Buddhism & Magic

Did the Buddha practice magic? Did Padmasambhava practice magic? Do Tibetan Lamas practice magic? Before we can understand what magic means in the context of the Buddhist teaching and its practice, we must ask what magic means to us here in the West.

For us magic has a rather ambiguous reputation, sometimes perhaps even sinister. By magic we do not mean illusions created on stage in performances or the tricks of computer graphics in the cinema, like in a Harry Potter film. Modern science rejects magic as superstition or primitive thinking. Science has its mechanistic world view and its explanations of phenomena in terms of mechanistic causality and, of course, the marvellous technology it has produced in the last two centuries. But we must distinguish science as an empirical method, which is fine, from “scientism,” with its dogmas and metaphysical assertions like materialism and determinism. Actually contemporary physics has moved beyond many of these 19th century dogmas.

In ancient times among the Egyptians, Babylonians, and Greeks, and in medieval times until after the Renaissance, magic was explained in terms of the organic model of reality and the world. In this model, every thing and every event is connected with each other in terms of sympathies and correspondances. Magic was taken as an objective reality. But with the rise of modern science in the 17th century, these old explanations of how magic works no longer sufficed in the face of a clock-like mechanistic universe. So, in the next two centuries magic came to be explained in terms of energies, including subtle or occult energy which could not be detected by machines. However such energies may be experienced by our bodies and by our minds, which are far more sensitive instruments than any machine. At the beginning of the last century, with the influence of Freud and Jung, a psychological dimension was added to the explanations of magic, with psychic energy becoming the libido and and the old gods and spirits being seen as psychological archetypes, or even projections. Quantum physics has moved beyond the old assumptions of earlier 19th century physics and the role of the subject or observer in the occurence of every event has come to be recognized.

Moreover, in the West the Christian Church over the centuries has vigourously asserted that magic can only be accomplished with the aid of demons and evil spirits. This was even the case with “white magic” employed to heal sickness and bring forth the rains in order to fertilize crops. In the view of many of the Fathers of the Church, all magic was black magic, no matter how beneficial. The distinction of white or black applied to magic refers to the motivation and to the effect of magical powers. If the practitioner’s motivation is positive and well-intentioned and the action brings about healing, benefit, or prosperity to people, then we call that white magic. But if the aim of the practitioner is to cause harm, such as poisoning wells, inducing impotence in men, or the causing sickness in cattle, then we call that black magic. These were all things that witches were accused of causing during the persecution times. However, the motivation of the Buddhist practitioner whenever engaging in any activity, magical or otherwise, should be Bohichitta and compassion for all sentient beings.

In the oldest narratives of the life of the historical Buddha in Ancient India, such as are found in the Vinaya, there are many accounts of the Buddha manifesting miraculous and magical powers. At various times he magically subdued evil-minded Naga spirits who threatened human beings, and other spirits such as the Yakshini Hariti who was stealing the life-force from infants. On different occasions, he multipled visible manifestations of himself, he travelled to distant lands magically such as to Uddiyana, and he also ascended to the heaven world of Tushita in order to instruct his deceased mother. Modern skeptics may reject these accounts as fabulous, but they have been part of the Buddhist tradition in Asia for over two thousand years and represent part of the appeal that the Buddha and his teachings have had to various nations. The accounts of the career of Guru Padmasambhava in India and Tibet are equally filled with extravagant displays of his magical powers. He even the subdued the local gods and demons of Tibet, converting them into guardians and protectors of the Buddha Dharma.

Also the lives of the Mahasiddhas, who propagated the Vajrayana in India and later in Tibet, are filled with displays of their magical exploits and psychic powers. Especially in past ages, but even today, psychic and magical powers were attributed to Buddhist monks which they had gained through the practice of yoga and meditation. Thus, they could subdue dangerous nature spirits such as Yakshas and some of the first Buddhist monasteries were erected at chaityas, or places of power, where spirits such as Yakshas tended to congregate. Because Indian villagers believed that these monks could keep these dangeous and tempormental nature spirits under control, they patronized the monks with food and offerings. Thus, there originated the practice of Yaksha-puja, the making of vegetarian offereings to these local spirits in order to induce their positive behaviour, This practice today continues in every Tibetan monastery at evening time as the Dharmapala-puja, the offerings presented to the Guardians and the local spirits.

Of course, some modern writers discount all of these accounts of magical and psychic powers by the Buddha and his followers, and assert that he was simply a wiseman and not a magician, that he mainly taught ethics, philosophy, and meditation practice. But magic is found in every pre-modern culture throughout the world. Even here in the West, magic, like astrology, continues to exist in the Occult Uderground, as a counter-culture side-by-side with our offiicial religious and scientific cultures. Magic is still here with us today.

There exist within the Tibetan Buddhist tradition not only the spiritual practices aiming at the ultimate goals of liberation from suffering in Samsara and the attaining of Buddha enlightenment, but also what we may call magical practices. In the past, I have often heard, especially in the US, Western practitioners of Tibetan Buddhism ask, why do these Lamas from Tibet do so many rituals? They spend so much time sitting around chanting and doing puja rituals when they could be meditating. They ask, what is the purpose of all these pujas? Furthermore, they ask, why do we need to practice Tantra? Do we have to do? We just want to meditate! We just want to do Dzogchen!

Well, that is fine if you have the capacity. According to Dzogchen, finding yourself in Rigpa, which is the natural state of the Nature of Mind, that is the principal practice of Dzogchen. All of the other practices found in Sutra and Tantra are secondary, even though they can be very useful. Yes, being in Rigpa or contemplation, which is not as knowledge where you know something, but a state of being, is the principal practice here. This condition is also known in Tibetan as Trekchöd, a state of total radical relaxation, where we release all our tensions and rigidities, both physical and emotional, as well as all our judgments and notions about the nature of reality. That is to say, we release all our conceptions about how things are and how they should be. We find ourselves totally in the “now,” in the present moment, without regret over the past or anticipations and anxieties regarding the future.

If we are successful in our meditation practice, we might find ourselves in that condition, but for how long? And when we become distracted again by thoughts and feelings, are we still in Rigpa? We may think that meditating while sitting on our butt and cushion for a period of time, feeling calm and collected, maybe without a thought in the world, represents Dzogchen. It does represent Zhinay meditation, but that is not necessarily Rigpa. Having no thoughts is a meditation experience, but it is not in itself Dzogchen. Again, this is fine as meditation practice, but how long can most of us sustain that? This is especially the case when things around us become difficult.

Moreover, when our meditation session is finished, and we get off our cushion, we are again faced with our everyday life and with its confusions and problems. Carrying over a calm and focused state of mind into everyday life may be very useful. To discover this state is one of the resons for doing meditation practice. Meditation practice helps us to relax and releaves our stress and anxiety. But we can’t be quiet and immobile all day. So, it is necessary to work with our energies and movements. For most of us anyway, liberation and enlightenmnet are a ways off. It will not come tomorrow or the next day. In the meantime, we are still here caught up in Samsara and must deal with the practical problems of life, including our health, making a living, personal relationships with others, and so on. So, on the path to realization, we need a little help from our friends.

This is the point of training in sadhana, or Tantric meditation practice. We learn how to work with the energy inherent in our body and mind. The aim of Tantra, which repreents the path of transformation, is to work with our energies and with the interface of our personal energies with those energies found as fields in our immediate environment. Using the methods of Tantra, we can access these inherent energies, augment and increase them within the vessel of our bodies, and then channel and direct them to accomplish some specific purpose, such as self-healing, the healing of others, attracting prosperity, and so on.

This can be accomplished by way of focused visualization and altered states of consciousness known as samadhi, and the use of incantations known as mantras recited repeatedly while in meditation with an intense focus. But we also may use gestures, ritual actions, various ritual items and materials, all of which serve as supports of visualization and focus. However, the actual source of power does not lie in these gestures or materials employed in ritual, but in the mind. They serve as supports for focusing the mind, both consciously and unconsciously. Just as when we are riding on a horse, we need a briddle to guide and direct the horse and a saddle with stirrups to remain on its back, so it is with these ritual actions and materials. They serve as supports for focussing the mind and channeling its energies.
This is why ritual is part of Tantric practice. In terms of training in Buddhism, we speak of the three: view, meditation, and action. If we become accomplished in this and develop our capacity, we can affect not only our own condition in terms of health and success, but positively affect the energy fields in our environment. In the West, this is sometimes known as magic. In the Buddhist context, this is not show business or computer graphics, but a linking of energy and mind, so they work together. This is working with energies and the transformation of energies, and this is what Tantra is all about.

The Tantric tradition of Buddhism known as Vajrayana speaks of four principal kinds of magical activities, which correspond to the four gateways of the mandala, each with its characteristic colour. These are the four channels or outlets for the manifestation of enlightened Buddha activitiy. At the eastern gate there is white magic consisting principally of rites for pacifying conditions, healing, harmonizing circumszances, and so on. At the southern gate there is yellow magic consisting of magical rites for increasing positive things like wealth, prosperity, good fortune, wisdom, and so on. At the western gate there is red magic for attracting, magnetizing, bringing things and people under our influence, and so on. Finally, at the northern gate there is dark magic (green or dark blue in colour) aimed at subduing and transforming negative energies, overcoming obstacles, and even the subduing and vanquishing of evil spirits. The Yidam meditation deities that are invoked in performing these various rites are often of the same corresponding colour, although not always. For example, there is White Tara for healing, golden-coloured Manjushri for increasing wisdom and yellow Dzambhala and Lakshmi for increasing wealth and prosperity, red-coloured Kurukulla and Hayagriva for attracting and influencing of others, and dark blue Vajrapani, Vajrakilaya, or Simhamukha for the overcoming of obstacles, repulsing magical attacks, and subduing negative energies and evil spirits.

These methods of accessing energies for magical purposes by way of invoking Yidam archetypes is known in the West as High Magic, or more anciently as Theurgy. This practice, which requires some literacy and learning, contrasts with Low Magic, or simple folk magic, which does not require invoking and meditation upon such a divine archetypal form. In this case, we do not invoke some deity or angelic power, or transform ourselves in meditation into a divine form, but simply perform an opperation with the required materials. Nevertheless, the source of magical power still resides in the mind, whether this be conscious or unconscious.

In terms of the practice of Tantra, the practitioner must master to some degree the Seva-sadhana, that is to say, the invoking and meditating upon the support of the Yidam for the purpose we have in mind, which corresponds to the traditional qualities associated with this archetypal form. Thus, we access its energy. Such an image, having been called upon and practiced by countless masters over the centuries, contains and stores a great deal of psychic energy. By invoking and meditating on that archetypal form, we can draw upon and access this store of energy. This process is authenticated and focused by the recitation of the mantra of the Yidam in question. We then augment and increase this energy within the vessel of our own bodies, and finally we are able to channel and direct this excess of energy in order to accomplish some benefit for ourselves or for others, such as healing, longevity, prosperity, and so on.

Is such practice Dzogchen? No. It is Tantric action practice. It is the accessing, augmenting, channeling and directing of energy. But such methods may be of use to the Dogchenpa practitioner when faced with the problems of every day existence in the world and with the task of overcoming obstacles, both to life and to practice. Dzogchen in its methods does not restrict itself. As said, it can use any of the methods found in Sutra and Tantra. But to do so, first the mind must be disciplined and trained to become aware and to focus, so that we can do what is suitable and appropriate in any given situation. To practice magic it is not enough just to daydream and fantasize. Being mindfully aware and doing what is compassionate and skillful in all circumstances was a basic teaching of the Buddha.