The Nidana Cards: A Buddhist Oracle

Bhikkhu Parasamgate dropped by a few days ago. He’s a self-styled monk, whom I hadn’t seen in a while. He brings a bag, a bedroll, and goes around the country staying with people – usually for about a couple of weeks. He’s very low-maintenance. Provide him with access to a bathroom, kitchen, and a space for his bedroll, and he’s more than happy. People who invite him often ask him to teach meditation, yoga, or other esoteric stuff in return for his keep. I just like having good, long chats with him, about his current views, and what practices he’s using to deepen his understanding of awakening. In fact, ‘the Tibetan monk from Bedford’, who appeared in the previous article on this site, was pretty much based on Bhikkhu Parasamgate (although the real bhikkhu was first trained in the Theravadan tradition).

I was glad to see he’d put on a little weight since last summer, when he was looking far too skinny. I like the way he organises his life, always roaming around, completely outside the system, teaching and writing in his notebooks. (I’m not sure where he puts them once they’re full.) It’s a pretty insecure existence, however. We’ve discussed this, and I know it’s something he thinks about occasionally.

He told me about an idea he’d had to make a little cash, which he hoped to put away in case of emergencies. He’d noticed how popular tarot cards have become, and how useful they are for opening up insights into personal issues, or providing forecasts of possible events. But he’d also noticed how Buddhism has nothing equivalent.

nidana cards

Three of Bhikkhu Parasamgate's nidana cards in action.

This set him thinking. The reason that tarot is so effective, he decided, is because of how it maps the entire panoply of mundane experience. Everything is there in those 78 cards: the suits representing earth, water, air and fire; the minor arcana embodying the 10 sephiroth of the Tree of Life; and the major arcana corresponding to the 22 paths between between the sephiroth. Yet the main concern of Buddhism is with finding an exit from ordinary experience (or ‘suffering’, as the Buddha characterised it), rather than revelling in all its mundane glories.

Of course, for Buddhism to achieve that, it has to provide a full understanding of exactly what must be ‘escaped’. And this was what brought Bhikkhu Parasamgate, finally, to the nidanas – or ‘chains of causation’. These are the teachings within the Buddhist tradition that describe in greatest detail the ordinary, unenlightened world. So it was upon the nidanas that the bhikkhu built his new and uniquely Buddhist oracle. And the more he thought about it, the more amazingly suited to this purpose the nidanas seemed to be.

However, leading the sort of lifestyle that he does, his resources were limited. Luckily, he had a friend who could typeset the book he wrote. Although Bhikkhu Parasamgate is many things, he’s no draughtsman, and sadly he couldn’t find an artist with the time and interest to create original images for each nidana. He had to resort instead to trawling the internet for suitable pictures. Of course, he knew he couldn’t make money from these (that would be copyright theft) but he hoped that a professional publisher would take up the idea, run with it, and hire a suitable artist for the job.

Unfortunately, given the current state of publishing, no one was interested in taking on the substantial up-front cost of producing an original deck of 26 cards. Bhikkhu Parasamgate carried the nidana oracle in his bag, still hopeful, for three or four years, but last week he handed me a USB stick and explained he’d given up on making money from the idea, although he still thinks the nidana cards are too good an idea to waste. He has asked me to release both his book and the cards onto the internet, for free, with an assurance he hasn’t profited financially from anyone else’s work. He can’t remember now where he culled the images from. Hopefully, many of them are already in the public domain.

 

The Nidana Cards: A Buddhist Oracle and Teaching Tool, by Bhikkhu Parasamgate. (Book. 112 pages.) Download [PDF 14.1MB]
The cards. (26 cards, plus single backing design.) Download [PDF 32.6MB]
Backing design. (For use in making a deck of cards – see below.) Download [PDF 64Kb]

 

What the cards mean, how they’re used, and what divination has to do with Buddhism anyway, are questions the bhikkhu explores in his book, written in a style more wonderfully concise and engaging than anything I could manage. I hope readers of this website will find it as interesting as I did. It really does seem to offer a uniquely Buddhist system of divination.

The nidana cards are a nuanced and subtle oracle, nowhere near as ‘earthy’ as the tarot or the runes, and probably best applied to issues that are primarily psychological, or concerned with spiritual development. Even if you don’t use the cards, there’s plenty of interesting material in the book concerning Buddhism, meditation, enlightenment and divination. Spiritual geeks will probably enjoy the appendix, in which the bhikkhu shows how the nidanas can be mapped onto the tarot, the Tree of Life, and onto salient concepts from Integral theory. But if you decide you would like to use the cards, then you’ll need to make yourself a deck by hand, from the files supplied.

I never imagined this blog would turn all ‘arts and crafts’, but here are some instructions, based on how I made my own deck of cards:

  1. Print out the cards at as high a quality as your printer allows onto separate sheets of thick photo paper. I used glossy, A6 sized sheets (148 x 105 mm; 5.8 x 4.1 in), which worked really well.
  2. For the backing of the cards, print off a few sheets of the backing design onto A4 (or similar-sized) thick photo paper.
  3. With scissors, trim the nidana cards fairly close to, but not exactly on, the edges indicated by the fine black line.
  4. Using PVA glue, stick a group of cards face up onto a backing sheet. Make sure the backing sheet is oriented in the same direction for each group, otherwise it might be possible to guess the front of the card from its back!
  5. Cover the glued sheets with a cloth, and press overnight under a pile of books (or other weighty object) to flatten and prevent curling whilst the glue dries.
  6. Then, with a scalpel and ruler, cut out each card (now glued securely to its backing) along the fine black lines. Trim the rounded corners with sharp scissors.
  7. You’ll need some sort of covering to protect your cards, because printer inks are very vulnerable to moisture. I used self-adhesive plastic to cover mine – which turned out okay, although it was tricky to avoid air-bubbles. Various kinds of spray-on varnish are available, which might produce a good effect, if you’ve a suitable space in which to apply them.

Bhikkhu Parasamgate sends his best wishes to readers of this website, hoping that you find the book and cards useful, and he wishes you the very best of luck with finding enlightenment in this lifetime. If you have any feedback on his work, let me know, and I’ll pass on your comments the next time he swings by.

12 thoughts on “The Nidana Cards: A Buddhist Oracle

  1. You (and he) should consider putting together a kickstarter to print the cards and book. I know I would pledge money to such a thing–combining my love of Buddhism and Tarot would be priceless. (Creating a Buddhist oracle deck has long been something I’ve wanted to do, but not had the time to complete.)

  2. @sarahhans: Thank you, Sarah! That’s a great idea… As a UK citizen, the bhikkhu wouldn’t be eligible for Kickstarter – but there is a UK equivalent… I’ll look into it! We’d need to pay an artist for the illustrations… and a printer to produce the cards… We might be able to jiggle the figures so that anyone pledging a certain amount will receive a set of the professionally produced cards… The problem is, Bhikkhu Parasamgate leads such an irregular, highly contemplative life that I bet it would be me who ends up doing most of the organising! ;-)

    @maidhc: We love a good synchronicity here at OEITH, so do feel free to elaborate!

  3. I printed the cards on A3 glossy paper. 8 per page, 4 x 2.
    Then reversed the paper & printed the background on same page – avoiding the glue.
    Cut out, they are nicely sized in the palm.
    Though I really did need plenty of space for the two column pattern, at least 5 ft.

    During the preparation, a house mate grabbed a card before leaving for a detox retreat and was impressed when the oracle revealed Craving.

  4. This is a lovely idea, thanks to both of you for sharing!

    Just a thought, if you don’t mind the small size, a cheap way to make a high quality deck would be to use Moo’s (moo.com) custom business card printing system. You can have a different picture on each card, I’ve only had a quick fiddle but it looks like it’ll be fairly straight forward once you break the PDF out into individual JPGs and get the aspect ratio right.

    And because they are for personal use, they don’t care about about the copyright of the images, that’s your responsibility.

  5. I’ve looked them over and it seems simple, but neat well put together. I might end up printing the out when I have “arts and craft” time again.

    What vehicle/sect does your friend belong to? I’m curious as he comments that Buddhism doesn’t have an equivalent, which really depends on what he is comparing with. Vajrayana has a variety of divination/oracle devices and methods for inner and outer work and information gathering, and I thought Mahayana would, but admit I know of none there.

  6. @Kalagni: The bhikkhu (his real name is Kenneth, btw) trained in Theravada (Burmese vipassana; Mahasi Sayadaw – that kind of stuff) but since his awakening he’s experimented with all kinds of things, including Mahamudra and Vajrayana – spookily similar to myself, in fact… I’m only aware of spirit possession as a form of divination within Tibetan Buddhism, but eager to hear about any others, if anyone has come across them…

  7. There are plenty. The spirit oracles aren’t just something you can use, for a variety of reasons (at least according to theory), nor something everyone can use (again, at least in theory). There is melong divination, which is a form of mirror skrying; there is the mo dice which is a fantastic and very precise/non-vague form of divination (someone even made a mo deck, but I prefer using the die); several different forms of mala divination; using doughballs with messages in them spun out of a bowl, and I’m sure there may be a lot more I just haven’t come across or been granted access to yet.

  8. Re: divination – It’s interesting that in Santeria and Palo, which both use spirit mediumship heavily, the divination tools (shells and other items with patterns representing certain answers) are considered to have more authority than mediumship, dreams or other personal communication. Typically if a deity or spirit communicates something during trance, in a dream or through possession it is then verified with another divination system. If it’s a minor thing it might not be, but anything relating to how a ritual should proceed or a significant decision or life change certainly is.

  9. Actually Ona it’s similar in the Vajrayana system. Granted there are some areas where tools are preferred over oracles and vice verse, but it often comes back to systems with tools. For instance locating reincarnated lama almost never use oracles, which considering their ability for direct linguistic communication would be preferred, but largely use skrying and doughball divination, along with the original prophecies given before the lama died if any. Also dreams, visions, messages, etc. are often verified with the mo die, just to make sure that it meant what you think, and was who you thought telling you the message.

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