also many references and allusions to things that lie outside of our everyday materialistic experience. These require very careful handling, not least because our understanding of such things in English is so conditioned by our Western heritage, with its deeply dysfunctional mind/body dualism.
One of the terms we encounter is pāṭihāriya, which is sometimes translated as “miracle”. But in Hebraic thought, a miracle is evidence for the working of God in the world. It requires God, who stands absolutely outside our world of time, space, and conditions, to stretch out his incomprehensible hand and pierce the veil of the world. To accept a miracle is to suspend the rational, to accept that the unconditioned and timeless creates effects that are distinctly conditioned and timely.
Thus modern translations have tended to render the word with “wonder” or something similar. This is obviously preferable, but it still doesn’t really tell us anything about what it is that the word means.
The most important context is the so-called three pāṭihāriyas of psychic power (iddhi), “revealing” (ādesana, Ven Bodhi has “mind reading”), and instruction (anusāsana). Now, obviously, from a Buddhist perspective, none of these has anything to do with a God, or with the operation of any metaphysical or superstitious faculties. Even the exercise of psychic powers is considered to be merely an extension of our natural abilities made possible through mental development.
As normal, the Buddha doesn’t think too highly of the first two of these, and stresses the last (see AN 3.60). Now, typically the understanding of the term is, I think, highly influenced by this passage. For this reason, it is usually implicit that the primary sense is ‘miracle, wonder” and that the Buddha extends the meaning to include effective teaching. However, the usage of the term elsewhere suggests that it may be the other way around.
The ability to teach the Dhamma sappaṭihāriya is considered to be one of the qualities of the Buddha’s disciples, which show they really get what he is saying and can share it with the world. (AN 8.70) Now, clearly this doesn’t have anything to do with psychic powers, so why is this specific word used here?
Well, perhaps it has to do with what happens when speech is not pāṭihāriya. In a number of contexts we find speech criticized as being appāṭihīrakataṃ bhāsitaṃ sampajjati, which means something like “their speech has not been made pāṭihāriya”. Ven Bodhi translates this as “their talk would amount to nonsense”. This echoes the commentary, which has aniyyānikaṁ amūlakaṁ niratthakaṁ (“not emanicipating, baseless, meaningless”). The problem is that these passages are highly specific, and such generic renderings do not reflect this.
There are four closely related passages where the phrase appāṭihīrakataṃ bhāsitaṃ sampajjati is used in the EBTs.
Two of these—MN 79 and MN 80—are identical. A man says he is in love with the finest lady in the land, but then has to admit that he has never even see or met her, and has no idea who she is or what she is like.
In DN 9, the same simile is used to illustrate a philosophical criticism along the same lines. In Ven Thanissaro’s translation:
There are some brahmans & contemplatives with a doctrine & view like this: ‘After death, the self is exclusively happy and free from disease.’ I approached them and asked them, ‘Is it true that you have a doctrine & view like this: “After death, the self is exclusively happy and free from disease"?’ When asked this, they replied, ‘Yes.’ So I asked them, ‘But do you dwell having known or seen an exclusively happy world?’ When asked this, they said, ‘No.’ So I asked them, ‘But have you ever been aware of a self exclusively happy for a day or a night, or for half a day or half a night?’ When asked this, they said, ‘No.’ So I asked them, ‘But do you know that “This is the path, this is the practice for the realization of an exclusively happy world"?’ When asked this, they said, ‘No.’ So I asked them, ‘But have you heard the voices of devas reborn in an exclusively happy world, saying, “Practice well, my dears. Practice straightforwardly, my dears, for the realization of an exclusively happy world, because it was through such a practice that we ourselves have been reborn in an exclusively happy world"?’ When asked this, they said, ‘No.’
“So what do you think, Potthapada—when this is the case, don’t the words of those brahmans & contemplatives turn out to be unconvincing?
And in DN 13 we have, in Rhys David’s translation:
And just even so, Vāseṭṭha, though you say that the Brahmans are not able to point out the way to union with that which they have seen, and you further say that neither any one of them, nor of their pupils, nor of their predecessors even to the seventh generation has ever seen Brahmā. And you further say that even the Rishis of old, whose words they hold in such deep respect, did not pretend to know, or to have seen where, or whence, or whither Brahmā is. Yet these Brahmans versed in the Three Vedas say, forsooth, that they can point out the way to union with that which they know not, neither have seen! Now what think you, Vāseṭṭha? Does it not follow that, this being so, the talk of the Brahmans, versed though they be in the Three Vedas, is foolish talk?
The simile of the finest lady of the land is given, along with several others of a similar intent.
Now, clearly, these passages all use the term in a highly specific, constrained sense. The point is not merely that the talk is meaningless, or nonsensical, or unconvincing, for which Pali has plenty of words. It is specifically that they are not able to demonstrate any basis for their claims. And here, I suspect, we are finally coming to a better sense for what the word actually means. I think it has to do with the notion of a demonstration: whether this is a demonstration of psychic abilities, or a demonstration of the basis for a particular teaching.
So I suggest we can translate the phrase:
This being so, doesn’t that man’s speech turn out to have no demonstrable basis?
The root of the word goes back to pati-hṛ, i.e. paṭihāra. One of the sense of hāra is to “present”, and the word parallels this: to “present” a lecture, or “represent” a point of view. Thus the root of the word has nothing to do with “miracle” or even “wonder”, but a demonstration or presentation. In a culturally specific sense, this comes to be associated with demonstrations of psychic abilities. In using the term to refer to teaching, the Buddha was not reforming the meaning, but emphasizing the more general, everyday sense.
This allows us to make much more straightforward sense of a passage in AN 3.125. Here, Ven Bodhi has a long footnote, and clearly struggled to make sense of the usage. But now it makes perfect sense:
Sanidānāhaṃ, bhikkhave, dhammaṃ desemi, no anidānaṃ.
I teach with reasons, not without them.
Sappāṭihāriyāhaṃ, bhikkhave, dhammaṃ desemi, no appāṭihāriyaṃ.
I teach with demonstrations, not without them.
Nidāna (i.e. “source, reason”) and pāṭihāriyāha are functionally similar. The Buddha didn’t make any claim without being able to back it up with reasons.
This doesn’t mean that the Dhamma is any less miraculous. The real miracle is, of course, letting go of suffering. What it reminds us, rather, is that if we are to present the Dhamma, we have to be ready to back it up, to show reasons for what we say, not just “that’s what the suttas say!”
There’s one other use of the term that’s quite distinct from these. It is when a number of special calendar days are mentioned, and one of these is the pāṭihāriyapakkha. (AN 3.37, AN 3.38) It is not clear what this refers to, but it seems to be some festival or holiday season. Perhaps what it means is the “fortnight of displays”, something like a fair? Or could it have been a time when rishis gathered and showed off their special stuff? Or could the roots go back to a more basic meaning of “presentation” (to the gods, i.e. sacrifice)? Or maybe it has another sense entirely. In any case, it seems that the meaning here does not require us to change the main usage.