Buddhist Magic

Divination, Healing, and Enchantment through the Ages, By Sam van Schaik

Sam van Schaik is head of the Endangered Archives Programme at the British Library. In this book he shows how the use of magic has been used to help spread the influence of Buddhism in Asia. His previous books include Tibetan Zen & The Spirit of Zen.

Book cover



In the hills of northeastern Tibet, a Buddhist monk stands in the midst of a hailstorm, swinging a sling above his head, and looses its missile into the clouds while reciting a fierce mantra. The pellets he fires from the sling are made from the soil of a ruined castle wall, the tooth of a mad dog, and the ash of a burned musk deer. Far away in a Theravada monastery near Bangkok, a monk tattoos a symmetrical design with spiralling letters flanked by dragons onto the arm of a soldier. This sacred Buddhist symbol will confer power and protection upon its owner. And in a Buddhist temple in Kyoto, row upon row of small pouches called omamori are offered for sale. A woman picks up one made specifically to ensure a successful childbirth, which she will wear throughout her pregnancy.

These practices, and many others like them, are seen throughout the Buddhist world today. They are nothing new: the practices and sacred texts on which they are based go back centuries into the Buddhist past. I have been aware of this side of Buddhism from my own experiences living in Asia, but it was only when I started working with the ancient Buddhist manuscripts from the Silk Road site of Dunhuang that I began to realize that such practices had been part of Buddhism for a long, long time. This book is an exploration of this lesser-known side of our Buddhist heritage, an exploration of how Buddhists have used what I will be calling “magic” to address the everyday needs of monks, nuns and laypeople. While these practices are found across and beyond Asia, they address the same concerns: protecting travellers, pregnant women, children, and the sick; knowing when to begin a journey or start a business venture; bringing on the rains or sending away hailstorms; making somebody fall in love or breaking two lovers apart; silencing a critic or even killing a threatening enemy; and acquiring the tempting powers of magical persuasion, invisibility; and flight.

There are books of magic in most Buddhist cultures, including Theravadin ones, but they have rarely been studied. If we are to understand the way Buddhism has worked in the past, the way it still works now in many societies, and the way it can work in the future, we need to look at these aspects of Buddhist practice that scholarship has tended to overlook. For centuries, Buddhist monks and nuns have offered services including healing, divination, rainmaking, love magic, and more to local clients. This is how Buddhist monastics developed and maintained relationships with their local communities, and this is why magic and healing have played a key role in Buddhism’s flourishing…

from the preface…

The first thing a student of magic learns is that there are books about magic and books of magic. And the second thing he learns is that a perfectly respectable example of the former may be had for two or three guineas at a good bookseller, and that the value of the latter is beyond rubies.

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell

… As a final note, I would like to emphasize that the spells in this book are offered for information only. There is no longer a living lineage of transmission and instruction for these particular spells, which in the Buddhist context means that they are no longer “alive” as a practice. And in the absence of such a lineage of instruction my own translation will always be provisional. It is perfectly adequate to help us understand the tradition of Buddhist magic, but entirely unsuited to instruction in the practice of magic. So I would not recommend that anybody actually try these spells, and if they did, I would not expect them to work as they were originally intended. This is, after all, a book about magic.

(Buddhist Magic: Divination, Healing, and Enchantment through the Ages. by Sam van Schaik, pub. Shambhala 2020)


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