“Buddhist Magic: Divination, Healing, and Enchantment through the Ages” by Sam van Schaik

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

In his perennially wonderful (if now dated—the abridged version was issued by its author in 1922 based on the 12-volume full one) Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion, Sir James Frazer tells us that magic was the precursor to religion. Van Schaik uses Frazer’s analysis as an example of what has by now become the “conventional” view of the subject, although it refers largely to what Frazer called “sympathetic magic,” which van Schaik says “has dominated much of the discussion of magical practice” since the issue of The Golden Bough. It was “the first primitive stage in mankind’s attempt to understand and control the world,” as Sam van Schaik sums it up, or the belief “that things act on each other through a secret sympathy,” as Frazer himself put it. And, of course, religion was eventually largely displaced by science, or was it? As Einstein famously said, “I never once made one of my discoveries through the process of rational thinking.” Were they perhaps magically conceived, after all?

Against Frazer’s attempt to come up with an all-encompassing theory, van Schaik advances Ludwig Wittgenstein, who says that Frazer’s ideas make “the magical and religious views of mankind … look like errors.” Wittgenstein’s point here is that the only person erring is the one who sets up a theory. Buddhist magic, van Schaik emphasizes, isn’t based on any theory, and he quotes the 2nd-century Indian philosopher Nagarjuna, the founder of the Middle Way, as saying “as I have no theory, I am free from error.” To impose a completely alien (here Western) concept upon a subject is misleading, so van Schaik, who also says he has no theory either, wants instead, perhaps a little disingenuously, “to look at what makes magic a useful concept in the context of Buddhist societies.” And so the magical mystery tour begins, starting with a comparative study of magic and ending with van Schaik’s new translation of a core text, a fairly recently-discovered (1900) tenth-century Tibetan book of spells from Dunhuang, through which, from Chapter 4 onwards, he illustrates his ideas about Buddhist magic.


So what exactly is Buddhist magic and why is it useful? According to the book, it encompasses curing such things as “psychotic episodes and seizures”, “illnesses caused by demons”, rituals for worshipping various deities, rainmaking, fortune-telling, invisibility and all matters connected with pregnancy. This list certainly demonstrates the importance of magic within the Buddhist system, but it also links Buddhism to older beliefs; for example, as van Schaik tells us, “the literature of spells predated the Vajrayana or tantric Buddhism.” Spells may be found, for example, in the Atharvaveda, dated to about 1000 BCE; Vajrayana incorporated mantras, rituals and other aspects, all of which helped make it “the swift path to enlightenment.” Van Schaik also reminds us that magic is not just something from the past that has been rejected by modern Buddhists; it’s very much alive and well today, and that “for the vast majority of practitioners, divination, amulets and the world of spirits are still very much part of their experience of being Buddhist.” He suggests that such therapeutic Buddhist practices as mindfulness may well be the modern equivalent for people in the west who profess Buddhism. Meditation and philosophy are also very important aspects, but they have not, nor will they ever completely displace magic.

For van Schaik “the most surprising find in the study of Buddhist magic has been the connections that emerged between Buddhism and other cultures across the world” in terms of what magic can do to offer people solutions to the problems that face them in everyday life. He discusses this in the first chapter, and it is one of the most revealing and interesting chapters in the book. He starts off with the Indic Atharvaveda, then moves on to Chinese magic, the library of Ashurbanipal (who for some reason he calls “Ashburnipal”), Greek papyri, Jewish magic and finally various European books of magic or grimoires. All of these contain spells, invocations, and magic formulae, many of which are directed as being useful for the same purpose. Van Schaik arrives at a cross-cultural definition of magic based on his examination of comparative practices—it focuses on “worldly ends” such as “healing, protection, divination, manipulation of emotions and sometimes killing.” Then he goes into an explanation of Buddhist magic. First, the presence of such holy figures as boddhisatvas guarantees the effectiveness of spells, but no merit is gained from them; secondly, there’s “a swift and clear relationship between ritual and result,” and lastly, magic may be found in books of spells written so that even lay people can understand and use them, and which usually contain explanations as well.

From what van Schaik tells us, Buddhist magic has been around for a long time, and as Buddhism spread from India into other parts of Asia, “mantras, magical circles, amulets and ritual implements like arrows and daggers were all part of early Buddhist magical practices long before they became features of tantric Buddhism.” Wherever Buddhism went, so did its accompanying magic, and people used it, lay folk and monks alike. Spells, known as dharanis, appear in such core texts as the Lotus Sutra and other Mahayana writings, and are employed for various purposes; they are also gathered together into numerous compendia and anthologies, making them even more widely available. The language of these works was usually Brahmi script, which van Schaik tells us was preferred over Sanskrit for it supposed purity and “naturalness” even when the latter became more widespread in Asian regions, and eventually became available in Tibetan and Chinese.

Chapter 4, entitled “Magic Users and Materia Magica” may be seen as the key section of van Schaik’s book, as it deals with the Tibetan book presented in Chapter 5, the other chapters concentrating on sources, context and background. Van Schaik proposes here to “look more closely” at the Dunhuang book, through which he discusses who uses magic, what sort of non-human beings feature in the texts (ghosts, ogres, demons and so forth), and some of its most important uses, particularly those concerned with medicine, childbirth and what he calls “modern correspondences”, which may be defined as ways in which Buddhist magic has survived to the present day. He ends with a section on “mirror-scrying”, a practice in which a child looks into a mirror seeking a vision, and is then interrogated afterwards on what was observed. This is known as the prasena ritual, and it leads van Schaik back to his original thesis, namely that “parallels are found outside of Asia”, specifically in similar Greek, Roman and Jewish practices, and he suggests that its roots may go back to ancient Mesopotamia. “The divination ritual of the mirror and child,” he tells us, “does seem to be a case of magical ritual travelling and being adapted by very different cultures across the world.”

This book sheds a great deal of light on what has happened to Buddhism as it spread to the West and entered mainstream western culture. “The story of the West’s appropriation of Buddhism,” he writes, “involved a lot of judgment about what real Buddhism was,” and this, we are told “often meant criticizing practitioners, especially laypeople.” Practices such as wearing amulets, using divination and believing in spirits were dubbed “degenerate”, and Western scholars ignored them and studied more “serious” aspects of Buddhism such as philosophy and doctrinal matters, concluding that Theravada Buddhism was the closest to the “real” thing. Van Schaik points out that Theravada’s “ritual and magical practices” were sidelined, and thus the West came to have a skewed view of Buddhism. Instead, “we have new movements repackaging Buddhist meditation techniques for a secular audience, promoting the aim of achieving mental stability, but removing almost everything else.” However, as Sarah Shaw notes on the back cover, “Where there are human beings, there is magical thinking,” and van Schaik agrees. “For the vast majority of practitioners,” he states, “divination, amulets, and the world of spirits are still very much part of their experience of being Buddhist.” This is certainly true for Asia, but, as van Schaik concludes, “mindfulness and other therapeutic offshoots of Buddhism are the closest thing to Buddhist magic in contemporary Western societies.”

Sam van Schaik has broadened the way Buddhism should be regarded by both general readers and specialised scholars. His completely jargon-free book answers critical questions about the nature of Buddhist magic, its origins and its living presence in modern Asian Buddhist practice. He writes clearly and interestingly, with obvious enthusiasm and a complete dedication to this complex subject. The emphasis on the connections that Buddhist magic has with other cultures makes his approach uniquely interesting and comprehensive. What Buddhism has done, he believes, has built on our predisposition to have something in our lives that we can invoke to explain or take control of what might seem at first uncontrollable, and has adapted it into its system. Mindfulness and meditation may still be, at least for westerners, the most important Buddhist practices, but van Schaik demonstrates that in Asia magic is always there, too, and that we should take it seriously. Furthermore, “It was fascinating to discover that much the same divination ritual that had been used to identify the Dalai Lamas in Tibet was being practiced by medieval English priests,” he writes; “Magic is our shared heritage,” to be set aside, perhaps, at our peril.

John Butler recently retired as Associate Professor of Humanities at the University College of the North in The Pas, Manitoba, Canada, and has taught at universities in Canada, Nigeria and Japan. He specializes in early modern travel-literature (especially Asian travel) and seventeenth-century intellectual history. His books include an edition of Sir Thomas Herbert’s Travels in Africa, Persia and Asia the Great (2012) and most recently an edition of Sir Paul Rycaut's Present State of the Ottoman Empire (1667) and a book of essays, Off the Beaten Track: Essays on Unknown Travel Writers.