By Catherine L. Schweig
We all share a magical heritage.
Essential to our human experience is our enduring need for rituals and spells, incantations and amulets: remedies to address our fears and desires. Whether we’ve tucked them into our memories, grandchildren, traditions or caves that have been sealed for thousands of years, we’ve made certain—across cultures and generations—that the ancient elements of magic outlast us.
And Buddhist practice is no exception.
In his new book, Buddhist Magic: Divination, Healing and Enchantment Through the Ages, Sam van Schaik finds himself tracing the threads of magic that helped Buddhism flourish, after having been struck by the similarities between a ritual performed today in Nepal, and those described in an ancient book of spells, over a thousand years old.
Found amidst hundreds of other ancient manuscripts, written in a variety of languages including Sanskrit and Chinese, the book of spells remained hidden in a shrine cave in China—from the Silk Road site of Dunhuang—until one hundred years ago when a Buddhist monk discovered it.
Van Schaik, who acts as the head of the Endangered Archives Program at the British Library, breathes new life into the spell book—originally penned in diminutive Tibetan cursive on recycled textiles—with his vivid translation, which divides the manuscript into nine tidy sections, unveiling exotic spell ingredients like red lotuses and “star water”.
But what does a thousand-year-old book of spells for attaining invisibility, fighting demons, casting out ghosts, inducing rainfall, reversing the flow of rivers and being able to fly—just to name a few—have to do with usual Buddhist practices broadly recognized today like meditation and mindfulness? And what is considered magic, anyway?
Though van Schaik informs us that there is no comparable word for magic in Asian Buddhist cultures, his working definition for the word points to foundational features that characterize such practices throughout history and around the world: “there is something essential called ‘magic’ that can be identified across cultures.”
Yet this magical landscape is not one that concerns itself with transcendence. Although often performed by those belonging to spiritual paths—such as high priests, monks or other religious figures—the magical rituals van Schaik explores aim at matters pertaining to this world: like a bridge, he points out, between those who seek enlightenment and those who urgently need it to rain on their crops, for example, or conceive a child, or get rid of a relentless fever.
This reminded me of when I was 21 and traveling through India, suddenly falling ill with a high fever.
A local healer was called in from his hermitage in the Bengali jungle to treat me. But his medicine didn’t come in the form of pills or shots. Instead, he treated me with mantras, hand mudras and protective circles he drew around me with smoke. Red threads were tied around my wrist—with incantations uttered for every knot—and water blown into my face off his turmeric-stained palm.
Like magic, my body instantly began perspiring and the fever promptly vanished. Surrounded by local villagers, I still remember them laughing at my delighted disbelief that their tantric healer had, indeed, cured me.
To the rational, modern mind—especially in the West—the magic of that healing ritual simply does not exist. Such magical powers are often dismissed as the superstitions of the uneducated.
Refreshingly, van Schaik restores dignity to the study of Buddhist magic—and magic in general across cultures, I think—by emphasizing how fundamental magic is to mainstream Buddhism, and why its rituals have endured alongside the less marginalized philosophy and meditation.
Taking care not to conflate or homogenize distinct and diverse practices, van Schaik enthusiastically weaves between esoteric spells books, canonical texts and other literature—comparing the drawing of circles here and the burning of guggul incense there—in an effort to widen the lens on the greater historical landscape Buddhist magic belongs to.
Having emerged from a supernatural ethos typical of its era, in which illness was often attributed to curses, demons, ghosts, ghouls or other paranormal beings, van Schaik points out that the line between magical and medicinal ancient manuscripts is virtually nonexistent. Consequently, antiquity is decorated with magical cures for all kinds of ailments and imbalances, including snake bites.
The Buddha himself taught his disciples mantras as spells for protection from snakes, and anything else that would threaten their practice. This theme of protection is most prominent in early Buddhist ritual texts. Van Schaik states: “This genre of ritual is known in Theravada as paritta and in Sanskrit sources as raksha, both words meaning protection.” Perhaps unsurprisingly then, dedicated yoga teacher training programs today readily engage the “raksha mam” or “protect me” mantras to fortify their student’s yoga practices.
Like medicinal magic, protective magic often involved the casting out of demons, or exorcisms.
In gracefully delivered irony, van Schaik then tells us that the majority of European spell books for, essentially, casting out demons, were burned by the catholic church. Perhaps this emphasizes the modern trend in academia that has, similarly—and, some would say, not entirely uncoincidentally—devalued the study and discussion of magical practices and powers, casting magic out from what constitutes true, or pure Buddhism. Van Schaik does the opposite.
Perhaps predictably, in the appropriation of Buddhism, Europeans and Americans, seem to have lost sight of the magic. Yet, somewhere, in some form, we’ve all encountered traces of its endurance.
In his book Buddhist Magic, van Schaik beautifully brings this to light, inviting us to set aside our prejudices and take a closer, boarder look at why it is that—while traces of European magic today may have mostly receded—Buddhist magic still thrives in places like China, Tibet, Burma, Nepal and Thailand. For not only does his translation and presentation of an exotic thousand-year-old Tibetan spell book help us appreciate an integral—yet typically overlooked—part of authentic Buddhist practice, but it also may help us appreciate the magic that has historically connected us across cultures.
These “family resemblances” between traditions, as van Schaik calls them, reflect enduring human needs that don’t expire with time. As such, neither has the magic that aims to fulfill them.
Catherine L. Schweig has practiced yoga in the Bhakti tradition since 1986. Her regular treks into nature and relationships with others are a valuable part of her spiritual journey. Passionate about inspiring women to honor their voices, in 2012 Catherine founded the Journey of the Heart, a women’s poetry blog through which emerged four anthologies, the latest titled GODDESS: When She Rules (Golden Dragonfly Press, 2018). Catherine is also the creator of the Vaishnavi Voices Poetry Project, the first poetry collection featuring the voices of contemporary women in the Bkakti tradition. As co-founder of The Secret Yoga Institute, with her life partner, Graham M. Schweig, Catherine designs yoga workshops and publishes in various magazines. Catherine and Graham live in Virginia with their cat, where they enjoy a vegan lifestyle and mentoring yoga practitioners. You may connect with Catherine on Facebook, email her or visit her website: catherineschweig.com
Photo: Shambhala Publications
Editor: Dana Gornall
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