When we read stories about famous Buddhist masters or engage in various Buddhist practices we frequently come across the word Mahasiddha. What is a Mahasiddha, and what do Mahasiddhas have to do with us?
Mahasiddha means one who has attained great accomplishment or spiritual power. A practitioner who has attained the high level of realization of an Arhat is said to acquire at least six siddhis or powers. These powers include such seemingly miraculous abilities as the power to fly, to levitate, to make oneself invisible, to possess another person’s body, to decrease or increase one’s size at will, and to assume other forms at will. There are said to be 84 siddhis that one can attain through the ultimate realization of emptiness and the attainment of enlightenment. These 84 siddhis are exemplified in the popular stories of the 84 Mahasiddhas, each of whom represents one of the siddhis. These stories are very popular and well-known throughout Tibet and Mongolia as well as the other Buddhist countries of Asia.
One thing that stands out when reading the stories of the 84 Mahasiddhas is how different each of them are from the others. Some were kings, some monks, some itinerant ascetics, some fishermen and butchers. The one common thread throughout all the stories, however, is that these individuals all broke free of the limits and boundaries imposed on them by their circumstances and livelihoods. Monks, kings, householders, having accomplished the subtle practices of the highest tantric yogas, all abandoned their robes or their crowns or their families and wandered the mountains and charnel grounds free of attachment to anyone or anything. They often appeared as crazy hermits, unbound by any rules and living seemingly as they chose. Yet all remained true to their realization and their wish to liberate all beings from suffering.
It is important to understand that attaining siddhis is not the goal of practice. The goal of practice is to attain enlightenment so that one can then work to end the suffering of beings. Siddhis simply come naturally with enlightenment. It is possible to attain siddhis through various means, such as yogic exercises and deep meditation techniques. Some people are born with siddhis, such as the ability to foretell the future or to see other planes of existence. This demonstrates that siddhis are not miraculous or unnatural powers but rather natural powers that all humans have the potential to develop. They seem miraculous or magical to those who have not manifested them because they are not in our ordinary realm of experience. Rather, they are supernormal perceptual states. For example, dogs can hear sounds at much higher frequencies than humans can. To humans this ability is a supernormal perceptual state, but to a dog it is just natural. Humans also possess abilities that to other beings would seem a supernormal perceptual state, such as the ability to perceive color. So siddhis are entirely natural, just beyond the ability of most people.
Are siddhis important then? From the standpoint of bringing benefit to sentient beings, not really. There is a story that once the Buddha met an ascetic who was sitting by a river. The ascetic said that he had been practicing austerities for 25 years. The Buddha then asked him what he had gained for all his effort. The ascetic then replied that he now had the power to walk across the river on the surface of the water. The Buddha then pointed out that while this was indeed an accomplishment, he could have easily gone across the river at any time he wished by simply taking the ferry for one penny.
Practicing Buddhism with the goal of attaining magical powers is pointless and futile. The Buddha said in the Akankheyya Sutra that attaining siddhis by itself confers no spiritual advantage and that craving for such powers and delighting in their attainment does not free one from hatred, greed and ignorance. He added that one should never lose sight of the true purpose in one’s practice.
The real value of reading the lives of the Mahasiddhas is to inspire confidence in the teachings and the teachers who embody the siddhis. It is yet one more example of their ability to guide us to the goal for which we all yearn.