Two friends recently asked about divination practices in Tibetan Buddhism. One wanted to know if there was some validity to it; the other questioned if it was not contrary to Dharma. Since we are seeing more of these practices in the West, here are some comments on the subject.
Since the 8th century CE, when Buddhism began taking root in Tibet, divination methods have been used in accordance with Dharma as a skilful means (upaya) in applying the principle of compassionate activity to benefit beings. Divination brings clarity, which is its ultimate purpose. It is not a service performed for us by a professional; it is a joint endeavor to uncover what already is the true nature of our mind: purity and luminosity.
divination v.tr. To foretell, to know by inspiration, intuition, or reflection; mid-14th century, from Old French deviner, from Vulgar Latin devinare, from Latin divinus, from Sanskrit deva, from Indo-Iranian dev, from the Proto-Indo-European deiwos (celestial, shining), from the root diw, (to shine as the sunlit sky)
Many different divination methods are practiced by Lamas within all five schools of Tibetan Buddhism, as well as the Bon lineage. Lamas routinely offer some form of divination as an aspect of their pastoral service, as the process is akin to counseling. Some of the more common forms include divination using a rosary, a mirror, or dice. Mala divinations provide simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answers, and are used when one needs to find simple answers quickly. Mirror divinations may rely on texts or traditional prognostic images. MO divinations usually rely on one of two texts: Shantideva’s Oracle, or Ju Mipham’s Kalachakra-based 19th century composition, which give prescribed answers. The practitioner must know how to interpret the answers to meet the questioner’s specific needs.
The ability to perform divinations for the benefit of others is acquired through intensive study under qualified masters and requires practice, mantra recitation, contemplation, and meditation. The motivation for performing divinations must always be pure —solely to bring relief to suffering sentient beings— and never for the practitioner’s personal gain or fame.
How a Divination is Performed
We contemplate what is truly significant in our life. We establish our aspirations: the desire to attain a particular end or state. We then prioritize these aspirations, and select from among them the three that are most important. Once reduced to three, we prioritize once more. We should now have the list of our three most significant aspirations.
The process of contemplation, establishing aspirations, and prioritizing them, is the most essential component in divination, which aims to uncover the luminosity of our own mind, so that it shines as the sunlit sky.
Questions for divination must be very specific. Because causes and their effects have similar qualities, the answers will be just as clear or as vague as the questions. If we have a specific concern, but do not know how best to formulate question, an experienced Lama can facilitate this extremely important aspect of the practice.
When a divination is performed, the Lama enters a meditative state and invokes the energies and blessings of the lineage, the Three Jewels, and specific Buddhas or Bodhisattvas. He is communicating with the wisdom aspect of the Buddha mind, which is non-different from each sentient being’s own luminous mind. This communication can occur through a variety of methods.
The Lama applies the most suitable method for addressing our questions, obtain replies, and interpret the answers. Since answers will be directly caused and conditioned by the formulated questions, when questions are clear and specific, answers are usually direct and unambiguous. The Lama will not elaborate on the answer unless requested, so as not to preclude or vitiate any insights that the answers may elicit in the questioner’s mind.
Due to ethical considerations, authentic Lamas do not perform divinations for questions regarding:
- Activities contrary to Buddhist principles
- Criminal or illegal activity of any kind
- Financial market speculation
- Gambling, betting, lottery, games of chance
- Unethical personal or business ventures
The divination process is complex, and demands one-pointed concentration. As there are many days which are unsuitable for the practice in the Tibetan calendar, please consider that the introspective process of divination may take some time.
Remember that the answers will necessarily share the qualities of the questions: the more specific our questions, the more specific the answers. Questions that are vague will yield vague answers. Please note that it is not uncommon for the divination to provide information not specifically requested, if that information is important for the questioner.
Although voluntary donations are usually accepted for performing divination, charging set fees, or suggesting specific levels of ‘contribution’, is prohibited by monastic discipline and tradition. This injunction does not apply to householder practitioners, who may be equally or more proficient than monastics, as the skill is transmitted both through father-son and teacher-disciple lineages.