What Buddhism Says About Magic

I met the Venerable Sheng-Yen, a Buddhist monk, teacher, and scholar, when I was too young and too immature to have appreciated the encounter. For that I will always be regretful for not being more open and receptive when I had the chance. Here, though, the Internet is a wonderful thing. Apparently, many of Ven. Sheng-Yen’s lectures have been recorded and posted onto YouTube. The lectures are in Mandarin Chinese, but there’s English subtitles. The one of highest interest to those in tarot practice might be what the Shi Fu had to say about magic, the supernatural, and psychic workings.

I highly recommend watching the video in the entirety, but if you can’t I’ll summarize.

A question is presented to the Shi Fu (Shi Fu is the honorific we use to refer to any master teacher): What are his thoughts on supernatural powers (in other words, magical practice or working with spiritual energies) and does he think it really exists?

His response is that it undeniably exists and he contends that he has personally witnessed it. However, there should be a strong distinction made between what is being referred to as “supernatural workings” and “psychic workings.” Psychic workings are material, of the body, and thus physiological. It’s often inherited and it can be trained. It is a mental ability, a skill.

Supernatural workings is an entirely different thing, he says. That’s what many esoteric traditions in the west might refer to as magic or magick. Supernatural workings come in three forms, says the Shi Fu:

1) The result of karma,

2) Spiritual practice, i.e. methods of concentration, such as meditation, or

3) It is bestowed or conferred.

The first refers to past life practice. If one previously nurtured an ability to work with metaphysical energy, then that ability seems to become innate in the subsequent life.

The second is through spiritual practice. The Shi Fu wholeheartedly believes that honing one’s ability to concentrate or focus, such as through meditation, will clear the channel between the conscious and the unconscious in a way that allows communion with the spiritual world. That communion will make accessible the supernatural.

The third is power conferred to an individual directly from the supernatural realms. He contends that this is the most common way a person demonstrates an ability for the supernatural. Practitioners will summon or conjure spirits or deities to assist them in their energetic workings. These spirits could be either benevolent or malevolent. To work with magic in the third way, one must be receptive and have faith. That clears the channel and makes communion more likely.

As important if not more important than answering the question that was presented, the Shi Fu makes a point of emphasizing that such supernatural or even psychic workings are useless. Those who possess such powers and who also possess wisdom will rarely use their powers. He warns that if you develop them, do not use it lightly to help yourself or even to help others, no matter how good the intention.  I think that’s where his lecture gets interesting.

Never use energetic workings to violate someone’s karmic path. He gives the example of casting a spell to compel someone to marry you. It’s an act of deception, but worse than that, to manifest the intended effect, you are borrowing from energies that are not yours, and at some point you need to return those energies, with karmic interest compounded on top of karmic interest. I wonder if that can be likened to the Wiccan rede, or the threefold law (where they say what you put out will return to you three times over). The Shi Fu concludes that in most instances, the energy was not worth borrowing, so don’t do it to begin with.

He also talks about what magic is. To patch a wound, figuratively speaking, you are in effect cutting flesh from elsewhere to restore the flesh where you see the wound. All you have done is dig one wound to patch another. Now there’s another wound somewhere that needs patching. It’s the endless karmic cycle that Buddhism speaks about. It’s pointless. Therefore, he says, magic is useless. In the end, it is just a practice of vanity, a human and materialistic desire for power and control, which is against Buddhist philosophy.


I get where the Shi Fu is coming from. Per a discussion I had with a friend on this topic, wearing makeup is a practice of vanity and yet I put it on every morning before I leave the house. Devoting what I do to my corporate career to ascend the corporate ladder is evidentiary of my materialistic desire for power and control, but today, I’m not quite ready to give that up for a more ascetic spiritual path.

Spiritually and philosophically, the Shi Fu is right on about magic and energetic workings, but energetic workings is also a natural part of life and so long as we are not hurting others (and violating karmic paths, that much I agree with), it is not an improper exercise to engage in to help us achieve our goals.

Is the Shi Fu right? Yes. He also says we should eat vegetarian because eating meat is killing and that’s bad karma. I wouldn’t disagree with that proposition, and yet I still enjoy a good steak cooked rare. (Blue rare, actually, is my preference. I’m sure that is totally un-Buddhist.)

We are all at different levels of spiritual development and that’s okay. Someone more spiritually evolved than me isn’t going to devote the kind of energy I do to advance a professional career, but in my defense I wouldn’t say that means I’m less of a “good” person or in any way less-than; it just means at this particular stage of my life, I have a different set of priorities.

Religiously I would agree that in the end, yes, ambitions of career advancement is absolutely pointless, but at this moment in time, the hamster wheel is serving me rather well, so I’ll stay on it a little longer, thank you very much.

* * *

Growing up my mother often invited holy people to stay at our house. They never spoke English, wore funny robes and beaded necklaces, and for some reason were always bald and wore glasses, kind of like Sheng-Yen. When we visited Taiwan, and it was always in the summer, because that was when school let out and we could go to far off places like Taiwan, but summer is when Taiwan is hottest, most humid, and basically unbearable. In that horrid weather, she’d make us hike up to monasteries and temples where there would be no electricity, no indoor plumbing, oh, and no meat. Then we’d have to sit in a meditation position until our legs were numb, listening to some bald guy with glasses in funny robes give a lecture in all Chinese. I remember mentally checking out of those lectures and instead, thinking about boys and clothes.

Today, oh what I would give to get those opportunities back. Somehow my karmic path availed me to so many incredible opportunities and encounters as a child, and I was basically too stupid to recognize the value of them.

6 thoughts on “What Buddhism Says About Magic

  1. Pingback: Pagan Practices and Chinese Folk Religions | Benebell Wen

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  4. muktimom

    Your wonderful article struck a nerve with me, I too regretted ‘wasting’ my many opportunities with holy people. But I am coming to see that you can only be where you are. And most of what is occurring in the presence of such beings is not perceptible to the mind. It is occurring on the soul level, the healing and enlightenment comes from removing the illusions surrounding the soul. That is one way to describe it, but it is beyond words. So now I stopped beating myself up for being stupid then. Now I give thanks that I was so lucky then. If we do not think the journey with the Divine has ended. And do not spend too much time looking forwards or backwards, instead savoring all that can be savored in this moment, good, bad or indifferent, then we are aware. Present. The Fool. The Witness.


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