Can monks do magic? Should they? We often picture monks (or at least the ideal of the monk) firmly in the setting of the monastery, either seeking enlightenment through study and meditation, or carrying out in the affairs of the monastery. But magic? Well, it seems that throughout most of the history of Buddhism the answer to the first question has been yes, and to the second usually why not? In fact, the Buddhist canon contains enough spells to rival the repertoire of Merlin, Saruman and Harry Potter put together.
Let’s not make the mistake of thinking that this only applies to Tibetan Buddhism, through some insidious influence of shamanism (whatever that is). No, Indian, Chinese, Japanese monks have all mixed potions, cast spells and exorcised demons. There’s a story about Bodhiruci – an Indian monk who taught for many years in China – that nicely illustrates this. Once, when a Chinese monk spotted Bodhiruci casting a spell to make the water in a well boil, the monk started to pay special homage to him. But Bodhiruci stopped the monk and explained that all Indian monks learn these skills. (The story, from Daoxuan’s Further Lives of Eminent Monks, is retold in Richard McBride’s article.)
And let’s not think that this only applies to tantric Buddhism. Spells were being cast by Buddhists long before the tantras appeared. Indeed, the recitation of verses against disease or evil spirits goes right back to the beginnings of Buddhism. Mantras are found in the texts of the Sarvāstivadin sect and in the paritta texts of the Theravadins. (See Peter Skilling’s article.)
And there’s nothing mysterious, dubious or underhand about it. Buddhist monks have traditionally lived apart from, yet among lay people, who support their way of life. And ordinary people have turned to the monks for help with their everyday needs, whether serious calamities like illness, the complications of childbirth and spirit possession, or the questions that are answered by astrology and divination. Buddhist monks faced competition from the Brahmins in India, from the Bön and Shen in Tibet, and from the Daoists in China. They all had their spell techniques – and if they were to win the hearts and minds of ordinary people, the Buddhists would need spells too.
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Spells are written to be used, of course, so it’s interesting to look at an actual book of spells that was owned by a Buddhist monk – one of our 9th or 10th century Dunhuang manuscripts, IOL Tib J 401. That funny writing at the top of this post, that looks like the “outline” effect of my old word processor is the cover of a book of spells, on which a monk has written his name in big letters. You can’t miss it: “This is the ritual manual of Bhikṣu Prajñāprabhā.” Well, through the twists and turns of interdependent origination, this is now the ritual manual of the British Library, and more generally, of everyone who has a web connection and an interest in such things.
The book has a handmade quality; it seems to have been stitched together from recycled paper (long pothi pages, folded in the middle). So what’s in it? Spells, spells and more spells. Just one of the rituals allows the adept to cast spells for the following purposes:
- If you want a prophecy
- To bring demons under your power
- To pacify malignant people
- To overcome wild animals
- To cause a spring to come forth to alleviate thirst
- To sharpen your insight
- To create various valuable objects
- To find a treasure
- To cure an illness
- To cure a severe illness up to the point of death
- To cure an illness-ghost with a trap
- To cut off curses and bad births
- To reverse water, making it flow upwards
- To make it flow downhill again
- To cure madness
- To avoid being bitten by a dog
- To divide two lovers
- To reconcile two friends
- If you are unable to talk to others
- If you want to be friendly with another person
- To bind someone
This list gives us an idea of the many needs of ordinary people that could be addressed by the monk magician. Then there are the more complicated rituals that accomplish a single aim, like:
A fire puja (also called homa), which cures insanity. Fire pujas are found in many religious traditions in India, and they travelled with Buddhism to Tibet, China and Japan. In this spell the monk throws metal filings into the fire nine times – causing a dramatic series of flashes, I’m sure. Then five ritual daggers are stabbed into the ground as if pinning down a demon.
Thread-winding magic for “men with obstructed water” and “women with inverted wombs.” The monk knots and unknots the red thread several times while reciting mantras. In the end the thread is flung into the road – just as in the traditional Tibetan way of disposing of the thread cross.
A barley frog. People suffering from joint problems, swellings and the like were often thought to be afflicted by water spirits called Lu (a Tibetan cousin of the Indian Naga). In this ritual, barley flour is molded into the shape of a frog. Then a cavity is made in the top of the frog with a bamboo stick, and a special ointment prepared in the cavity. The ointment is then applied to the afflicted person’s body. The barley frog is then checked to determine the success of the ritual:
Lift up the frog, and if a golden liquid emerges from under it, they will definitely recover. If it is merely moist, then they will recover before too long. If there is only meat with gluey flour, they will be purified by the end of the illness. It is not necessary to do the ritual again. If there is only gluey flour, break it up and do the ritual again.
Prasena divination. This special kind of divination involves calling down a deity to answer questions put to it. In the ritual in this spell book the deity is called “the sky-soarer” or the Khyung (a Tibetan cousin of the Indian Garuda). The deity speaks through a “pure” (that is, pre-pubescent) child, or shows that child visions in a mirror, or on the flat of his own thumb. Though such rites of spirit-possession might seem “shamanic” they are described in Indian scriptures like the Amoghapāśa Sutra and the Questions of Subāhu, and prasena is apparently an Indian word, though no-one seems quite sure what it might mean (though Michel Strickmann had a good go at it). Prasena (often simply known as “pra”) has a long a fascinating history in Tibet, including being used in the quest for the present Dalai Lama after the death of his predecessor, for example (see Lama Chime Radha’s article).
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Buddhist collections of spells like these always contain some reminder of the wider perspective of Buddhist aspirations. In our spell book, it seems that a certain level of spirtual attainment is necessary for the spells to be effective. And at the end of the spell book everything is tied back into the great themes of Buddhism with a prayer to the Mañjuśrī, the bodhisattva of wisdom:
In the supremely precious, jewelled land of Ultimate Emanated Bliss
The realm radiantly coloured like stainless gold
The youth with five locks is lovely to behold.
By making offerings and inviting this supreme spiritual friend
I pray that he will come because of his kindness for this place
And carry out the accomplishment of this adept’s rituals:
“I have been blinded by the net of darkness
Mañjuśrī come near and treat me with kindness.
Your discernment, like the fire at the end of an aeon
Clears away the mere appearance of darkness in the mind;
Please bestow it upon me.”
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1. Cantwell, Cathy and Robert Mayer. 2008. Early Tibetan Documents on Phur pa from Dunhuang. Vienna: OAW.
2. Chime Radha, Lama. 1981. “Tibet.” In Carmen Blacker and Michael Lowe (eds), Oracles and Divination. London: Random House. 3-37.
3. McBride, Richard. 2005. “Dhāraṇī and Spells in Medieval Sinitic Buddhism.” JIABS 28.1: 85–114.
4. Skilling, Peter. 1992, “The Rakṣā Literature of the Śrāvakayāna.” Journal of the Pali Text Society 16: 109-182.
5. Strickmann, Michel (edited by Bernard Faure). 2002. Chinese Magical Medicine. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press.
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See also: A Soldier’s Prayer
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Note for readers of Tibetan: What is a no pyi ka?
The front cover of the spell book says bIg kru prad nya pra ba ‘I no pyi ka. I hope that most will agree that the name is probably Bhikṣu Prajñāprabhā, but what is a no pyi ka? I first came across the word in a poetical passage by Jigme Lingpa (at the beginning of his Pad ma dkar po) where he calls it “the essence of hearing, thinking and meditating” (thos bsam sgom pa’i snying po no pi ka). The term is much more common the Dunhuang manuscripts, and an interpretation was first suggested by Kenneth Eastman in 1983, when he noted that the Tibeto-Sanskrit glossary in Pelliot tibétain 849 glosses it as sgrub thabs – the Tibetan word that we usually consider a translation of the Sanskrit sādhana, a manual for ritual and/or meditation. Robert Mayer and Cathy Cantwell, in their 2008 book on Phurba manuscripts, suggest (with thanks to Matthew Kapstein) that the probable origin of all this is a Sanskrit term sādhanaupayika. Thus sādhanaupayika becomes nopayika becomes no pyi ka. This would be very neat because we thus get to the original Sanskrit term behind the Tibetan word sgrub thabs: sādhana = “accomplishment” = sgrub, while aupayika = “means” = thabs.