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An "Omen" or "Sign" - A Buddhist Perspective (Part 1)

By Chin Kee Thou

Nimitta, the ‘signs’ or ‘omens’ of old age, sickness, death and the wandering mendicant that convinced

the Bodhisatta Prince to leave home and lead the ascetic life. 


In Buddhism, nimitta is variously translated as ‘outward aspect’, ‘general appearance’, ‘perceived object’, ‘mark’, ‘image’, ‘sign’, ‘omen’. Its five most significant applications or usages are: 


1. In canonical Buddhism, the outward aspect or general appearance of an object; that aspect which we find attractive (abhijjhā) or repulsive (domanassa) when our senses perceive things. 


2. In meditation, the perceptual objects used for contemplation (kammaṭṭhāna) are referred to as nimitta because they function as a mark, sign, or image on which the eye and mind focus their attention.


3. According to the Pāli Commentaries (Aṭṭhakathā), at the last moment of consciousness before death the sign of previous karma (kamma-nimitta) together with the sign of future destiny (gati-nimitta) arise as mental objects, as an indication of that person's impending rebirth.


4. It is the term for the ‘signs’ or ‘omens’ of old age, sickness, death, and the wandering mendicant which, according to legend, convinced the Buddha to leave home and lead the ascetic life.


5. In the Yogacārya (Vijñānavāda) branch of Buddhism, it is the term for the perceived object, which has no existence independently of the perceiver but is merely a representation of his inner consciousness.1

Many Buddhist literature, texts and commentaries recorded nimitta created by Buddhas, devas, senior monks and yogis during pre-Buddhist era with psychic powers more than 2500 years ago. 

Appearance of the Four Great Omens - Time for Renunciation 

When the Bodhisatta Prince Siddhattha visited the royal garden, the devas conferred: “The time for Prince Siddhattha to become a Buddha is drawing near. Let us show him the four great omens which will cause him to renounce the world and become a recluse.”  The omens could be seen by the Prince and the charioteer only and not any other person.

After Enlightenment of the Buddha

On the third week after having attained Enlightenment, the Buddha had not given up his temporary residence at the Bodhi Tree and the devas doubted His attainment of Buddhahood.  The Buddha read their thoughts, and in order to clear their doubts by His psychic powers He created a jeweled ambulatory (ratana camkamana) and paced up and down for another week.”3

However, according to commentaries, the Buddha spent seven days walking up and down on a jewel walk (Ratanacankama Ceitya), created by the devas and Brahmas and stretching from east to west between the Aparajita Throne and the Cetiya of the Gaza, while at the same time He was reflecting on the Dhamma and getting absorbed in phala-samapatti, meditating on the Fruition Attainment.4

On the fourth week the Buddha spent in a jeweled chamber (ratanaghara) contemplating the jewels and intricacies of the Abhidhamma (Higher Teachings). Books state that His mind and body were purified when He pondered on the Book of Relations (Patthana), the seventh treaties of the Abhidhamma, that six coloured rays namely: blue (nila), yellow (pita), red (lohita), white (odata), orange (manjettha) and a mixture of these five colours (pabhassara) emitted from His body.5

According to commentaries on the fourth week, the Buddha reflected on the supreme doctrine of the Abhidhamma while staying cross-legged in the Golden House (Ratanahara) created by devas and Brahmas at the corner to the west of the Mahabodhi tree.

As the Buddha applied His mind to the most subtle and profound points in the all-embracing Pattana, rays appeared from the rare part of the Buddha and rushed to the countless world system to the west, the rays appeared from the Buddha’s right side and rushed to the countless world-system in the south, the rays appeared from the Buddha’s left side and rushed to the countless world-system in the north, and from the sole of the feet came out the coral-coloured rays, plunging into the space below after penetrating the mass of earth, the mass of water, and the mass of air, just as a sapphire studded chain was made to turn round and round, balls of blue rays arose one after another from His head, reaching the space above, after passing through the six deva-bodes and twenty Brahma bodes of Kamavacara planes. At that time, the countless beings in the countless world-systems shone with golden colour.6

Buddha’s Display of The Twin Miracles 

When the Buddha visited His hometown of Kapilavattu and on arrival at the Nigrodha Park, accompanied by twenty thousand arahats, the Buddha seated Himself on the Dhamma Throne, prepared and kept in readiness for Him. Being stern and haughty through pride of birth, Sakyan family members thought to themselves: “Prince Siddhattha is a very junior to us in respect of age, being put young brother, young nephew, young son, grandson”; so they told the young prince: “You young folks, may pay homage. As for us we will sit behind you.” On seeing this, the Buddha realized the inner feeling and strong pride of the birth of the Sakyans and thus do not make reverence to Me. My conceit relatives are totally ignorant of the real nature of a Self-Enlightened One, and such is the might and glory of the Buddha.’ 


I will let them know the real might of a Buddha by the demonstration of Twin Miracles, which involved simultaneous streaming forth of water and fire from various parts of My body, and, at the same time I will create a Walk in the sky, extending to ten thousand world systems. On which I shall walk to and fro, pouring down the Dhamma rain on those beings who are gathered here according to the varying degree poof their inner deposition.”7 

This article was published in For You Information Issue 407.

Photo credits: Sculptures depicting‘Nimitta’ by Chin Kee Thou and Space Photo by Enric Cruz López via Pexels

1 The Concise Oxford Dictionary of World Religions

2,4,6,7 Maha Buddhavamsa, The Great Chronicle of Buddhas

3,5 Vision of the Buddha, The Buddha and His Teachings, Narada Maha Thero

2 Maha Buddhavamsa, The Great Chronicle of Buddhas

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