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The Buddhist Map of the Universe as a Divination Template

by Craig Conley

Cycles in Motion

The ancient Buddhist map of the universe invites threefold contemplation—of the sun, the sky, and the sea. The Zen concept of “going with the flow” reminds us to attune to surrounding rhythms. The sun is a Buddhist metaphor for spiritual illumination. The sky (which can mean “heaven” and “empty space”) symbolizes supreme purity, liberation, and limitlessness. The ocean represents connection, capacity, and dynamic energy. Elegantly depicting life in terms of natural cycles, the Buddhist cosmogram offers a highly useful template for divination spreads, particularly for issues of achieving harmony, adjusting to new routines, resolving conflict, finding a foothold, illuminating peaceful solutions, and regaining security.

The Map at a Glance

This map is the basis of the Buddhist symbol of the stupa—the dome shape we find crowning temples. In the map, the stupa is identified as the “Primordial Hillock” and incorporates the shape of ancient, pre-Buddhist burial mounds. (The stupa shape can, of course, be found in many natural formations as well.) The hill represents the earth in its most primal state, like a ball of potent creative “clay” on the verge of taking shape in the hands of a potter or sculptor. The central axis—the vertical line reaching up to the zenith—can be likened to the sacrificial stake and to the concept of the “axis mundi,” connecting the earthly realm to the spiritual. In Norse religions, this is the World Tree, and for the Buddhists it is the Bodhi tree of enlightenment. Below the primordial hillock and feeding the world axis is the primordial ocean, which represents the sea of consciousness, or the cosmos, or all that is uncreated.

This map depicts the path of the sun as well as the water cycle, demonstrating how everything works in harmony, how everything revolves, and how processes are always repeated. The elements of earth (hillock), water (ocean), fire (sun), and air (realm of clouds) are all represented. The balance of Yin and Yang is also shown through the light upper half and the dark lower half (complete with black sun). The principle of reincarnation plays out in the half sun of the sunrise (birth), full sun of the zenith (peak of life), half sun of the sunset (maturity), and dark sun of night (death).

Using the Map for Divination

There are several ways to use the Buddhist cosmogram as a divination template. You may customize your spread according to your individual needs and intuition. One suggested approach follows. We begin by shuffling or randomizing our preferred oracular tools (whether they be cards, stones, sticks, or whatnot). One at a time, a tool is selected and placed according to the various elements on the map.

The Significator comes first, placed face-upward at the center of the map, in the “Environs” of the primordial hillock. The hillock is the hub around which everything revolves, and it serves as the foundation for the person or issue in question. This is an interesting place, as it represents both the earth and a sacred burial mound. It suggests that one is standing on remains of some sort. Reaching up from the mound is a great stake, the marker of a sacrifice one has made as well as a ladder to the higher realm. One is called to consider one’s standing (in terms of health, home, work, and relationships), what one has achieved and sacrificed, and how those sacrifices provide a step up.

Next comes “Aspirations,” represented by the sun in its noontime glory at the top of the map. Symbolizing the peak of life, this zenith speaks of how we might reach our highest ambitions. The American poet Emily Dickinson wrote that noon is “the Hinge of the Day,” likening that time of day to a principle on which everything depends. Interpreted that way, the tool placed on “Aspirations” could illuminate an important turning point.

An optional tool may be placed on the sky itself. Limitless space offers unobstructed freedom to fly. A tool placed on the sky will illuminate one’s potential for expansion.

Below the hillock we place a tool on the “Unconscious.” Note that here is where the great stake of sacrifice (or elevating ladder, or World Tree) is rooted. Note also that the roots are submerged in water. On the negative side, a mushy foundation is unstable, but on the positive side one may find flexibility and nourishment. Ultimately, the “Unconscious” holds unrealized potential. Here are roots that can dig deeper for more stability and grow outward toward the light.

The remaining positions, “Past,” “Obstacles,” and “Future” are dealt clockwise, face upward, to complete the layout.

The setting sun (“Past”) on the right side of the map represents aspects of life that have reached maturity. This sun also pays respect to all that has transpired and illuminates the wisdom of family elders and ancestors.

The dark sun of midnight (“Obstacles”) at the bottom of the map symbolizes a potential stumbling block. Yet that hurdle may merely be an aspect of life that has fallen away to make way for something new—the first stepping stone on a new life path. The underworld gathers everything that is outmoded. The tool on this spot may point to something that needs to be let go, freeing one to face the future without restriction.

An optional tool may be placed on the ocean itself. The perennial Chinese proverb “be like the water” means to swirl around barriers in one’s path. Water seeks the lowest place, seemingly yielding yet never defeated. Ever-adaptable, water solidifies or evaporates according to environmental conditions, yet it always preserves its integrity. A tool placed on the ocean will shed light on how to flow past obstructions or adapt to new environmental conditions.

The rising sun (“Future”) on the left side of the map suggests promising possibilities for tomorrow and beyond. The journey through darkness has led to the light of a fresh new day. The tool on this spot also offers clues to the energy one is projecting from the “here and now” to the “there and then.” In other words, one creates the future in the present moment, whether actively or passively.

When reading the spread, no particular order is called for. In case of ambiguous meanings, a second oracular tool may be added in any location to offer more insight into the matter.

Sample Reading for “N,” a Civil Rights Leader

This reading is on behalf of elder statesman “N” and his diplomatic efforts. It uses Mlle Lenormand cards on the Buddhist cosmos map. Mlle Lenormand is known as the nineteenth century’s most celebrated fortune teller, and the sophisticated set of cards she developed had a significant influence on cartomancy tradition.

We will examine the cards separately in their respective places on the map as well as in relation to one another. The card interpretations are colored by Mlle Lenormand’s school of thought.

The card placed on the Environs spot is “Mouse.” The mouse card symbolizes a theft of some sort. Because the Environs spot is a sacrificial mound, this theft would seem to constitute a profound sacrifice for N. Because the Environs spot in this map is home to the Significator, we can also apply the figure of the mouse to N himself. Just as mice are vulnerable to being caught (as in a baited mousetrap), N has suffered imprisonment over the course of nearly thirty years.

The card placed on the Aspirations spot is “Clover Leaf.” This four-leaf clover represents happiness, well-being, and good fortune. It seems to indicate that N will reach his highest aspirations for international understanding and peace, like finding a rare four-leaf clover in a field.

The card placed on the Unconscious spot is “Lilies.” When it appears below the Significator, this card represents one’s notoriety. This would seem to indicate that there are aspects of N’s notoriety of which he is unaware or has set outside his conscious mind. Indeed, N leads a humble life in spite of his international influence. Lilies are traditionally a symbol of death and resurrection; from the death of imprisonment, N transformed himself and brought new life to his countrymen. Without question, N is a living symbol of one’s power to transform.

The card placed on the Past spot is “Bouquet of Flowers.” This card represents good fortune and pays respect to the positive aspects of N’s history. The different colors gathered into a bouquet represent N’s successful campaign against racial discrimination.

The card placed on the Obstacles spot is “Moon.” When appearing far away from the Significator, this card is a harbinger of affliction. The moon is typically associated with romance, feminine intuition, changeability, and the power of light to conquer darkness. It is also associated with lunacy—a form of insanity. Perhaps some sort of romantic entanglement or phase shift will bring to light a maddening difficulty.

The card placed on the Future spot is “Ring.” When appearing on the left of a spread, this card forebodes disloyalty and a painful separation.

When we examine the cards within the context of the map, some relationships become apparent. Below the mouse, the lilies suggest that notoriety is the source of the vulnerability. N’s controversial reputation could make him increasingly vulnerable to a snare of some sort. Following the cycle of the sun on the map, the obstacle moon is what will lead to the ring of disloyalty. But the ring in turn leads to the clover of happiness, indicating that misfortune will be temporary and will ultimately be a stepping stone toward better times. The clover follows the sun to become the bouquet of flowers, indicating that well-being will blossom. The chart shows a definite light-dark or Yin-Yang polarity. The dark times of difficulty (left and bottom) are balanced by brighter times of success (top and right). This is ultimately a positive reading, though it acknowledges hardships along the way to happiness and the reaching of goals.



About the Author


Craig Conley is a magic enthusiast and scholar.  Recognized by Encarta as “America’s most creative and diligent scholar of letters, words and punctuation,” his intensive and eccentric research has led him to compile a true masterwork entitled Magic Words: A Dictionary.  He has also authored One-Letter Words: A Dictionary, among other strange and unusual lexicons, and is a regular columnist for Pentacle magazine.  Conley’s ideas are often decades ahead of their time.  He invented the concept of the “virtual pet” in 1980, fifteen years before the debut of the popular “Tamagotchi” in Japan.  His virtual pet, actually a rare flower, still thrives and has reached an incomprehensible size.

Featured Works:
  • Magic Words: A Dictionary
  • Magic Archetypes: The Art Behind the Science of Conjuring
  • The Skeleton Key of Solomon
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  • Trump L’Oeil: Tarot of Portmeirion

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