Review by Bonnie Cehovet
What an amazing journey this life is! Robert Place's work shines with its own sense of being and time, and allows us to visit places within ourselves and the Tarot world that we never knew existed. His style of writing, his in depth research and innate understanding of the Renaissance world bring to mind the late Brian Williams (Renaissance Tarot, Po Mo Tarot). Both men ask us to take a deep look at the timeline of the events and people that brought Tarot to where it is today. Both men carry an inherent knowledge of symbols and symbolism, and make best use of Renaissance art to connect us to the archetypes and the worldview that Tarot truly is.
The Buddha Tarot Companion is the companion book that accompanies Robert Place's The Buddha Tarot. There is so much information in this book that it is hard to know where to begin. Place's intention was to connect the worlds of Eastern and Western spirituality in The Buddha Tarot, and he certainly accomplished that in a stunning fashion! In the preface he sets the tone for The Buddha Tarot by sharing his personal story of how the inspiration for the creation of this deck came to him - through a dream that came after reading the section on Buddhism in The Illustrated World's Religions by Huston Smith. I might also add that from my personal perspective, the timing is also telling - it happened during the Christmas season when Place and his wife were visiting her parents.
The Buddha Tarot Companion is much more than a nice little book that discusses the author/artists rendering of the Tarot cards. Place follows along the same lines that Brian Williams did in presenting the history behind his deck - important information that allows us to look through the eye of history and see how Tarot evolved. I have never really been a Tarot history buff, but I find myself being drawn to it more and more as I read the works of people like Place and Williams who have such a thorough understanding of how history interacts, and such a compelling way of presenting it, that one cannot help but be drawn in.
In his introduction, Place discusses the "East-West Connection" - what was happening in the world from earliest times, what the patterns of travel and trade were, and how disparate sections of the world could possibly have known about each others teachings. He postulates that while Buddhism was more than likely not at the basis of the forming of the Tarot, that it has the same archetypal nature and thus does follow the same line of thought. His comments that in both the East and the West there was an agreement that to be enlightened we need to stop living in delusion and remember that we are reflections of the One are thought provoking. That Western philosophers and Eastern religious leaders used similar methods and were aiming at the same goals also shows that there was more sameness than disparity in the various processes.
I have barely touched on the in depth history background that Place presents us with. It has to be read by each individual, who will take away what is right for them. This is not a book that one simply scans, and it is not something that is to be read and then set aside - there is so much to think about here that you will return time and time again.
Towards the beginning of the book there is a chart entitled "East-West Timeline". Here Place entered the timeline of history (who did what, where and when) as well as the timeline of Tarot. To see the two together is a wonderful starting point to truly understanding both Tarot and history.
There is a short and very well done section on the timeline of paper in history, when it became available, how it was used and how the Tarot cards came about. It is interesting to note that the Tarot Trumps came about as a fifth suit, to be played along with the existing four suits in the game of cards. (That is how the Trumps in The Buddha Tarot are presented - as a fifth suit.)
From there we go to a section on mysticism and the Tarot that includes Renaissance thought, the various philosophical schools, including Neoplatonism, Plato and the three-fold Platonic world, Christian Neoplatonism, Hermeticism and the Pythagorian concept of the triple-soul. I know that I am not doing this section justice - it needs to be experienced to be understood. Place has such a thoughtful, powerful manner of presenting ideas that one is never lost - perhaps lagging a few steps behind him, endeavoring to catch up, but never lost!
It is evident from the nature of this deck that there would have to be a presentation on the life of Buddha, and there is. We go down his literal life path, but we also see the symbolism of who and what Buddha was and is. Presented are the four signs that Buddha was to encounter (old age, sickness, death and the life of the holy hermit), the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path (the way to enlightenment). In reading about the life of Buddha, in walking the path of his journey with him, we begin to see how his life and thoughts are comparable to patterns in Western thought.
Something that was interesting to me, and that I had not really thought about before, was that the inclusion in the Tarot of the fifth suit (the Trumps) marked a time of moving beyond the structure of society that was reflected in the existing four suits. Place also presents an interesting link between the Tarot and the celebration of Carnival, such as the Fool relating to the common man that is elected King of Carnival. There are connections in life that we do not see, even when they are right before our eyes.
An interesting aspect to The Buddha Tarot Companion is that Robert Place chose to present his own conception of cards from earlier decks to illustrate this book. For example, we have The World from the Tarot of Marseilles, a depiction of a 16th century woodcut of Christ and the elements, as well as Place's rendering of the Christ in Majesty icon.
The presentation of The Buddha Tarot is interesting and quite well done. The five Jinas represent the five principle aspects of the mandala that is Buddhism. They are called Vairocana (the illuminator), Aksobhya (the unshakeable), Amitabha (infinite light), Ratnasambhava (jewel-born) and Amoghasiddhi (infallible success). Each suit is represented by one of the Jinas, with the border color for the suit representing the color of each Jina. The Jinas also have associations with specific directions, elements, animals, Saktis (the female aspect of each Jina), Dakinis (servents), as well as specific wisdom and dharma.
The cards are presented with black and white scans, along with a description of the cards, commentary and the divinatory energy. From the book:
XIII The Corpse - Death
"Which did you prefer in him - the body or the soul?" "Alas, it was the body, for I had threatened to curse him if he ever became a Friar Minor." "Then go to the cemetary, and find his body you loved so much, and you will see what has become of it."
Brother Giles, A follower of Saint Francis, speaking to a mother on the death of her son.
On his third visit to the city, Siddhartha saw some men carrying a corpse to the cremation grounds. The sight of death confirmed all of his fears, and yet it gave clarity to his thoughts. He know knew the truth. As unpleasant as that truth was, the knowledge gave him new power. He saw that all physical things, including the body, are temporary. He was determined to find the part of himself that was permanent, and by accomplishing that, he would defeat death.
After his departure, when he became Guatama the ascetic, he attempted to burn up all of his karma by working against his desires, including the desire to avoid death. Guatama slept in the open, even on freezing nights, lying on a bed of spikes. He wore rough hemp rags, or no clothing at all. He went without food, or consumed his own urine or feces. When he practiced breathing exercises, he held his breath for so long that he felt as if he would faint. Eventually he went on such a prolonged fast that his flesh shrunk and clung to his protruding bones, his hair fell out, and his skin blackened. He had transformed himself into a living corpse and he hung on the verge of death. His five disciples were sure that he would obtain liberation at any moment.
In the Tarot of Marseilles, Death is depicted as a skeletal corpse using a scythe to mow a field littered with heads, hands and feet. There is no box for his name on the bottom. Originally he was unlabeled out of fear of respecting his name. All the early decks depict various forms of this same theme. The Grin Reaper is sometimes on horseback, and he may use a bow instead of a scythe. This image is borrowed from the popular Dance of Death, an allegorical dance or work of art in which death is seen to triumph over individuals of every age and class. But in all the known orders, Death is consistently number thirteen. In the Tarot, Death is always in the middle; it is never the final trump. Unlike the Dance of Death, the Tarot's story is about the defeat of death.
As mentioned earlier, the four sights are usually depicted together in Buddhist art. The skeleton, however, becomes a symbol in itself in Tibetan art, along with human skull cups and human thighbone trumpets. In Buddhist meditation, contemplation of the human corpse was recommended for the development of detachments and awakening to a deeper reality. The skeletons of Buddhist art are designed as substitutes for actual corpses. When one accepts these images into one's consciousness, a person can overcome the need to evade the unpleasant aspects of life and reclaim the energy that is wasted in blocking these thoughts.
The simplest meaning of the Death card is that it represents the end of something. All things end and this is their death. When you finish reading this book, you will have come to the death of this reading. You will put the book down and look for something new to begin. All death points to a new beginning. Ultimately, there is no death, including the death of the body. Death is just one aspect of the eternally changing reality. The Tibetan spiritual teacher Sogal Rinpoche said:
"Life and death are in the mind and nowhere else. Mind is ... the creator of happiness and the creator of suffering, the creator of what we call life and what we call death."
Tibetans consider skeletons a wholesome reminder of the truth under appearances - the bare bones of a situation. The skeleton can help us overcome fear and tap our creativity. This is its function in the American Halloween celebration.
Often people are afraid of the Death card. They are afraid that it will predict the death of someone during a reading. In all of the years that I have been doing readings, I have never seen that happen. If one is in tune with the Tarot as a tool for connecting with the higher self, this will not happen. Our higher selves are more considerate than that. this fear can be totally avoided if we use the Tarot for true divination. Divination is not a method of predicting the future, but a way of connecting with higher wisdom and helping one make informed decisions."
There are several presentations for spreads at the end of the book. Under the Three Card Reading, Place talks about the patterns within the story of the cards. They are: Linear, Choice, The Central Origin, The Central Destination, The Central Problem and the Central Teacher. He also presents a nine card Relationship Reading and a 21 card Chakra Reading. The expanded chakra reading is certainly one that can be incorporated into personal work, as well as into a Tarot practice (as can the relationship spread).
The final spread offered is the Mandala Meditation. This spread needs a large amount of space (all 78 cards are used) and time for interpretation. The fifth suit of the Trumps is placed in a circle around the other four suits, which are placed in each of the four directions. Physically moving from one direction to another to meditate on the cards is a tremendously heartfelt, eye-opening experience - a journey not to be set out upon lightly.
I highly recommend that The Buddha Tarot Companion be purchased for use with The Buddha Tarot. It is not a "necessary" thing - the LWB (Little White Book that comes with the deck) is self explanatory, but the companion book delves many levels deeper, and becomes a useful Tarot resource, as well as a powerful tool for transformation.
(c) March 2004
Bonnie Cehovet is Certified Tarot Grand Master, a professional Tarot reader with over ten years experience, a Reiki Master/Teacher and a writer. Bonnie has served in various capacities with the American Tarot Association, is co-founder of the World Tarot Network, and Vice President (as well as Director of Certification) for the American Board For Tarot Certification. She has had articles appear in the 2004 and 2005 Llewellyn Tarot Reader.