Buddha Tarot by Robert Place
Review by Diane Wilkes

If you would like to purchase this deck, click here.

If you would like to purchase The Buddhist Tarot Companion: A Mandala of Cards (without the deck), click here.

It is always a cause for celebration when Robert Place comes out with a new deck, if only because he also writes a companion book that allows us to make deep and serious connections with traditional tarot to other subjects. He last did this with his Tarot of the Saints, where he linked the 78 cards to individual saints. Previous decks have seen him work similarly with alchemy and angels. But who would have come up with the life of the Buddha as a rich storyline with spiritual underpinnings to match the tarot? I assert it could only be Robert Place.

And of course, once you start reading the companion book for this deck, the parallels seem so obvious. Buddha is not a name; it means "one who is awake" and is the title given to Siddhartha, the primordial Buddha whose story is depicted through the Major Arcana. Many who traverse the Fool's Journey would say that the tarot is a great awakener, that it is a royal road that wakens us from our ignorance. Quite fitting, wouldn't you say?

For those who have studied Joseph Campbell and/or are familiar with the many myths that tell of the Hero's Journey, Siddhartha's story echoes many of the same chords. (Even those who simply saw "The Sword in the Stone" can relate Siddhartha's victory in the martial arts competition to win Princess Yasodhara to Arthur's claiming of Excalibur!)

When one looks at the Buddha's journey throughout this particular Major Arcana structure, one can not forget that Place is a historian and a scholar. His framework owes more to the earliest tarot decks and the rules of Tarocchi than the Golden Dawn-Rider-Waite-Smith (RWS) schema. Hence, the Fool card is described in part as "the most worthless card, as well as the most valuable; it is the first and the last." Yet Place is also a reader and recognizes the need for "real world" interpretation--he adds, "Pay attention to what the Fool is facing to determine which meaning is being suggested..."

In this deck, The Fool shows Siddhartha in his last incarnation. The Magician (The Seer) is Asita, the wise man who tells Siddhartha's father about Siddhartha's future choices. The image is a bit disconcerting, as it looks like one of Saints from Place's last deck wandered into this deck by mistake. Either that, or the artist considers himself the Magician and "places" himself in the deck. Normally, that wouldn't be a problem, but it's a bit jarring to see this bearded, red-caped Caucasian in the midst of all these Asian faces and images.

Place renames all of the cards to conform with the Buddha's story. Note that the deck has the standard numbering even though the corresponding story isn't completely linear, chronologically speaking. Also note that there is an extra card, numbered XXII, called Parinirvana.

The Majors are as follows:

Traditional Card Title Buddha Tarot Title
The Fool The Descent From Tusita Heaven - The Fool
The Magician Asita - The Seer
The High Priestess Maya - The Mother
The Empress Yasodhara - The Future Empress
The Emperor Siddhartha - The Future Emperor
The Hierophant Suddhodhana - The Father
The Lovers Siddhartha and Yasodhara - The Lovers
The Chariot Siddhartha's Visit - The Chariot
Justice Karma - Justice
The Hermit The Old Man and the Sadhu - The Hermit
The Wheel of Fortune Reincarnation - The Wheel of Life
Strength Siddhartha Cuts His Hair - Strength
The Hanged Man The Invalid - The Suffering Man
Death The Corpse - Death
Temperance The Middle Path - Temperance
The Devil Mara - The Devil
The Tower The Flaming Disk - The Tower
The Star The Chakras - The Morning Star
The Moon Wesak - The Full Moon
The Sun Buddha and Sakti - The Sun
Judgment The First Sermon - Judgment
The World White Tara - The World

The High Priestess, usually seen as a virginal card, depicts Maya, who supposedly became pregnant in a dream, so that the "virgin birth" myth is re-enacted with Siddhartha's emergence into the world. The Emperor and Empress are Siddhartha and his bride, respectively--and his father, who wishes him to be a warrior/leader and not a spiritual master, is in the place of the Hierophant. This last correspondence seems a bit forced to me.

The Lovers (at top) features our protagonist and his bride again, the key difference being that Siddhartha Junior has been born. The next few cards illustrate Siddhartha's path away from the known, his kingdom, his wife and child. The Hanged Man (The Invalid) through Temperance show the Buddha's spiritual evolution from asceticism to the "middle path" and then his final trials and realizations. The extra card, Parinirvana, is the death of the corporeal life of Siddhartha and the ascension to his final reward. It leads into the Fool's state in much the same way that the Fool serves as both the Alpha and the Omega in the traditional tarot.

The Minor Arcana addresses the concept that, although Siddhartha is the Adi (primordial) Buddha, there are five great Buddhas called the "Jinas." Each one (and each suit in the deck) embodies a direction, a color, an element, and one of the Five Precepts and Five Dharmas; they also each represent one of the five wisdoms and cure one of the five poisons. Each Jina has a magical tool--and in the Buddha Tarot, Lotuses correspond to Wands, Double Vajras, Cups, Vajras, Swords, and Jewels to Pentacles. While this may make sense on a spiritual level, Lotuses look and have Cup-like qualities, and Double Vajras resemble Wands more than a many-petaled flower. In addition to telling the story of Siddhartha, the Majors represent Vairocana, the Buddha of the center.

While Buddhas are both masculine and feminine, they are usually depicted as males. The Court Cards are as follows: Buddha is in the traditional role of King and his Sakti (they all have Saktis) corresponds to the Queen. The Buddha Tarot replaces Knights with the particular Buddha's Animal Guardian and substitutes the Buddha's specific Dakini for the Page. While there is some linkage to more traditional versions of these cards, I think the novice reader would have a problem adjusting to the difference in this deck, particularly in the area of the Court Cards.

The Minors are somewhat simple in design. While they are not mere pip cards, the icon of the suit is always displayed in the number of the card, so that the Three of Lotuses, for example, has three large flowers that dominate the card. Beneath the flowers, there is an image of a man holding a fish over a body of water. Not only is the image quite simple, but it only takes up a quarter of the card's space. The message of the card is that a man is freeing a fish, showing love and compassion--which are the key to renewed energy and freedom. One can see the link to the Three of Wands in the RWS deck, but it's fairly oblique.

Other of the Minors are more directly connected to the RWS deck meanings. You can see the stance of the man in the Four of Jewels is akin to the withholding miser of the Four of Pentacles in the RWS deck; the prosperous individual giving to a beggar in the Six of Jewels evokes a similar scene in the RWS Six of Pentacles. 

If you choose not to purchase and/or read the companion book for this deck, fear not. Robert Place would never leave you in the lurch. The little white booklet (LWB) that accompanies the deck weighs in at over 70 pages, and it includes card interpretations that are more in-depth than most LWBs. It also provides a history of Siddhartha (the Buddha), The Four Noble Truths (addressed in his first sermon at Deer Park--no, not the bottled water company!), a short introduction to the Buddha Tarot, and three layouts: The Relationship Spread, The Chakra Reading (which requires 21 cards--a three card message for each of the chakras), and the even lengthier Mandala Meditation, which uses all of the cards. It is not a spread, per se, but allows you to "gain a deeper magical understanding of this deck and the archetypal forces that it represents" by studying (with detachment) the cross pattern of the four elements within the circular story of the Buddha's journey. 

The first time I used this deck was for a one card reading about a mundane matter. I was feeling unwell, as was a friend of mine who had planned to visit me. Because it takes her over an hour each way in travel time, it is a journey she doesn't take lightly. I pulled a card as to what we should know about getting together that day, and received Mamaki: The Sakti of Jewels (which loosely corresponds to the Queen of Pentacles). Among other things Place writes in the LWB, he says about this card that, "Mamaki's wisdom is that to help others is actually to help ourselves...this card represents sympathy and empathy." This seemed to indicate that she should come, but since we both felt pretty ill, we postponed the visit. In retrospect, we would not have helped each other by trying to have fun when we were both sick!

More interesting to me, though, was the image of the card, which shows a woman holding what Place says are two peacock feathers. They look more like fronds to me (they are uniformly green, not vari-colored). But the scene made me think of my friend, because Mamaki could also look as if she were knitting, a hobby my friend has turned into an art form. As the recipient of some of her creations, I can see that on a deeper level, her knitting is an act that benefits us both, which seems to strongly echo this card's message. Because Place's art is often quite spare in the Buddha Tarot cards, we really have to work hard with the images we have and be willing to make creative and psychic leaps in our interpretations.

The artwork is excellent and the quality of the cards is also excellent, as one would expect from a Llewellyn deck. Robert Place's artwork is, as always, vivid and direct. This deck contains a lot of animal illustrations, which I find quite charming.  One unique and welcome addition is that this deck comes with a simple muslin bag that gathers firmly at the top with a ribbon, as well as the standard white box for transport purposes. My bag is black, but I understand that it comes in other colors. Also included with the deck is an extra card that gives the layout for the Relationship Spread that is explained more fully in the LWB. The card backs depict the symbol of the fifth Buddha, Vairocana--the Wheel, embedded in a flowering lotus. They subtly emphasize the mandala qualities of this deck.

This is not a deck for beginners, nor is it the world's greatest reading deck. It is, instead, for tarot enthusiasts who are looking for something to expand their horizons, or for those looking to combine Buddhism with tarot. If one is more of an art historian than a reader, The Buddha Tarot Companion might be a more practical expenditure than the deck itself. But make no mistake: this fascinating and accessible book is bound to be seminal in the way scholars look at the tarot for some time to come, so eschew it at your peril.

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


  Yes No
78 cards X  
Reversible Backs   X
Strength VIII, Justice XI   X
Color Images X  
Standard (RWS) Titles of the Major Arcana   X
Traditional (RWS) Suits (Rods/Wands, Cups/Chalices, Swords, Pentacles/Disks)   X
Traditional (RWS) Golden Dawn Suit-Element Attributions   X
Standard dimensions (approx. 4 3/4" X 2 3/4")                   X  
Smaller than standard                                    X
Larger than standard                                                X

If you would like to read another review of this deck, click here.

If you would like to purchase this deck, click here.

If you would like to purchase The Buddhist Tarot Companion: A Mandala of Cards (without the deck), click here.

Images 2004 Llewellyn Worldwide
Review and page 2004 Diane Wilkes