McMahan, in his book “The Making of Buddhist Modernism“, takes effort to show how Modern Buddhists may wish to envision themselves as non-superstitious, but that the majority of Buddhists, both now and historically, have had no qualms with superstition. One of Buddhists’ many superstitions include amulets. On pgs 38-39 McMahan quotes a researcher:
“…the cult of amulets is a response to the rapid destabilization of Thai society by modern economic and political forces, which has produced great uncertainty in many lives and fostered an increased tendency to rely on the supernatural.”
–Stanley Tambiah (Buddhism and the Spirit Cults in North-East Thailand, 1987)
This quote reminded me of studies reviewed on Epiphenom ( here and here ) which reveal how religions prosper in times of insecurity–financial, social or health insecurities. When people feel threatened, they look to magical and superstitious powers promised by their religion for relief from this insecurity. Amulets are one of the many false promises offered by religions for hope in times of insecurity.
All religions feed on this superstitious delusion in humans. But blaming superstition on religion is naive. Heck, the Fortune 500 companies are smart enough to use our cognitive weaknesses too. The power of amulets and their cousins, talismans, all come from the cognitive illusion of essentialism — that an object can hold power or the essence of something and that such power is transferable. This cognitive illusion is universal and not a monopoly of only religions — many atheists are manipulated by this illusion on a secular level. Bruce Hood discusses this phenomena in his book SuperSense showing how it can be found in sports players, business men and many more.
Finally, here is a fun 7 minute documentary on the amulet business in Thailand. Ironically, when researching this post, I found this video on this page that sells Buddhist paraphernalia. It also has an excellent short article on how Thai Buddhists fighting in Iraq buy Buddhist amulets for protection.