“Yoga for the west” How Tarot can map to almost any spiritual path — including Buddhism — as meditative art. Part 2 of a series

“You should know all phenomena are like dreams.” — Shakyamuni Buddha.

In Tibetan Buddhism, Milam, lucid dreaming, is an important practice. Visualizing deities is a principal practice. One of the reasons for both is as a method for overcoming the dualistic mind — helping glimpse reality as it truly is. The language of the mind is images and symbols, not words, which make both Milam lucid dreaming and visualized deity meditation very effective. Words articulate ideas verbally, but our mind explores in “pictures.” Many Buddhists in the “West” also incorporate Tarot into their meditative practices with a similar goal in mind — often with one of the many Buddhist-inspired decks.

By Josephine Nolan

In the “West” — western esoteric spiritual systems — the Tarot “picture” deck fulfils a similar purpose to that of Mo (Tibetan divination, see part 1 of this series>>) — and to a lesser extent — Milam and other visualization mediations. By that, I mean, “pictures” as the language of the mind.

Tarot cards are often described as a “picture” book, and as a mirror. You could think of them as a method for busy, stressed minds. I think of it as “lucid dreaming while awake.” [For a full feature on Milam, see>>] One of the advantages of Tarot, as a visual meditative medium, is:

“Tarot’s structure makes it well suited as a map for many belief systems.” [5]

 

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In Robert Place’s Buddha Tarot, the cards are “remapped” to Tibetan Buddhist imagery. For example, shown here, the Four of the five Jina Conquering Buddhas in place of the kings of the suits representing the four directions, and Asita the Seer in place of the “Magician.” Importantly, in Buddhism where there is no “Devil”, the Buddha Tarot gives us Mara, the Illusory Tempter who assailed Buddha under the Bodhi Tree. In place of the World is White Tara, and as the queen of the double Vajras suit (Cups in regular Tarot) is Noble Green Tara.

 

It may be cliché, but the visual, meditative power of Tarot lies in universal symbolic archetypes, as described by Carl Jung. Symbols such as black, white, star, moon, weight scales, towers — together with various colours — are virtually universal across most cultures. 

These “symbol” cards do not reveal what you think (probably.) — it’s not about fortune-telling and the future (mostly.) As Osho said, the “future is only a dream.” Gerb B. Ziegler explains:

“Tarot works because the messages in the images have an effect on your consciousness which simultaneously influences your lived reality as well as acknowledging the existence of a higher [Self] will and entering into a state of harmony with it.” 

 

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In Laura Santi’s Buddha Wisdom and Shakti Power Oracle, her beautiful tangkhas are featured as insight cards. Her Etsy store, where many of her wonderful tangkhas are available, is here>>

 

Is Tarot the Yoga of the West?

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Mindful Tarot, written by Zen chaplain Lisa discusses Tarot as a method to focus the mind and achieve Mindfulness, among other methods. She also guides meditations with groups using “Mindful Tarot” as focus. [View on Amazon here>>]

One Zen Buddhist chaplain and author, Lisa Freinkel Tishman, Ph.D., uses Tarot for mindfulness practice and teaches this technique. Other teachers have described Tarot practice, “the yoga of the West.” [Quote: Robert Wang][1] 

Similarly, Eckhard Graf said,

“The Old World may take pride in the fact that with the Tarot it has produced its esoteric system — a school for training emotional intelligence, the wisdom of the heart and that of the soul which has neither been devised by priests… but has been engendered through the collective subconscious of the Occident.” [1]

No talk of fortune-telling — more a mirror of the self, our past karma, and a way to connect to our Buddha Nature (higher self.)

In part 1 of this series, we spoke of Tibetan Mo, one of the many Buddhist wisdom “oracles” that grew in parallel in Asia.” Are they the “same but different?” When we work with deities in Tibetan Buddhism, we are likewise tapping into our higher self (at least, that’s a partial understanding). When we use Mo, we are communicating with that higher self. In Tarot, in the esoteric Western tradition, it is no different. 

  • Part 1: Tibetan Mo>>
  • Part 2 of a series.
  • In part 3, we interview well-known scholar and Tarot artist Robert Place, creator of Buddha Tarot.
  • In Part 4, we interview Zen Chaplain Lisa Freinkel Tishman, Ph.D., author of the book Mindful Tarot.
  • In Part 5, we speak with famous Tankgha artist we speak with Laura Santi who recently created Buddha Wisdom, Shakti Power (an oracle deck, rather than Tarot, but featuring traditional Thangkas)
  • In part 6, we feature an interview with Emi Brady, creator of the stunning linocut Brady Tarot (beautiful works of art, whether or not you appreciate Tarot — and spiritually neutral (none of those pesky angels and devils.)

Mo, itself, as we outlined in part 1, is a Tibetan Buddhist “yoga” with lineage, that has passed through a long, unbroken chain of great, realized Yogis and teachers. Culturally, though, it may seem somewhat “odd” and unrooted to some Western Buddhists — either thought of as “superstitious,” on one extreme or as a “cultural unfamiliarity” on the other. Is Tarot — the “Yoga for the west” — more familiar to Western spiritual seekers due to that “collective subconscious”— as described by Carl Jung? Even if it is, is it also compatible with Buddhist practice? Several modern teachers have made that connection. We hope to explore this interesting topic, here, in part 2 of this series.

 

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Buddha Tarot by Robert Place features the life and journey to Enlightenment of Siddartha Buddha as the major Aracana, in place of the “fool’s journey” to spiritual enlightenment. The deck is a collector’s item, going for hundreds of dollars on ebay — however, it will be re-released to publication by Schiffer Publishing in spring of 2021.

Note: Today, there are several Buddhist-themed Tarot decks, including Buddha Tarot (Tibetan Buddhist inspired by Robert Place), Osho Zen Tarot (Zen-inspired), Buddha Wisdom, Shakti Power (an oracle, rather than Tarot, but featuring traditional Thangkhas by a well-known artist, Laura Santi).

Giving yourself room to talk — to yourself

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One lovely re-mapping of Tarot trumps is Temperance to the Buddha Tarot card “Middle Path.” It illustrates the moment of insight of the Buddha, after he had endured starvation and ascetic practices, that the “middle way” is the path to Enlightenment. Here, he is offered a bowl of rice at just that moment.

The biggest issue, typically, in modern life, is business and stress. Meditation helps with both, and Tarot readings are another form of meditation. They are also a symbolic, pictorial key to the subconscious mind and Higher Self. The language of the subconscious is symbolism and images. We dream in pictures, not in words.

Think of Tarot as “having a conversation with ourself” — the self that we never speak to. When we open the mind in mindfulness meditation, that is also one of the goals (there are many, of course!) When we visualize deities, one of our many goals is a similar connection to Higher Self.

Tarot is similar to Lucid Dreaming — while awake

In Tibetan Buddhism, an essential practice is Milam — or lucid dreaming. It’s a lineage Yoga for advanced practitioners. It is essential, as explained by the great teacher Namkai Norbu Rinpoche, because

“It is easier to develop your practices in a dream than in the daytime. In the daytime, we are limited to our material body, but in a dream, our function of mind and our consciousness of the senses are unhindered. We can have more clarity… If a person applies a practice within a dream, it is nine times more effective than when it is applied in waking life.” —

Even though Rinpoche explained it is “easier” to practice in dreams, lucid dreaming is a difficult skill. Modern, busy minds have difficulty with Lucid dreaming techniques, even in restful sleep. This is one area where Tarot can help. Think of it as “lucid dreaming” while awake. [Of course, it’s not lucid dreaming, we’re just stretching the point.]

Why do I say this? When you are in a meditative state, and you are contemplating, for example, Tarot, you start to enter the “Theta” brainwave mind range. The same thing can happen in any visualization practice: Yidam sadhanas, repeated Mantra recitations, and so on. Tarot just helps the busy, stressed, awake mind to enter into a more “Theta” state — to help with the communication with Higher Self.

Mindful Tarot? Mindful yoga?

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Lisa Freinkel Tishman, Ph.D is a Zen Minister, mindfulness instructor and author of Mindful Tarot.

Lisa Freinkel Tishman, Ph.D., a Zen Buddhist chaplain, describes mindful Buddhist practice with the Tarot in her book Mindful Tarot in a similar way — comparing it to “yoga”: 

“…learning to read the Tarot can be like learning yoga postures… yoga can also be practiced on its own term: as a complete, self-contained path of transformation and liberation.” [3]

Her approach is to use Tarot “in its own right as a path of self-discovery. Mindful Tarot is both mindfulness practice anchored within the language of Tarot and a Tarot-reading practice anchored within mindful awareness.” [3] [Watch for a following segment in this series, where we interview Lisa Tishman, Ph.D. for more on this fascinating approach to both Tarot and mindfulness.] 

 

How does Tarot work? Rather than the future, Tarot looks to the “now”

Osho once said time only consists of the past and the future. The present is not time; it is life. “Time is thought to consist of three tenses: past, present, future—which is wrong. Time consists only of past and future. It is life that consists of the present.” [4] This gets to the heart of mindfulness of the present moment — one of the most important meditational techniques taught by the Buddha. (And, as you’ll see in a moment, one Zen chaplain uses Tarot as a mindfulness technique.)

Put a different way, Tarot doesn’t look to the future. It mines your karma from the past to reveal your potentialities in the present moment. Osho, in his book for Osho Zen Tarot, wrote:

“Those who have missed living in the past—automatically, to substitute for the gap—start dreaming about the future. Their future is only a projection out of the past. Whatever they have missed in the past, they are hoping for in the future; and between the two non-existences is the small, existent moment that is life.”

 

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Comparing traditional “Western” Tarot, the Smith-Waite card (left) to the Osho Zen (centre) and the Buddha Tarot (right.)

 

Robert Place, a noted Tarot scholar and artist, who famously created Buddha Tarot, spoke in similar terms:

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Robert Place, scholar, author and creator of Buddha Tarot and numerous other decks. Website>>

“When this philosophy and structure is understood, and the cards are used as an intuitive device, a communication happens between the conscious self and a source of wisdom in the unconscious that I call the Higher Self. Used in this way, the Tarot is like a personal sage that one can converse with whenever guidance is needed.” [2]

For this reason, Buddhists in the West may connect well with the images in Tarot — the language of symbols more familiar to the Western “collective consciousness.” Carl Jung’s theories on “collective consciousness” are meant to be universal — all beings — although most of his examples related to Western imagery. There should be no inherent conflict with Buddhism as a path, given Buddhism’s all-enbracing approach. [Although, clearly, refer to your teacher if you are uncertain.]

Generally, from a Buddhist point-of-view, time is a relative, illusory reference (although that’s a vast topic, and this sentence oversimplifies). In our mundane lives, our “relative” reality, we feel like there is a past-present-future. Also, in Buddhist terms, we think more of “karmic outcomes” — cause and effect — and certainly not in the concept of a fated destiny. (Predestined future is a somewhat alien concept to Buddhism and many “Eastern” spiritual paths.)

Deity Yoga, Rorschach Ink Blot and Tarot?

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What do you see? Quick, don’t think about it. This is the Rorschach ink blot test, often used in Psychology.

What is the commonality? Deity Yoga, in Tibetan Buddhism, communicates in the language of images and symbols — albeit a sacred, precious and proven spiritual practice. Although Tarot has nothing to do with deities, it also communicates with the language of images — with our Higher Self, our Buddha Nature — according to many teachers. You could say, from a psychological point-of-view, it functions similarly to the Rorschach Ink Blot test used by Psychiatrists and therapists. [What do you see in the InkBlot? Want to test yourself, check out>>]

Since Buddhism famously adapts to each culture it encounters — Tibetan Buddhism is quite culturally different from Chan Buddhism in China and Zen Buddhism in Japan, even though core teachings remain the same — it is reasonable to see some adoption of Western symbolism into Western Buddhist practice — at least for those who are more esoterically inclined. As Arthur E. Waite, co-creator with Pamela Smith, of the Smith-Waite Tarot explains, “The true Tarot is symbolism; it speaks no other language.”

Tarot is an open book — not tied to one spiritual path

Why, then, does Tarot adapt to Buddhist philosophy so quickly — given an absence, in Buddhism, of western concepts such as fate, angels, Popes, and “Judgment” day? And, does Tarot really have this “reputation” for divining the future? This may be more of a Hollywood legend, than a real persona of the Tarot. Most Tarot “spreads” focus more on the past, the people around you now, the present situation, the obstacles, and maybe, in the end, one “possible outcome” card — or advice from your Higher Self.

 

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Laura Santi’s Buddha Wisdom, Shakti Power deck, showing Avalokiteshvara, Vajravarahi and Vajrasattva.

 

Osho explains in his Osho Zen Tarot book: “One thing that is very fundamental has to be remembered, and that is that whenever we are doing anything—astrology, future prediction, horoscope readings, palmistry, the I-Ching, Tarot—anything that is concerned with the future, it is basically a reading of the unconscious of the person. It has nothing much to do with the future. It has more to do with the past, but because the future is created by the past, it is relevant to the future, too. Because people live like mechanical things, the prediction is possible. If you know the past of the person, unless the person is a buddha, you will be a…”

What, then, is the value of Tarot, if not to divine the future? Certainly, from a Buddhist point of view, it would provide insight in the “present moment.” Again, from Osho (sorry to use him so much, given his interesting history, but he developed one of the go-to Tarot decks for Buddhists): “Zen approach to Tarot aims to bring clarity and insight to the present moment. This is based on the understanding that life can seem random and accidental only if we remain unaware and asleep through it. Neither is life something controlled and directed by “fate”—it is a constantly unfolding process of opportunities for learning.”

 

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One way to tap into the beautiful symbolism of Tarot — without the overt spiritual images, including Buddhist-oriented visuals — is to work with a “nature-based” Tarot, such as the magnificent Brady Tarot. Emi Brady, who created the deck spent an enormous amount of time, not only creating the beautiful hand-cut linocut art, but also in imagining natural symbols for the universal archetypes. In place of Magician, we have Raven. Here, for Lovers, we see two birds known for the life-long bonding. Currently, these are only available in limited edition, in a wooden box>>

 

Opening yourself to “evil” influences?

The concept that Tarot is evil and the book of the Devil is an old Western religious prejudice. Buddhism is a self-directed path. You can decide for yourself if there’s any value. There’s no need for supernatural hyperventilating over “the Devil’s cards.” 

You’ll never be misguided if you have taken Refuge in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha — as long as you treat Tarot as only a meditational tool — for example, visualizing or Pathworking meditation — or as a way to communicate with your busy subconscious. Our rational, unsettled minds tend to be deaf to our instincts, intuition and subconscious suggestions. Tarot or Mo can do help with this if you have a mature attitude.

 

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The joyful and “real” images of Brady Tarot: Sun on the left, JOY (Ace of cups) centre, and even Death, visualized here as a “rebirth concept” with plants emerging from the skull, which in tern is being “swallowed” by the earth.

 

Of course, you can take any view that feels right to you. You can “shuffle” the deck with the intention of asking your Yidam for “advice” — but in Vajrayana tradition, that’s similar to asking your Higher Self. The tradition of deities in inextricably mixed with the understanding of Emptiness and Interdependent Arising — which basically means your Higher Self, your Buddha Nature, is none other than part of the Enlightened Deity.

What about those pesky angels and devils?

Regarding angels, the Devil, Pope and Judgement Day, this is only seen in Tarot decks more or less inspired by the Golden Dawn system. Many other Tarot decks replace these jarring scenes with religion-neutral themes — such as wildlife (i.e. Brady Tarot), Fountain Tarot, and so on — or, customize the themes to specific paths — such as Buddha Tarot and Osho Zen Tarot. Many decks have Daoist, pagan, Kabalah, Egyptian mysticism, or other themes. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter, as long as it resonates with you and acts as a suitable mirror for your own Higher Self.  

Buddha Tarot

A good example — probably the best example from a Tibetan Buddhist point of view — is Robert Place’s Buddha Tarot. In place of the Fool’s journey to spiritual fulfilment in the Tarot’s major arcana, he beautifully illustrates Siddartha Buddha’s life journey, from birth to Paranirvana. In place of “the Devil” we have “Mara” who tempted Buddha under the Bodhi Tree. In place of Judgement, we have “The First Sermon.” Here is a description of the majors, to give you an idea (the numbers are the Major Arcana Number, and the first description (such as “The Fool” is the most common Western Tarot description:

0 — The Fool — The Descent From Tusita Heaven: Buddha is conceived, the legendary story of his descent from heaven

1 — Magician — Asita, the Seer: Asita, the seer who predicts Siddhartha will become the Buddha 

2 — Priestess — Maya, The Mother: Buddha’s mother, who in Buddhism is quite revered, a “Queen even the Gods adored.” 

3 — Empress — Yasodhara, The Future Empress: Buddha’s wife 

4 — Emperor — Siddartha, The Future Emperor: as the prince (the future emperor) of the Shakyas 

5 — Hierophant — Suddhodhana, The Father: Siddartha’s father, the king, who represents attachment to perfect rule and the rigour of tradition 

6 — Lovers — Siddhartha and Yasodhara, the Lovers: revealing an image of Siddhartha making the choice between his wife and baby and Enlightenment to save all humankind 

7 — Chariot — Siddhartha’s Visit: Siddhartha’s visit to the city on his chariot 

8 — Justice — Karma: illustrated as the famous scene when Siddhartha escapes his father on his loyal horse Kantaka, carried silently above the ground by the Gods. 

9 — Hermit — The Old Man and the Sadhu: blends two stories, Siddhartha’s revelation of old age when he sees his first old man, and his encounter with the wise hermit, the Sadhu. 

10 — Wheel of Fortune — Reincarnation: illustrates a fundamental Buddhist concept, the wheel of life or Samsara, or Karmic wheel, very beautifully illustrated with a cock, pig and snake swallowing each other’s tales in a wheel, and revealing the cycle of life and attachments that keep us “trapped.” 

11 — Strength — Siddhartha Cuts His Hair: A highly moving scene from Buddha’s life, where he has chosen his sacrificial path and symbolically cuts off his “princely lock” to show his inner resolve and strength. He then strips himself of his luxuries and clothes and goes naked into the world. 

12 — The Hanged Man — The Invalid, the Suffering Man: Siddhartha succours a suffering man, realizing that he must himself sacrifice all to save mankind. 

13 — Death — The Corpse: Siddhartha’s revelation comes when he witnesses a death and funeral. In Buddhism death is quite a different concept from “Western” ideas. Once the body is discarded, the change is profound. The body is meaningless, and the person is reborn (if the journey is incomplete) or if Enlightened becomes either a Bodhisattva or a Buddha. 

14— Temperance — The Middle Path: Siddhartha’s main teaching is the Middle Path, the balanced path between the extremes of the physical and the spiritual, highly appropriate to this card. 

15 — Devil — Mara: Mara is actually a god, not “the Devil” but he is a mara, an earthly god who’s name means “delusion.” By keeping man attached to cravings and pleasures, he enslaves us to Samsara. Buddha taught an escape and as a result, he confronts Mara as he meditates on Enlightenment under the Bodhi Tree. Mara sends his sensuous daughters to tempt Buddha and warriors to kill him, but all is revealed as illusion and fades away. 

16 — The Tower — The Flaming Disc: In a dramatic scene under the Bodhi tree, Mara flings his greatest weapon at Buddha (of course this is symbolic of the struggle in Buddha’s own mind as he faced temptations and cravings and fear), a flaming disc of ruin (the Tower). Buddha realizes it is an illusion and the disc turns to flowers. 

17 — Star — The Chakras, The Morning Star — In the early evening of his Enlightenment, Buddha released his “psychic” energies by releasing each of his chakras, illustrated in this card. 

18 — MoonWesak, the Full Moon: On that last night, after Mara’s defeat, the moon is full (Wesak) and it is Siddhartha’s 35th birthday. Now, Buddha, Enlightened, sees all his previous hundreds of lives and realizes the truth of attachment and delusion. 

19 — SunBuddha and Sakti: Tantric completion of enlightenment involves an understanding that within each of us is a complete male and female both. The “sexual” embrace of Buddha revealed in the Sun card represents that completion (often misunderstood by non-Buddhists.) Place here, explains at length how Buddha, now Enlightened, became one with the Cosmic Buddhas and the Sakti’s, which really means he became one with the true Universe in completion. 

20 — Judgement — The First Sermon (Teaching): I would have called it Deerpark, less “Western” than “sermon”, or “turning of the wheel” — both highly meaningful in Buddhist thinking. Buddha now taught his followers in Deerpark the noble truths. 

21 — World — White Tara: Tara is the ultimate Female Buddha, the Mother of All Buddhas, and the World or Universe itself. Tara holds a special place in Buddhists heart as the savioress of the world. 

22 — Parinirvana — I had expected Parinirvana to become the World card, but Place gave it a special place with a new card. Parinirvana is Buddha’s ultimate completion, as he finally left the world. 

Making Tarot a Buddhist practice

Adopting Tarot as a “Western Yoga” can be powerful, albeit non-traditional. Any practice becomes a “Buddhist” practice if you begin with taking Refuge in the Three Jewels, and end with a “dedication for the benefit of all sentient beings.” 

Certainly, the practice can be confusing if you opt to use, for example, a Waite-Smith traditional Tarot deck, full of angels, Golden Dawn symbolism, Death on horseback, Judgement, and so on. However, if you can see past all the non-Buddhist icons, it works just as well. Ideally, choose a deck such as Robert Place’s Buddha Tarot, Osho Zen, or a spiritual neutral deck such as Brady Tarot (profoundly beautiful animal themes.)

Then, simply do what you always do. After Refuge and your normal offerings, praise, mindfulness meditation and so on, just shuffle, while visualizing your sacred Yidam (or the Buddha), chanting mantras, or whatever resonates. Look at a few cards, and interpret. You can do this formally, with the help of a plethora of Tarot books on the market, or intuitively. You can even have a question, such as “What do I need to know today to make this day beneficial for all sentient beings?” Bear in mind, your own subconscious and mind will interpret whatever card images you see in the context of your question. It’s not a prediction, it’s a conversation, with your Higher Self or your Yidam or Protector.

Of course, as always, end with the dedication of merit to the benefit of all sentient beings.

Watch for part 3 in this series, an interview with the great scholar of Tarot, and creator of Buddha Tarot, Robert Place.

NOTES

[1] The Ultimate Guide to Rider-Waite Tarot, by Johannes Fiebig and Evelin Burger

Paperback: 216 pages

Publisher: Llewellyn Publications (April 8, 2013)

Language: English

ISBN-10: 0738735795

ISBN-13: 978-0738735795

[2] Robert Place, from a description of one of his popular workshops. 

[3] Mindful Tarot: Bring a Peace-Filled Compassionate Practice to the 78 Cards, by Lisa Freinkel Tishman, Ph.D.

Paperback: 336 pages

Publisher: Llewellyn Publications (June 8, 2019)

Language: English

ISBN-10: 0738758442

ISBN-13: 978-0738758442

[4] Osho Zen Tarot companion book, by Osho

[5] We Mystic website: “Shamanic Tarot: Multicultural Mosaic of Spiritual Traditions.”

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Josephine Nolan

Author | Buddha Weekly

Josephine Nolan is an editor and contributing feature writer for several online publications, including EDI Weekly and Buddha Weekly. She is Editor-in-Chief for Blogertize Publications.

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