by Sam van Schaik
Shambhala Publications 2020, pp. 226
Lying somewhere in the stacks of the British Library is a small book of magical spells, over a thousand years old, handwritten in Tibetan and taken in 1907 from the cave library of the Silk Route town of Dunhuang. Its evident signs of wear and tear, including a second binding, as well as numerous revisions and notes, indicate that it was much used by its owner, an otherwise unknown monk by the name of Bhikkru Pradya Praba. This strange and potent little artefact – like something from an Indiana Jones or Harry Potter film – forms the basis of a fascinating reappraisal of the place of magic in the history of Buddhism by Dr Sam van Schaik, a Tibetologist and Head of the Endangered Archives Programme at that same library in London.
Reading this book of spells in van Schaik’s complete translation is a somewhat disconcerting experience. There is no introduction or commentary, just a breathless series of magical instructions – like concise occult recipes – each unerringly announcing its own efficacy. Involving rituals, mantras and diverse weird ingredients – animal excrement seems to feature a lot, even the tears of a human corpse – these spells lay claim to a wide range of effects, from the cure of mental and physical illness, to fortune-telling, love magic, conception and care of pregnancy, control of the weather and more.
The following is not atypical. “For one who is under the influence of a ghost, or under the influence of the tiger-headed ghoul, burn the skull of a cat, then mix in clean earth and make the form of a cat. In the presence of an image of the Thousand-Armed and Thousand-Faced One, take a sword made from wrought iron and saying the mantra, chop up the figure of the cat into 108 pieces. By saying the heart mantra, om hri ha hung phat svaha, illnesses caused by these malevolent beings will be cured swiftly.” And elsewhere: “Defeather the head of a crow and fill it with seeds, then grow them in dark soil. Then standing in front of it, pour in the milk of a dun cow and rainwater. Once the fruits have ripened, cut the flowers and fruits and tie them carefully. Mash them with the milk of a dun cow and anoint your eyes. You will become invisible.”
Van Schaik’s central purpose is to disabuse us of the notion that such arcane sorcery is not really Buddhist. On the contrary, he argues, magic has self-evidently been central to Buddhist culture throughout its history: the denial of this is a symptom of the modern view of Buddhism as a supremely rational religion. The offering of magical assistance by Buddhist professionals such as Bhikkru Pradya Praba, often mixed up with more empirical medical services, has always been an essential part of Buddhism’s transmission into new lay communities and has played a key role in Buddhism’s flourishing wherever it has gone. The most recited text in contemporary Thailand remains a 19th century magical treatise called Buddha’s Armour, promising its users money and children.
Nor, van Schaik continues, is it correct to see magic as something bolted on to Buddhism from outside or simply part of the later tantric tradition. Magic has a long and respectable Buddhist pedigree, from paritta spells taught by the Buddha to protect his monks from snakebite, to the established genre of Mahayana literature propounding dharani incantations, the most famous example of which being the twenty-sixth chapter of the Lotus Sutra. The spell involving the dead cat effigy above actually has its origin in a Sanskrit text called the Dharani of the Blue-Necked One (a form of Avalokiteshvara), while the rainmaking abilities of Buddhist adepts over the centuries are rooted in a text, still well known in Japan, called the Great Cloud Sutra.
Van Schaik’s impressive erudition extends to the magical traditions of other world cultures. Variants of the Tibetan practice of looking into a mirror to perform divination, for instance, are to be found in Persian, Jewish, Roman, Greek and medieval English lore. There is much to learn and enjoy in the wealth of detail he provides. The use of “star water”, familiar to many from the Tibetan world, is traced back to the same Dharani of the Blue-Necked One. There is an interesting section on the subtle differences between the serpentine creatures known respectively as the Indian naga, the Tibetan klu, and the Chinese long, often translated as “dragon”. The Buddhist invocation of the Garuda deity as a means of healing, divination and rainmaking goes back to Vedic and Shaiva sources, where the mythic bird’s control of snakes is primarily connected to remedies for poison.
This is a fairly short book with an enormous scope and, inevitably, the presentation sometimes feels a bit sketchy. But van Schaik is undoubtedly successful in provoking a reconsideration of the role of magic in Buddhism: with its extensive bibliography, this will serve as a valuable starting point for those wishing to explore this topic for years to come. He admits that it is not just a modern conviction that magic is not really Buddhist: the Brahma Net Sutra of the Pali canon lists many different forms of esoteric practice as “wrong livelihood” and the 10th century Indian scholar Abhinavagupta is cited as referring to the “delusion of sorcery”. But van Schaik proves that, for better or worse, Buddhism and magic are inextricably wedded. “Philosophy is important too,” he writes teasingly in his conclusion, “but it has had little impact on the lives of the vast majority of Buddhists over the last two and a half millennia.”