By Sara Isayama
One of the things I sometimes see people say, (and use in a derogatory way), is the term “magical thinking.”
People will sometimes say this in regards to things they don’t like about Buddhism, other religions, or with regard to mystical things in general, or metaphysics. This can include things like magic, past lives, other worlds, other beings who are not human and many other aspects of Buddhism they don’t like. They may feel that these aspects are silly, or superstitious, or leftovers from a misguided cultural past where people just didn’t understand things the way we do now.
To their minds, such things are silly and “irrational” and therefore, to them, that means they can’t be true. In their view, the “real” world excludes such things, and to them a “rational” (in their worldview) and modern Buddhist certainly should.
However it is important to understand, that Buddhism does accept such things. After all, Buddhism is not naturalism philosophy; it does accept the existence of things that would be considered outside a naturalist’s worldview; including such things as magic. And the Buddha himself, as part of his awakening and “seeing things as they are,” not only acknowledged such things existed, but actively taught them as part of his teachings, and used them himself.
In Buddhism “Magical thinking” isn’t an insult, but rather a large part of Buddhist practice, including Vajrayana, and many other practices. We use such practices to learn to train one’s mind and use the subtle energies (sometimes referred to as magic) as antidotes to one’s suffering, and to help others and all beings in not just this world, but other worlds as well.
But what is “magic”? What do we mean by when we say that word?
It would probably help us to have some definition to know what we’re talking about. After all, it’s such a widely misunderstood and misused word; it would surely help us to have some idea of what we are talking about.
Aleister Crowley, widely regarded as one of the foremost experts on magic of his time, and one of the most famous magic users of the 20th century, published numerous books on the subject and spent his life for the purpose of teaching and spreading knowledge of magic. Crowley’s definition of magic was quite interesting. The way he described it was: “The science and art of causing change to occur in conformity with will.”
Now that’s a very interesting thing to think about, and it’s worth taking a step back for a moment and examine more closely: “The science and art of causing change to occur in conformity with will.”
If we think about it, that’s exactly what Buddhism is right there. What we do in Buddhism is a science and art of causing change (positive change) to occur in our lives (through enlightenment, and the cessation of suffering) in accordance with our will (by doing deliberate training and practices). If we consider this, then “magical thinking” is not a problem, rather, it is a solution to our problems and exactly what we should be doing. It occurs to me then that perhaps what is really going on here is a misunderstanding of what is meant by magic.
A lot of people would seem to have a very “Harry Potter” kind of view of magic—one that involves flashy lights and cool special effects.
“Expecto Patronum!” Harry shouts, as his Patronus stag whisps from his wand, driving away the Dementors. But that kind of magic mainly exists in the movies. Outside of that however, for many thousands of years, people in all cultures have done various kinds of magic that include arts and practices that cause change to occur in conformity with their wills. And this includes Buddhism.
This is easy to see if we observe the world around us, and in fact, we see this all the time. We see leaders who have “charisma” who can amass thousands (or even millions) of followers, but we can’t quite say what “charisma” is. We see musicians who can entrance an entire audience, keeping them enchanted as they weave their music around them. We see writers who can create whole worlds in our minds, keeping us spellbound using nothing but their written word.
And of course Buddhists, who for thousands of years have trained their minds out of paths and habits that were negative and unhelpful (and away from negative emotions), toward positive paths of enlightenment and the cessation of suffering. This is magick, by Crowley’s definition.
So perhaps magick isn’t the problem; perhaps its the way we think about magick that is the problem, and by setting aside our preconceptions, we might have a different view of it.
When looked at from this light, “magical thinking” is not an insult, nor are magical practices something that is “wrong” with Buddhism, or something one ought not to do. Rather, one could say that magical thinking is exactly what we are supposed to be doing: causing positive change to occur in in our lives (and that of others) in conformity with our will to practice.
That Buddhism is magic; and that’s a good thing.
Sara Isayama is a Buddhist writer, and practitioner. She lives in Oregon with her husband, their two cats, and numerous geckos.
Photo: Provided by author
Editor: Dana Gornall
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