Divination in Buddhist Theory and Practice

Prof. Zhou Qi

Academy of Social Sciences, Institute of World Religions, Beijing
Research stay: October 2009 – October 2010

Lectures at the IKGF:

  • Why Contradiction? – A Theoretical and Historical Investigation into Buddhist 'Prognostication', Tuesday lecture, March 9, 2010.
  • Round Table Feature, Annual Conference 2010: A Theoretical Investigation into Contradictory Aspect of Buddhist 'Prognostication' II.

Reading Sessions:

  • Prognostication in Chinese Buddhism – Philosophical Presuppositions: Reading Excerpts of Hongming Ji 弘明集 and Guang Hongming Ji 廣弘明集, Part I, September 8, 2010.
  • Prognostication in Chinese Buddhism – Philosophical Presuppositions: Reading Excerpts of Hongming Ji 弘明集 and Guang Hongming Ji 廣弘明集, Part II, September 22, 2010.

Divination in Buddhist Theory and Practice

Prognostication practices were deeply rooted in Chinese culture long before the arrival of Buddhism about the 1st century AD. It is a common hypothesis that the relation between Buddhist scholars and mantic techniques remained more ambivalent, whereas popular Buddhism could not but integrate mantic practices. Zhou researches as a visiting fellow and advisory board member on this mainly unknown historic relation between Buddhism and prognostication. Zhou structures her research into three phases over the whole time of the project:

  1. An analysis of the general theories on prediction in Buddhism
  2. Theories of and ways of practicing prediction in Buddhism throughout the history of China
  3. A survey of the ideas and ways of practicing prediction in Buddhism in modern China

During her stay as a visiting fellow, Zhou concentrated especially on the first phase of her project.

Analysis of General Theories on Prediction in Buddhism: Buddhism, although it originated in ancient India, spread to China as early as the turn of the first century, and has seen great advancement there. In fact, the popularity and development of Buddhism in China is an important, even decisive, step, on its way to becoming a truly world religion. With a huge number of Buddhist believers and scholars, China boasts intensive and comprehensive research on Buddhism. However, systematic and rational research on prediction has rarely been undertaken. Therefore, it is both necessary and significant to conduct research on the theories and practices of prediction in Buddhism in China, in order to fill the void in the current research. Moreover, of all the Buddhist classics that can still be found today, the Tripiṭaka in Chinese holds the greatest amount of reference materials. By retrieving records of and information about prediction, we can not only present a full picture of the logical relationship between prediction ideas in Buddhism and the doctrine of this religion, but also demonstrate how Buddhism in China explains and practices prediction. The huge amount of materials would ensure a comprehensive study based on a rich, reliable source of documents for reference. Of course, it has to be admitted that this research also presents great challenges. It is widely recognized that the main theories of Buddhism oppose anything like prediction or augury, although there are some Buddhist classics which do mention or give some explanation about prediction. For religious practitioners, the discipline forbids Buddhist believers to predict or augur, while in reality prediction and augury have always been present. Such a contrast has always remained so, which undoubtedly will be an important research issue throughout the proposed study.

What had to be analyzed first includes the general ideas about and theories to explain augury and prediction in Buddhism. The doctrinal system of Buddhism is based on, ontologically, pratītyasamutpāda and, epistemologically, the karma theory, the logic of which determines that the Buddhist theories generally oppose augury or prediction. However, though Buddhism does not give a paper approval of augury and prediction, doctrines do exist which not only try to explain the unknown but also give predictions and even presuppositions about the future. This is because what is inherent in the pratītyasamutpāda and the karma theory is the logic of the law of causation, which on the one hand may teach that everything is attributed to karma and is not to be predicted or decided by augury, and on the other hand, these two theories are doing the prediction itself. This law of causation is not only making a cause-and-effect inference and deduction of the unknown in the future, but also trying to find the causes of those inexplicable “unknowns” that have occurred or are occurring right now. It must also be acknowledged that augury and prediction have been an important part of both Indian and Chinese cultural traditions, so Buddhism, which has been interacting with them, will find it virtually impossible to be immune to cultural cross-pollination. Therefore, theories of and ways of practicing prediction are never absent from Buddhism. This view is well supported by ancient books and historical records. For example, in the Mahāprajñāpāraṃitaśastra (dazhidulun 大智度論), it is argued that augury is a kind of mithyajīva (xieming 邪命) and would be punished as pāyattika (boyiti 波逸提). There are Buddhist classics, which tell about the King of the Brahma Heaven teaching 100 chants from the Sūtra of Divination, clearing people’s doubts and predicting their future, which is approved by Buddha. Consequently, the second area to be examined, upon retrieval from a large number of sūtras and religious disciplines, is this contrast between the doctrines and practices of Buddhism concerning augury and prediction.

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