Miracles

by Annie Heckman

Our Numata Reading Group with Annabella Pitkin centered on a 28-page draft: The Cup Runneth Over: Miraculous Materiality, Ethical Critique, and the Power of Superpowers in a Modern Tibetan Buddhist Biography. The text offers a rich view on miracle narratives in the recent 2004 namthar of Drikung Amgon Rinpoche (late 19th-mid-20th century) by Khenchen Konchog Gyaltsen, a Drikung Kagyu scholar living in the Tibetan Autonomous Region. In this post I’ll be treating the conversation, rather than the writing, as our text, and applying the analysis methods from our Study of Rhetoric and Discipline reports. In particular, I’m focusing on outlining a few themes of our conversation, with attention to an excluded theme and the structure of our conversation, holding the conversation in tension with the text to consider what we talked about the most when given the opportunity.

The first theme I will turn to here is word choice, with an ongoing question about the use of ‘miracle’ as a term for Amgon Rinpoche’s food-based displays of extraordinary generosity in the namthar. In our reading group conversation, miracles were an important topic, but the conversation was much less about miracles themselves, although this was discussed, but more based in a dialogue about whether ‘miracle’ was the appropriate word for these narratives, where the text places itself when that word is used, and how it positions the events described in the namthar in relation to, for example, Christian notions of the miracle. Dr. Pitkin actually begins her text with two theoretical windows on the use of the word ‘miracle’, looking to both Rosenzweig and Fabio Rambelli, quoting Arjun Appadurai on Buddhist ritual. The question of whether and how, and by whom, the term ‘miracle’ should be legitimated may have run through about half of our conversation.

As a child of the 1980s in a Saturday Night Live watching, Roman Catholic family, I had Father Guido Sarducci lurking in the back of my head throughout our conversation. For Father Guido, a miracle is an extraordinary event, but one that is rather routine in the sense that they are just what saints do. They qualify a person for sainthood. This holiday season, when I tell my family that I went to a talk about miracles, someone will certainly quote Father Sarducci talking about Mother Teresa’s qualifications for sainthood: “She’s got three-four miracles.” In this sense, functionally in the qualification of saints, we grew up thinking of miracles as extraordinary but relatively frequent events, as part of access to divinity through a particular innocence or cultivation through prayer, something that is performed in demonstration of this access, with the purpose to help or display. The two dimensions I see in these early personal assessments of miracles are belief and qualification for sainthood.

Dr. Pitkin was clear in her intention to use the word ‘miracle’ as a way to frame the piece and push at many of these issues, but it was interesting to see how strongly many members of our group felt about whether or not the word choice was appropriate, or how much we wanted to point out different associations and theoretical frameworks for looking at miracles. One salient and related theme in our conversation, was the significance of food in the miracles of Amgon Rinpoche in particular, both in relation to Tibetan cultural identity and also in terms of other explorations of food in religious studies, for example in Dr. Garrett’s work, which emerged several times in the conversation. Because of Amgon Rinpoche’s generation of, for example, Lhasa momos, there is a conversation in the paper and in our talk about the significance of the material produced or transformed through the extraordinary event, particularly in the upheaval of mid-20th century Tibet. This miraculous production of food included the inversion of the sponsor/lama relationship, where Amgon Rinpoche would be expected to receive offerings and food from his visitors. Our conversation did turn to this inverted economy, which is also a theme present in Dr. Pitkin’s paper. There is also the question of authorship and inclusion of these miracles to the extent that they appear in the 2004 namthar, with the potential for carefully inflected communication with diaspora communities.

This aspect of communication with diaspora communities, of the miracle narratives serving a transnational function, did not figure as prominently in our conversation. Events which may help frame these transnational functions, which I wrote on earlier this semester for a different class but did not bring up in our reading group, would be the Hindu milk miracles of 1995, 2006, and 2010, when murtis in multiple temples began to take up the milk that was offered to them. There are some overlaps with our namthar’s miracle narratives in terms of the use of food (actually producing shifts in milk prices in parts of South Asia), and also some important differences, for example, the economy of offering staying intact and the extraordinary nature of the event residing in the murti rather than in the context of human conversation. In terms of transnational communication, the milk miracle included multiple locations of Hindu diaspora, and was, as many have pointed out, quickly mobilized by the BJP, occurring and particularly opportune times for elections. The general potential for a miracle narrative to produce an ostensibly apolitical break that, in a highly politicized way, closes off both religious and political analysis and interpretation is present in Dr. Pitkin’s paper, but in our conversation we did not pursue this thread as fully. This may be a sort of excluded theme in our conversation, or it may also represent where our emphasis on the terminology of ‘miracle’ led—in debating the usefulness of the term, we may have opened up certain pathways for analysis of the project, but also closed off some closer comparisons of miracles being mobilized in terms of political and cultural identity.

The reading group, as framed by our faculty at the University of Toronto and as Dr. Pitkin engaged it, took a structure that is helpful for our Study of Rhetoric and Discipline. This was a truly engaging experience, in the form of multiple questions and answers, where the group served as both audience and co-constructors of problems and solutions in thinking through the many potent topics that emerged from the essay. It helped me to see our work in writing as part of a larger, ongoing conversation.

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