Dice and Gods on the Silk Road
Chinese Buddhist Dice Divination in Transcultural Context
Series: Prognostication in History
- ISBN: 9789004461208
- Published By: BRILL
- Published: June 2021
China’s Belt and Road Initiative is the latest manifestation of Eurasian trade dating back to ancient times. Dice and Gods on the Silk Road: Chinese Buddhist Dice Divination in Transcultural Context by Brandon Dotson, Constance A. Cook, and Zhao Lu offers readers interested in the phenomenon traditionally known as the “Silk Road” a glimpse into the rich cultural milieu of 10th-century Dunhuang and surrounding districts. Cook and Lu, who have contributed a great deal to the study of Chinese stalk divination, and Dotson, who has contributed much to the study of Tibetan dice divination, have teamed up to share their passion for the material they study.
At the heart of this study we find the Divination of Maheśvara, a 10th-century prognostication manual containing “sets” corresponding to three tosses of a four-sided pāśaka die. Each set features one mantic figure from an eclectic collection of Indian and Chinese spirits, demons, and deities, most of whom straddle Vedic, Buddhist, Chinese folk, and Zoroastrian conceptualizations. So, for example, after completing the opening ritual of invocation, focusing the mind and setting an intention, and declaring the matter to be divined, if the diviner (or their client) then tosses a 2-4-2, the diviner would read the corresponding set, which is in no discernable order, and in this case happens to be set 40:
This is named the Lady Spooks/ Wife of the Spooks set. This matter is like a flood reaching heaven, just terrifying! Your affairs will be also thus, with water damaging and overflowing the sky. But there is nothing to worry about. Initially inauspicious and later auspicious. (119)
Each set ends with one of eight final evaluations ranging from “Greatly Auspicious Celebration” to “Greatly Evil,” with some mixed results, as in the above example. Generally, in this particular text, if the inquirer gets an inauspicious reading, they are allowed to roll the dice up to two more times, making “the likelihood of getting an inauspicious result on three straight rolls . . . a miniscule 0.05%.” (68)
Chapter 1 contains a complete translation of the aforementioned Divination of Maheśvara, along with a detailed physical and textual analysis. Maheśvara, the presiding deity in the aforementioned work is Śiva adapted to the Buddhist cosmology of 10th-century Dunhuang. Similarly, Siming, a very old Chinese deity of fate with ties to Taoism, appears in the manual as the Supervisor of Life Allotments. Whatever their origins, these mantic figures work together in a Buddhist milieu and, in their readings, many of them exhort the inquirer to ritually praise the Buddhas, invoke the Three Jewels, contemplate goodness, and support the Sangha.
A great strength of Dice and Gods on the Silk Road is the analysis of texts, pantheons, and dice from both material-culture and comparative-textual perspectives. Through comparative analyses tied to the first chapter, the second and third chapters explore Turkish, Sogdian, Tibetan, Chinese, and Indian divination materials from antiquity. Some of the texts include elements from Chinese cosmology, such as yin and yang and the 28 astral lodges, and some do not. (Interestingly, and despite its large number of Chinese folk spirits, the Divination of Maheśvara falls into the latter category.) An array of divination texts, seals, talismans, and dice (from as far west as Egypt) are examined in the book in detail, and an appendix includes full translations of three additional texts: the Tricks of Jing, the Duke of Zhou Divination Method, and the Guan Gongming Divination Method. The book also provides ample illustrations and tables breaking down various aspects of the divinatory systems it covers. The authors could have included a bit less of these minutiae and added some more general historical background since, aside from a few brief discussions (mostly concerning conditions after Tibetan rule in Dunhuang and Zoroastrian temples in Sogdiana and China), the reader must rely on whatever historical knowledge they bring to the reading.
As a pre-scientific technology, divination can be a tricky topic to handle for the general reader. To help address this, the authors relate an Indian myth in their introduction in which Pārvatī and her consort, Śiva, gamble. Both deities soon start cheating and Pārvatī soon takes everything from Śiva, who then mopes off into the forest. This myth is understood to symbolize “the fragmentation of the unified, androgynous godhead into its male and female constituents [...in a] playful fragmentation of holism” (6, 7). The authors skillfully use this myth as a metanarrative throughout the book, tying together a host of concerns, such as relationships between gods and prognosticators (actor-network theory), chance, play, cheating, and, most intriguingly, the way a die moves from the holistic realm of all possibilities prior to being thrown to the fractured but definitively formed realm after its results are obtained.
David Belcheff is an independent scholar.David BelcheffDate Of Review:September 21, 2022