Tarot as spiritual path? An interview with Robert Place, Tarot scholar and artist: part 3 of a series
Tarot has been described as “Yoga for the West” and an insight method that is spiritual-path neutral. Tarot symbolism, in fact, can apply to almost any spiritual path, as explained by scholar and artist Robert Place:
“Once I could see that pattern, it became obvious that it contained an archetypal truth that I could correlate with other disciplines, such as the great work of alchemy, Siddhartha’s path to enlightenment in Buddhism, or the quest of the Grail and the story of Dracula that is actually based on the Grail legend.”
In fact, Robert Place set out to illustrate his concept by creating his award-winning Tarot art: Buddha Tarot for Buddhist Path; Alchemical Tarot for Alchemical Path; Tarot of the Saints for Christian mystical path; and, even, Vampire Tarot to correlate the story of Dracula to the Holy Grail Quest.
Interview Robert Place
In part 3 of this series, we explore this notion of Tarot as insight into your spiritual path (any path, including Buddhism) — a “personal sage,” as Robert Place puts it. We interview noted Tarot scholar and author Robert Place, and ask about his concept of “Tarot as spiritual path.” Robert Place is well known as artist and illustrator of Buddha Tarot, Tarot of the Sevenfold Mystery, Alchemical Tarot, Vampire Tarot, Tarot of the Saints, and many others. His work has been included in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Robert discusses “Tarot as a spiritual path,” rather than as a “fortune-telling” method:
“Divination… In modern terms, it is a communication between the conscious mind and a source of inner wisdom that I call the Higher Self.”
With typical authority and expertise, Robert very eloquently explains this sophisticated view of Tarot. [Robert Place’s full bio at the end of the interview, from his website>>.]
In part 1, we explored Tibetan Mo; in part 2 of our series, we cited various sources and authors to illustrate how Tarot’s “universal” archetypal symbolism could also be used non-traditionally by Buddhists as a meditative, intuitive tool. For those who prefer to conceptualize visually, the Tarot “picture” deck fulfills a similar purpose to that of Mo (Tibetan divination), Bamboo divination sticks (in Mahayana temples), and I Ching.
Editors Note: This series is not meant to imply Tarot is a traditional Buddhist practice. Tarot, like many other non-conventional methods, can add value to practice for those who enjoy it — in the same way, for example, skateboarding can be a mindfulness practice, or bird-
watching can be the subject of analytical meditation. Buddhist practice arises from intention and focus, not from specific method. For example, mindfulness practice is not Buddhist practice — unless it is practiced with that intention.
Tarot as Spiritual Path?
BW: You’ve described “Tarot as a spiritual path.” In this context, do you mean as a self-guided tool for spiritual development? Could you elaborate on this concept?
Robert Place: Yes, the name of the beginner’s Tarot course that I have been teaching at the New York Open Center since 1995 is called “The Tarot as a Spiritual Path.” This, however, is not the way most people think about the Tarot.
The popular view is that Tarot readers make predictions about the future, and I think this belief is responsible for some common fears connected with the deck. If the future is fated and a reader can reveal your fate, then you cannot do anything to change it. If a reader could do this, I do not see any value in it, and it is not actually what most Tarot readers do.
Every reader I have spoken with has said that they tell their clients about possible events that are coming up, so that they can avoid problems and make the most of their advantages. In my view that is not actually a prediction. I would call it a forecast. These readings are actually about the present, not the future. In the present we can see the seeds of the future and use this information to make informed decisions.
But still, that is not actually what I do with the cards. I would call what I first described above fortunetelling. I call what I do divination. Divination literally means to talk with the divine or with the gods. In modern terms, it is a communication between the conscious mind and a source of inner wisdom that I call the Higher Self.
In my readings, I focus on the present and use the Tarot to gain intuitive knowledge about a situation. First, I gather insight in this way and then I allow the cards to speak for the Higher Self and provide advice about the best course of action. It is like giving yourself a waking dream. I view the cards together as one picture and interpret it like a dream.
Sometimes my students misinterpret this process. They think that they should ask the Tarot lofty questions about their spiritual path, but I do not find these questions useful. It is better to ask about relationships with other people or about routine decisions that need to be made. You want the Tarot to tell you things that may be hard to hear, about how you are being self-centered or short sighted. And then you want the Higher Self to show you a better way to behave. As you practice this day-to-day and act on the advice, you are making better decisions and becoming more like your Higher Self. This process becomes a spiritual path.
But I believe that you also asked me if the Tarot can be a spiritual guide in itself. I think this is also true, and it involves a different way of working with the cards. I have found that although the Tarot was first created in Renaissance Italy, in the 15thcentury, it contains a timeless philosophy. In the 15thcentury, Western European artists and philosophers were reexamining and rediscovering ancient art and literature. Although one mystical Hermetic book called Asclepius was available in Latin in the Middle Ages, the other books in the Hermetica were not available until Ficino translated them between 1463 and 1471. Once they became available they had a major influence on Renaissance arts, including the Tarot.
The Hermeticais a series of texts by anonymous authors, who attributed their works to the mythical author Hermes Trismegistus. They were written in Roman Egypt between the 1stto 3rdcenturies. Alexandria was the capital at that time and it was a major center of learning and philosophy. After Alexander the Great founded the city in 332BC, it became the center for a synthesis of Greek and Egyptian culture and religion. The name Hermes Trismegistus itself is a synthesis of the Greek god Hermes and the Egyptian god Thoth. Later Jewish, Christian, and Gnostic traditions were added. There is even evidence of Buddhist missionaries living in the city during this time. Recently the British Museum held an exhibition of ancient artifacts from Alexandria. Many pieces contained such a mixture of religious symbolism that it was impossible to say what religion they represented.
The philosophers who wrote the Hermetica primarily represented the Greek and Egyptian synthesis, and the texts are a manual on how to become a god.
This transformative knowledge is called gnosis, a word that we may equate with enlightenment.
The ancients believed that there were many gods, who were the spirits of enlightened people or heroes. After they departed their mortal bodies, they remained to help the living and cults grew up around them. As Christianity became dominant, these gods and heroes were incorporated as angels and saints. They are similar to Bodhisattvas in Buddhism.
My research into the origins of the Tarot has led me to see that the Tarot trumps, the twenty-two cards that the occultists call the major arcana, are derived from a popular Renaissance parade called a triumph. In the parade each character trumped the one that came before, so that they formed a naturel hierarchy from the lowest to the most important. Artists and poets used this parade as a compositional device in works that made philosophical statements about the purpose of life, and what virtues or concepts were of a higher order. Most often these works expressed a mystical Hermetic philosophy. The Tarot trumps are one example of this genre, and the individual themes depicted in the trumps can be found in other Renaissance works of art.
Realizing that the Tarot trumps illustrated the Hermetic mystical ascent and could be considered a Hermetic text in symbolic form, I decided that I wanted to read this text, or meditate on it, as the Hermeticists would have intended. I found the key to how this could be done described in a book about the English occult society, the Golden Dawn.
In the book, I read about a meditation technique, in which an initiate would contemplate a picture, and then close his or her eyes and visualize the picture opening like a door.
Next they would see themselves walking through the doorway. Once they entered this inner space it was like they were inside the picture and they could explore the landscape or interact with the figures. The picture acted as a guide to an area of the psyche and allowed you to explore it. This is actually an ancient type of meditation that was performed by Hermeticists, alchemists, and Rosicrucians, and that Jung called active imagination.
I decided that I would use this technique to sequentially enter each of the Tarot trumps, in the Waite Smith Tarotfrom the Magician to the World. For this process, I sat on the floor with the chosen card in front of me, I simply looked at it, and let go of any thoughts that came up. My breathing would become deep and rhythmical. Eventually I could visualize the card in great detail with my eyes closed. I pictured that the card was a door with a handle. I reached out and opened the door in my mind and walked through the opening, deeper into my mind. At first I was in a dark space and I wouldn’t see anything, but if I were patient, the figure from the card would emerge and interact with me.
As I proceeded with this exercise over the weeks, a strange thing happened, my unconscious mind began to control the process. I would not consciously think about doing the next meditation. Instead I would get an intuitive realization that it was time for the next card. Sometimes I would not do one for two or three months and then I might do three of four cards on consecutive nights. My intuition would dictate the time and the place for when to perform each meditation. It would tell me which way to face and how to prepare. Some of the trumps were talkative; others were silent and only communicated in symbols. Each one guided me or showed me what I needed to see or do and then the experience came to a natural conclusion. The process took two years. For me, the experience was an initiation into the Hermetic tradition.
Higher Self and “personal sage”
BW: You have said that the Higher Self is available through the Tarot “like a personal sage that one can converse with whenever guidance is needed.” Can you explain what you mean by Higher Self?
Robert Place: The Higher Self is a term that I borrowed from Jungian psychology. Jung called the principle archetype the “Self,” but authors, like myself, like to add “Higher” to the term to help avoid confusion with the word “self,” with a small “s,” which in common conversation is though of as the ego.
The Higher Self in Jungian terms is the totality of the conscious mind, the unconscious mind, and the collective mind.
It is synonymous with the Christian concept of God, the Buddhist concept of Buddha Mind, or what Pythagoreans would call the One, but it is intended to be a psychological term not a religious one.
I use this term because I wish to describe a truth that I have experienced that I feel goes beyond any religious or cultural attempt to describe it. It seems to me that the Universe is not just physical. I believe that the Universe is also conscious. And just as our physical bodies are made of elements that were formed in stars millions of years ago, our consciousness is also composed of Universal Consciousness.
Rather than creating consciousness the brain restricts and transforms Universal Consciousness so that we function as humans. As humans we are born with a need to take care of our physical elements. And we are born with a need for beauty and philosophy to take care of our consciousness. This is why we make art and have spiritual aspirations.
When we meditate or work with the Tarot we are actually closing down aspects of our brains so that we can experience the Universal Consciousness that we are part of. This is what I call the Higher Self.
Pictoral map of universal truths?
BW: Aside from your expertise and your scholarly books on the subject, you also illustrate wonderful Tarot decks. You have created decks aligned to different religious traditions — Buddhism, Western esoteric traditions and mysticism, and even the “Saints” and “Vampire” legends. Does this imply that the “spiritual path” of Tarot is not dependent on one tradition, or could be viewed as a pictorial map of Universal truths?
Robert Place: The Tarot was originally designed by Renaissance artists to paly a game that is the ancestor of Bridge. Any cards can also be used for divination as well as for gaming. In fact until the 20thcentury, regular four-suit decks of playing cards, or the oracle decks derived from them, were more popular than the Tarot for divination. It was the occultist Etteilla, who, at the end of the 18thcentury, championed the Tarot as a tool for divination and as a source of ancient knowledge. In 1909, Pamela Colman Smith created the first modern Tarot. This deck, known as the Waite Smith Tarotor the Ryder Waite Tarot,became the most popular deck in the world and is responsible for the Tarot’s common association with divination today.
I am primarily an artist, and I view my work with the Tarot as art. I am drawn to the Tarot because it was designed by artists in the Renaissance and expresses the mystical philosophy of that time. It is visually fascinating and it is connected to archetypal symbolism that is actually universal.
Many of the symbolic systems that were grafted onto the Tarot by occultists after the 18thcentury are actually distractions that obscure the original message. For example, correlating the twenty-two cards of the major arcana with the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet treats the trumps like a
secret code that needs to be deciphered. These cards were never intended to be related to the symbolism attached to the Hebrew alphabet. That is why different occultists have created different correlations. There is no correct correlation. The correlations that they invented actually tend to ignore the pictures on the cards. The Kabbalah is a mystical path that is related to Hermeticism, but correlating the cards to the alphabet is a failed attempt to illustrate their correspondences.
From the beginning of my work, I have asked myself, what were the artists who originally created these cards intending to symbolize? What I have found is that they were creating a triumph illustrating the Hermetic gnosis. Once I could see that pattern, it became obvious that it contained an archetypal truth that I could correlate with other disciplines, such as the great work of alchemy, Siddhartha’s path to enlightenment in Buddhism, or the quest of the Grail and the story of Dracula that is actually based on the Grail legend.
Tarot as a mandala — commonalities west to east?
BW: You described the Tarot as a “deck of cards that can be used as a tool for developing intuition, but it is more than this… Effectively, the Tarot is a map of the spiritual universe…” In fact, you used the word “mandala.” In your Buddha Tarot, you even present the entire 78 [79 in the case of Buddha Tarot] cards as a mandala you can lay out and study. Does this imply you correlate western esoteric and mystical beliefs and eastern to labels for similar concepts? Was that why you were able to map western Tarot to Buddhist philosophy?
Robert Place: Yes, I believe that there in one truth and many ways to describe it.
Jung borrowed the word mandala form Eastern religion and used it to describe any diagram of the spiritual universe from any culture or even from spontaneous appearances in his patients’ dreams.
A mandala is a map of the spiritual world and it illustrates sacred space. This type of map can be traced back to ancient shamanism. Shamans in all cultures tend to construct a sacred space where they enter into a shamanic trance. This space is called the “Center of the World.” They view the world as a giant circle and they find the center by drawing a imagined line from the north pole to the south pole and then cross it with another line connecting the east with the west. The place where the lines cross is the center and, when the shaman sits there, he or she is aligned with the four directions. We see the same symbolism in the story of Siddhartha. When Siddhartha finds the Bodhi Tree and sits down to meditate and reach enlightenment, it is said that it grows in the Center of the World. The tree in the center of the world is an example of an archetype that scholars call the axis mundi.
The mandala is a drawing of the Center of the World. It declares that the center of the drawing is sacred by placing four symbols at the edges of a cross or a quincunx (shaped like an X) that represents the physical world of the four directions, the four seasons, or the four elements. Likewise, whatever is placed in the center of the drawing is sacred. Buddhists may place a Buddha in the center and Christians may place Christ in the center of the cross or a quincunx.
The Christ in Majesty icon is a quincunx mandala, with Christ in the center and the symbols of the four evangelists: the lion, the bull, the eagle, and the man, in the corners. In Medieval and Renaissance symbolism the evangelists were correlated with other aspects of the fourfold world, such as the four elements, the four directions, and the four seasons. They represent the evangelists spreading Christ’s message to the four corners of the earth. This is called Christ’s throne. The World card in the Tarot is a quincunx mandala representing Christ’s throne, but instead of Christ, a dancing nude woman is in the center. The woman represents the earth enthroned on Christ’s throne. She is actually not just the earth or the world but the soul of the world. In Latin she was called the Anima Mundi.To reveal the sacredness of the world is the goal of the Hermetic quest.
On the World card in the Buddha Tarot there is an image of White Tara in the center of a Buddhist mandala
Now, the entire Tarot deck with its five suits can also be viewed as a mandala. The trump suit that illustrates the path to enlightenment is the sacred center and the four minor suits symbolize the fourfold physical world. That is how I was able to construct a mandala out of the Tarot and create a deck that illustrates Buddhist imagery.
Next evolution in Tarot art?
BW: Can you describe the evolution of your decks? From my reading on your website, “The Tarot of the Sevenfold Mystery expresses the transcendental philosophy that is linked to the origin of the Tarot.” Do you think, given the emphasis in this deck of western mysticism, a Buddhist Tarot practitioner could relate to the deck? Can you see a “next” evolution in your Tarot art? What’s the next big step?
Robert Place: The Tarot of the Sevenfold Mystery started because of my love of the 19thcentury Pre-Raphaelite paintings of Burne Jones. Burne Jones, in turn, was influenced by the works of Michelangelo and Botticelli, two Renaissance artists, who embody Hermetic philosophy and were working at the same time that the Tarot was created. As a result, Burne Jones painted many allegorical images, such as Temperance and the Wheel of Fortune, that we also find in the Tarot. I started the deck by making my copy of Burne Jones’s Temperance and then proceeded to create the deck in this style. As I was working on it I realized that this deck could provide a bridge between the insights that I had about the original Tarot’s symbolism and occult concepts that harmonized with them.
The title comes from my observation that the prominence of the number seven in Western culture, such as the seven days of the week, the seven colors of the spectrum, the seven sacraments, the seven virtues, and the seven vices, are linked to the ancient belief in the seven soul centers that ascend the Human spine. We find evidence of this system in the works of Plato and later it is mentioned in the biographies of the 6thcentury BC philosopher Pythagoras.
Pythagoras lived and taught in southern Italy in the 6thcentury BC, the same time that Buddha was teaching in the East. There are many similarities between both teachings, such as a belief that every soul is caught on an endless wheel of reincarnations until the soul can be purified through virtue and contemplation. This wheel of reincarnations is actually what the Wheel of Fortune may have symbolized originally.
The Church looks at it as an allegory about the foolishness or worldly pleasures, because Fortuna is shown to lift up her victim only to bring him down again. But because it is a wheel, that her victim is attached to, the journey can continue up and down for an endless number of cycles.
Today most people view Pythagoras as a pre-Socratic philosopher and as a mathematician, but in the ancient world he was considered a divine hero. I think of him as a Western Buddha.
In the biography of Pythagoras written by the Neoplatonist Iamblichus, the author tells us that Pythagoras used his knowledge of the orbits of the seven planets known to the ancients: Luna, Mercury, Venus, Sol, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn, to create the seven notes of the Western music scale.
He considered these planets to be the soul centers of the cosmos and taught that they were correlated with seven psychic centers that are found on the human spine. This is basically a Western system of the charkas.
Pythagoras would tune his seven-stringed lyre to this scale, known as “the music of the spheres.” Then he would use his lyre to tune the soul centers in people, and cure them of various imbalances and illnesses. I believe that the lists of seven vices and seven virtues are related to this process. The vices are actually imbalances in the soul centers and the seven virtues are the cures.
When I read this description in Iamblichus, I decided that this was something that I wanted to do with the Tarot, and I developed the seven soul centers reading, In which I use the cards to analyze the querent’s soul centers. I look for energy blocks and then I use the Tarot to find out how to remove the blocks. This is my main reading that I do for clients. It is a healing reading.
I describe most of the things that I have been mentioning here in great detail in my new book, The Tarot, Magic, Alchemy, Hermeticism, and Neoplatonism, 2ndEdition, and it contains full descriptions of my Alchemical Tarotand The Tarot of the Sevenfold Mystery. As for what I am working on now, lately I have been creating some oracle decks that are not Tarot decks but are used for divination. They have fewer cards and each card has a simple iconic image that has a more focused meaning. These decks include The Burning Serpent Oracle, which I worked on with Rachel Pollack, The Hermes Playing Card Oracle, and An Ukyo-e Lenormand. I also created The Tarot of the Alchemical Magnum Opus, which illustrates the correlation between alchemy and the Tarot, like my Alchemical Tarot, but has simplified imagery, more like an oracle deck. For this deck I have also been working with the printer to improve the quality of the deck. The cards are printed on a good weight paper with a matt finish and gold edges. And the box is made of heavy cardboard with a cloth covering. It has two parts: a box that holds the cards and a slipcase that fits over the box.
The project that I am working on right now is my interpretation of the traditional French Tarot of Marseilles. I am redrawing the images in my own style and I have been including alchemical symbols that relate each trump to the Magnum Opus. But I wanted to go a bit further with this correlation so I have also been adding quotes from the Hermeticato each card. My intention is to demonstrate how the traditional Tarot can be correlated with the Alchemical Opus and to show that both the Tarot and the Opus are rooted in Hermetic philosophy.
Lastly, Schiffer Publishing is reissuing my Buddha Tarot deck and book. It is due out in the Spring of 2021.
Parts 1 and 2 of this series:
Robert Place Biography
“Robert M Place [is the] designer of The Alchemical Tarot, The Alchemical Tarot Renewed, The Tarot of the Alchemical Magnum Opus, The Tarot of the Sevenfold Mystery, The Facsimile Italian Renaissance Woodcut Tarocchi, The Tarot of the Saints, The Buddha Tarot, The Vampire Tarot, The Angels Tarot, the Marziano Tarot, and the Raziel Tarot. He is the author of the books that accompany most of these decks. He has also authored The Tarot: History, Symbolism, and Divination, which Booklist has said, “may be the best book ever written on that deck of cards decorated with mysterious images called the tarot.” He is the author of Astrology and Divination, Magic and Alchemy, and Shamanism, written for the Mysteries, Legends, and Unexplained Phenomena series, and the author of Alchemy and the Tarot and The Tarot, Magic, Alchemy, Hermeticism, and Neoplatonism. He is the curator of The Fools’ Journey and the author of the catalog for this exhibition of Tarot art that originated at the LA Craft and Folk Art Museum in 2010. He was the guest of honor at the opening of the Tarot Museum in Riola, Italy in 2007. His Facsimile Tarocchi is included in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
He has taught and lectured throughout the United States and on five of the seven continents. He and his work have appeared on the BBC series “The Book of Thoth,” the Discovery Channel series “Strictly Supernatural,” and on the Learning Channel and A&E. He has been a frequent guest on the Woodstock Rountable on WDST-FM, People are Talking on WKZE-FM , and Mystic Musings on KKUP FM, Darkness on the Edge of Town on KTLK FM, and the Tarot Tribe on Blog Talk Radio.
His newest works are a Lenormand oracle deck, The Burning Serpent Oracle, and The Raziel Tarot: The Secret Teachings of Adam and Eve. On both of these he collaborated with Tarot diva Rachel Pollack. He has also just completed The New York Lenormand, a facsimile of an 1882 oracle deck, The Hermes Playing Card Oracle, a collectors set of playing cards that also functions as an oracle, and An Ukiyo-e Lenormand, an oracle decks based on Japanese art and culture.”
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Author | Buddha Weekly
Lee Kane is the editor of Buddha Weekly, since 2007. His main focuses as a writer are mindfulness techniques, meditation, Dharma and Sutra commentaries, Buddhist practices, international perspectives and traditions, Vajrayana, Mahayana, Zen. He also covers various events.
Lee also contributes as a writer to various other online magazines and blogs.