Do all Buddhists believe that miracles happen in the real world? Are the miracles described in scripture such as the Buddha being able to walk after birth literal or symbolic?
Yes, most Buddhists do believe that the Bodhisatta walked 7 steps immediately after being born and also believe in the miracles mentioned in the scriptures literally. Within this group some believe the details of miracles in scriptures word for word and others may say certain descriptions might be embellished.
Then there are others who like to call themselves Buddhists, but reject all supernatural aspects of Buddhism and try to map it all to the ordinary, either symbolically or giving different meanings to the words. When that task proves too difficult, they usually say it's not the teaching of the Buddha.
I suspect that, if where Buddhists don't exactly believe it, many would certainly tend not to deny it either.
This is a famous Zen story:
The Real Miracle
When Bankei was preaching at Ryumon temple, a Shinshu priest, who believed in salvation through the repitition of the name of the Buddha of Love, was jealous of his large audience and wanted to debate with him.
Bankei was in the midst of a talk when the priest appeared, but the fellow made such a disturbance that bankei stopped his discourse and asked about the noise.
"The founder of our sect," boasted the priest, "had such miraculous powers that he held a brush in his hand on one bank of the river, his attendant held up a paper on the other bank, and the teacher wrote the holy name of Amida through the air. Can you do such a wonderful thing?"
Bankei replied lightly: "Perhaps your fox can perform that trick, but that is not the manner of Zen. My miracle is that when I feel hungry I eat, and when I feel thirsty I drink."
Knowing of that story, I Googled to see what Zen might say about miracles, and found this article, Miracles Great and Small -- of which here are some excerpts:
I’ve been working on a follow-up to my book Don’t Be a Jerk, in which I’m taking a close look at some more of Dogen’s writings. I decided to work on an essay of his titled Jinzu. This title is usually translated as something like “Miracles,” “Marvelous Spiritual Abilities,” or “Spiritual Powers.” My teacher titled his translation “Mystical Powers.” I approached the piece thinking it was kind of a one-idea essay, the idea being something like; there are no miracles, real life is the real miracle, get over it.
I was wrong. What Dogen does in this essay is far more interesting and is an approach I think a lot of people today could learn from.
In his essay on Buddha’s miracles, Dogen never denies that they happened and he never mocks or belittles those who believe in them. It’s not clear if Dogen believed those stories himself or not. It’s quite possible he did believe that the Buddha once flew up into the sky in front of a multitude and shot water out of the bottom half of his body and fire out of the top half, to name one miracle story he references. He certainly appears to have believed that you could develop psychic powers and paranormal abilities through meditation.
Yet he takes a completely different approach to this stuff from our contemporary atheists. He allows that these kinds of miracles happen but says they are “small stuff” (shou-shou in Japanese) miracles. He urges us to be more awed and impressed by much bigger miracles.
That’s why we say things like, “the mystical power and wondrous function is carrying water and lugging firewood.” Your own real, three-dimensional existence with all of its joys and sorrows, its pleasures and pains, it’s spectacular times and its mundane times, that’s the most impressive miracle of all.
Whether you believe in small miracles or not doesn’t really matter. Some folks believe in them and some folks don’t. But the great miracle cannot be doubted by anyone. It exists everywhere and at all times and all places.
You can’t directly investigate small miracles that happened long ago and far away. But you can directly and immediately examine this one great miracle in detail for yourself using your own body and your own mind just as they are right here and right now.
I think there are some analogous attitudes towards miracles in the Pali canon -- e.g. that advanced yogis acquire supernatural powers, these powers don't imply enlightenment -- though there are higher knowledges (Abhijñā), three knowledges (tevijja), which are associated with enlightenment.
Also that the Dhamma is testable by practice and known by direct experience and so on.
I interpret this answer as implying that one may be skeptical of some "fantastic" stories, or interpret them in a way other than "at face value":
It's not uncommon for modern Theravada Buddhists to question the authenticity of the stories, especially given their often fantastical content. Probably, though, it is more common for Theravada Buddhists to accept the stories far more at face value than they really should, again given their content.
Ven. Yuttadhammo wrote that about the Jataka stories, not about the miracles of the Blessed One.
That seems to me in keeping with an attitude I described previously, i.e. "not denying".
I once read a book titled The Golden Bough which compares aspects of the Christian story (e.g. "virgin birth" and "king put to death") with the narratives of other ("pagan") religions, and which finds and describes many parallels -- many others "Gods" with virgin births and so on.
The Golden Bough is in no sense canonical but it left me with the impression that some aspects of the Christian mythos have parallels in and/or were borrowed from other mythologies.
A view I developed is that some of the fantastic elements in the Christian Biblical stories serve as a Narrative hook -- after a miraculous and memorable birth like that, what happens next? Whatever happens, you might be inclined to listen to someone so unusual or superhuman.
For whatever reason, I don't know, "fantastic" stories in general have been remembered and taught to children the world over.
But I think that this view of mine is quite possibly contradicted by the orthodox view of the Christian Church, which would teach that the stories are "true" -- and by that (their) definition, I couldn't describe my view as a "Christian view".
So when you're asking "Do all Buddhists believe?", look at Sankha's answer. I think Sankha's saying that that's an orthodox belief, which is stated in the orthodox canon ... that "most Buddhists do believe" it and anyone who doesn't might just "like to call themselves Buddhists, but".
In discussing religion it's sometimes common to ask whether someone is "a believer" or "an atheist" -- e.g. "Do you believe it's true? Or, do you believe it's false?"
There's a third possibility though, being "agnostic", which means "without knowledge" -- i.e. a valid answer to the question might be "I don't know."
And I think that might be an answer that's true of many Buddhists, i.e. "I don't know."
So if someone says, for example, "I don't believe in past lives" then someone else might reply, "you have to develop your (power/ability/insight) until you can see for yourself." In my opinion, someone who hasn't done that (which so far as I know includes most people who haven't attained final enlightenment) might rightly say "I don't know".
I suspect that even an orthodox Buddhist might say, about miracles: "I don't know. I know it's in the canon: and I know that people are discouraged from boasting of it, demonstrating it, etc."
Also I suspect that a lot of (perhaps even all) Buddhists do believe in small or everyday miracles -- in the concept of "good karma" for example, perhaps, of being "lucky" or "fortunate", perhaps of merit manifesting itself in tangible ways, maybe some wish fulfilment and so on.
There is a famous story of the Buddhist monk at the time of Buddha named Pindola Bharadwaja.
Once certain rich man challenged him to lift a bowl kept high up on a stick to prove the power of his Dhamma, he reportedly levitated and picked it up, which thereby stopped the person and onlookers to question the dhamma. When the Buddha heard of this, He reprimanded him and told him that this is not how you should spread the teachings of the Dhamma and told everyone not to show the miracles in public again.
This is as such a norm in Buddhism, not to show the miracles or any supernatural powers you have. So as a Buddhist I do believe in literal miracles.
And other than Theravada stories,
The life of Tibetan master Milarepa is full of miracles.
Before becoming a Buddhist monk he became a sorcerer to avenge an insult to his family, he destroyed an entire village through his psychic powers.
This story is literally believed by Tibetan Buddhists.
In Jetsunma Palmo's book, she gives an account that certain Tibetan masters attain something called as a 'rainbow body' at the time of death.
Which means when the master is going to die he is covered in a cloth and he is left alone in a room, the master leaves his body and all that is left is his nails and hair, and when the disciple enters the room, his body is engulfed by a rainbow.
This is an eyewitness account.
One of the stories told by Ajahn Brahma is
once a lady was not able to open the door of her car no matter how hard she was trying, and Ajahn Brahm was passing by, so she jokingly said to him that, "Ajahn Brahm, if you can open the door of this car, I will become a nun in your monastery." So taking the challenge Ajahn Brahm said ok let's see. So he said he gave loving kindness and Metta to the car and he just put the key in and lo-and-behold the car door opened.
This was not a discourse about miracles but it was about loving kindness. But leaving all the skepticism aside I will consider this as a miracle.
I have reached to understanding that at higher levels of meditative states miracles are no more special, its a trivial matter.
Maybe some Buddhists do some don't but iddhi and abhijñā (the six higher knowledges) are central concepts in early Buddhism.
The Buddha walking after birth I think is only mentioned once not nearly as much as iddhi powers and abhijna (mentioned hundreds or thousands of times).
It's explained that they are literal physical powers rather than symbolic. The Buddha explains that his body becomes lighter allowing him to easily fly.
“Sir, do you have personal experience of going to the Brahmā realm by psychic power with a mind-made body?”
“I do, Ānanda.”
“But do you have personal experience of going to the Brahmā realm by psychic power with this body made up of the four primary elements?”
“I do, Ānanda.”
“Ānanda, the Realized Ones are incredible and have incredible qualities. They’re amazing and have amazing qualities.
Sometimes the Realized One submerges his body in his mind and his mind in his body. He meditates after sinking into a perception of bliss and lightness in the body. At that time his body becomes lighter, softer, more workable, and more radiant.
Suppose there was an iron ball that had been heated all day. It’d become lighter, softer, more workable, and more radiant. In the same way, sometimes the Realized One submerges his body in his mind and his mind in his body. He meditates after sinking into a perception of bliss and lightness in the body. At that time his body becomes lighter, softer, more workable, and more radiant." (SN 51.22)
It's also explained that a certain degree of iddhi development is required to achieve arahantship:
"Bhikkus, all the bhikkus in the past … future … present who realize the undefiled freedom of heart and freedom by wisdom in this very life, and who live having realized it with their own insight due to the ending of defilements, do so by developing and cultivating the four bases of iddhi power" (SN 51.7)
Moggallana is the arahant who had the highest iddhi power (besides the Sammsambuddha himself):
"Sāriputta, the monk who has crossed over, may be supreme in respect of his wisdom, ethics, and peace.
But in a moment I can create the likenesses of ten million times 100,000 people!
I’m skilled in transformations; I’m a master of psychic powers." (Thag 20.1)
It's one of the central concepts in early Buddhism.
"Swans fly on the path of the sun;
men pass through the air by iddhi powers;
the wise are led away from the world after vanquishing Mara and his host" (Dhammapada, 175)
I personally believe that it's real because of my own personal experiences...I also think it would be pretty easy to prove as well...