For centuries people have been indulging in superstitions, lucky charms, omens, divinations and fortune-telling. They have used these things to help them make decisions and keep them from taking responsibility for their own actions. Some cultures still place a lot of importance on such things. However, if you look carefully, you can see these things stem from ignorance and fear. They certainly are not a reliable way to help you navigate through life.
In Gautama Buddha’s day you could put superstitions and omens down to a lack of education, but I am not sure what the reasoning is behind them in today’s society. You still see people touching wood or keeping their fingers crossed to bring them good luck. Others wear a rabbit’s foot for the same reason—though I think it is not very lucky for the rabbit. They don’t put new shoes on a table, walk under ladders or open umbrellas in the house just in case it brings them bad luck. People become visibly scared if they break a mirror or spill salt, and don’t even mention Friday the thirteenth.
In Tibetan culture it is inauspicious to start a journey on a Saturday. So people pack their things on Friday and leave the house as though they are starting their journey. But they only take their bag to a friend’s house and then return home. On Saturday they collect their bag and start their journey, believing they have tricked the superstition. It is clear that this type of ignorance only creates a vicious cycle where superstitions are used to cheat other superstitions.
The list of superstitions and omens is endless, but they have one thing in common: they are totally irrational and based on fear and ignorance.
People go to fortune-tellers, psychics and gurus for divinations so they can shirk their responsibilities and get someone else to make an important decision for them. But if these people can see into the future, it would mean our lives are predetermined. That would in turn mean we could never improve our lives, as things have already been decided for us. Thankfully, this is not the case, and people who say they can see into the future are just playing on people’s ignorance and fears. You may say there is no harm done, but I beg to differ. I heard of a man who was seriously ill going to a guru for a divination. He was told not to have an operation but to do some prayers instead. This person died needlessly, and painfully, because if he had had the operation, he more than likely would have survived.
There is a famous, or infamous, psychic in America, and when I was writing this book she hit the headlines, and not in a positive way. Ten years ago a young girl went missing, and the psychic told the family she was dead and they would see her again only in heaven. It transpired that the girl wasn’t dead but was being held captive for all those years. The family say the mother died of a broken heart after the psychic reading.
These two stories show just how harmful this type of trickery can be. I believe these people are acting irresponsibly and fraudulently.
Many go to holy people for blessings, believing that if they are touched on their head or they touch the feet of a guru, their lives will be OK. They also may wear something around their necks, hoping it will protect them from danger. They also go to long-life ceremonies thinking that they will live a long time, even though they do not do anything to change their actions or life-style. Again, these things are just superstitions, and without you exploring your thoughts and changing your actions of body, speech and mind, you will not be able to change your life.
Gautama Buddha called all of these practices ‘low art’, and on many occasions he stated that such things are of no use as we have to take responsibility for our own lives. In the Anguttara Nikaya, Gautama Buddha stated that this is how responsible people act:
‘They do not get carried away by superstition; they believe in deeds, aspiring to results from their own deeds through their own effort in a rational way; they are not excited by wildly rumoured superstition, talismans, omens or lucky charms; they do not aspire to results from praying for miracles’.
There is a story about a Brahman who was an expert in predictions drawn from cloth. He held a superstition that once a piece of cloth, no matter how new or expensive, was bitten by a rat, it would bring you bad luck.
On one occasion he discarded a piece of his expensive cloth in a local cemetery because he believed it had been bitten by a rat and would now bring him only bad fortune. Later on he heard that Gautama Buddha had picked up the cloth and was using it. He ran as fast as he could to find Gautama Buddha and warn him about the bad luck that was going to come his way if he didn’t throw the cloth away. However, once the Brahman found him, he was dissuaded from this irrational superstition and shown that only he himself could bring good or bad circumstances into his life.
Gautama Buddha did not believe in luck, fate or chance. He taught that whatever happens does so because of a cause or causes. If you want to pass your exams, you have to study hard and put in a lot of effort. So there is a clear connection between passing the exam and study. It is of no use praying to a god, chanting a mantra or wearing some kind of lucky charm to pass your exam as there is no connection between these things.
So what did Gautama Buddha believe? He believed in individual responsibility, rational thought and social obligations rather than unhealthy fears and irrational superstitions. This point was made very clear in the Mangala Sutra. In this discourse, Gautama Buddha was asked what the most auspicious omens were and which ones should be followed. He didn’t directly answer the question, but instead gave guidelines of how we can make our own lives auspicious without relying on outside omens. He spoke about thirty-eight principles that, if lived by, would bring us true protection.
These thirty-eight principles gradually lead you on a journey that will see you reforming yourself and turning into a responsible person within society. It is a practical guide that will help you find happiness and ease your suffering. It not only shows you what you need to do, but it also shows you the inevitable obstacles you will encounter whilst you travel along the path.
The thirty-eight principles in the Mangala Sutra will lead you through individual discipline, family obligations, social responsibility, and, finally, to personal development. In a nutshell: it is a guide to life.
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Read more in ‘Life’s Meandering Path.’