Decoding the symbols of the Taoism amulets

1. Introduction Amulets appear in many cultures, from Egypt, South America, Northern Europe, Italy, Turkey and Israel, to India, China and Vietnam. The varied drawings and the haunting words on amulets are always enchantingly suggestive. Amulets are used to pray for peace for oneself as well as ones family. People also use amulets to heal disease, to drive away evil spirits and to break enchantments. The effect that amulets can have is still a mystery but its shapes, lines and words are clear. In Vietnam, the most common amulets are Taoism amulets. Although the amulets are influenced by Tantric Buddhism, astrology and ancestor worship, their origin is basically Taoism. Although the details on the amulets may be zigzags and complicated, with close observation we can see that these drawings and words have their own rules and presentation styles which can indicate the implications and intentions of the makers of the amulets. Thus the symbols found on the amulet can be fully decoded and understood.

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JOURNAL OF SCIENCE OF HNUE Interdisciplinary Science, 2013, Vol. 58, No. 5, pp. 71-76 This paper is available online at DECODING THE SYMBOLS OF THE TAOISM AMULETS Duong Tuan Anh Faculty of Philology, Hanoi National University of Education Abstract. The amulet is a popular phenomenon. However, it often mysterious and a fertile area for superstition. Therefore, decoding an amulet means decoding the mystery and this is the best way to eradicate a superstition. Keywords: Taoism, amulet, symbol, decoding, Buddhism, Tantric. 1. Introduction Amulets appear in many cultures, from Egypt, South America, Northern Europe, Italy, Turkey and Israel, to India, China and Vietnam. The varied drawings and the haunting words on amulets are always enchantingly suggestive. Amulets are used to pray for peace for oneself as well as ones family. People also use amulets to heal disease, to drive away evil spirits and to break enchantments. The effect that amulets can have is still a mystery but its shapes, lines and words are clear. In Vietnam, the most common amulets are Taoism amulets. Although the amulets are influenced by Tantric Buddhism, astrology and ancestor worship, their origin is basically Taoism. Although the details on the amulets may be zigzags and complicated, with close observation we can see that these drawings and words have their own rules and presentation styles which can indicate the implications and intentions of the makers of the amulets. Thus the symbols found on the amulet can be fully decoded and understood. 2. Content 2.1. Groups of symbols in Taoism amulets A complete Taoism amulet typically consists of three main groups of symbols: a group of drawings, a group of Chinese characters and a group of stamps and seals (see Figure 1). Drawings on Taoism amulets are quite diverse. There are those are composed of simple lines or zigzags, and sometimes by a specific drawing (a person or a tiger, for Received January 2, 2013. Accepted April 11, 2013. Contact Duong Tuan Anh, e-mail address: duongtuananhsp@yahoo.com 71 Duong Tuan Anh Figure 1. The group of drawings example). Those drawings can appear on any part of the Taoism amulet: at the top (the upper part of the amulet), in the middle (the middle part of the amulet, or phu phuc) or at the bottom (the lower part of the amulet). Below are some common symbols which were not very difficult to understand. The upper part of the amulet usually contains symbols that denote the Gods or forces that command, their power being used to increase the power of the Taoism amulet. Figures 2, 3, and 4 (next page) are common in the upper part of the amulet: Figure 2 is the symbol of exorcism and includes Thunder (middle), Fire (left) and Wind (right). Figure 3 is the symbol for the Three Realms (heaven, earth and human) as well as the Three Tai Xingqun (Tam Dai Tinh Quan), which include the Upper Tai (Thuong Dai Hu Tinh Khai Duc Tinh Quan), the Middle Tai (Trung Dai Luc Thuan Tu Khong Tinh Quan) and the Lower Tai (Ha Đai Khuc Sinh Tu Loc Tinh Quan). Taoism consider the Three Tai Xingqun to be the head of all stars and the God who hamonizes Yin and Yang, as well as all things. Figure 4 is the symbol of Tam Thanh, which includes 3 persons: the feature in the middle symbolizing Yuqing Yuan Shi Tianzun (Ngoc Thanh Nguyen Thuy Thien Ton), the left feature symbolizing Shangqing Ling Bao Tianzun (Thuong Thanh Linh Bao Thien Ton) and the right feature symbolizing Taiqing Dao De Tianzun (Thai Thanh Dao Duc Thien Ton, and also Thai Thuong Lao Quan as well as Laozi). In the middle of the amulet there are oftentimes symbols of stars, luc dinh, luc giap and those forces will implementing the content that the Taoism amulet conveys (Figure 1). 72 Decoding the symbols of the Taoism amulets On the lower part of the amulet is often found an exorcism symbol indicating the supernatural power and effect of the amulet. There are different exorcism symbols that might be in the lower part of the amulet and Figure 5 is one example. This is an exorcism symbol named “Seven Buddhas” symbolizing the 7 embodiments of Buddha which are Duo Bao Buddha (Da Bao Nhu Lai Phat), Bao Sheng Buddha (Bao Thang Nhu Lai Phat), Miao Se Buddha (Dieu Sac Than Nhu Lai Phat), Guang Bo Buddha (Quang Bac Than Nhu Lai Phat), Yi Bu Wei Buddha (Di Bo Uy Nhu Lai Phat), Gan Lu Wang Buddha (Cam Lo Vuong Nhu Lai Phat) and Amita Buddha (A Di Da Nhu Lai Phat). The power of a Taoism amulet was made stronger thanks to the inclusion of those seven Buddhas. The lower part of the amulet also shows us the absorption of Buddhist ideas in Taoism amulets. 2.2. The group of Chinese characters In the Taoism amulet there may be Sanskrit characters due to Buddhist influence. However, these were originally from Chinese Taoism, the use of Chinese characters is understandable. The Chinese characters can appear singly or in groups [3]. Some common single characters, such as cuong or sat are symbols of thien cuong and đia sat, as well as bad stars, used to promote the power of the amulet, and the cung character symbolizes the bow, an instrument to repel evil spirits. There are also characters that appear in groups, expressing an idea, or representing an exorcism, for example, the two characters sac lenh (decree) often appear in the upper part of the amulet to express the commanding will of the amulet, or luc dinh, luc giap can be written as luc dinh, luc giap, but sometimes can be expressed by six dinh and six giap characters. 2.3. The group of stamps and seals Stamps and seals are the red marks located in different positions on the amulet. In general, we can divide the stamps and seals into 2 main types: seals with carved drawings and seals with carved letters. There are also those which are combination [2]. Seals with carved drawings are often the symbols of Yin, Yang and the Eight Signs. Seals with carved letters are often the name of God or the name of the shaman who is present in the power of the amulet. Sometimes its content is an exorcism or a mantra. 73 Duong Tuan Anh 2.4. Some presentations that make the amulets mysterious 2.4.1. New ways of presenting Chinese characters The mystery of an amulet is sometimes simply the “strange” design used by the amulet maker. Three generalized types of “strangeness” are presented below. First is to stretch or deform the lines of drawing to create a strange impression. For instance, in the character lieu (firelight) in Figure 6, the vertical line was stretched and then rolled around to wrap the whole word, creating a set of value of the exorcism, using the firelight to dispel the evil spirits. The two characters sac lenh (decree) in Figure 7 and 8 had deformed lines, creating the conformation that goes beyond the text values. Second, exorcisms can be presented by grouping Chinese characters in a special order. Figure 9 is an exorcisim made from the 4 Chinese characters lenh binh ma an (the stamp to array the troop). Figure 10 is an exorcism cuong an (the stamp of cuong exorcism) of which the character an (stamp) was devided into two to let the character cuong be positioned in the middle. Third, shamans can make special words that only used in Taoism amulets. These can be considered to be ‘unusal/queer words’ and a unique exorcism of the Taiost amulet. For example, Figure 11 is an ‘unsual word’ that symbolizes nhi thap bat tu (28 big star: Giac, Cang, De, Phong, Tam, Vi, Co, Tinh, Quy, Lieu, Inh, Truong, Duc, Chan, Khue, Lau, Vi, Mao, Tat, Chuy, Sam, Dau, Nguu, Nu, Hu, Nguy, That, Bich), using this force to enforce the incredible capacity/power of the amulet. 2.4.2. The combination of drawings and symbols The drawings themselves can bring us the mystery via the coded symbols in them. Shamans even pushed this mystery even further by grouping these drawings to create a 74 Decoding the symbols of the Taoism amulets message that has a collective meaning and power incorporating all of the drawings. For instance, Figure 12 is a lower part of an amulet which is a combination of many symbols that is to strengthen the ability of the amulet to block and dispel evil spirits, and it is considered to be a high level/advanced exorcism. This drawing combines a horizontal line representing the sword of God, a vertical line that can frighten the evil spirits, a line that means the grasp of everything (Figure 13), lines that represent the “ngu loi lenh” (Figure 14), lines that represent supernature soldiers (Figure 15) and a drawing that represents the clear earth and sky (Figure 16, the arrows shows how it was drawn). Therefore, the meaning of this “message” can be expressed as following: This is an exorcism that has the most incredible power on earth and sky, strong as a sword that frightens the evil spirits and has the support of “ngũ lôi” and supernature soldiers so that this amulet is to bring about an immediate effect. The combination is not only of each detail, it is also of the details as a whole in an amulet, to make it a complete whole with unified power. Figure 17 (next page) is an Taoism amulet that was used to bring a man and woman together in love and has a good and unified combination of all of its constituent parts. 3. Conclusion Amulets, in some aspects, are still used in modern life because it is recorded wishes and desires that human want today. Most amulets look to noble values, such as a happy family, a faithful love and a peaceful and monetarily successful life. These are profound human values which are universally desired despite differences in space, time and nationality. Thus, the amulet is a popular phenomenon. However, it is a thing of mystery and is a fertile area for superstition. So, decoding an amulet is decoding the mystery which is 75 Duong Tuan Anh Figure 17. The Taoism amulet the best way to eradicate the superstition. When examined closely, amulets are found to contain a coded system that can be decoded in the aspect of semiotics. REFERENCES [1] Fan Ye, 2007. The Book of the Later Han ( ). Zhonghua Publishing House. [2] Fa Xuan Shan Ren, 1998. The Comprehensive Book of Amazinng Applicable Amulets ( ). Jin Yuan Publishing House, Taiwan. [3] Xu Dao Ren, 1987. The Collection of Amulets Decoding ( ). Jin Yuan Publishing House, Taiwan. [4] Liu Xiao Cun, 1999. Chinese Mystical Language ( ). Zhongguo Wenlian Publishing House. 76