Review – Buddhist Magic

My review schedule of historical texts of European magic is overfull – which means it’s time to review Buddhist Magic, by Sam Van Schaik of the British Library. This is a book I purchased myself, and it was certainly worth it.

I’m probably not the best person to review this work. I haven’t dipped too far into Buddhism of any variety, with most of my familiarity coming from the Tibetan side, including The Tibetan Book of the Dead and David-Neel’s Magic and Mystery in Tibet. Thus, someone better read in Buddhism might have a different series of critiques they can draw from the book.

Van Schaik’s overall argument is that Buddhism has been portrayed in the West as a rationalist practice in line with secular thinking and devoid of so-called “superstition.” This is not necessarily reflected in the textual tradition, in which ritual techniques aimed at practical everyday goals intermingle with techniques used purely for spiritual goals. Van Schaik sets out to reveal this other side of Buddhist practice.

But how should we define magic? After a brief discussion of Frazer, Durkheim, and other theorists, Buddhist Magic delves into what is referred to as magic in other times and places, including the Atharvaveda, the library of Ashurbanipal, the magical papyri, the Cairo Geniza, and the grimoires. Van Schaik provides a few pages for each, and I felt the brief coverage was largely fine for each, albeit more focused on similiarities than contrasts among them. Based upon this, he identifies a few traits that point to magic: rituals that point to practical, this-worldly goals that should be accomplished quickly and assembled with other such brief rites in written works. One could debate the particulars, but I think it’s a good place to start.

The next sections cover the various ways in which this “magic” interacts with the moral and medical texts in Buddhist history. Some of this requires some background information on the histories of various Buddhist traditions, which I did not have available to me at the time. It does establish how magic, theology, and medicine all intertwined in texts, stories, and practice reaching far back into the religion’s history.

This leads up to a set of examples: a short treatise of Tibetan magic found near Dunhuang, on the Silk Road, and believed to date to the tenth century. It includes a series of scrying rituals involving a child and dedicated to Garuda, King of the Birds; rituals to control demons called requiring one hundred thousand repetitions of the mantra of the Tibetan queen Bhrikuti, and ceremonies to cure illness among people and animals. Then, there’s one in particular that caught my attention:

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 opened, 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.

Yes – there’s some interesting parallels to the skull-bean invisibility rite with which most modern grimoire readers will be most familiar from the Grimorium Verum. I’m not going to say that one inspired the other, but it might deserve further research.

If you’re interested in the history of Buddhism or books of magic beyond the European context, it’s definitely worth looking into. Those hoping for a collection of new spells may be disappointed to find that certain mantras and yantras are not given within, but there’s still a great deal to think about here.

Published in: on July 17, 2021 at 7:57 am  Leave a Comment  

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