Amulets for Buddhists

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.


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

14 responses to “Amulets for Buddhists

  1. johnl

    Superficial view: people think they will be saved or protected by buying/wearing an amulet. Likewise, they think bowing to a statue in a temple will bring similar benefits.

    Deeper view: an amulet or statue can be a meditative tool for insight. Theoretically, no amulet should be necessary. But a bird in a cage might develop its singing ability more quickly if it gets exposure to other birds singing. To a physicist, the amulet is just a lump of metal. But a human has created a certain image on that medium, adding something more than just the physical. That person may be someone of great spiritual development. Moving into the woo woo area, I think it is possible that some people may sense the spirituality of the person who made the amulet, but I know that position is hard to defend. I would agree that there is room for terrible fraud in the amulet business, but there are some customers who gain genuine benefits. I don’t think the business could get that big just on first-time (one time only?) customers and patsies.

  2. @ johnl :
    Hope you don’t mind, but I spiced up your comments format. Thanx for your thoughts. I agree partly but:

    Amulets don’t stop bullets, help amputated legs grow back, ensure traffic safety or many other supposed benefits for which they are sold. The reason people return to buy amulets is the same reason they return for lottery purchases year after year. Or the same reason they cross themselves before a sporting event.

    I do think the amulets can be comforting — I don’t dispute that. I think you are right that they can amplify religious sentiment and practices but that is a far shot from the things I listed above which is why they sell.

  3. rey

    “This cognitive illusion is universal and not a monopoly of only religions — many atheists are manipulated by this illusion on a secular level.”

    By Steve Jobs and Apple. (Ironically, I’m typing this on a Macbook.)

  4. Other possible uses of such objects:

    to simply to carry around something to serve a reminder to be mindful;

    to serve as a marker of affiliation or status, like an American flag lapel to say, “I’m an American!” or wedding ring to announce, “I’m married.” Personally, I wear no amulets or lapel buttons. I do wear a wedding band in spite of the fact that I don’t believe the ring protects my marriage.

    Your point is well taken and I share your view of amulets as superstitious. In these time, we’ll probably see more amulets than before.

  5. @ rey : lol

    @ Dan Gurney :
    Sure, art work, little symbols and such can be useful from many aspects other than the superstitious use I am writing about. Actually, I am planning a post about why people buy those little things — I think it is not an non-superstitious as we’d like to think. But remember, I incriminate myself in this analysis. More later on that.

    Insecure times breed not only amulet-craving, but also often more fundamentalist breeds of various religions. As water supplies dry up, fossil fuel becomes scarce and the oceans don’t have fish to offer, Bible sales may increase hugely — there is a large investment opportunity: Amulets, Bibles and Korans should offer a diverse investment package. 🙂 😦

  6. DaCheese

    Dan: symbolism is important, yes. But would say that a protection amulet is different from a lapel pin. Obviously such an amulet can be used for symbolic purposes; but the vast majority of people buying such things are doing so for superstitious reasons.

  7. Reminds me of the current Buddha badges trend or the paranoia when a mala breaks (one of the top search questions I get on my blog) or the proliferation of _/\_ type emoticons or astrology (eastern or western) or the auspiciousness of certain Buddhist names…

    Fetishization seems to be a popular human activity. An investiture of meaning into what is often meaningless except in particular psychological circumstances.

  8. johnl

    Hi, Sabio! Thanks for of my post–I should have paid more attention to your helpful post on such things. I am still not used to pressing those extra symbols that I have never used before.
    As for the amulets, I think a key point is the marketing. Does the seller say ”? Yes, that would be a no-no. I assume that they rather say ” or the like. Then, it is up to the buyer, I guess.

  9. johnl

    I will try again.
    Hi, Sabio! Thanks for your editing of my post–I should have paid more attention to your helpful post on such things. I am still not used to pressing those extra symbols that I have never used before.
    As for the amulets, I think a key point is the marketing. Does the seller say ‘This amulet will regrow your amputated limb!’ ? More likely it is ‘This one was blessed by Ajari So-and-so!’ or something similar. Then, it is up to the buyer, I guess. (See if the html works here…)

  10. @ johnl – johnl :
    Funny! Nice use of HTML. 🙂
    Oh course you are right, the seller (or gift giver) probably does have to do much more than just push the “essentialist” buttons is the superstitious person’s mind. And it matters not if they are atheist, Buddhist, Christian or what. The magic mind is almost reflexive in all of us.

    But as with placebo medicine, the effect is amplified if both the believer/patient and the seller/doctor believe in the power of the medicine. I am sure we agree!!

  11. @ NellaLou :
    Wow, Buddha Badges — I had never heard of them. So for readers I supply the link. I used posters and bumperstickers for about a year in my early enthusiastic Christian years (here is a post). This is why I love comparative religious studies, it keeps the analysis from being personal and lets us look at the big picture.

    How many badges have you bought? (I will have to read your blog more, looks great).

    The _/\_ gassho symbol (linked for readers) reminded me of the ¯\/¯ which may be the V symbol for “Visitor” or alien lizards trying to take over the planet — from an American TV series and movie. 🙂

    Like Dan (above) implied, people love to declare affiliations and status. I think it partially feeds the insatiable need to belong.

    Thanks for visiting.

  12. How many badges have I bought? None.

    I watched V the original years ago, have only seen one episode of the new one though.

  13. Ed

    I am feeling somewhat upset and agitated as a result of the amulet post. But in a fun curious way… When I first started reading your blog, I fancied myself an amateur expert on Buddhism. I realize now that you know and have experienced much more than I. So, I am actually writing you asking where I am going wrong here. My take on the historical Buddha’s teachings are minimalist: the 4 Noble Truths including the 8 Fold Noble Path. No gods… no worship… no superstitions… no statues… no prayer wheels… no ancestor worship… no hierarchy of leaders and teachers… no reincarnation… and so on for as long as one can bring up Buddhist BS.

    My primary Buddhist teachers have been, in no particular order; Hui Neng, Suzuki Roshi, Katagiri Roshi and Steve Hagen. And even in the Zen tradition, there are piles of steaming BS. My two favorite teachings are the following: when asked by the 5th Patriarch to write something showing his understanding, Hui Neng, who was an illiterate cook, had someone write this for him… it is what I see as the most pure statement of awakening in the non-duel traditions: “There never was a bodhi tree, nor bright mirror standing. Fundamentally, not one thing exists… so, where is the dust to cling?” My second core teaching is: you are either awake or not. Just wake up. In each moment we have this choice.

    As I have been taught and as my humble experience has demonstrated to me, this is the essence of what Sidhartha Gautama taught. Hence my irritation at things like amulets and spinning prayer wheels. Fine, but just don’t blame that stuff on the Buddha… and please do not call it Buddhism. Those people in the amulet video are no more Buddhist than the Pope. And further, to call oneself a Buddhist categorically screams that you are not. A Buddhist who is awake in that moment does not call himself anything. Like the story (legend?) goes, when wandering after his experience under the Bodhi tree, the Buddha ran into some old buddies who could see clearly that something was different about him and asked, “What’s up with you? What are you? Are you a god? (No) Are you a guru? (No) Are you enlightened? (No) Well then what the hell are you??? And he said simply, “I am awake”. (And actually, that was saying too much)

    Am I just being a snob? Should I quit being so whatever about different takes on the Buddha??? :-/ And further, for the record… I am not a Buddhist. And I couldn’t care less if the Buddha ever lived or not. Nor do I care if the historical record concerning him is accurate. He taught Awakeness. Being awake does not depend on anyone having lived nor on any teachings. If he had any real mission it was to get his people (what we call Hindus) to quit eating meat and close down the slaughter houses. In a way he was a correction to Hinduism as Jesus was a completion of Judaism. There! That opens a big can of worms doesn’t it??? :-}


  14. A properly placed amulet may stop a bullet, depending on what it is made out of. 😉

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