The History of Magic in Buddhism

by High-Priestess Doris on August 11, 2018

Buddhism is a religion predominant in Indian subcontinent and also many of the Asian countries that surrounds a variety of traditions, beliefs, and practices largely based on teachings attributed by Siddhartha Gautama, who is commonly known as the Lord Buddha (meaning “the awakened one” in Sanskrit and Pali).

Lord Buddha lived and taught in the eastern part of the Indian subcontinent some time between the 6th and 4th centuries BC. He is recognized by Buddhists as an awakened or enlightened teacher who shared his insights to help living beings end suffering (dukkha) through eliminating ignorance (avidyā) by way of understanding and seeing dependent origination (pratītyasamutpāda) and eliminating craving (taṇhā), and thus attain the highest happiness, nirvana.

When the word Magic is mentioned the immediate thought that comes is of mysterious, unusual and superhuman acts. Magic, to most people, is essentially the wish to be outstanding, to be powerful, and to be capable of accomplishing the impossible. Although magic can be used to punish the evil and help the needy, it can also be misused to endanger humanity. Magic can also be used for medical needs.

Magical wonders are all around us. According to the most common classification, there are six main categories according to Buddhism. These are celestial vision, celestial hearing, the power of knowing others’ minds, the power of performing miracles, the power of knowing past lives, and the power of eradicating all defilement. Besides the classification of six magical powers mentioned above, the scriptures also classify magical powers based on the different levels based on how the power is acquired. From Da Sheng I Chang (The Essays on Mahayana Meanings), magical powers were divided into those attained through cultivation, meditation, casting spells, or evil spirits. According to Tsung Ching Lu (Records from the Lineage Mirror), magic can be obtained through five methods: cultivation, meditation, spells, karma, and spirits.

A magical worldview is an integral part of traditional Buddhism, and then there is no difficulty in accepting the concepts of higher-knowledge (abhinna/abhijna) and powers (iddhi/siddhi), and their manifestations as magical abilities acquired as a result of advanced level samadhi and jhana practice. But it should be acknowledged that in the early Buddhist texts which describe these powers and abilities, there are severe restrictions as to their use, and some scholars have detected an ambivalent attitude towards them in some early texts. The Buddha himself used his powers on many occasions, always in order to teach the Dharma to others. As Buddhism spread from India to other countries with established magical traditions, it had to be able to compete with and exceed the powers and attainments of the indigenous traditions such as Taoism, Shinto, and Shamanistic magic.

It appears that a large part of the appeal of Buddhism in both China and Japan lay in the ability of the monks to offer greater magical power and protection to individuals and the state, than the indigenous methods. The reputations of the early Dharma teachers in these countries lay in their abilities as healers, rainmakers and exorcists.

Vajrayana Buddhism, also known as Tibetan Buddhism, Tantric Buddhism, and Lamaism: is called the “diamond way,” which by implication means it is the precious, changeless, pure, and clear way. It developed during the fifth to sixth centuries A.D. as Buddhism spread through northern India, Nepal, and finally Tibet.

At that time, the prevailing belief of Tibet was the Bon religion, “a mixture of shamanism [a form of witchcraft], magic, and primitive nature worship.” Vajrayana was born when these practices, along with magical formulae designed to obtain magical powers, were incorporated into Buddhism (A.D. 600–1200). Included in the Vajrayana tradition are a number of advanced meditative techniques: yoga, special hand gestures (mudras), spells, and chants. It also derives many of its doctrines from Vedantic and Tantric influences.

Magic is hope in times of trouble; it is the saviour during upheaval; it is an expedient means for preaching. Magic must be experienced in ordinary living. Finally, the Buddhist perspective on magic and the supernatural are, Magic Is Not the Ultimate, Magic Cannot Mitigate the Force of Karma, Magic Is Inferior to Virtues, Magic Cannot Surpass Emptiness.

High-Priestess Doris

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