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date: 10 December 2022

Practices of Protection in the Pali Worldlocked

Practices of Protection in the Pali Worldlocked

  • Kate CrosbyKate CrosbyDepartment of Religion and Theology, King's College, London
  •  and Pyi Phyo KyawPyi Phyo KyawDepartment of Theology and Religious Studies, King's College, London; Department of Theravada Studies, Shan State Buddhist University

Summary

Practices of protection are an integral aspect of Theravada cultures. They have two main functions: prophylactic, warding off dangers and overcoming problems, and benedictive, bringing fortune and success in an undertaking. While living according to Buddhist precepts offers its own protection, many protective practices seek to draw on power from external sources to delay the inevitable or avert misfortunes. They may therefore appear to be at odds with the Buddhist doctrines of impermanence and karmic repercussions, yet some of them can be traced to Pali canonical and commentarial sources. Shared and exchanged in Theravada societies since ancient times, protective practices and texts continue to evolve, informing complex networks of relationships, patronage, and economic activities. Sources regarded as potent in providing protection include the triple gem; humans such as one’s mother, and those renowned for keeping the precepts; nonhuman beings such as deities and local spirits; sacred sound and statements of truth; physical objects such as amulets; and visual designs such as yantra. The triple gem are at the top of the hierarchy, invoked first in rituals even where the primary source of help is one of these other entities.

Techniques for eliciting protection vary. One may seek the protection of the buddha, the most powerful being, through worship, offerings, reciting his qualities and teachings and by using syllables, yantras, and amulets that represent him. Practicing the Dhamma by following the moral codes and developing harmonious relationships are an important part of reducing risks and securing success in life. Memorization and ritual chanting of protective texts such as paritta are pervasive among both monastics and laypeople in Theravada countries, forming a central part of religious and social life for Theravadins. A varied pantheon of deities and spirits offer sometimes specialized protection against the many vicissitudes of life. The mechanisms through which objects such as images, amulets, yantra, and tattoos are imbued with power are often very complex and multilayered, drawing on mechanisms shared with other technologies and religious traditions.

The engagement of Theravada Buddhists with protective practices is multifaceted, combining their belief and worldview with pragmatic approaches, often informed by empirical evidence. Historically, we can see this in the way that Buddhist protective practices are integrated into medical treatment within Theravada cultures. In contemporary Theravada, this approach is applied to tackle current issues from climate change to the COVID-19 pandemic to sociopolitical crises. Theravadins have long been concerned also with protecting the buddha’s religion (sāsana) from its predicted decline, associated with the deterioration of society more generally. During times of political and social instability, this concern has prompted religious and social reforms with the stated aims of protecting the religion and society more broadly. As a part of such reform efforts, traditional protective practices have sometimes been subject to criticism, fallen out of use, or changed. However, for most Theravadins, the mundane aims to ward off dangers and to assure success are as important as, and not in conflict with, the final, transcendental goal.

Subjects

  • Buddhism

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