People, for centuries, 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. In some cultures they are still placing 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 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 it 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 good luck – though I think it is not very lucky for the rabbit. They don’t put new shoes on a table, walk under ladders or put umbrellas up 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 lets even mention Friday 13th.
In the Tibetan culture it is inauspicious to start a journey on Saturdays. So people pack their things on Friday and leave the house as though they are starting their journey. But in fact they only take their bag to a friend’s house and then return to their own home. On Saturday they walk out of their home and collect their bag and then start their journey. This way they believe they have tricked the superstition. So it is clear that such thinking only creates a vicious circle where superstitions are used to cheat other superstitions.
As you can see the list of superstitions and omens are endless, but they do have one thing in common, and that is that they are totally irrational and based on fear and a lack of education.
People go to a fortune tellers or Rinpoche (a holy person) for divinations. This is 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 these people who say they can see into the future are just playing on people’s ignorance and fears. You may say that there is no harm done, but I would beg to differ. I have heard of a person who was seriously ill going for a divination. They were told not to have an operation but to do some prayers instead. This person died needlessly, because if they had had the operation they would have survived. So I believe these people are acting not only irresponsibly but fraudulently as well.
Many go to holy people for blessings, believing that if they are touched on their head their lives will be OK, or they wear something around their necks hoping it will protect them from any danger. They also go to long-life ceremonies thinking that they will live a long time, even though they do not change their life-style or do any practice, such as meditation. Again these things are just superstitions and without you changing your actions of body, speech and mind you will not be able to change your life.
Buddha called all of these practices ‘low art’ and on many occasions, stated that such things are of no use, as we have to take responsibility for our own lives. In the Anguttara Nikaya 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. Who held a superstition that once a piece of cloth, no matter how new or expensive, was bitten by a rat it would become inauspicious and bring you bad luck.
On one occasion he discarded a piece of his expensive cloth in a local cemetery because he believed it had a rat bite on it, and so was now only going to bring him bad fortune. Later on he heard that the Buddha had picked up the cloth and was using it. He ran as fast as he could to find the Buddha and warm him about the bad luck that was going to come his way if he didn’t throw the cloth away. However, once he found Buddha he was dissuaded from this irrational superstition and shown that only he himself could bring good or bad circumstances into his life.
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 a lot of effort in. So there is a clear connection between passing the exam and study. It is of no use praying to a god, chanting some mantra or wearing some kind of lucky charm to pass your exam, as there is absolutely no connection between those things and you passing the exam.
So what did Buddha believe? Well he believed in individual responsibility, rational thought and social obligations rather than unhealthy fears and irrational superstitions. This point was made very clearly in the Mangala Sutra. In this discourse the Buddha was asked what the most auspicious omens were and which ones they should follow. He didn’t directly answer the question, but instead gave guidelines of how we can make our own lives auspicious without relying on any outside omens.
So I believe there is no room for superstitions and fortune-telling in today’s society. We all have to take responsibility for our own lives and stop trying to pass the buck.