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The Sāmaññaphala Sutta (DN2) had often been quoted as the Buddha’s objections towards relying on “animal” arts for a livelihood. If one is learned in Mathematics, one can be a Math teacher. If one is experienced in cooking, one can work as a cook. If one is skilled in the “animal” arts, is a shaman even considered a legal occupation?

Reading a paper: On Buddhism, Divination and the Worldly Arts..., however, got me thinking deeply on the reasons and contexts of this position. Is there more to it than the grounds of wrong livelihood? Could there be other dangers? Conversely, are there really no benefits whatsoever? What if one used divination and was able to avoid a misfortune...perhaps, even physical harm?

Going to a Thai monastery, I have often wondered when devotees bring amulets to the monks to get them blessed. If you worn a white thread after visiting, you will be familiar with the practice of “sai sin”. Similarly, I have known of some devotees who approached monks for divination on matters that falls under serious or mundane. Also, in the paper mentioned above, the Buddha himself, had been approached to divine the subsequent rebirths of devotees on many occasions.

I could be wrong but does this mean as long as one adheres to some underlying restrictions, clauses or conditions with regards to the occult arts then one might not ended up on the “dark” side after all? If this is so, what are those conditions? If not, what are the dangers other than wrong livelihood?

4 Answers 4

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The relevant passage is likely this one:

DN2:59.3: They refrain from such low lore, such wrong livelihood.
DN2:59.4: This pertains to their ethics.
DN2:60.1: There are some ascetics and brahmins who, while enjoying food given in faith, still earn a living by low lore, by wrong livelihood.
DN2:60.2: This includes predicting whether there will be plenty of rain or drought; plenty to eat or famine; an abundant harvest or a bad harvest; security or peril; sickness or health. It also includes such occupations as arithmetic, accounting, calculating, poetry, and cosmology.

To understand how "arithmetic" and "shamanism/cosmology" may be seen as wrong livelihood, consider that both can and have been used to gain advantage over others. For example, the Black-Scholes equation is instrumental in creating wealth based on stock option trading. Option trading is adversarial--to win, others must lose. In the hierarchy of benefit, the win-lose strategy is mentioned, but it is not the highest strategy. What the Buddha teaches is:

AN4.95:2.1: Suppose there was a firebrand for lighting a funeral pyre, burning at both ends, and smeared with dung in the middle. It couldn’t be used as timber either in the village or the wilderness.
AN4.95:2.2: The person who practices to benefit neither themselves nor others is like this, I say.
AN4.95:3.1: The person who practices to benefit others, but not themselves, is better than that.
AN4.95:3.2: The person who practices to benefit themselves, but not others, is better than both of those.
AN4.95:4.2: In the same way, the person who practices to benefit both themselves and others is the foremost, best, chief, highest, and finest of the four.

In contrast, notice that a carpenter uses math to build a strong house for one and all. Carpenters benefit themselves and others.

Which do you think is more ethical? Would you feed the options trader or the carpenter?

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  • Curiously when Augustine criticises "mathematicos" in Latin I'm pretty sure that's better translated as "divination" or "augury" -- i.e. not calculus as we might know it -- although stock-speculators too may be trying to predict the future.
    – ChrisW
    Commented Mar 7 at 21:05
  • Also FYI when I watched a documentary about Black-Scholes recently it was presented as a way to calculate the fair price for an option -- so possibly not adversarial? -- just the fair price for someone to pay for an option e.g. if they want to hedge their risk. But anyway, yes, I do see what you're saying. I note though the text criticizes "ascetics and brahmans" wrong livelihood? I'm not sure that Buddhism is especially averse to trade and even wealthy traders.
    – ChrisW
    Commented Mar 7 at 21:13
  • @ChrisW, when options trading is "fair" you lose money half the time--it's basically gambling. The Black-Sholes equation is so good it offers an advantage to those with the resources to use it effectively. In this way, this is similar to casinos who have an advantage. And you're right, the Buddha does not oppose wealth, but he does point out that wealth is often associated with attachment that causes suffering.
    – OyaMist
    Commented Mar 10 at 20:43
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    it's basically gambling Originally perhaps it was insurance against unexpected loss ("hedging"). Otherwise a lot of trading might be called gambling, e.g. "I bet that if I transport my cargo on this ship then it won't sink" -- more like a subset of "accounting". People who buy insurance are willing buyers, even if they make a (small) loss on average, the reduction in risk is worth that to them (so perhaps the trade is mutually beneficial). Anyway ... sorry to interrupt you. I do suppose "arithmetic" meant something a bit different in context i.e. at the time that the Buddha spoke against it.
    – ChrisW
    Commented Mar 11 at 7:01
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The Buddha generally frowned upon magical practice specifically divination. The gist of it is that he didn't want the sangha coming across as a bunch of charlatans telling fortunes that never came true. The Buddha also saw divination as a "worldly" end - no different than holding a job as a rice farmer. In other words, while divination could bring shame to the image of the sangha, it was even more detrimental because it impinged upon a samanas commitment to a truly homeless life.

That's the idealized version, anyway. In practice, absolutely none of that is true. Magic has always been a huge component of the Buddhist sangha even from the earliest days. There have been more than a few books published of late (most notably the aptly titled Buddhist Magic) that explores the magical practices that monks and lay practitioners have been using for everything from protection, to love magic, to healing, to divination...to even smiting your enemies. When Buddhism began to intersect with native shamanic traditions, the use of magic only accelerated. Tibetan Buddhism is full of sorcerers like Padmasambhava and Milarepa. When Buddhism met the indigenous practices of Japan, it also started churning out siddhas like Saicho and Kukai. (When Buddhism met the more shamanic forms of Taoism, it also produced similar results though I am unaware of any specific personalities.)

I think it's also important to clarify just what constitutes magic. The modern day image of some wizard in a pointy hat hurling fireballs from the top of his mage tower is somewhat lacking. At best, it represents thaumaturgy or wondering workings like making it rain, blessing a harvest, or killing your neighbor's yak because he stole your barley basket. There's also another strain of magic knows as theurgy. This type of magic is marked by ritualized action designed to produce changes in consciousness and increase ones connection to the divine. This is almost quite literally what tantra and esoteric forms of Buddhism like Shingon and Tendai seek to do. In fact, you can make a strong argument that 19th century Western theurgists borrowed heavily from Vedic and Buddhist tantras when formulating their practices.

I'm not aware of any restrictions on the type of magic a Buddhist might do. I mean, all of it is technically verboten. Were I to surmise, obviously they would best be aligned with the precepts, but again, in practice that wasn't always the case. When you're dealing with a religion that's over 2,500 year old and has crossed multiple continents, things are going to get messy and interesting in equal measure.

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  • Agreed that the occult arts could potentially sullied the image of the Sangha. Usually, when a persistent gap appears between theoretical principles and realities, additional explanations and new theories are required to narrow the gap. In the case of Buddhism, I believe if the Buddha was alive, he would have established new rules even standards. E.g. a rule may be set that the monks need to state a disclaimer when handing out blessed items.
    – Desmon
    Commented Mar 8 at 16:44
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    Or else he could have seen them as a form of upaya (which is generally my position) and allowed them to continue. Either way!
    – user25816
    Commented Mar 8 at 19:55
  • A disclaimer like "Please take these blessed items as a reminder to practise the Dharma diligently." can be upaya. Only following the Dharma closely offers true protection. So, in an indirect way, these talismans do confer some blessings (by reminding the devotees to practise) yet satisfied the desires of devotees for holy protection without the fear of the practice being seen as animal arts.
    – Desmon
    Commented Mar 9 at 2:32
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As I understand it, according to Buddhism, there's no magic in the world. Only cause and effect. We (normal people) call something magic when we can't see the workings behind something (i.e. cause and effect).

There's only wrongdoing (originate in mind-by thinking) that accounts for hurtful karma. Only correct doing account for good/happy karma.

There's no exception for anyone. That's the law of the universe.

Buddha teaches us to be free forever from everything. Not for just this life, not from just suffering in this life, but from all the suffering, for all eternity (by ending the cycle of life and death). Which no other teacher teaches in the world. The Buddha has clearly taught how to end the cycle of life and death. Similarly, he has taught us various ways to achieve this liberation (often with the same underlying principle but with customized practices for different types of people). That's why the Dhamma is a large and complex body of knowledge. It's for everyone, who has a different intellect, different mindset, different background, etc.

Meaning of wearing white thread?

(Beware this is my interpretation.)

Now, imagine you do some bad stuff. After that you get sad and you think about it again and again. As doing the bad stuff is bad(generate bad karma) , sadness about it is also bad(generate bad karma). Also thinking about this again and again, disrupt your normal life.

So, it happen like below.

  1. bad doing
  2. disappointment (generate more bad karma)
  3. remembering again and again (generate more bad karma)

So, when you start wearing white thread, your mind get the idea that you are protected.(falsely)

which stops,

  1. disappointment
  2. remembering again and again

And stops growth of the bad karma.

There's no one that can erase what you have already done. It's about not doing more bad stuff. (stop growth of bad karma)

Not some stupid stuff people do. It something developed in 1000+ years journey.

I can go on for 1000+ more words if anyone is interested. Thanks.

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  • Feel free to ask anything 🙂🙏.
    – Pycm
    Commented Mar 9 at 9:21
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DN 2 uses the word "tiracchāna" ("animal") in many present reality ways, which shows the word "tiracchāna" does not not literally mean "animal". Etymologically, the word "tiracchāna" means to "move sideways", i.e., to not evolve beyond instinctual worldly motivations. "Animal" behavior includes blindly joining a gang or cult with other "animals" or with an "animal herder".

As for the "animal arts" listed in DN 2, these appear to have no inherent connection to morality and improving the skilful behaviour of people. This is why they are called "animal arts". They do not lead to people advancing/progressing on a higher human or godly path but, instead, keep the minds of the people stuck in animalistic superstition.

There is no word in Pali that literally means "rebirth". The Venerable Yuttadhammo explained this on this site. In the suttas, when the Buddha himself had been approached to reveal the subsequent attainments of devotees on many occasions, this was for the purpose of promoting morality & skillfulness. This was not a form of "magic" but, instead, the "miracle of instruction" (referred to in DN 11). MN 68 literally says the purpose of the Buddha declaring the attainments (upapanno) of deceased disciples, as follows:

In this case, Anuruddha, a laywoman follower hears, ‘The laywoman follower so and so has passed away; it is declared of her by the Lord that by the utter destruction of the three fetters, she is a stream-attainer, not liable to the Downfall, assured, bound for enlightenment.’ If that sister has herself seen or has heard by hearsay that the sister was of such moral habit and that the sister was of such mentality and that the sister was of such wisdom and that the sister was such an abider and that the sister was freed thus, she, while recollecting her faith and moral habit and learning and giving up and wisdom, focusses her mind on suchness [on such a state]. It is thus, Anuruddha, that there is abiding in comfort for a laywoman follower.

The Tathāgata, Anuruddha, does not have the purpose of defrauding people nor the purpose of cajoling people nor the purpose of gains, honour, fame and material advantages, nor the thought: ‘Let people know me thus’ when he explains the uprising (upapattīsu) in which are disciples who have deceased and passed away, saying: ‘Such and such a one has uprisen (upapanno) in one, such a one has uprisen (upapanno) in another.’ But there are, Anuruddha, young men of family who have faith and are of great enthusiasm, of great joyousness, and who, having heard this, focus their minds on suchness [on such a state of attainment]. Anuruddha, this will be for their weal and happiness for a long time,”

We should be very careful to accuse the Buddha of engaging in "divination & magic". This is bad kamma leading to lower realms. Instead, we should read the suttas such as DN 2 very carefully rather than use 'Buddhist' chatsites like a ChatGPT.

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  • This is bad kamma leading to lower realms. Does this mean that the learned and knowledgeable DD finally believes in karma and rebirth? 😅
    – Desmon
    Commented Mar 19 at 6:27
  • Lower realms are in the here & now. DN 2 literally explains the "animal" arts are arts of superstitious people. Therefore, when the Dhamma is not understood, it is like being an "animal" in the here & now. DN 2 literally says these "animal" mental states are the mental states of people. Please try to study properly. Commented Mar 19 at 6:39
  • Pardon my mistake. I thought that the learned DD finally accepted karma and its effects on rebirths. But it was only a figment of my imagination. 😂
    – Desmon
    Commented Mar 19 at 6:44

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