Sam Van Schaik’s historical investigation Buddhist Magic reveals the significance and historical roots of magic in modern Buddhism.
In 1900, a walled-up shrine was discovered inside of a cave belonging to a Buddhist temple complex in Dunhuang, China. When opened, it revealed a treasure trove of centuries-old documents. Among these treasures was a Tibetan book of magic spells from around the turn of the tenth century, containing spells that claim to change the weather, help with childbirth, and inflict violence on your enemies.
That Tibetan book of spells is at the center of this text. Placed within the context of magic in other world religions, it helps to reveal the historical roots of Buddhist magic and the continued importance of magical practice in modern Asian Buddhism. Several of the spells found in the book are still used today, by monks and lay practitioners alike. When Buddhist practices caught on beyond Asia in the form of meditation and mindfulness, these magical aspects of the religion were labeled as superstition and ignored, but Van Schaik demonstrates that magic is integral to the understanding and practice of modern Buddhism.
The text presumes familiarity with Buddhism and certain debates around historical methodology. A complete translation of the Tibetan book of spells is included—fascinating for its glimpse into how Buddhist magic would be practiced. Each translated section of the Tibetan book of spells comes with an explanatory introduction that, together with the surrounding historical exposé, helps to connect Buddhist monks from the distant past with today’s Buddhist practitioners. A glossary is provided for those who are interested in knowing the original Tibetan terms, which here are transcribed in English.
Buddhist Magic is an intriguing exploration of the history and importance of magic in the tradition.
Erika Harlitz Kern
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