Are the Enlightened Selective Protectors?

Question: A temple is promoting beliefs that some Buddhas and Bodhisattvas protect people born in certain years. They have booklets in print and online on such ideas too. Are these beliefs Buddhist?

Answer: The short answer is that these beliefs are not Buddhist. Here is an analysis of a sample booklet, using the one for those born in the year of the tiger as a reference.

[1] There are no sutra quotes in the book linking any of the 12 animal signs of the Chinese zodiac to any Bodhisattva. P.8 says the book is to help relate the 12 signs to the original vows of the related Bodhisattvas, so that devotees can benefit. However, there are no vows of any Bodhisattvas stated, that link them to beings born of the 12 signs. Just because this belief is found in Japanese culture doesn’t make it true.

[2] All Bodhisattvas’ vows are based on universal compassion to help all the beings they can. How is it possible that each of the listed great Bodhisattva helps only those born under 3 signs? The book limits the compassion of the Bodhisattvas, while potentially disconnecting readers from getting to know other Bodhisattvas (who are mistaken to be not ‘their protectors’). It can be disturbing to readers when they ‘realise’ the Bodhisattvas they are used to are not ‘their protectors’, while they have to learn about another ‘foreign’ Bodhisattva, whom they might have less affinity with. It is better to create a single book on all the Bodhisattvas and state that they can help all beings.

[3] In the quotes from <<大方等大集经>> on p.14-15, there is mention of 12 animals, but no mention of them being linked to the Chinese zodiac or the characteristics of those born in the respective years. In other words, the sutra does not affirm any ‘truth’ of the zodiac, which is commonly taken for granted. Also, not all the 12 zodiac animals are found in the sutra. The tiger is missing, and there is the lion instead. This means it might have been rationalised to match the animals in the sutra to that in the zodiac.

[4] In the Medicine Buddha Sutra, the 12药叉 (Yakshas) are not linked to the 12 animals. They are associated only later by ‘believers’. This is also mentioned so on p.18-19. Just because it was traditional for some to link the Yashas to the signs does not mean it is true or that it should not be questioned. The book mentions that the 12 Yakshas are linked to the 12 periods of each day, the 12 months of each year and the 12 animals. This is actually arbitrary matching. For example, if there are 14 Yakshas, no one will do any matching. Another example is that though there are 4 great Bodhisattvas in Chinese Mahayana Buddhism, no one links them to the 4 seasons, because it would feel too odd. As such, it is human-nature to match what they are more comfortable with, to create some illusory sense of ‘order’ that connect different sets of things.

[5] On p.21, there is affirmation of truth of the Chinese zodiac when those born of the sign of tiger are described in a matter-of-factly manner. However, this is not stated in any sutra. Even if there is some general truth, there should be emphasis on how to actively change one’s character for the better via study and practice of the Dharma – beyond just getting blessings by praying and chanting.

[6] On p.58-59, there is a brief description of how to practise visualisation of the Bodhisattva. It is actually difficult for most beginners to do so. The illustrated picture is too cartoonish and disrespectful for proper use in meditation too.

[7] On p.61, there is mention of where to offer to one’s ‘protector’ Bodhisattva (for $88) – at the temple, while promising sutras chanted, with one’s name under the seat of the Bodhisattva image, with another promise of a smooth life till Buddhahood is attained. Is this too big a promise? Is this reinventing an ‘exclusive’ new Buddhist custom in Singapore? The truth is, one can do the related practice at home too, with or without the image – and this should be encouraged.

[8] The book seems to be an attempt to make the beliefs written within seem officially Buddhist. Is this creating new dogma or revising questionable old traditions – to make money? (There is an appeal to gather funds for printing on p.1) If so, it’s a faulty idea. There might be some good intentions to bring in some Dharma by printing and circulating such books, but it is at the high cost of mixing it up with non-Dharma. This is not worth it, because it can confuse readers.

[This article has been sent to the temple and is awaiting a reply.]