Invoking and Calling: Magic and Mysticism in Contemporary Practice
by Wayne Ren-Cheng, Shi
Ancient man held to beliefs in magic and mysticism as ways to explain the what, who, when, and why of events they couldn’t find ready explanations for. There are some people even now that hold to the same belief. Invoking magic through ritual and word are thought to have the power to override reality. Achieving direct contact with other-worldly beings through activities such as meditation and other bodymind activities are mystical practices that ancient man engaged in, and modern man continues to engage in. In ancient times these concepts served a purpose. Today, what role does magic and mysticism have in the alleviation of suffering and in the development of effective Buddhist social selves?
The belief in magic that arises through the voicing of certain syllables, phrases, mantras and verses came to Buddhism through its Hindu roots. These magics are as old, some say much older than what is found in the Rig Veda. The Rig Veda is one of four foundational scriptures of the Hindu religions. Scholars and linguists have set authoring of the Rig Veda between 1700 and 1100BCE, making it the oldest known religious text still in common usage. In those pages are mythology and epic poems that tell of the world’s origin, mantras and songs to honor the gods, and ancient prayers and divinations meant to bring prosperity, health and the notice of the gods.
The Pali Nikayan texts make no mention of these aspects of religious worship. Early Buddhists who recited the Buddha’s words and the scribes that wrote them down show a more rational, a more existential and pragmatic view of human existence and how the universe worked. In the Pali texts can be found criticisms of rituals that were performed to heighten the power of the Brahmins rather than bring peace and contentment to the people who occupied the other castes of Indian society. In the Sammaditthi Sutta: The Discourse on Right View the Buddha teaches, “There are these four kinds of clinging: clinging to sensual pleasures, clinging to views, clinging to rituals and observances, and clinging to a doctrine of self.” Clinging to rituals and observances for their own sake would lead to suffering and discontentment when what were expected responses to those rites did not arise. On the Rock Edicts of King Ashoka there are warnings against the voicing of ‘magical’ mantras as dangerous practices. The practice of magical ritual and observances had always been a part of Hindu rites, and long after the death of Siddhartha some Buddhist schools began to teach that the constant repetition of particular sounds and words were a path to liberation.