The Book of Miracles is not another anthology. Anthologists collect texts by removing them from the contexts in which they find their meaning. This is questionable enough when what is being anthologized is isolated sayings, or sound-bite wisdom of the spiritually advanced. But miracles are by definition stories that make sense only within larger narratives. What I offer here is a guide to miracles as they unfold within the sacred scriptures of each tradition and are amplified in the sacred biographies of the saints, sages, and spiritual masters. My aim has been to show how those stories function within each tradition and what they reveal about those who perform them.
For example, when the Buddha walks on water, that story discloses to a Buddhist (or should) something quite different from what a Christian sees (or should) in the similar story of Jesus walking on the Sea of Galilee. But when the apostle Peter raises a dead man to life, his miracle echoes not only what Jesus did, but also what the prophet Elijah did several centuries before. And when the Prophet Muhammad ascends to heaven, it is both like the Ascension of Jesus and something very different. In other words, to understand the meaning of a miracle, one must know the tradition out of which it comes. One must also know what earlier tradition is being challenged or superseded. Thus, to read a miracle story literally is-inevitably-to miss the point. To ignore the literal meaning, however, is to fail to understand why the miracle story was told in the first place. Why should a story told of Jesus or the Buddha be less complicated than a story by Kafka or Joyce?
On the other hand, the reader might well ask why he should bother with religions not his own. The answer, I suggest, is because we must. We live in an age of convergence. In small towns now as well as urban centers, mosques and shrines and ashrams appear where once only churches and synagogues could be seen. The people Christian missionaries once went abroad to convert are now their children's playmates in the school yard back home. Diversity, in other words, has moved well beyond the categories of race, class, and gender to include the richer, more challenging, and more comprehensive category of religion. Religions are powerful symbol systems that define reality for those who live in their embrace. Jews and Christians, Muslims and Hindus all share the same experiences; what makes them differ one from the other is the insight into the meaning of those experiences. We cannot afford ignorance of what our next-door neighbors, or even the Bombay sales manager just an e-mail away, may believe about the nature and destiny of humankind.
In some ways, all religions are the same, though not in the ways that the young assume when they take spiritual flight. All religions have saints. Buddhists, Muslims, and Hindus no less than Christians venerate relics. Only Jews do not; nor do they, like others, venerate images. But all religions do have martyrs. And in all religions (save, again, Judaism) saints are far more likely to be celibates who renounce marriage and family life.
Imagine, then, a Jew bent on leaving a demanding Hebrew God behind, only to find more than one avenging deity in Hinduism. Imagine a Christian who is looking for a religion without the threat of hell discovering that Buddhism has five or six of them. Imagine a Hindu who admires the soothing, therapeutic Jesus now offered in many Christian venues discovering a Christ who demands of his disciples that they follow him to the cross. The integrity of religions is violated, therefore, when they are not presented entire.
An engagement with miracles in other religions is one way to discover how different religions really are. Because they speak of the uncommon, miracle stories are sharp reminders that to move from one religious world to another is to cross real boundaries. As Tenzin Gyatso, the fourteenth Dalai Lama, has reminded me-and others-so often, sympathetic understanding of another religion is important for the peoples of the planet. Indeed, serious engagement with another religion is the best way to discover the uniqueness of one's own. But to call one's self a Buddhist Christian (or, for that matter, a Hindu Jew), says the Dalai Lama, is like putting "a yak's head on a sheep's body."