Book Review: The Tao of Crafts

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The Tao of Crafts: Fu Talismans and Casting Sigils in the Eastern Esoteric Tradition by Benebell Wen.
Published by North Atlantic Books (600 pages)

The Tao of Handicrafts, by Benebell Wen (also author of Holistic Tarot), is an English-language practitioner’s guide to Chinese 符 (fú). 符 is generally translated as “talisman,” but Wen chooses to use the word “seal”, which more specifically captures the use of written texts, of glyphs and symbols, the ritual charge of these designs and their relation both to spiritual work and directly obtaining the desired practical results.

Wen also chooses to use the term “craft” rather than “magic”. The lines between “magic” and “religion” have always been blurred, and although she acknowledges that the vast web of traditions comprising Taoism are often religious, Wen argues that the metaphysical principles underlying the techniques Fú they themselves can operate from a variety of religious settings. . Since “magic” has acquired a more diffuse meaning in expressions such as “magical thinking”, “craftsmanship” more specifically emphasizes the importance of technique and practice. Wen herself chooses to keep the religious language of Buddhism and Taoism in her personal practice, while seeking to understand the underlying principles.

I didn’t have time to create and use Fú Seals with the guidance in this book, which naturally limits the usefulness of this review for practitioners, although Wen’s primary focus is teaching theory. rather than specific methodologies (instructions for making seals are well included, however). Nevertheless, the issue of cultural context and the interchangeability of techniques is an important issue to consider even before using the techniques themselves. Wen is of Taiwanese descent and devotes an entire chapter to “A Historical and Cultural Background,” but his familiarity with Chinese culture permeates the entire book.

In the wide range of Chinese ontological perspectives, Wen subscribes to the framework of 阴 (yīn) and 阳 (yáng) rather than that of benevolent and malevolent spirits, although the two are related: for example, the “Classics of the Esoteric Talisman , ”Dating from the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE) although believed to have its origin much earlier, states that the benevolent and heavenly spirits are invoked through“ trigger mechanisms ”using yáng energy, while the ghosts and demons are summoned by yīn energy.

While I certainly agree with Wen that certain magical techniques work across cultures, I also believe that many techniques are enhanced by personal relationships with spirits or deities or other powers that assist in the development. job. The first thing I did when I received the book was go to the index and find and copy the Fú seal invoking the Guan Dao, the weapon of the god Guan Di, to whom I am above all sworn.

A Taoist seal Fú.  Public domain.

A Taoist seal Fú. [Public Domain]

However, both perspectives are rooted in the shared cultural continuum of a living tradition, and when discussing work with spirits and gods, Wen provides instructions regarding appropriate offerings to be made and ritual actions to be performed, including including the setting up of domestic altars, binary divination with the spirits. , and the consecration of statues of deities (开 光, kāiguāng, “opening of light”). For lay people, the consecration of statues would usually be done by a priest, but Wen suggests that serious practitioners (i.e., professionals) of the craft should perform their own consecrations.

One of the first precepts of the Classics of the esoteric talisman is for the practitioner to align with the sky: in most Taoist magical lineages, there would be a specific deity (s) affiliated with that lineage, but Wen allows the possibility of aligning with the Dao itself or with “A higher consciousness”. Whatever divinity or power, she writes, “this sense of greater alignment is imperative in creating.” This need is often reflected in the methodology itself.

A traditional method of using a Fú seal, which is found in a traditional spell to earn money by invoking the god of wealth Zhao Gong Ming (another deity that I worship daily in my personal practice ), consists of burning the paper, mixing the ashes with wine and drinking the resulting concoction. And as I was also taught, even after performing the spell, “One of the warnings regarding Zhao Gong Ming’s blessings is that the recipient of his blessings must work hard and lead a diligent and modest life. So, in this case, magic is not a substitute for religious devotion, but a complement to it.

The Tao of Handicrafts is itself a well-crafted and well-researched book (with many endnotes), clearly grounded in personal experience and practice, and rooted in Chinese culture. Practitioners of all kinds of magical and / or religious traditions would do well to follow Wen’s lead, especially if they plan to incorporate Chinese spiritual work or magical technologies into their work. Respect for tradition and for the spirits and powers of tradition is crucial.

To this end, Wen includes an excellent chapter on cultural appropriation. Wen acknowledges that some sects believe that “only an ordained priest or a priestess of a recognized Taoist lineage can create a Fu seal,” but the truth is that there is no real application. in Chinese communities on this issue either: fraud and corruption are problems, although of course this is not an excuse or justification for non-Chinese individuals to commit their own thefts. Regarding cultural appropriation, Wen writes:

Making Fu Seals in the context of any serious magical tradition is not cultural appropriation. Cultural appropriation occurs if Fu is treated as decorative ornamentation or if the practice is not viewed with the same reverence that a practitioner would treat similar practices in their own tradition.

If one does not practice a serious tradition that treats its practices with reverence, it might be something to rectify before interfering with the traditions of others, especially given the historical background of Western imperialism and colonialism.

Wen also includes an extremely personal reflection on the question of authenticity, the question of whether she, as an Asian American, is “Asian enough” to write such a book. To be honest, I had similar questions after agreeing to write this review. Wen offers the helpful reminder that “esoteric texts are just that – esoteric. Full literacy didn’t help much if you weren’t from a background rooted in crafts.

Wen’s familiarity with Western occult traditions therefore gives him certain advantages in his own work with the Fú sigils, just as his (and my) linguistic limitations come with obvious drawbacks. The essence of craftsmanship, Wen argues, is not to copy the designs of other practitioners and traditions, but to think carefully “how you will apply metaphysical principles and laws to better manifest your intentions,” all by showing respect for the divine, the human and the non-human. human relations.

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The views and opinions expressed by our diverse panel of columnists and guest writers represent the many divergent perspectives within the global pagan, pagan and polytheistic communities, but do not necessarily reflect the views of The Wild Hunt Inc. or its direction.


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