Question: Someone claimed that the Buddha only forbade monastics to be fortune-tellers as he wishes to prevent them from abusing the power of predictions. Is this so?
Answer: More often than not, what the Buddha forbade monastics from applies to laypeople too. As taught by the Buddha in the Kevatta Sutta – ‘Whereas some priests and contemplatives [who might or might not be monastics], living off food given in faith, maintain themselves by wrong livelihood, by such lowly arts as: reading marks on the limbs [e.g. palmistry]; reading omens and signs; interpreting celestial events [falling stars, comets]; interpreting dreams; reading marks on the body [e.g. phrenology];… making predictions based on the fingertips; geomancy [fengshui]; laying demons in a cemetery; placing spells on spirits; reciting house-protection charms; snake charming, poison-lore, scorpion-lore, rat-lore, bird-lore, crow-lore; fortune-telling based on visions;… he abstains from wrong livelihood, from lowly arts such as these.’
The Buddha would discourage laypeople from fortune-telling for the same reasons that it hinges upon possible superstitions that cannot be verified, instead of encouraging diligent cultivation of wisdom through the Dharma (the Buddha’s teachings) to shape one’s karmic destiny for the better. Note too that scientifically, no form of fortune-telling technique has yet to be proven 100% accurate. Even if there is some truth in some systems of fortune-telling, there is no single 100% accurate fortune-teller. What worsens matters is that as karma is dynamic, worldly destinies are difficult to pin down. To this extent, there might be some degree of blind faith leading to deceit in fortune-telling, which breaks the fourth precept against lying, even if there is no intention to. And if it is possible for monastics to become power-crazed through fortune-telling, laypeople might too? That said, fortune-telling is not a power as it is just a set of arguable ‘skills’.
Question: It seems that there is no forbidding of fortune-telling under ‘wrong livelihoods’ by the Buddha?
Answer: In brief teachings such as the Vanijja Sutta, the Buddha stated that ‘a lay follower should not engage in five types of business… Business in weapons, business in human beings, business in meat, business in intoxicants, and business in poisons.’ Here, the Buddha only listed some generally common and harmful livelihoods to avoid, for us to understand the kinds of livelihoods to avoid. He did not, for instance, list dealing in many contemporary drugs as wrong as such substances did not exist in his time. But this does not mean doing so is alright. What to be grasped is the spirit of his teachings.
What we should note instead, is that there were no praised lay disciples of the Buddha mentioned in the scriptures who were fortune-tellers, while the Buddha did not only not say it is praiseworthy for anyone to be fortune-tellers, he did teach monastics not to be fortune-tellers, listing many forms of fortune-telling as wrong livelihoods in the Kevatta Sutta above. He also never endorsed any form of fortune-telling as useful or essential in aiding the path to liberation.
It is also worth noting that good fortunes told might lead to complacence that lead to disaster, while bad fortunes told might lead to despondence that also leads to disaster. It would be wiser to always do one’s best to cultivate wisdom in dealing with all kinds of challenges, instead of being dependent on fortune-telling for vague predictions and assurances which might not come true, and advice that does not always work. The more dependence there is on fortune-telling, there more distraction there will be, with less diligence in Dharma learning and practice, which is what really leads to the most fortunate liberation from all unfortunate disasters.
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