Osho Zen Tarot - Review by Lee A. Burstenoshoz11.jpg (13407 bytes)

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

This deck by Ma Deva Padma was published in 1994 by St. Martin’s Press. It was produced by the Osho International Foundation, an organization in India dedicated to the teachings of the Zen master Osho, who died in 1990. The deck is specifically designed to communicate aspects of Osho’s teachings.

For me, the outstanding feature of this deck is the stunning artwork. Accomplished with airbrush, the quality of art is probably the best I have seen in any deck. The drawings and colors are absolutely exquisite. The deck is worth buying for the artwork alone.

In terms of structure it is a standard Tarot deck. There are 78 cards, 22 Major cards and 56 Minor, including 16 Court cards. The suits are Fire (Wands), Water (Cups), Clouds (Swords) and Rainbows (Pentacles). The Court cards are King, Queen, Knight and Page.

The Majors have all been renamed, except for the Fool and the Lovers. They are:

As can be seen, the titles are all indicative of the deck’s Zen viewpoint. Although most of the cards can be related to their traditional counterparts (for example, Conditioning, showing an unhappy lion forced to wear sheep’s clothing, illustrates that aspect of the Devil which is caused by suppressing our innate desires in order to conform to society), some (such as number V, No-Thingness, a completely black, blank card) are completely new concepts.

The deck uses an interesting device to identify the suits from each other and from the Majors. Each card has a four-sided diamond shape at the bottom. These diamonds are color-coded depending on the suit. The Water diamonds are blue; Fire, red; Clouds, grey; and Rainbows, rainbow-colored. The Major diamonds are purple. These diamonds contain the number of the card; Arabic numerals for the pips, and Roman numbers for the Majors. All cards contain a descriptive title or keyword underneath the diamond. For the Minors, these are the only identifying features. For example, the 6 of Rainbows has the number 6 inside the diamond and underneath, the keyword, in this case Compromise. Since the scenes on the Minors do not incorporate suit symbols, one must depend on the colors of the diamonds to tell you what suit the cards belong to.

The Court cards follow the same scheme, except instead of a number, the diamonds enclose a small white triangle. The triangle points to the left for Pages, right for Knights, down for Queens, and up for Kings. Again, the only writing on the card is a keyword, for example Trust for the Knight of Water. This means one must learn the symbolism of the triangles and diamonds thoroughly to understand what card one is looking at.

The scenes on the Minors are completely different from the Waite-Smith scenes yet seem to have been derived from them to a greater or lesser degree in terms of interpretation. For example, the 2 of Water shows two trees growing together and is named Friendliness. The 3 of Water shows three women dancing in the rain and is titled Celebration. Because of the Zen outlook, there is a great psychological subtlety in many of the cards. For instance, the 7 of Water shows a man and a woman looking at each other, while distorted images of each face float in front of the actual faces. These images represent what each sees in the other, thus emphasizing how different our perceptions of the people around us may be from how they perceive themselves. The title of the card is Projection.

The 5 of Rainbows, The Outsider, shows a small child clutching the bars of a locked iron gate, looking at the rainbow colors beyond. The 6 of Rainbows, Compromise, shows two hulking warriors who out of necessity have put aside their differences enough to touch pinkies, although without looking at each other. The 4 of Clouds, Postponement, a wonderful picture, shows a black and white woman in a black and white landscape, staring at a framed picture of the landscape in color. My absolute favorite cards in this deck are the Ace of Water (Going With the Flow) and the Knight of Water (Trust). These cards, showing human figures flying or resting in water or air, are gorgeous in their simplicity.

I actually prefer the Minor cards in this deck to the Major cards. Beautiful as they are, there is some tension between the traditional Tarot concepts and the Zen concepts that the author wishes to impart. Some cards are more successful than others. Inner Voice is a splendid representation of the High Priestess (the dolphins remind me of the Priestess card in the Voyager deck). Creativity, as well, would be a perfect Empress card of any deck. Other cards are conceptually related but illustrate the concepts in different ways. For example, card VIII, Courage, simply shows a daisy growing out of a stone wall.

There are six Major cards that as far as I can see have no connection whatsoever to the traditional Tarot, for example card XI, Breakthrough, showing a person triumphantly breaking through glass or stone. This is a problem for me, because this says to me that it was designed as a learning tool for Zen primarily, and merely borrows the structure of the Tarot deck for convenience. This diminishes its usefulness for those of us who are not necessarily devotees of Zen.

My other problem with this deck is the portrayal of the Clouds (Swords) suit. Except for two cards, the cards in this suit are extremely negative. In Waite-Smith derived decks, the 7 of Swords can stand for several related meanings, including positive and negative ones: sneakiness, theft, diplomacy, tact, cleverness, acting alone, etc. In this deck the title is Politics, and the picture shows a sleazy-looking politician who smiles at us grotesquely while a rattlesnake holds up an innocent-looking mask. This picture is certainly creative and interesting to look at, but I think it narrows the interpretive possibilities by showing such a negative bias.

The reason for this bias is that the conscious mind is supposedly looked down upon by Zen practitioners, and thus most of the Clouds cards, especially the Page of Clouds, are frighteningly negative. I say "supposedly" because, although I am no expert, I have done some reading about Zen, and it seems to me that this deck’s bias against mentality is really a rather unsophisticated use of Zen concepts. Products of the conscious mind are indeed treated in Zen practice with less than utter serious, and in meditation an effort is made to quiet the mind or to allow the mind to quiet itself. But to hate the mind or to vilify it is just another way of allowing the mind to express itself negatively, that is, turning its searchlight on itself and reveling in the same negativity that we are trying to avoid in the first place.

One of the things that drew me to the Tarot in the first place is the concept of balance embodied in certain Major cards and in the four suits, each of which is given equal weight as a different yet equally valuable part of life. While it is true that in Waite-Smith derived decks there are many negative Swords cards, Pamela Smith’s scenes are ambiguous enough to allow positive perspectives to emerge.

I would definitely recommend this deck for its spectacular art, and for those who study Zen it would be an interesting experiment. As a reading deck, I have my doubts.

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

Review Copyright 1999 Lee A. Bursten

Images Copyright

Osho Zen Tarot
St. Martin’s Press
175 Fifth Avenue
ISBN 0-312-11733-7

Page Copyright 1999 by DianeWilkes