STACKING THE DECK
Devout Buddhist Amnart Klanpracha has combined dhamma with tarot cards for a unique project that seeks to add a little wisdom to the business of fortune telling.
Buddhist scholars generally frown on the art of fortune telling, especially when it's provided by someone wearing the monastic robes. It is, they believe, antithetical to Buddhist philosophy, which teaches that one's future rests on our management of the present moment.
There's no room in Buddhist philosophy for notions like fate and destiny.
Despite this, 50-year-old artist and devout Buddhist Amnart Klanpracha argues that humans need a little mystique now and then to lead them to the path of wisdom.
``Life is full of uncertainties, and peoples of all times have struggled to deal with those uncertainties by various means. Tarot reading has been one,'' Amnart said.
Tarot reading is currently in vogue. The 1900 telephone lines offering tarot reading are jammed with callers seeking to know the future. Tarot masters have long waiting lists, and costly tarot reading courses are usually full. On top of that, several bookstores offer a variety of tarot decks in different artistic designs from around the world.
Given that people today are more interested in tarot cards than dhamma texts, Amnart said he saw no harm in merging this 5,000-year-old fortune telling art with Buddhist philosophy, which he has done for his art-and-Buddhism promotion project called ``Tarot Roots of Asia'' (``Siem Si Buddha'' in Thai).
His 78-card tarot deck features 78 essential Buddhist tenets espousing a universal spirituality that anyone, regardless of race, belief or religion, can practise to bring about a more contented life, he said. Thus, dhamma was made portable on each of the 7-by-12cm cards.
``Tarot cards and their pictures can make dhamma more approachable and appealing,'' he said. ``I did this deck to attract those who are not interested in dhamma, those who believe in luck and fate. I hope they will learn some dhamma lessons the next time they have their future told!''
Amnart spent four long years researching the many tarot card styles on the market around the world, as well as the Buddhist tenets that could be matched up with each tarot card and its interpretation. For example, the four of wands card, which traditionally suggests success, was presented in his deck as the Buddha's four pillars to success_aspiration, perseverance, thoughtfulness and assessment.
After Amnart matched all the cards with Eastern spirituality principles, he went on a year-long meditation retreat to translate those abstract ideas into 79 oil-on-canvas paintings (78 cards, plus one for the cover), using unconventional tools, such as knives, his hands and rods. He said his idiosyncratic style of art was also an interpretation of dhamma and a result of his year-long dhamma practices. The flowing yet blurry pictures with no clear-cut lines or borders, the artist said, were his interpretation of the laws of non-self and impermanence.
``Thus we can see that the pictures are just the composition of many things_a picture of a mountain consists of sprays of paint, or knife strokes,'' he explained.
Apart from Buddhist related symbolism like lotuses or the face of the Buddha, Amnart also incorporated universal and natural signs and symbols to communicate with people of different cultures.
``After all, dhamma is nature,'' Amnart said.
Like other decks, the Tarot Roots of Asia deck features 78 pictures which are believed to epitomise the human situation.
When one goes for a tarot reading, he said, the predicted future will either be true_or not. Which was rather useless.
``What's the use of one knowing about the future without knowing how to walk through the present to a good future? Conventional tarot readings lack perspective, insight and practical guidelines that would lead us to a more fulfilled life. Mostly, the predictions tell us about the ends rather than the means. But we need to know wise means in order to achieve good ends to fix problems,'' he said.
``Life happenings are not jack-in-the-boxes. They involve causes and effects,'' he said_which was what the Tarot Roots of Asia cards were designed to bring to light.
Take, for example, the knight of wands card, that represents success. ``When this card appears, success is predicted but hardly anyone is told how success can be brought about. There is nothing magical about success. People who have this card may be happy thinking that they don't have to do a thing because success is destined to be. That's not true. With this dhamma tarot card, the card reader has to tell the inquirer that they have to work hard to achieve success_they need wisdom, perseverance and determination.''
Care should be taken with these cards, he said.
``When one gets the Lover card, for example, it does not mean that one will get lucky in love. Work is needed to bring about a happy result. One needs to know how to love wisely, not blindly. We need to adopt unconditional love, too, and see our lovers in their true light.''
The tarot card master must also provide useful advice when negative cards appear, too. ```Beware' or `do nothing' is not sufficient for a good reading,'' Amnart said.
``With the eight of swords card, which normally denotes trouble, the reader should tell the inquirer that trouble comes about because of many different factors, both external and internal. We can curb the risk by being mindful of actions, words or thoughts that could be detrimental or self-damaging. If we can avoid that by following sila (precepts), we can minimise problems.''
Thus tarot card masters who adopt Amnart's cards must learn about dhamma_a manual is included_in order to give sound advice for each and every turn of the cards.
Whether or not predictions for the future come true, Amnart said he believed that words of wisdom alone would make consultations worthwhile. They were more ``real and practical'' and would help us to better our lives, he said.
``People tend to believe more in mystical powers than dhamma, which explains natural occurrences of things_success, failure, fame, infamy. To give them dhamma lessons with regards to their problems, however, would not be palatable to most people. But if we blend the words of dhamma with something they do believe in, like tarot readings, they will be more willing to follow the path of dhamma.''
Tarot Roots of Asia has already been translated in four languages: English, French, German and Czech, and the deck is on sale in many countries. The Thai version will be released tomorrow at the annual National Book Fair at Queen Sirikit Convention Centre.
Amnart said several people had already shown interest in his cards, and that tarot reading dated back 5,000 years to Egyptian times.
What makes tarot readings so appealing for people in a technologically and scientifically advanced world? ``Suffering,'' he said. ``It's the universal element of humankind across cultural differences and times. We basically share similar problems and we are searching for answers and solutions.''
The 78 cards in his deck are based on aspects of human experience that most everyone will be able to relate to. ``Whatever card turns up, it's always right,'' Amnart said. ``People can interpret it in their own way, and they will see that it has some correlation to their life at that time. People need something or someone they can hold on to. People who come to see tarot card readers need something, some assurance about their lives. In fact, I think they know the answers to their problems already, but they just want someone to reassure them.''
Amnart added that dhamma was not without its own magical powers. ``The Buddha did not deny the existence of magic or mystical powers, yet he placed the most emphasis on the miracle that comes about when one follows dhamma and reaps good results from it for themselves. Once that happens, that's the real miracle.''
- All the original oil on canvas paintings of Tarot Roots of Asia by Amnart Klanpracha will be on display and sale at the exhibition hall, Queen Sirikit National Convention Centre, from September 26 to October 5, as part of the annual National Book Fair.
There will also be dhamma tarot reading provided by several masters at a fee of 500 baht per person. Books and sets of tarot decks along with the reading manual will also be on sale.
Interview from Bangkok