Interview with Robert M. Place

by Bonnie Cehovet

The world of art fascinates me as much as the world of writing. I pay close attention when the two worlds come together in one individual. Robert M. Place certainly exemplifies this type of individual - artist, sculptor, writer and visionary. The Tarot world has benefited greatly from his ability to meld the worlds of art and Tarot, with his decks representing a true spiritual journey through time.

In Tarot of The Saints he combined Christian mythology with the archetypes of the Tarot, placing the origins of both with Classical Paganism and its Renaissance revival. I was impressed with his depth of background on this deck, as well as with his presentation of the Tetractys and the three "acts" of the 21 cards of the Major Arcana (the Fool standing above and apart from the other cards), representing the three stages of spiritual development.

In The Alchemical Tarot, Place brought together the subjects of alchemy and Tarot, co-authoring its accompanying book with Rosemary Ellen Guiley. Here we see alchemical symbols matched with the cards of the Tarot Trumps. What an incredible intuitive journey these cards represent - for the artist and for those that accept this tool as part of their path. The world of alchemical transformation became the world of personal transformation!

In The Angels Tarot, Place again teamed up with Rosemary Ellen Guiley to escort the reader into the Angelic realm. Grounded in Kabbalah, alchemy and Christian mysticism, The Angels Tarot correlates the Tarot Trumps with traditional angels.February saw the premier issue of Robert Place's newsletter, The Restored Temple of Hermes. March saw the release of Robert Place's newest deck, The Buddha Tarot, and its companion book, The Buddha Tarot Companion. Shall we see where the Fool/Hero's Journey has taken Robert Place now?

Can you tell us how you became interested in the Tarot - especially about the dream that you had, and what it meant for you?

I have spoken of how the Tarot first came to me in a dream so often that it is hard to tell the story again in a way that makes it fresh. But, I will try.

In the summer of 1982, I had a dream in which I was walking through a brick building. It was an ordinary dream. Analyzing it later, I realized that it was about a new opportunity that was opening up for my career as a jeweler. It was not about the Tarot. In the middle of this dream, a phone rang. It was a dream phone but it startled and interrupted me the same way that a phone can when one is awake. I realized instantly that the phone was a link to something outside of by normal consciousness.

When I picked up the phone, a dream operator connected me to a secretary from a law firm in England. The secretary told me that I had an inheritance coming. She said that it would come from England in a box and that it is called the key. She added that I would know it when I saw it.

Within a few days my friend Scott came over with his new Waite-Smith Tarot deck. As he walked through the door, my head turned of its own accord and my eyes focused on what he was holding. It seemed that my unconscious had temporally taken control to focus my attention on this deck. Although this was not the first time I had seen a Tarot, I now saw it in a new light. I instantly recognized it as my "inheritance."

I was telling this story on the radio on the Woodstock Roundtable on WDST FM a few months ago and Doug, the host, asked me if Rod Serling showed up at this point. The story does seem fantastic like something from the Twilight Zone but I am not embellishing it. This is what happened.

Scott left with his deck that day but after he left I made up my mind that I would buy a Waite-Smith deck of my own. Before I accomplished that, another friend spontaneously gave me a Tarot deck. It was the traditional French deck, the Tarot of Marseilles. Later I bought the Waite-Smith deck.

I started using these two decks but primarily the Waite-Smith deck. At first, I did not want to read about the Tarot. I wanted to let the cards communicate with me directly without preconceptions. Because this tool was presented to me by my unconscious mind, I realized that it was a device for communicating with the unconscious and I did not want anything to interfere with the process. However, as I worked with the cards, I found that they opened an inquiry into the Western Mystical tradition. And, that inquiry led me to seek out the best information that I could find on alchemy, Neoplatonism, Hermeticism, Gnosticism, Christian Mysticism, Kabalah, and Renaissance iconography. I wanted to know who created the Tarot and understand what these creators were communicating.

How do you interact on a personal level with the Tarot? Is it more of a spiritual tool, a tool for meditation, a tool for personal growth, or an oracle of divination? Or can it be a combination of all of these things?

I do not think of these as entirely separate activities. Although most people equate divination with fortunetelling, it really means to contact the divine. We may contact the gods, saints, bodhisattvas or angels to get a forecast but primarily divination involves setting up a communication with the divine for the purpose of guidance. In the ancient world, divination through oracles was the way that people obtained advice from the gods and was considered the primary evidence for the existence of the gods. It is a type of prayer in which one gets an answer. It involves listening as well as talking.

I use the Tarot for communicating with my Higher Self. I may ask for advice on businesses as well as philosophy. The work of the ancient philosophers like Pythagoras and Plato cannot be placed in one box, under one label. Philosophy is practical and spiritual at the same time. Plato's Republic is a book about his ideal form of government but it is also about education and a map for progressing toward enlightenment. The Tarot shares this same holistic vision. When I use it to work on practical matters, the advice that it gives me also helps me to evolve to a more enlightened way of behaving.

How does the symbolism of Tarot fit into the manner in which you place Tarot in your life?

As an artist I have always been interested in mythological and symbolic images. So, the Tarot provides a natural collection of subjects for my work. But, I do not think of these figures as escapist fantasies. They speak of everyday realities that we all have to deal with.

The story in the trumps is about power, politics, sensuality, time and eventual decay. It is about finding an answer to the problem of life. "In an impermanent world, how do we find what is eternal and unchanging?" Or, "how does one conquer death?" This is the same question that all philosophers, mystics, and religious thinkers have attempted to answer. The Tarot's answer is that we must seek to experience the immensity of light and clarity that are within us. This is the mystic vision in which one comes to realize that there is no separation between the individual and the world.

Every time we use the Tarot for divination we are experiencing the vast inner wisdom that is available to us. We start to see that we are larger than our egos. There are parts of one's psyche that are connected to timeless wisdom. At times, the Tarot provides us with information about what is happening inside the psyches of others or it tells us what the eventual outcome of a course of action will be. This type of information is characterized as psychic. Psychic abilities tend to defy time and space. Through psychic activity we know things that would be impossible if we could not go beyond physical limitations. This is evidence that our minds are not limited by physical reality and it is the best evidence available to support the belief that the soul is eternal.

You have stated that you see Tarot being a manifestation of the popular culture of 15th century northern Italy. From this beginning, how do you see Tarot evolving into what it is today?

In the 15th century, trump cards were added to an ordinary four-suit deck of playing cards. This composite deck was the Tarot. The fifth trump suit represented a parade of allegorical figures that describe the mystical journey. There is evidence that the deck was used for divination but its main purpose was for playing a card game. Yet, in the Renaissance, even a deck of cards used for a game was seen as a suitable place to express a mystical vision through symbols and allegory. As the Tarot evolved, from the 15th century Italian decks to the 17th century French decks, the story was developed and enhanced. It picked up more alchemical symbolism and was influenced by the mystical philosophies that developed in the second half of the 15th century.

People often look at the multiplicity of Tarot decks available today and they think that we have stretched the Tarot in many different directions. Purists say that we are distorting the Tarot's message. Yet in many ways, the early Renaissance Tarot decks varied more widely than modern ones. They did not always have 22 cards in what we now call the major arcana and the cards were not always in the same order. In one example, the 15th century Sola Busca deck, the allegory that we usually find in the trumps was replaced with a parade of ancient heroes.

When the occultists discovered the Tarot in the 18th and 19th centuries, they intuitively and accurately perceived that the cards held the story of the mystic quest. They were familiar with the sequence of trumps in the Tarot of Marseilles. So, that deck came to be thought of as the standard and its order as the one and only.

In the 1800's, the French occultist Eliphas Levi was enamored with the Kabbalah and tried to synthesize all occult teachings into one Kabalistic system. He also became interested in the Tarot and for him to make it part of his synthesis he had to demonstrate that the Tarot was Kabalistic. He picked up on an idea that was mentioned before him by Court de Gebelin, namely, that the 22 trump cards are related to the 22 letters in the Hebrew alphabet. The Hebrew letters in the Kabalistic system are also each related to a sign of the zodiac, a planet, or an element. So, once the cards are assigned to the letters, they also are connected to the astrological system.

Many people still find this a satisfying way to think about the Tarot. But I find it disappointing. The symbolism of the Hebrew alphabet and the zodiac simply does not fit with the images that are in the Tarot trumps. Levi force fit it for the sake of his theory. This system of correspondences leads one away from the symbolism that is actually presented in the pictures on the cards. It denies the story that is there. It is based on the false idea that the Tarot was consistent in the number and ordering of the trumps and that this order is a secret code. At its worst, this type of thinking reduces the symbols in the Tarot to mere signs and stops one with interacting with the pictures. It is unlikely that Jewish Kabalists would have created a set of icons like the Tarot trumps because they felt that it was sacrilegious to create icons and the Christian Kabbala developed almost a century later than the Tarot.

Some people are enamored with the idea of unlocking a secret code that will give them mystical insight into the workings of the universe. However, I think that this not a true mystical quest. To understand what is in the Tarot, I feel that it is essential to look at its origins in the Italian Renaissance and study the iconography and symbolism of that time. They are related to the iconography of the period and depict an allegorical parade. The Renaissance was a time when the power of symbols and images was fully recognized. It was part of their attempt to reclaim the ancient Classical world. This is why the arts flourished in the Renaissance. By reclaiming the art and wisdom of the ancient world they also reclaimed the ancient mystical philosophy that was centered on the work of Plato. This is what we call Neoplatonism and it is this mystical Neoplatonism that is expressed in the Tarot.

In modern occult literature, this mystical philosophy has been labeled the Perennial Philosophy because we can see that it is archetypal and appears throughout time under many guises. The perception that the Tarot contains the Perennial Philosophy is also part of the occult view and this is accurate. Waite in particular realized that the Tarot contained the Perennial Philosophy. He has written in several places that he felt that there is no acceptable connection between the Tarot and the Hebrew alphabet. We can see that he tried to maintain the connections with the zodiac and the planets without the alphabet but his main concern was the expression of the mystical quest.

This is what I have been after in all of my decks and books. I have been attempting to uncover the original mystical message that was expressed in the Tarot and to honor all of the additions and insights that enhance that message.

Can you tell us a little bit about how you see the Hero's Journey through the Tarot?

The hero's journey has three parts. Plato associated these three parts with three separate aspects of the soul or three separate souls: the soul of appetite, the soul of will, and the soul of reason. Plato located these three soul centers in different parts of the body and I find that his description is one of the oldest references to what we now call the chakras.

The soul of appetite is located in the abdomen and the lower part of the torso. It is concerned with our hopes and desires, things like sensuality, prosperity and power. Many people attempt to satisfy this soul center and ignore the others. The soul of will is located in the heart. When this soul is activated, it is the true start of the hero's journey. The soul of will pulls us out of selfish concerns and makes us face our fears. The third soul the soul of reason is located in the head and at the crown opens up to higher consciousness. In the soul of reason we go beyond our hopes and fears and find the peaceful center. From this calm center we can get a taste of the bliss of higher consciousness.

In the early historic variations in the sequence of the trump cards, we can see that they all have this three-part structure in common. In the Tarot of Marseilles, the 21 numbered trumps can be divided into three groups of seven cards. And each group corresponds to one aspect of the soul. In the first group, we find a hierarchy of worldly rulers culminating in the Emperor and then the Pope. In Renaissance Italy, The Pope would have been seen as the highest of the kings. But, in the Tarot all of these figures are trumped by Cupid on the Lovers card. Cupid is the god of desire and he rules the soul of appetite. In the next group, we find figures representing time, fate, suffering, and death, these are the harsh realities that are the subjects of our fears. Interspersed with these cards are images of the virtues that the hero needs to develop to deal with his or her fears. The last group of seven starts with the Devil and ends with the World. It goes from bad to good. The World is a mandala that represents the mystic vision. In between, there are cards that represent the celestial hierarchy that forms a ladder to the heavens.

The Story of Buddha follows this same pattern closely. In the first part, He is born as Siddhartha, the prince, and lives a life of luxury and ease. In the second part, Siddhartha leaves home and becomes an ascetic. He is determined to save the world from suffering and death. To accomplish this he denies himself every pleasure including food and warmth. In the third part, he realizes that the ascetic life is just as egotistical as the life of a sensualist. Siddhartha sets out on the "middle path" and becomes a Buddha.

It is this archetypal structure that I found in the story of Buddha that allowed me to make a correlation between the Tarot trumps and his legend. But, what is amazing is how closely the details of his story fit the details that we find in the trumps. In other legends of heroes, such as Hercules, a hero who is actually depicted in the early decks, we only find some details but every major scene from Buddha's life that is depicted in Buddhist art is found in the Tarot, except for the last icon, the death of Buddha. To cover that I added one trump.

Do you feel that by focusing on the spiritual nature of the Tarot that it will gain wider acceptance - i.e. be viewed as less "heretical", less about Miss Cleo and more about inner peace?

That's right Bonnie. That is exactly what I am after. I feel that the popular image of the Tarot has been distorted by superstition and fear. The Tarot is a tool for helping us to develop intuition and for obtaining guidance and wisdom from one's inner guide. The fears that many so-called religious people have about the Tarot are based on ignorance and a distrust of their own inner nature. I cannot change all of the Tarot's detractors but I can see from the letters that I receive that I have helped many people come out of the closet about their interest in the Tarot. For the first time, they are able to read about it openly in the laundromat or show their deck to their grandmother and have her approve. When your Tarot is filled with pictures of saints or Buddhas, it is hard for any intelligent person to believe that it is the tool of the Devil.

On the other side, there are historians that feel that the occult interest in the Tarot is just plain stupid and that the game playing history of the deck proves that it is not intended to be a spiritual text. I think that my research into the historic roots of the Tarot has allowed those who view the Tarot as spiritual to feel confident that there is intelligence and scholarship backing their view.

How did "The Buddha Tarot" and its companion book evolve? I am fascinated by the corollary between the life story of Buddha and the Fool/Hero's Journey!

I woke up on Christmas morning in 1996, and was surprised by the realization that there was a perfect fit between the life of Buddha and the trumps. Rose Ann and I were staying at her parent's house in New Jersey. On Christmas Eve, I had been reading The Illustrated World's Religions by Huston Smith and went to bed after reading the section on Buddhism.

When I woke on Christmas morning, a correlation between the life of Buddha and the Tarot was all worked out in my mind. I could clearly see how the details of the story of Buddha's life fit together flawlessly with the Tarot trumps, illustrating that they are essentially the same stories. I had worked on it in my sleep but I could not remember the process only the result.

There were the four sights that convinced Siddhartha to leave his life of pleasure and his lover and embrace asceticism (or Strength): an old man (the original Hermit card which depicted a hunched old man with an hour glass), a suffering man (The Hanged Man), a corpse (Death), and a hermit (again The Hermit card). There was even the chariot that he used to ride to town to see the sights. Before this, his farther had ruled his life like a Pope and had been guiding him toward the role of Emperor. This effort culminated with his marriage to the beautiful Yasodhara, the future Empress.

Once he realized that the ascetic life was also a dead end, he embraced the virtue temperance and had to deal with the temptations of Mara, the Devil. Buddha remained undefeated after Mara's fiery attack (The Tower) and rose through various levels of enlightenment just as the Tarot depicted a hierarchy of celestial images leading to the mystical vision on the highest trump.

As I began to do research for the deck, I found that the connections between Buddha and the Tarot were more profound than I had realized at first.

The illustration that we find on the Tarot's World card, in the Tarot of Marseilles and the occult decks based on that model, is a quincunx, a type of mandala. It is a sacred pattern that depicts the symbols of the four evangelists, each assigned to one corner, and in the center we find a nude representing the spirit, the Soul of the World or "Anima Mundi," as the alchemists would call her. In the original Christian version of the icon, Christ would be in the center and the evangelists, represented by their angelic animal symbols, are spreading the message of Christ to each corner of the fourfold physical world. Through their association with the fixed signs of the zodiac they are also equated to the four seasons, the four elements, and every aspect of the physical world. In the Tarot, Christ is removed from his throne in the center and the nude representing the soul is placed there instead.

Like all mandalas this is a map of sacred or psychic reality that make use of a fourfold pattern to depict the world and thereby illustrate the center of the world, the sacred space where one connects with the spirit, the gods, or Buddha consciousness. In the hero's journey, the destination of the hero is always the sacred center. This is where the hero will find the magic healing elixir that is needed to complete his or her quest and cure what ails the world. The World card is a mandala but the entire Tarot deck also follows the same sacred structure. It has four minor suits representing the four directions, elements, seasons, social classes and other fourfold divisions. The trumps stand in the central position. They illustrate the hero's journey and they culminate with the World representing the sacred center and the goddess representing the elixir.

When Siddhartha became the Buddha, he woke up from the state of delusion that is normal consciousness and realized that he was one with all of reality. To demonstrate this, Buddhists say that when Siddhartha became the Buddha he became not just one Buddha but, to represent the divisions of the world into the four directions and the center, at least five Buddhas. These Buddhas are called the five Jinas. There is one for the center, Vairocana, who is colored white, and one for each of the four cardinal directions, Amoghasiddhi, the green Jina to the north; Aksobhya, the blue Jina to the east; Ratnasambhava, the yellow Jina to the south; and Amitabha, the red Jina to the west.

Each Jina has a female counterpart called a Sakti. Together they are like the King and Queen of their division of the world. They rule over a direction, an element, certain qualities, and each cures one of the five poisons. In The Buddha Tarot, each couple rules one of the suits. Each Jina has an animal protector, which is like the Knight, and a servant called a Dakini, which is like the Page. Each also has a particular magical tool which is their symbol, like a jewel or a red lotus. In the Buddha Tarot, these become the suit symbols.

In traditional Tibetan culture, artists create hand painted cards called tsakli. Unlike a mandala with its multiple imagery organized in a unified geometric pattern, each tsakli depicts just one sacred object, or deity. The tsakli are used in ritual and meditation to focus on the single element, but the same archetypal unity runs through the set of cards. They are a mandala broken into its separate parts, a mandala of cards. This is how I see the Tarot. The Tarot is a set of individual images that are derived from the synthesis that is Renaissance culture, but in the entire deck there is an archetypal pattern that is sacred and enlightening. When Siddhartha became the Buddha, his spiritual body took the form of the entire mandala. Buddha and the mandala are one and, in a sense, because the Tarot shares that sacred pattern, Buddha became the Tarot. The Buddha Tarot simply sheds light on what was always there.

What are some of the techniques that you would suggest for making the best use of the "Buddha Tarot"?

You can buy the deck separately from the book. The deck comes with a little white book that provides lots of information on the images and you can use the deck with this little white book. However, it is not the best way. I recommend buying the book with the deck.

The Buddhist names and symbols may seem unfamiliar at first but they are not hard to learn. Some people have said that this is not a deck for beginners. But Buddhist terms and images are not familiar to most experienced Tarot users either. The beginner and the advanced student are both on the same footing. Everything one needs to know to use the deck is provided in the book and in the book I have shown how Buddhist symbolism is often similar to Western symbolism. We have the same four elements the same sacred map of the psyche that is commonly called the mandala. There is also a glossary of terms and a timeline to help with history. If one reads the section in the book about each card while one is doing a reading the symbolism will quickly become familiar for both the beginner and the advanced Tarotist.

I had to read the book myself when I first started using the deck. I was amazed at how the Buddhist quotations and wisdom that I had included in the text took on a new life and meaning when they were being applied to real life situations. It is one thing to sit comfortably and read about the story that Buddha told of a man who had a precious jewel sewn into his clothes but because he was unaware of it worked as a slave out of fear of starving. And, it is another thing to read that same story when one is afraid that one's livelihood is being threatened.

I find that this deck adds a comfort and serenity to the reading. This comes form the Buddhist teachings. I have also found that when used with the book it gives healing advice based on Ayurveda, the ancient Indian healing system. This is something that I had not realized would happen when I wrote it.

Before we part, is there any wisdom that you would like to share with our Tarot audience - about your prior work, your current deck, your newsletter or any other current or upcoming projects?

Yes, I did start a newsletter, called The Restored Temple of Hermes, and anyone that is interested in receiving it can send an e-mail to me requesting it. I stated the newsletter for the benefit of my students. It lists where I will be teaching and each issue will have an article and the answer to a question. The first issue has an article that I wrote about Rip Van Winkle and manages to make a thematic connection between his story and the story of Christ.

In November I have a book coming out called The Tarot: History, Symbolism, and Divination. It is being published by Tarcher, a division of Penguin Putnam and It is my first book that is not connected to one of my decks. It focuses on the Waite-Smith deck and it will have the most complete discussion of my theories on the Tarot that are in print. The publisher plans on it becoming a classic reference for the study of the Tarot.

The last thing I would like to say is that magic is the thing that falls in the cracks between the categories that we use to box up reality. It is not just "outside the box" it shows that the box was an illusion, something that never really existed.

All of my work is about a magical holistic way of thinking. The Tarot of the Saints is not just about Christianity but it shows how Christianity and pre-Christian pagan religion overlap. It also shows that the creators of the Tarot were making a synthesis of both. The Buddha Tarot is not just about Buddhism. It is about how much Buddhism and Western mysticism are the same. It is about things in our culture that we have forgotten about and how Pythagoras was a Western Buddha.

I want to thank Mr. Place for agreeing to be interviewed. I appreciate his sharing of his time, as well as the sharing of his wisdom. I look forward to Robert Place's newest book - sight unseen, I agree with his publishers that it will indeed become a classic Tarot reference!

© Bonnie Cehovet

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.

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