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By RICHARD SMOLEY
The history of astrology is in many ways the history of a polemic. The question of whether astrology works, as crucial as it is, is soon buried under other issues, such as what this might have to say about human free will and whether the stars and planets that govern our fates are benign, malevolent, or neither. These issues have been debated for thousands of years.
Before we get into them, however, we should probably begin with why astrology is the way it is. To do this, we have to imagine what ancient people saw and how they explained it. In the first place, they would have found that there are seven bodies in the sky that move (or, as we would say today, appear to move) around the earth. These are the sun and the moon as well as five planets: Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. The rest of the planets are invisible (except for Uranus, under some circumstances) to the naked eye.
The number seven is significant: probably there is no other number that has so much lore and mystery about it. But the explanations for its importance are never very clear. Of all the reasons given for the prominence of seven, there is only one that makes a great deal of sense. In his magisterial History of Magic and Experimental Science, Lynn Thorndike writes, “The number seven was undoubtedly of frequent occurrence, of a sacred and mystic character, and virtue and perfection were ascribed to it. And no one has succeeded in giving any satisfactory explanation for this other than the rule of the seven planets over our world.”
So we have a system of seven planets, imagined as moving in concentric spheres around the earth. Of these, the most important is the sun; the second is the moon. Ancient humans observed that the sun appeared to move in a tight band of the sky, known as the ecliptic. By the time it made a full circuit, returning to the same point in the sky, somewhat more than twelve cycles of the moon had passed. (The solar year is 365.242 days long; the lunar year is 354.37 days.) Thus there were slightly more than twelve moons in a solar year, making the solar and lunar years extremely hard to reconcile. But twelve was the closest whole number to the truth, so it seemed reasonable to make a year with twelve months. It also made sense to divide the ecliptic into twelve parts. These were marked out by constellations, which were given specific names, mostly of animals. They are now the twelve signs of the zodiac.
The Evolution of Astrology in History
When did people start to make these calculations? When was this system set up? It appears that we owe to the Egyptians the schema of a twelve-month solar year (they added some intercalary days to the twelve lunar months to make up the full 365). But the most common and consistent traditions say that astrology itself came from Mesopotamia. The time is somewhat harder to fix, but one consideration might tell us something. Over the years the sun moves slightly in relation to the constellations of the zodiac, and every 2,150 years the sign in which the vernal (Spring) equinox appears will change. The full cycle, the time the sun takes to return to the same point in the zodiac (known as a Platonic year, because Plato was the first to mention it, in his dialogue the Timaeus) is approximately 25,800 years.
The starting point of the zodiac is placed at the vernal equinox – 0 degrees of Aries. But at the vernal equinox (from the perspective of the northern hemisphere, where astrology developed), the sun does not rise with 0 degrees of Aries behind it, and it has not done so for a long time – not, in fact, since around 2000 BCE. (Today it rises with either Pisces or Aquarius in the background, depending upon whom you ask). Since this is the natural starting-point of the zodiac, we can assume that whoever set up this system must have begun here. We can speculate that astrology as we know it arose in Mesopotamia around 2000 BCE.
And, in fact, the earliest evidence we have for astrology does indeed come from that part of the world. Although the Roman author Pliny the Elder cites a claim that the Babylonians were following and recording the stars for 490,000 years, the earliest astrological evidence we have is from the second millennium BCE. It consists of omen lists, which correlate various natural events, particularly the positions of the planets, with events on earth. Here is one example: “When the Moon occults Jupiter…, that year a king will die (or) an eclipse of the sun and moon will take place. A great king will die. When Jupiter enters the midst of the Moon there will be want in Abarrú” – and so on.
Notice two things about this prediction. In the first place, it focuses on great events, like a famine or the death of a king. There was not yet any personal astrology as we know it. In the second place, the reasoning was inductive: when one thing happened, another thing was going to happen. While this was not, strictly speaking, scientific reasoning, it was like scientific reasoning in that it attempted to correlate one thing – the relations of planets – with another thing – events on earth. There was probably very little theorising about causes, that is, about why one thing should affect the other. But then, as Western philosophy has found again and again, the concept of causation is an extremely problematic one to this day. (For more on this, see my book The Dice Game of Shiva, chapter 4.)
It was the Greeks who made astrology into what we know today. In his History of Western Astrology, Jim Tester contends that the twelve equal signs as we know them from Aries to Pisces was standardised in the fifth century BCE, at the time of Greece’s Golden Age. And it was definitely the Greeks who (at least in the West) first came up with the concept of natal (birth) astrology (or, to use the scholarly name, genethlialogy).
While looking at all this, it’s important to remember that the sciences were not distinguished as they are today. Astrology and astronomy were the same discipline, and two of the greatest Greek astronomers, Hipparchus of Nicaea and Claudius Ptolemy, were also astrologers. (Astronomers also tended to be astrologers up to the seventeenth century.) Meteorology was part of the same package, and the planets were used to predict the weather. Aristotle in his Politics tells of the Greek philosopher Thales, who “knew by his skill in the stars while it was yet winter that there would be a great harvest of olives in the coming year; so, having a little money, he gave deposits for the use of all the olive-presses in Chios and Miletus, which he hired at a low price because no one bid against him. When the harvest-time came, and many were wanted all at once and of a sudden, he let them out at any rate which he pleased, and made a quantity of money. Thus he showed the world that philosophers can easily be rich if they like, but that their ambition is of another sort.”
Medicine, too, had a link to astrology. The ancient and widespread idea that the human being, the microcosm, corresponds to the universe, the macrocosm, led the Greeks to assign the signs of the zodiac to different parts of the body. Aries, the first sign, was assigned the head; to Pisces, the last, were ascribed the feet. This enabled physicians to diagnose illnesses and prescribe treatments based on the patient’s horoscope and the positions of the planets. The connection between astrology and medicine lasted a long time, up until the eighteenth century. Before then, even sceptics admitted that it was useful to consult the stars for medical purposes. And astrologers who were attacked for the inaccuracy of their predictions retorted that the doctors did no better.
It was natal horoscopes that gained the most ground, and they became popular in the last centuries BCE and in the early centuries of the Common Era. This period, which saw the rise of Hellenistic civilisation in the Mediterranean world, was, like ours, a time of tremendous technical and intellectual progress. It was also a time of political consolidation: small, previously independent states were united, first under Alexander the Great and his heirs, and later under the Roman Empire. As in our age, the world became more integrated – and the individual occupied a smaller piece of it.
These facts may explain the tremendous rise in those centuries in devotion to the goddess Tyche or Fortuna – Fortune – whose caprices seemed to reflect a world where the individual was under the dominion of powers far away. It was also the time when personal astrology – particularly the natal horoscope – established its place in Western culture. People began to see their fates in more deterministic ways than they had done in previous centuries.
‘Gods’ & Planetary Spheres
In those days, as we’ve seen, the planets were believed to surround the earth in concentric spheres. The soul taking incarnation in a birth was thought to descend through each of these planetary spheres in turn, assuming characteristics of that sphere as it passed. The relations of the planets to one another, and their place in the zodiac, thus dictated individual fate and character.
Few modern astrologers would say this is why their art works, but on the other hand, there are also few other explanations that are much clearer or more sensible. We can take this idea of the soul’s descent as a metaphor for how one’s character may be fixed by the planets in the zodiac. Like most metaphors, it casts some light on what it portrays – and at the same time, it is only a metaphor.
The history of astrology, as I’ve suggested, is the history of polemic, and just from looking at what I’ve just said above, we can see one of the bases for this polemic. The soul descends through the realms of the planets, and in those days the planets were gods. Plato in his Timaeus said that it was the gods of the planets that formed human beings, not the true, high God above (who, according to Plato, is himself perfect and could not have formed imperfect things like humans). Plato’s pupil Aristotle also held that the planets were subordinate gods.
If this is true, then exactly who are these gods and how are they disposed toward us? Already in Plato the planetary gods are ambiguous figures, responsible for both the good and the evil in our natures. Later thinkers were to paint them in even more negative terms. The Hermetic texts – writings of late antiquity said to preserve the wisdom of the Egyptians – portrayed the keepers of these heavenly gates as the sources of vice in the human character. One Hermetic text describes the liberation of the soul at death as an ascent through the planetary spheres (as opposed to birth, when the soul descends): “Then the human being rushes up through the cosmic framework, at the first zone surrendering the energy of increase and decrease; at the second, evil machination, a device now inactive,” and so on through the seven spheres. Each sphere has a vice that is connected with its respective planet – “energy of increase and decrease” being connected with the moon, which waxes and wanes throughout the month, and “evil machination” with Mercury, the god of cleverness. The Gnostics, too, saw these intermediary planetary powers as inimical “archons” that imprisoned humankind spiritually.
This ambiguous, or inimical, nature of the planetary gods led some to criticise astrology. Plotinus, the Neoplatonic philosopher of the third century CE, argued that if the planets are gods, it is absurd to conclude they can do evil (as some planets, particularly Mars and Saturn, are said to do). As a matter of fact Plotinus did not reject astrology entirely, allowing that it was useful for divination, because the planets are part of the cosmos and serve to reflect its harmony as a whole. But then his critique was not directed at astrology as such; the section of his Enneads discussing this matter is entitled “Are the Stars Causes?”, indicating it was the causative aspect of the planets that he had problems with. (Again we see how problematic the idea of causation can be.)
Free Will Vs Fate
By contrast, Plotinus’s disciple Porphyry embraced astrology (he even wrote a three-volume work on the subject, now lost). Dealing with the issue of free will versus fate, Porphyry used some of Plato’s texts to argue for a kind of mix between the two: the soul chooses its fate before incarnation, but this fate, immutable once one is born on earth, is reflected in the horoscope.
Origen, a third-century church father, also focuses on free will. Like most Christian theologians, he is at pains to uphold the doctrine of free will and opposes anything that might challenge it. Yet he too stops short of rejecting astrology altogether, because if he did, he would have to reject natural philosophy as a whole (into which astrology was intricately interwoven at the time).
Origen also contends that astrologers, in order to make perfectly accurate predictions, would have to be able to calculate horoscopes very precisely – within four minutes or so. The technology of the time did not allow them to do this; time was kept by sundials and water-clocks, which were not precise enough. Nor were astronomical observations. Hence, Origen said, astrology could not work.
If we back away and look at this issue from a distance, we can actually see that, given what we know now, astrology should not have worked much of the time, given the limitations of the observations of the stars (there were no telescopes), and given the fact that the outer planets were unknown. To this we can add likely mathematical errors made by astrologers themselves, which must have been extremely common in all periods. In the sixteenth century, the celebrated prophet Nostradamus was derided by his astrological peers for his sloppiness in calculating charts.
In any event, Christianity has always had an ambivalent, and frequently critical, posture towards astrology. Astrology and its practitioners were condemned when they came too close to sorcery and when they seemed to be criticising the doctrines of free will and divine sovereignty. But the science of the stars remained an important part of the medieval curriculum, partly because it was an integral part of the system of the seven “liberal arts” that the Catholic Church inherited from classical antiquity. (There is a persistent rumour that the pope’s bathtub in the Vatican is adorned with the signs of the zodiac, but I have not been able to verify this.)
Although I could go into more detail about the history of astrology from late antiquity to the present, in fundamental ways the debate has not changed much. Some issues certainly have faded away. No one regards the planets as gods anymore, so we do not wonder about whether they are personally good or evil. And computers make it possible to calculate charts with extreme accuracy, either with one of the many dedicated software packages on the market or through many free sites on the Internet (astrodienst.com being one of the best-known). Finally, while the issue of free will versus determinism continues to haunt us, it does not have quite the theological weight that it once did. We no longer feel quite so obliged to justify the ways of God to man as people did a couple of centuries ago.
Scientific Efforts to Validate Astrology
Nonetheless, we are still forced to ask, does astrology work? Has there been any genuine scientific effort to test the validity of astrology? There haven’t been terribly many. Some studies have attempted to correlate astrological charts with the results of personality tests, without positive results (but of course that presupposes the personality tests themselves have anything more than a vague degree of accuracy). One famous study, designed by Shawn Carlson at the University of California at Berkeley and whose results were published in 1985 in the journal Nature, concluded from such indications that there was no validity to astrology. But a statistical reevaluation of Carlson’s findings by Suitbert Ertel, professor of psychology at the University of Gőttingen, that was published in the Journal of Scientific Exploration in 2009, reversed Carlson’s conclusions and argued the study validated astrology instead.
Another famous case involved the French researcher Michel Gauquelin, who attempted to correlate planetary positions in birth charts with success in certain professions. He calculated the charts of nearly 1,100 members of the French Academy of Medicine to see if any planetary aspects showed up beyond the range of statistical probability. And indeed Gauquelin found that physicians had Saturn in prominent positions in their charts far more than could be explained by chance. A study he conducted on athletes showed a similar “Mars effect” for them.
Gauquelin’s findings were vigorously – and viciously – attacked by the clique of “sceptical inquirers.” Some of these actually attempted to replicate Gauquelin’s findings – and corroborated them. But then these supposedly objective scientists changed the parameters of their own study to alter the results and make Gauquelin look wrong, causing great scandal even in the community of sceptics.
The heat and vitriol generated by these studies prove one thing and one thing only: that we are a long way from any true scientific evaluation of astrology. Astrologers – and a large section of the public – believe in it, while sceptics mock it at every chance. In order to have genuinely trustworthy results, those who actually want to find out the truth would have to outnumber those who are angling for their own pet conclusions – and I suspect that they do not.
Speaking for myself, I am not a scientist and have not done any scientific studies on this or any other subject, but I have often been struck by the validity of astrology, both for my personal life and for a perspective on larger events. To take one example, in 2001 I decided to cast a chart for the presidency of George W. Bush, based on the time of his inauguration in Washington. I noticed that Mars was badly aspected. “My God!” I thought. “It looks like we’re going to have a war.” (Mars is the planet of war.) Then I told myself, “That’s ridiculous. Who are we going to go to war with?” Events to come provided the details.
How Astrology is Supposed to Work
Another question remains. If astrology does work, how does it work? Tradition held that the planets send out certain vibratory influences that affect events on earth. Scoffers retort that the gravitational pull of the planets (apart from the sun and moon) is too small to have any influence whatsoever on us on earth. That may or may not be the case: the old occult theory did not talk about gravitational effects per se, and actually predated Newton’s theory of gravity. In any event, today it’s probably more common to explain astrology through C.G. Jung’s concept of synchronicity – which he defined as an “acausal connecting principle” between apparently unrelated events. In his essay “Synchronicity,” Jung discussed astrology. He conducted a study of several hundred married couples, and found that cases in which the husband’s sun or ascendant was conjunct the wife’s moon (classical markers for marriage) occurred three times more often than would be predicted by chance.
Nevertheless, Jung’s theory leaves a great deal to be desired. Synchronicity, as he describes it, is not strictly acausal; rather it posits a hidden cause – the psychic forces Jung called the archetypes – that underlies apparently unrelated but significant events. And so we return to that bane of sceptics – occult causes. But then Newton’s gravity, when it first appeared, was also derided by the sceptics of the day as an occult cause.
We are pushed toward one final, and highly disturbing, conclusion – one that I have already hinted at in this article. The notion of cause and effect is in itself extremely problematic. The classic critique came from the Scottish philosopher David Hume. He said that when looking at things that were said to be causes, he saw no property they had in common (as, say, red or round objects do). From this he concluded that causation was a relation, and this relation consisted of “constant conjunction.” One event follows another (sometimes after an interruption) on a regular basis, so we infer that the one caused the other. The German philosopher Immanuel Kant, who said he had been roused by Hume from his “dogmatic slumber,” went on to argue that causation does not exist in the world as it really is, but rather is an innate “category,” or feature, of the human mind that leads us to perceive reality this way.
No one has ever really refuted Hume’s and Kant’s conclusions. Science, it is true, is somewhat humbler and more furtive about asserting causal relations than it used to be: it tends to speak in terms of association rather than causation – “smoking was associated with lung cancer in X cases” rather than “smoking caused cancer in X cases” – but this only points up the strength of the philosophers’ criticisms. Whether it’s a matter of determining the causes of cancer or of asking whether the planets can presage a war, we are left with “constant conjunction.” In that respect, we haven’t gone far beyond the Babylonians.
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Aristotle, The Basic Works of Aristotle, Edited by Richard McKeon, Random House, 1941
Brian P. Copenhaver, ed. and trans., Hermetica: The Greek Corpus Hermeticum and the Latin Asclepius in a New English Translation with Notes and an Introduction, Cambridge University Press, 1992
Ken McRitchie, “Reappraisal of 1985 Carlson Study Shows Support for Astrology,” Center of the Universe at the Edge of the World website; theworldedge.blogspot.com/2009/07/reappraisal-of-1985-carlson-study-finds.html
Claudius Ptolemy, Tetrabiblos, Translated by F.E. Robbins, Loeb Classical Library, 1940
Jim Tester, A History of Western Astrology, Boydell, 1987
Lynn Thorndike, A History of Magic and Experimental Science, vol. 1, Columbia University Press, 1923
RICHARD SMOLEY has over thirty-five years of experience studying and practicing esoteric spirituality. His latest book is Supernatural: Writings on an Unknown History. He is also the author of Inner Christianity: A Guide to the Esoteric Tradition; Conscious Love: Insights from Mystical Christianity; The Dice Game of Shiva: How Consciousness Creates the Universe; The Essential Nostradamus; Forbidden Faith: The Secret History of Gnosticism; and Hidden Wisdom: A Guide to the Western Inner Traditions (with Jay Kinney). Smoley is the former editor of Gnosis: A Journal of the Western Inner Traditions. Currently he is editor of Quest: Journal of the Theosophical Society in America and of Quest Books.
The above article appeared in New Dawn No. 141 (Nov-Dec 2013)
© New Dawn Magazine and the respective author.
For our reproduction notice, click here.
By DANIEL NEIMAN
What country is the most occult in the world? Lying smack dab in the heart of Southeast Asia, Thailand arguably fits the bill. This is a country that truly believes in spirits and supernatural power. Thailand has it all. With sorcerers who collect oil from the chin of corpses to perform black magic, spirit mediums who channel Hindu deities, a festival to the gods involving possessed devotees sticking sharp objects through their bodies, and monks who use their supernatural powers to charge amulets, this country is about as occult as it gets.
Buddhism is the main religion in Thailand and much of Asia, although in Thailand there is a syncretistic mix of Buddhism, Hinduism, and Animism. Therefore, the people worship and pay homage to a number of Hindu deities and local animistic spirits right alongside the Buddha and famous monks. Thailand is a melting pot of many different religious beliefs. However, Buddha and the community of monks (Sangha) are elevated above the rest. Buddha is always at the top of peoples’ spirit altars and famous monks are revered as much or more than Hindu deities.1 In Thailand, monks are revered for possessing supernatural power and for their high standing in the spiritual hierarchy. It is for these reasons that Buddhist monasteries (Wats) are considered sacred ground where no evil spirit would dare step foot. Due to their exalted status, monks are also protected from harm by evil spirits.
Karma, Heaven & Hell
Buddhists believe in the concept of karma, whereby any good action leads to merit (beneficial karma) and any bad action leads to demerit (negative karma). This concept is very important in the minds of the Thai people because your store of karma, positive or otherwise, determines not only your success and happiness in this and future lives, but also determines your place in the afterlife.
Indeed, there are supposedly 136 levels of hell in the Buddhist cosmology, none of which are very pleasant. Based on the kind of sinning you did when alive, a judge in the afterlife will send you to one of these hells. For instance, adulterers in this life, it is said, will climb a thorn tree continually in the afterlife. The adulterer tries to reach his/her lover at the top of the tree but upon reaching the top the adulterer is taken away and placed back at the bottom to begin the arduous journey once more. Those who were greedy or stole will become hungry ghosts (Phii Pret) who are continually hungry but unable to satisfy their hunger. Others may have their heads turned into animal heads and undergo disembowelment or other such horrors.2
Conversely, if your store of good karma is high, you may end up spending time in the company of deities in one of the many magnificent heavens. There you can enjoy hours of bliss and pleasure until your store of good karma has run out and it’s time to be reborn. If your karma is good enough, you may even be exalted to the status of a deity yourself in the afterlife.3 With what’s at stake, you can imagine that acquiring good karma is important to the Thai. Mostly though, it’s not the afterlife they are worried about, but success in this life.
This gives monks a prominent place in society and in peoples’ lives. For by giving alms (food or money) to monks, or by donating to a monastery, you can acquire beneficial karma. Helping monks in some way is thought to generate a great deal of merit. This not only helps you have a better afterlife and future life on Earth, but also gives you instantaneous protection and good luck in this life.4 Even just being in their presence as they meditate or chant is thought to be auspicious and beneficial for one’s karma.5
Beneficial Energy Radiated by Monks
Monks are thought to radiate a kind of beneficial, protective energy. Monks gain their power through a variety of means. One way is through meditation and chanting sacred Pali texts (which comprise the Buddhist scriptures). During the time they are engaged in one of these activities, monks generate a beneficial force/energy which radiates outwards, and nearby things can become charged with this energy.6
The entire lifestyle of monks emanates a kind of sacredness and austerity, if not holiness. A Buddhist monk lives a lifestyle whereby he eats his meals before noon, regularly chants holy texts based on the life of Buddha, meditates and studies. Monks also abide by an amazing 227 precepts, or rules, formulated on the teachings of the Buddha Gautama. Among these, four are critical: 1. Abstain from intercourse 2. Do not steal 3. Do not intentionally kill any human creature and 4. Do not lie about your magical power.7 Surely, some of their holy power in the eyes of commoners stems from their obedience to these and a great number of other rules they adhere to. As scholar and specialist in the social and cultural history of Thailand, Barend Jan Terwiel, says:
Many of these rules of behaviour are closely related to the ideas on the monks’ sanctity current among the rural population. The traditional knowledge of the rules can in general be described under two rubrics: activities that are prescribed and those that are forbidden. In the view of the Wat Sanchao people [the area studied by Terwiel] the monks’ prescriptions are intended to increase their beneficial power, while the prohibitions are there to prevent the loss of this sacred protective force.8
It is interesting to note that part of a monk’s magical power is thought to stem from their celibacy.9 Professor of Religious Studies at Rice University, Jeffrey Kripal, shares an interesting observation related to comic book superheroes in his landmark book Mutants and Mystics. He writes that “the superpowers of a comic book hero and the sexual powers of its creator (or most devoted readers) are inversely related: the more superpowers, the less sex; the less superpowers, the more sex.” In other words, the powers of sexuality and of supernatural power “are the same power on some deeper metaphysical level.” The same energy that manifests outwardly in sexual desire and orgasm can also be internally “transformed into a kind of radiation” which transforms the body and leads to supernatural power.10
Although not a specifically Thai belief, it is widely believed that a serpent power, or kundalini energy, is located at the base of the spine (also the position of the sex organs) ready to be activated through meditation or other spiritual practice. Once activated, this supernatural energy winds its way up through the chakras and explodes out of the crown chakra to produce enlightenment. This power is said to transform the body and may lead to psychic or other spiritual power.11 It seems the sexual organs and sexual energy can be powerfully expressed internally. This could be a key reason why celibacy is seen as important in many religious traditions, including Thai Buddhism, as a way to increase spiritual sanctity and power.
The late Professor of Anthropology, Buddhism and Thai Studies at the National University of Singapore, Pattana Kitiarsa, focused on a different factor. He said that monks acquire their perceived supernatural power “during extended periods of wandering in the forest and dwelling away from the mundane.”12 These forest dwelling monks are relatively isolated from the outside world and have the ability to focus on meditation and improving themselves spiritually. Furthermore, many learn and practice magical incantations from a Master Teacher. They use this knowledge and power to help others.
Blessings, Offerings & Spirit Shrines
Monks, due to their powers, are called upon regularly to perform services. When moving to a new house, or having built a new house, it is customary to invite monks over to bless the establishment. The same goes for the erection of a new spirit shrine. A common sight in Thailand, spirit shrines are small houses erected on a post or platform, and always near the main house. They provide a shelter for the spirit of the land, known as Phra Phum, meaning ‘lord of the land’. This spirit is said to protect the house and land and bring prosperity to it.13 A picture or figurine of the Phra Phum is placed inside this miniature home and offerings are regularly made to it.14
The wife of a department store president in Bangkok explained why a spirit house to Phra Phum was erected outside the department store:
We have to do it for our fortune. Most of the Thai people believe in Buddha… and they believe in the spirits. So (the spirit houses) are for our staff, for their families and for our customers too. When they come here, they can have peace. They are safe. They are protected.15
The owners consider the store’s success to be in large part due to the careful tending of the spirit house and the regular offerings they make there. Every year Buddhist monks are called in to bless the spirit house. This blessing is the same for a household who erects a shrine to the venerable Phra Phum. During the ceremony, a candle and incense is lit and placed on a table in front of the shrine. At the same time the Phra Phum spirit is informed of the ceremony. Then, a sacred cotton thread (sai sin) is attached to the top of the shrine and unwound towards the house making sure it doesn’t touch the ground. The thread is unwound in a clockwise direction around the house and then is taken through a window and wound around the Buddha image which has been placed on a pedestal for the ceremony. The monks hold the string which is also wound around a vessel of water. While holding the string the monks chant auspicious texts from the Pali Canon.16 As Barend Terwiel explains:
It is believed that beneficial, protective power is emitted by the monks as they chant the Pali texts and that this travels through the cotton thread. This power is reinforced by the Buddha image and causes the water to be charged.17
Foremost Thai scholar Phya Anuman Rajadhon describes the sai sin “as an electric wire, carrying the sacred words as recited by the monks at one and the same time to every place and corner where the sacred cord reaches.”18 The vessel of water around which this cord has been placed during the recitation of holy texts becomes charged with beneficial power and is sprinkled around the home. It is thought “capable of warding off illness, unhappiness and misfortune.”19
The entire area of the house and spirit house is consecrated via the monks’ chanting which emanates a beneficial force that travels through the cord to consecrate all areas and bring happiness and blessings upon the residence and people therein. Furthermore, this will ensure that the spirit of the land is happy and that no evil spirits intrude upon the residence.
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Journalist and author Tiziano Terzani had first-hand experience with the occult nature of Thai society. Travelling around Southeast Asia in search of fortune tellers, he settled for a while in a beautiful house in Bangkok that was built over a pond. The house had no spirit altar, but he was told that the protecting spirit of the house belonged to a huge meat-eating turtle who lived in the pond upon which the house was built. He was told by the previous residents to feed the turtle everyday to keep it happy. However, after moving in the turtle seemed disturbed by his presence and failed to show itself. The turtle hid itself, preventing Terzani from making offerings of food to it.
With the spirit unhappy, misfortune loomed in the air. Indeed, Terzani reports that the people who worked at the house “began complaining of one ailment after another: the gardener coughed non-stop, the cook could not stand on her feet, and my secretary had a constant headache. Some of their relatives had road accidents; two died.”20 Terzani didn’t waste any time, knowing that in the eyes of everyone these misfortunes were due to the wrath of the unhappy turtle spirit. He went to a famous Buddhist monastery to bow before the Buddha. He then had monks come to his house and consecrate it via chanting and the sacred thread which was wound around the house and pond. After the monks left, he reports, a swarm of wild bees came and made a honeycomb in a tree in the garden. This was a sign of great luck for the house, and sure enough the troubles ceased. The monks’ beneficial power consecrated the residence and protected it from misfortune.
We have to ask ourselves: Was the angry spirit of the turtle really causing the illnesses and misfortunes that affected the workers at the house? Or were they psychologically conditioned to believe that unhappy spirits cause illness, so when they saw the turtle was not coming around and being fed they manifested illness psychosomatically via a reverse placebo effect?
Another event where monks are called to is a death. Especially when someone dies a sudden or violent death, it is believed their spirit can remain on Earth and cause harm to others. Their life being unexpectedly and abruptly ended makes their spirit unwilling to leave this world due to unfinished business or a yearning for worldly things. Plus, they may be angry for not having a chance to finish their life. Also, during a funeral other evil spirits of the land (Phii) may be attracted to the ceremony. Thus, monks are called in to chant Buddhist scripture from the Pali Canon. The recitation by monks of these sacred texts is believed to keep the evil Phii at bay and protect everyone participating at the funeral from attack or possession by the angry spirit of the deceased or other lurking spirits.21
Why are Amulets Popular?
Monks are also tasked in Thailand with consecrating and imbuing amulets with power. These are usually worn around the neck and contain images of famous monks, deities, or kings and may also contain mystical designs (Yantra) or sacred mantras that are associated with the specific power of the amulet. The mantras and designs are different depending upon the intended purpose of the amulet (i.e. protection from danger, success in business, finding a lover, etc…) Amulets can be constructed of many different materials. Some are clay tablets imprinted with the image of the Buddha, or a famous monk, etc. Others are made of silver and gold. Still others are made from objects like a bullet or the tooth of a tiger. Sacred ingredients often go into making amulets, such as “ash obtained from burning the oldest handwritten sacred books of the monastery,”22 sacred powders, rare metals, wood from a temple, or even human flesh.23
You can buy these amulets online and prices range considerably. Just to give you an example, for $220 you can buy a locket which contains an image of a diva (a master of seduction). The locket contains sacred writing and powerful magical herbs and powders. Of course, it is empowered by a senior monk by chanting sacred words over it. You could say that in this way it is “charged” with power by a monk. Its suggested uses include Seduction, Personal & Corporate Spying, Gambling, and Love & Marriage. By wearing it, it is believed you can be successful in these endeavours!24
Most of the amulets on the market are for helping people gain success in business, increase their luck in gambling, love and marriage, and accrue wealth. Another common theme is protection. If you work in a dangerous job, you might want to consider an amulet that protects you. Some of the more powerful amulets made or empowered by the most esteemed monks are even said to protect one from bullets! Apart from the inherent powers of amulets’ ingredients and designs, all their different powers are endowed via the correct chants, or magical incantations spoken by a powerful monk.25
There are some amazing stories of people who were saved from death by protective amulets. One such story is of a man who had a kind of amulet known as a takrut placed under the skin of his arm by one of the most revered magic monks around, Luang Pho Khun, of Wat Baan Rai, Dan Khun Thot, Nakhon Ratchasima province. A takrut is a kind of amulet that is essentially a tiny scroll or sheet of paper on which is drawn a mystical design or some sacred mantra. Luang Pho Khun uses a thin sheet of gold and inserts it underneath the skin on the upper right arm for protection.
Professor Pattana Kitiarsa tells of a businessman who ran a competitive business and wanted protection from enemies who might wish to harm him and his business. Attacked one night by an unknown gunman, he found himself under fire from an M16 rifle. Bullets pelted his body and he fell to the ground unconscious. However, he later regained consciousness and found that none of the bullets had pierced his skin and he only suffered from minor pain. Amazed, he thought of Luang Pho Khun’s amulet inserted underneath the skin of his right arm and attributed it to his miraculous escape from death.26 Other such stories abound.27
Another remarkable story regarding Luang Pho Khun’s protective amulets involves the collapse of the Royal Plaza Hotel in downtown Korat, Thailand. In this disaster 137 people died and another 227 were injured. Subsequent media reports focused on those survivors who were wearing amulets blessed by Khun and his fame and reputation were enhanced.28 And so it is that the belief in the supernatural and the benefit of amulets is driven by the culture, and popular media in particular. Stories of the monks’ powers and miracles connected to them are presented on TV and in the popular press. Endorsements by politicians or military leaders also contribute to the thriving amulet industry in Thailand.29 Advertisements are key, too, in promoting amulets.
The BBC reported on one popular series of amulet that was advertised on the side of Bangkok’s tallest building – the Baiyoke Tower. Considering the Thai amulet business is estimated to be worth upwards of 22 billion baht ($650 million) a year, the aggressive advertising is not surprising.30 Buddhist temples, or monasteries, often sell amulets to pay for temple construction projects or to acquire money for charity. However, it’s just as much a commercial business with amulets being sold all over Thailand for profit. Thai amulets are even revered in other parts of Asia such as China and Hong Kong, where celebrities and others dish out loads of cash for them. One Hong Kong celebrity, Cecilia Chung, reportedly spent around 1 million baht (around $32,000) for one amulet.31
One wonders why the amulet business is so lucrative. A possible answer, already alluded to, is that the amulets work. Whether it’s protection from danger or winning money at a casino, success stories of wearing certain amulets abound. This leads more people to believe in their power. The media, which propagates such stories, feeds the craze. On a deeper level though, amulets serve a basic psychological purpose. Amulets provide “protective assurance” and peace of mind to people hoping to be successful in business, gain wealth, or avert danger.32 It gives them psychological comfort in a perilous and fraught world. The amulets, you could say, help them believe in something (like protection or the success of their business dealings), thus erasing doubts which might otherwise cause anxiety and depression.
We see that monks are a key part of Thai society, in the main providing spiritual nourishment and advice. Other services they offer that I did not discuss include using magic to combat sorcery, enhancing one’s lifespan, forecasting the future, and providing tips for picking winning lottery numbers.33
Some of these other services have led to controversies and scandals. For instance, one of the rules Buddhist monks are supposed to abide is not handling money.34 Although this rule is routinely broken due to the necessities of modern life, every once in a while a scandal breaks out that reminds people of the danger of corruption that can come when a monk accrues a great deal of wealth through the provision of his services to the public.
A recent scandal involves a monk who accrued millions of dollars, regularly travelled in a private jet, did drugs, and had sex with teenage girls.35 In other words, he was living the life of a rock star. This invariably outrages Thai Buddhists who believe in the sanctity of the monks. With this in mind, some see the wealth acquired by some monks as blasphemy. Pravit Rojanaphruk, writing for The Nation, expresses this sentiment:
…look at how many temples in Thailand are needlessly and lavishly built in poor communities upcountry. This money could go to help build a hospital, school, library or even an agricultural cooperative – but it goes instead into building and maintaining grand, pricey and fancy temples and nothing is being done to condemn it…36
Again, he writes:
Next, there’s widespread belief in praying for health, wealth, and whatever you want from monks, Buddha statues, Hindu statues, Buddhist and Hindu amulets by those who are supposedly Buddhists. Never mind if the Buddha himself said one should depend of oneself and not on others. Such practice is not just un-Buddhist in its thinking, but also constitutes one of the roots of a culture of bribery as people invariably promise to give something in return if and when their wishes are granted.37
Monks are supposed to renounce all desire for the pleasures of this life and instead live a modest life filled with compassion for others, all the while focused on the goal of trying to obtain release from future worldly existence (nibbāna or nirvana). It’s sort of a catch 22 when you take into consideration that Thai people believe that the more they give to monks, the better their karma and future life. Monks – usually on behalf of the temples they reside – will in all probability continue to receive lots of money.
Although Buddhism dominates life in Thailand, the people still retain a strong animistic belief system. Buddhist monks aren’t the only ones Thai people turn to in times of need. The Thai people also believe in the power of spirits to protect, harm, or confer blessings. Shrines to these powerful spirits collect thousands of dollars in donations from Thai people who are eager to give offerings to the spirits in return for what they ask for. Who are these great and powerful spirits? Why do the Thais spend so much money placating them? And what do these spirits want in return for their services?
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- P. Kitiarsa, Mediums, Monks, & Amulets: Thai Popular Buddhism Today, University of Washington Press, 2012, 11
- M. Guelden, Thailand: Into the Spirit World, Times Editions Pte Ltd, 1995, 50-52, 71; C. Lamar, “Spend a lovely day with the kids at Thailand’s hell torture theme park.” IO9, 5 June 2012, http://io9.com/5915890/spend-a-lovely-day-with-the-kids-at-thailands-hell-torture-theme-park
- Barend J. Terwiel, Monks and Magic: Revisiting a Classic Study of Religious Ceremonies in Thailand, 4th ed. NIAS Press, 2012, 240
- Ibid., 127
- Thailand, 43-46
- Ibid., 43; Monks and Magic, 130
- Monks and Magic, 109-110
- Ibid., 112
- Ibid., 113
- Jeffrey J. Kripal, Mutants and Mystics: Science Fiction, Superhero Comics, and the Paranormal, University of Chicago Press, 2011, 168-171
- Gopi Krishna, The Evolutionary Energy in Man, Stuart & Watkins, 1970. (www.kundaliniawakeningsystems1.com/downloads/kundalini-the-evolutionary-energy-in-man_gopi-krishna_(89pg).pdf)
- Mediums, Monks, & Amulets, 37
- Thailand, 89; The Phra Phum is one of the many kinds of spirits (Phii). Although this will be the subject of a future article, it suffices to say that the Phii can grant protection, help someone in some way, or cause harm if angered.
- Phya A. Rajadhon, Popular Buddhism in Siam and Other Essays on Thai Studies, Thai Inter-Religious Commission for Development, 1986, 128-129
- Thailand, 83
- For more information about this ceremony, see: Monks and Magic, 211-213; Other places and things can also be blessed in this way, like a car or airplane.
- Monks and Magic, 212
- Popular Buddhism, 59
- Monks and Magic, 213
- T. Terzani, A Fortune-Teller Told Me, Three Rivers Press, 1997, 35
- J. Gorin, “Worship of Phii in Thailand: Spirit Cults and their Relationship to Buddhism,” ReliJournal 14 December, 2012. http://relijournal.com/buddhism/worship-of-phii-in-thailand-spirit-cults-and-their-relationship-to-buddhism/
- Monks and Magic, 70
- Mediums, Monks, & Amulets, 118
- Thailand Amulet, “Mae Nang Prai Pasanee (Ongk Kroo) – Civet Oil Phial, Hand Inscription, 2 Takrut Maha Sanaeh, Wan Dork Tong Powders – AC Perm Prai Dam.” SKU 02349, Retrieved June 24, 2013, from http://thailandamulet.net/#!/~/product/category=3848009&id=23875141
- Monks and Magic, 116-117
- Mediums, Monks, & Amulets, 89-90
- For other stories, see: Monks and Magic, 270 note 1; Thailand, 131
- Mediums, Monks, & Amulets, 90-92
- Ibid., 92-94
- J. Head, “Thailand’s frenzy for amulets,” BBC News, 3 September 2007, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/asia-pacific/6976705.stm
- W. Woo, “The Price of Faith?” Retrieved June 24, 2013, from http://waynedhamma.blogspot.kr/2013/05/the-price-of-faith.html
- Mediums, Monks, & Amulets, 109, 113
- Ibid., 39
- Monks and Magic, 126
- L. Intathep, “Pilot lifts lid on monk’s depravity,” Bangkok Post, 7 July 2013, www.bangkokpost.com/news/local/358796/monk-depraved-life-revealed
- P. Rojanaphruk, “Thai Buddhism: Much deeper things have gone wrong,” The Nation, 10 July 2013: www.nationmultimedia.com/politics/Thai-Buddhism-Much-deeper-things-have-gone-wrong-30210084.html
DANIEL NEIMAN is a paranormal researcher, author, and teacher. He has a bachelor’s degree in psychology from the University of Nebraska. In college he became interested in abnormal psychology and wanted to be a clinical psychologist. However, his interest then took a turn towards the paranormal aspects of reality and he devoted his life to studying and writing about the paranormal and what it teaches us about reality. Although interested in all areas of the paranormal, his focus is on other-dimensional experiences and altered states of mind. He has written articles for the Near-Death Experience Research Foundation (www.nderf.org) and blogs at www.world-mysteries.com. His recently published book about the paranormal and reality is entitled Enter The Light. He also has his own website www.anomalousexperience.com where he invites people to submit their own paranormal experiences.
The above article appeared in New Dawn No. 140 (Sept-Oct 2013)
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