Buddha Tarot by Robert M. Place
Review by Lee Bursten

After opening the deck and examining the cards, I am again reminded of why I am so enamored of Robert Place’s artwork.  The clean lines, the cool, serene coloring, and the exquisitely precise composition which I loved in Place’s prior works (Alchemical Tarot, Angels Tarot and Tarot of the Saints) are put to good use in this latest deck. 

Actually, in The Buddha Tarot, Place’s seamless combining of his usual style with a somewhat modified Asian style achieves a synthesis which in my opinion places it on an even higher level of artistic achievement than his previous decks.  An example is The Invalid (Hanged Man), a virtuoso juxtaposition of drama and serenity. 

Another example is The Corpse (Death).  I’m not enough of an artist or enough of a Buddhist to say why, but this card seems to capture perfectly what I understand to be the Buddhist attitude toward death, that is, as something that frightens us only because of our ego’s limited viewpoint.  Interestingly, the hacked-off tree in the background of the Corpse card is a symbol borrowed from traditional depictions of the Hanged Man.  Likewise, in the Sun card, the striking facing-down image of the Sun is taken from an early sheet of printed tarot cards, circa 1500.

In The Chakras (Star), the Buddha is shown sitting on the coils of the seven-headed King of the Serpents, who shows his respect for the Buddha by protecting his head from the rain.  This is a striking image which for me recalls the same scene from the film “Little Buddha.” 

Although the theme of this deck is ostensibly Buddhism, the real point of the deck is to demonstrate how mythic and archetypal themes from one culture can be correlated with those of different cultures.  In this case, the author/artist finds an amazing number of correspondences between the life of Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha) and the tarot’s Major Arcana, and between the mythic traditions of Buddhism and the structure of the tarot deck as a whole.

Place is quite clever in showing how the life of the Buddha can be broken down and represented by the 22 Majors.  The Descent from Tusita Heaven (Fool) begins the story, showing the reincarnated Buddha, about to begin his life as Siddhartha, descending a heavenly staircase with a white elephant.  The elephant serves two purposes on this card; it refers to the Buddhist legend of Siddhartha’s mother being impregnated by a white elephant, white at the same time it reminds us of the dog who accompanies the traditional tarot Fool.  Place has ingeniously chosen to show the elephant as an infant.  Its small size allows it to act as a stand-in for the traditional dog, while its youth serves as a reminder of the card’s usual associations with innocence, as well as the image’s significance as a birth myth.

In this deck, the Magician becomes Asita, the soothsayer who sets the story in motion by examining the baby Siddhartha and proclaiming his high destiny.  Next we’re introduced to the main characters.  Siddhartha’s mother, Maya (High Priestess), is shown giving birth to the future Buddha.  We jump ahead in time to meet the young adult Yasodhara (Empress), Siddhartha’s wife.  Siddhartha (Emperor) is now also a young adult.  Suddhodhana, Siddhartha’s father, the ruler of a small kingdom, takes the role of the Hierophant, as he vows to surround his son in an artificial, luxuriant environment to prevent him from fulfilling his destiny as a spiritual savior.

Card VI, The Lovers, shows Siddhartha beginning to look away from his sleeping wife and son, as he begins to wish to explore the world outside his artificial kingdom.  Siddhartha’s Visit (Chariot) reflects Siddhartha’s legendary journey into the city surrounding the palace, where he witnesses suffering and death for the first time.  In Karma (Justice), he saddles his horse and leaves the palace forever to embark on his journey to Buddhahood.

The next few cards show various stages on Siddhartha’s journey, as he explores the different spiritual paths available to him in that time and place (northern India and Nepal circa 563 B.C.), culminating in the night when he sat down beneath the Bodhi tree and vowed not to rise again until he had achieved enlightenment.  Appropriately, four cards are devoted to this climactic stage of Siddhartha’s journey.  These four (traditionally, the Tower, Star, Moon and Sun cards) all show variations of Siddhartha meditating beneath the tree, and represent different stages of the transformation from Siddhartha to Buddha.   

The Sun card shows the Buddha and a woman in a sexual embrace, and might give pause to some who have a superficial familiarity with Buddhism, since it seems to show the Buddha attaining enlightenment by indulging in pleasure of the senses.  However, as The Buddha Tarot Companion (sold separately) tells us, this is a standard Buddhist image which symbolizes the Buddha’s final enlightenment, when his masculine and feminine aspects embrace each other.  In fact, the feminine aspect of the Buddha, called a Sakti, plays an important role in the structure of the Minor Arcana.

The story culminates in The First Sermon (Judgement) to his followers.  The traditional World card is represented by White Tara, a goddess of the sacred center, purity and truth.  Finally, Place has added a 23rd Major card, Parinirvana, which shows the Buddha’s death in a typically low-key fashion, as he reclines under a tree whose leaves scatter in the breeze. 

The story of the Buddha’s life is, of course, a mythic analogy for our ego consciousness, which is born from the void, grows up believing in its own reality and invincibility (like Siddhartha in his father’s palace), entertains doubts about that reality and invincibility, forsakes that smaller viewpoint to investigate the world, swings between extremes of indulgence and asceticism before finding virtue in moderation, discovers impermanence, and finally (hopefully) reaches enlightenment.  In The Buddha Tarot’s Major Arcana, Place effectively shows that this can be viewed as simply another version of the Fool’s mythic journey as portrayed by the traditional tarot. 

For the Minor Arcana, Place relies on a Buddhist symbolic structure referred to as the Jinas.  The Jinas are the Buddha separated into five separate aspects.  Each of the Jinas is traditionally associated with five directions, colors, and elements, and symbols, and in Place’s system, these are correlated with the five tarot suits (the Majors counting as a fifth suit).  The symbol for the Jina assigned to the Majors is a wheel.  The other four symbols are vajras, jewels, lotuses, and double vajras.  Place assigns the East Jina (color blue, element air) to Swords and thus Vajras; the South Jina (yellow, earth) to Coins, thus Jewels; the West Jina (red, fire) to Staffs, thus Lotuses; and the North Jina (green, water) to Cups, thus Double Vajras.  The appropriate colors are shown on the suit cards by a border of that color. 

Each Jina, besides being associated with one of the five Buddhas, is also associated in traditional mythology with three other beings; a Sakti (the female aspect of the Buddha), an animal, and a Dakini (the Buddhist equivalent of an angel, who represents “an aspect of the Buddha manifesting in the world through our minds […] they inspire, teach, and admonish).  These four entities become the deck’s Court cards:  Buddhas (Kings), Saktis (Queens), Animals (Knights), and Dakinis (Pages).  The correlation of Dakinis with Pages is an interesting reminder of the Golden Dawn’s view of Pages (or Princesses) as representing the Earth element and thus symbolizing the energy of the suit made manifest in the world. 

As you can see, the degree of similarity between the structure of the Jinas and the structure of a tarot deck is astounding, although it takes someone as astute as Place to uncover it. 

I find the art on the pip cards (Ace through Ten) to be very interesting.  Like a few pre-existing decks (the Old English Tarot, the Nigel Jackson Tarot, and Place’s own Tarot of the Saints), numeric arrangements of pip symbols (reminiscent of pre-1910 decks) co-exist with a pictorial scene, although in The Buddha Tarot the scene may show people engaged in an activity, or it may simply show a single object, animal or symbol.   

In the Nine of Vajras (Nine of Swords), a dragon is shown about to swallow the sun and moon.  Such a dream or vision “is believed to foretell serious threat or injury.”  In the Nine of Double Vajras (Nine of Cups), a hand is shown in a gesture called the Victory Mudra, which represents “faith, resolution and confidence.”  Although most of the pip cards have the pip symbols on top and the scene or image on the bottom, this is one of the few exceptions, which creates visual interest and relieves the somewhat monotonous pattern of pip symbols.  Finally, I’ve chosen to scan the Ace of Jewels simply for its beauty (the jewels shown in this deck are tear-shaped).  Interestingly, although the suit of Jewels (Coins) is associated with the element of Earth, on this Ace the jewel is surrounded by flames, which according to the Companion represent power (the jewels on the other cards of the suit lack flames). 

As you can see, the pip cards follow the Rider-Waite-Smith meaning pattern in a generalized way, but there are many subtle differences.  The Ten of Jewels (Ten of Coins), for example, is a positive card in the RWS, but in The Buddha Tarot the divinatory meaning speaks of greed and hoarding, which actually is quite appropriate given the Buddhist theme of the deck. 

The Little White Booklet (LWB) that comes with the deck is 69 pages (unnumbered, alas!), and consists of excerpts from The Buddha Tarot Companion.  A surprising amount of the text from the book makes its way into the LWB, making it one of the best-organized and most useful LWBs on the market.  It includes a summary of the life of the Buddha, a short explication of the Four Noble Truths which the Buddha enumerated in his first sermon, and an explanation of the structure of the deck.  Then each Major card is covered, providing both its place in the story of Siddhartha’s life, as well as a divinatory meaning.  Then the entries for the Minor cards provide a brief explanation of the scenes’ symbolism and brief divinatory meanings.  Then two spreads are explained, a nine-card Relationship Spread (which shows the querent in relationship to anything, whether a person, situation or thing), and a 21-card Chakra Spread, which includes a quite extensive explanation of reading technique.

Finally, there is a meditation process described which involves laying out the entire deck in a mandala pattern.  Again, this process is quite in-depth, taking up seven pages of the LWB (not counting two pages for the diagram). 

Again, I must compliment the author and publisher for putting together such a thorough and complete LWB.  While I would recommend Place’s separately available book, The Buddha Tarot Companion, to anyone as a fascinating and indispensable resource, at the same time I can honestly say that one could read with this deck perfectly well by using just the LWB.

The deck also comes with a deck bag made out of a black, transparent material.  The bag is quite stylish and has a definite Asian look to it.  The fact that you can see the deck when it’s inside the bag is a nice touch. 

I wasn’t particularly pleased with the packaging.  The box is large (8-1/2” by 5-1/2” by 1-3/4”) and shows a large, striking image from the Sun card, but half of the inside of the box is taken up by a smaller, empty white deck box (the useless thing that Llewellyn is in the habit of providing for its latest decks).  The other half of the larger box is taken up by the deck, which is much smaller than the space provided for it.  The outer box doesn’t have enough inner support from its contents, and the result is that when the box arrived in the mail, it was slightly crushed.  I imagine it wouldn’t fare much better amid the rough and tumble of the bookstores. 

I attempted an experimental Relationship Spread with only the cards and the LWB.  My intention for this review had been to express my ambivalence about the pip cards – while I admire the Marseille-like collections of suit symbols on an aesthetic level, I thought I would miss the mysterious, evocative and psychologically fully-developed scenes on the RWS (Place has done only one deck in this more-illustrated style, the Alchemical Tarot).  Much to my surprise, however, I found that these pips are capable of giving an interesting, layered, and fully satisfying reading.  Place favors simple spreads of few positions, and placing three cards in each position.  Reversals are not used.  The resonance of the mythic journey shown in the Majors, as well as the evocative nature of the traditional Buddhist symbols, scenes, and gestures on the Minors, serves to replace the complexity which would ordinarily have been lost by using simple scenes and no reversals.  As in his Tarot of the Saints, the author/artist places great emphasis on the directions in which the figures face in each three-card set, and points out specific instances in his card descriptions in the Companion and even in the LWB, and this also serves to increase the depth of the reading. 

The Buddha Tarot is a superlative achievement.  The art is captivating and the concept is solid.  If you are attracted to this deck but aren’t familiar with Buddhism, don’t worry; the LWB is enough to get you reading with confidence.  And if you choose to buy The Buddha Tarot Companion, which I recommend, it will tell you everything you would want or need to know, unless of course you were inspired to go beyond this deck and study Buddhism itself.

Click here to read another review of The Buddha Tarot.

The Buddha Tarot by Robert M. Place
Publisher: Llewellyn Worldwide
ISBN #: 0-7387-0441-5 

Lee Bursten has been studying the Tarot for 25 years. He is the author of a new tarot deck which will be published by Lo Scarabeo in 2004 or 2005. He owns over 170 Tarot and oracle decks and over 50 books on esoteric subjects including the Tarot, playing cards and astrology, and has written over 70 Tarot deck reviews for Tarot Passages.  He is available for professional e-mail readings at Aeclectic Tarot.  


Images © 2004 Llewellyn Worldwide
Review © 2004 Lee Bursten
Page © 2004 Diane Wilkes