📕 Buddhist Magic: Divination, Healing, and Enchantment Through the Ages by Sam van Schaik

In Buddhist Magic, van Schaik takes a book of spells and rituals—one of the earliest that has survived—from the Silk Road site of Dunhuang as the key reference point for discussing Buddhist magic in Tibet and beyond. After situating Buddhist magic within a cross-cultural history of world magic, he discusses sources of magic in Buddhist scripture, early Buddhist rituals of protection, medicine and the spread of Buddhism, and magic users. Including material from across the vast array of Buddhist traditions, van Schaik offers readers a fascinating, nuanced view of a topic that has too long been ignored.

The author’s bio on the publisher page:

Sam van Schaik is head of the Endangered Archives Programme at the British Library. He has previously worked for the International Dunhuang Project and has been a principal investigator on several major research projects. He is the author of many books including Tibet: A History, Tibetan Zen, The Spirit of Zen, and The Spirit of Tibetan Buddhism.

His Wikipedia page, his staff page at the British Library, and his full publication list on academia.edu.

Podcast episode about the book on New Books Network:

Here’s a book review on LionsRoar:

From the review:

Van Schaik briefly analyzes the attitude toward magic at early Buddhist monastic sites in India, where statues of protective deities at entry points imply the magical invocation of divine forces to preserve the integrity of the sacred precincts. Turning to early Buddhist texts, he notes that on the evidence of the Pali canon, we cannot be certain what the Buddha thought of magic. In some suttas, the Buddha condemns magical practices, while in others he offers protective and medicinal spells. There is no question, though, that for many centuries the suttas best known by Theravadin laypeople have been those collected in a compendium called the Paritta, which is chanted primarily so as to ward off misfortune.

Furthermore, birch bark scrolls and other early texts found in Gandhara, Kucha, Gilgit, and other parts of Central Asia show that magical practices of all kinds—whether for protection, health, divination, or to influence others—were part of the repertoire of a great many Buddhist monks. Magic and medicine were not easily separable in the ancient world, and bhikshus were renowned throughout Asia for their medical expertise. In healing their patients, they resorted to both empirical analysis and magical rituals, and their medical and magical service to the lay community, in turn, ensured that monastic activities and institutions would receive continued support. Thus, magic was as much a part of the spread of Buddhism as its philosophy, psychology, or ethics—however sublime.

And later in the review

Moreover, it feels like a missed opportunity that the author chose not to discuss the magical abilities or superpowers said by Buddhists to ensue from meditative concentration, since they’re not always easily separable from the sorts of practices he attends to in the book (contemplative prowess is often a qualification for success in magic). Narrative and theoretical sources celebrating such powers go very far back in Buddhist history and would have added support to his general claim about the pervasiveness of magic in Buddhist cultures.

Van Schaik concludes with a brief but thought-provoking afterword, in which he reiterates his finding that, as far back as we can see, magical practices have been a key feature of Asian Buddhism, readily accepted, widely practiced, and vital to the religion’s success. He concedes that in our modern, dis-enchanted era, where Buddhism has become virtually synonymous with mindfulness, “there might be an argument for a different kind of Buddhism that does not include dealing with [pragmatic concerns], but that would be something quite new, not a return to a mythical pure, original Buddhism.” Rather than demean the practices of Asian Buddhists by saying—as my wife’s and my Sri Lankan interlocutor did—“That is not Buddhism,” we should acknowledge that Buddhist magic “has eased suffering … and built bridges between the high aims of Buddhism and the everyday needs of people who support it.” And if the true power of Buddhist magic is to ease the anxiety and suffering of ordinary Buddhists, then, as van Schaik says, “perhaps, after all, mindfulness and other therapeutic offshoots of Buddhism are the closest thing to Buddhist magic in contemporary Western societies.”

And another review:

Previously on D&D

5 Likes

My first thought was “how do you define magic?”. Here’s an excerpt from the lion’s roar article:

Before embarking on his tour of the Buddhist magical world, van Schaik steps back to ask the obvious question: what is magic? He readily admits that “there is no word that exactly corresponds to magic in Asian Buddhist cultures,” but argues that the term has been “a lively and productive concept in the study of various rituals found throughout the world,” and hence it can be useful for understanding Buddhism, as well. He refuses to theorize or give an “essentialist” definition of the term (“magic is always and exactly x”), opting instead to search for “family resemblances” among different instances of magical practices found in a range of premodern and modern cultures. Along the way, he surveys the charms, spells, prayers, objects, and rituals described in the Indian Atharva Veda, the Chinese Shuihudi bamboo strips, the Mesopotamian library of Ashurbanipal, the Greek magical papyri, the Jewish Cairo Genizah, and European books of magic.

At the end of his survey, van Schaik offers a working definition of magic, which, he says, applies to Buddhist contexts as surely as to others: “[Magical] practices … are focused on worldly ends, including healing, protection, divination, manipulation of emotions, and sometimes killing. The effects of these techniques are either immediate or come into effect in a defined, short-term period. The techniques themselves are usually brief, with clear instructions that do not need much interpretation, and are gathered together in books of spells.” Although magical practices may be practiced by laypeople, they often require a specialist: a shaman, seer, priest, adept, or monk.

For his account of premodern Buddhist magic, which takes up the remaining chapters of the book, van Schaik specifies he will focus on texts “entirely performed for ‘this-worldly’ ends.” In this way, normative Buddhist ideals, such as liberation from samsara, the exemplary role of arhats and bodhisattvas, and the cosmological system of karma and merit fade into the background in the face of more pragmatic concerns: illness, infertility, inclement weather, danger from enemies, and common anxieties and afflictions. Magical practices don’t typically bring about enlightenment, but with the right specialist or the proper ritual, they are believed to offer some kind of power over the forces that disturb one’s life and make the pursuit of higher spiritual ideals difficult, if not impossible.

I guess personally I’m a bit of a stickler for well-defined terms. But good on van Schaik for writing a book, that takes a lot of effort and hard work.

1 Like