Divination and Dreams
By Ven. Dr. K. Sri Dhammanada - From the book "What Buddhist Believe"
The Following Sections are Covered in this Document
Contents Section
Astrology and Astronomy 1
  - Buddhist Attitude towards Astrology 1.1
Fortune-Telling and Charms 2
Consulting Mediums 3
Dreams and their Significance 4
Faith Healing 5
Superstitions and Dogmas 6
‘ I believe in astrology but not astrologers.'

FROM the very beginning of time people have been fascinated by the stars and they have always tried to find some links between them and their own destiny. Observation of the stars and their movements gave rise to two very important areas of study, namely, Astronomy and Astrology. Astronomy can be considered a pure science which is concerned with the measurements of distances, the evolution and destruction of stars, their movements, and so on. Of course all these calculations are always made in relation to planet earth and how these interplanetary movements affect mankind on a physical level. Modern astronomy seeks to find answers to the still unanswered questions regarding the origin of humanity and the final, possible end of existence of the human race. It is a fascinating area of study and our new knowledge of the universe and the galaxies has put much pressure on many religions to evaluate their age-old postulations regarding the creator and the creation of life.

Buddhism does not face any dilemma, simply because the Buddha did not encourage His followers to speculate on things beyond their comprehension. However, He has made many allusions which in the light of our new knowledge gained through science, show us that the Buddha was very much aware of the true nature of the Universe, that it was never created in one glorious moment, that the earth is merely a tiny, even unimportant speck in all of space, that there is constant creation and destruction, and that everything is in constant motion. The Buddha categorised the whole universe into three groups: planets where living beings exist, planets where only material elements exist and space.

Astrology, however, is a completely different area of study altogether. Ever since early people began to think, they were deeply concerned about their relationship with the universe. When human societies became involved in agricultural activities they progressed from hunting as a livelihood and began to notice a link between the movement of the sun through the years and their own activities of planting, harvesting, and similar projects. As people became more sophisticated they were able to predict the movement of the sun and invented time measurement, dividing it into years, months, days, hours, minutes and seconds.

People associated this knowledge with existence whereby they felt that there was a relationship between the life cycle and the movement of the planets. That gave rise to the Zodiac—‘the apparent path of the sun in the sky. It contained twelve constellations. A study of these movements in relation to a human being's personal life is called a horoscope.

The study of astrology involves a great understanding of human nature, an ability to assess planetary movements precisely, together with an insight into the seemingly unexplainable phenomena in the universe. There have been many brilliant astrologers in the past and some exist even today. Unfortunately there are an even larger number of charlatans who give astrology a bad name. They hood­wink people by predicting seemingly true events about their future. They make large sums of money by exploiting the ignorance and fear of the gullible. As a result, for a long time scientists scoffed at astrology and did not depend on it. However their hostile attitude is not really justifiable. The main purpose of reading a horoscope should be to give one an insight into one's own character, in the same way that an X-ray photograph can show the physical make-up of a person.

Statistics have shown that the influence of the sun in the signs of the Zodiac accounts for the birth of unusual people during certain months. The doing of certain crimes have been found to correspond with Zodiac signs in which the sun is moving during certain months of the year.

Thus an understanding of this relationship will help people to plot their lives more meaningfully in harmony with their innate tendencies, so that there is less friction as they go through life.

A newborn baby is like a seed. It contains within itself all the ingredients which will make it a similar, yet completely different individual from all its fellow human beings. How its potential is developed depends, like the seed, on the kind of nurture it receives. The nature of a person is born within him or her, but freewill determines whether he or she will make really good use of talents and abilities. Whether a person will overcome the potential for vice or weakness depends on how he or she is trained in youth. If we recognise our nature—our tendency towards laziness, irritability, worries, frustrations, wickedness, cunningness, jealousy—we can take positive steps to overcome them. The first step in solving problems is to recognize them for what they are.

Astrological interpretations indicate our inclinations and tendencies. Once pointed out, we must take the necessary steps to chart our lives in a manner that will make us useful citizens of the world. Even a person with criminal tendencies can become a saint, if he or she recognizes his or her nature and takes steps to lead a good life.

A horoscope is a chart drawn to show the karmic force a person carries, calculated from the time of birth. The force determines the time of a birth and knowing this time, a skilful astrologer can quite accurately chart a person's destiny within a given life span.

Everybody knows that the earth takes approximately one year to move around the sun. This movement, viewed from the earth, places the sun in various zodiacal areas during the year. A person is born (not accidentally, but as a result of karmic influence) when the sun is said to be on transit in one of the twelve Zodiacal signs (of course this is a conventional manner of explaning the phenomenon. Even a child knows today that the sun does not “move”.)

Through the horoscope you can determine certain times in your life when you have to slow down, or push yourself to great levels of creativity, or when you have to watch your activities and health.

Buddhist Attitude Towards Astrology

The question most people ask is whether Buddhism accepts or rejects astrology. Strictly speaking, the Buddha did not make any direct pronouncement on this subject because as in many other cases, He stated that discussion on matters such as these do not pertain to spiritual development. Buddhism, unlike some other religions, does not condemn astrology and people are free to use the knowledge they can get from it to make their lives more meaningful. If we study the Buddha's teaching carefully, we will come to accept that a proper and intelligent understanding of astrology can be a useful tool. There is a direct link between the life of an individual human being and the vast workings of the cosmos. Modern science is in accordance with the teachings of Buddhism. We know for example that there is a close link between the movement of the moon and our own behaviour. This is seen especially among mentally disturbed and abnormally violent people. It is also true that certain sicknesses like asthma and bronchitis are aggravated when the moon waxes. There is, therefore, sufficient basis for us to believe that other planets can also influence our lives. However there is no need to believe divine spirits are involved in these matters.

Buddhism accepts that there is an immense cosmic energy which pulsates through every living thing, including plants. This energy interacts with the karmic energy which an individual generates and determines the course that a life will take. The birth of an individual is not the first creation of a life but the continuation of one that had always existed and will continue to exist so long as the karmic energy is not quelled through final liberation in the unconditioned state. Now, for a life to manifest itself in a new existence, certain factors, namely seasons, germinal order and nature must be fulfilled. These are supported by mental energy and karmic energy and all these elements are in constant interaction and interdependent with each other resulting in incessant constant changes to a human being's life.

According to astrologers, the time at which a person is born is predetermined by the cosmic energy and the karmic energy. Hence, it can be concluded that life is not merely accidental: it is the result of the interaction between an individual's karma and the universal energy force. The course of a human life is predetermined, caused partly by a being's own actions in the past and the energies that activate the cosmos. Once started, a life is controlled by the interaction between these two forces even to the moment at which a rebirth takes place. A skilful astrologer then, as one who under­stands cosmic as well as karmic influence, can reasonably accurately chart the course of one's life, based on the moment of the person's birth. We say “reasonably accurately” because only a Buddha can predict anything with perfect accuracy.

While we are in one sense at the mercy of these forces, the Buddha has pointed out a way through which we can escape its influence. All karmic energies are stored in the subconscious mind normally described as mental purities and impurities. Since karmic forces influence one's destiny, a person can develop the mind and negate certain evil influences caused by previous bad karma. A person can also ‘purify' the mind and rid himself or herself of all karmic energies and thus prevent rebirth. When there is no rebirth, there is no potential life and there will consequently be no ‘future' existence which can be predicted or charted. At such a stage of spiritual and mental development, one will have transcended the need to know about life because most imperfections and unsatisfactoriness would have been removed. A highly developed human being will have no need for a horoscope.

Since the beginning of the 20th century, psychologists and psychiatrists have come to recognize that there is much more to the human mind than the hard core materialists have been ready to accept. There is more to the world than can be seen and touched. The famous Swiss psychologist, Carl Jung, used to cast the horo­scopes of his patients. On one occasion when he made an astrological analysis of about 500 marriages, he discovered that the findings of Ptolemy, on which modern Western astrology is based, were still valid, that favourable aspects between the sun and the moon of the different partners did produce happy marriages.

A well-known French psychologist, Michel Gauguelin, who originally held a negative view of astrology, made a survey of about 20,000 horoscopical analyses and found to his surprise that the characteristics of the persons studied coincided with characteri­zations produced by modern psychological methods.

The planting of certain flowers, trees and vegetables at different times of a year will produce differences in strength or appearance of the plants. So there is no reason to doubt that people born in certain times of the year will have different characteristics from people born at other times. By knowing one's weaknesses, failures and shortcomings, one can do one's best to overcome them and make oneself a better and more useful person to society. It will also help him or her a great deal to get rid of unhappiness and disap­pointments. (Going away from the country where a person is born for example, can sometimes help one avoid the influence of the stars).

Shakespeare says: ‘The fault is not in our stars but in ourselves'. A well-known astrologer has said: ‘The stars impel; they do not compel'. St. Thomas Aquinas says: ‘The planets influence the more elemental part of man than passions', but Buddhism teaches that through the intellect a person can arrange his or her life in harmony with the planets, and also cultivate inherent talents and manipulate them for his or her personal betterment.

Astrology cannot automatically solve all your problems. You must do that yourself. Just like a doctor who can diagnose the nature of a disease, an astrologer can only show certain aspects of your life and character. After that it is left to you to adjust your way of life. Of course, the task will be made easier, knowing what it is you are up against. Some people are too dependent on astrology. They run to the astrologer every time something happens or if they have a dream. Remember, even today astrology is very much an imperfect science and even the best astrologers can make serious mistakes. Use astrology intelligently, just as you would use any tool which would make your life more comfortable and more enjoyable. Above all, beware of fake astrologers who are out to cheat you by telling you not the truth, but what you want to hear.

Do not expect good luck to come to you or be handed to you easily without any effort on your part. If you want to reap the harvest, you must sow the seed and it must be the right seed. Remember, ‘ Opportunity knocks at the door, but never break the lock to gain entrance'.

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Hard work is the luckiest star.

ALTHOUGH Buddhism does not refute belief in deities, spirits, astrology and fortune-telling, the Buddha's advice was that people should not be slaves to any of those forces. A good Buddhist can overcome all difficulties by knowing how to make use of intelligence and will-power. The above mentioned beliefs have no spiritual significance or value. A person must overcome all problems and difficulties by his or her own efforts and not through the medium of deities, spirits, astrology or fortune-telling. In one of the Buddhist J ATAKA stories, the Bodhisatta said:

  ‘The fool may watch for lucky days,
  Yet luck he shall always miss,
  The luck itself is luck's own star,
  What can mere stars achieve?'

He believed that hard work was the luckiest star and one should not waste time by consulting stars and lucky days in order to achieve success. To do your best to help yourself is better than to rely solely on the stars or external sources.

Although some Buddhists practise fortune-telling and dispense some forms of charms or amulets under the guise of religion, the Buddha at no time encouraged anyone to practise such things. Like fortune-telling, charms come under the category of superstition, and have no religious value. Yet there are many people today who, because of sickness and misfortunes attribute the cause of their illness and ill-luck to the power of charms. When the cause of certain sicknesses and misfortunes cannot be ascertained or traced, many people tend to believe that their problems are due to charms or some other external causes. They have forgotten that they are now living in the twentieth century. This is the modern age of scientific development and achievement. Our leading scientists have thrown aside many superstitious beliefs and they have even placed men on the moon! And no matter how strongly traditionalist religions object, the first human clone is almost at our doorstep.

All sicknesses owe their origin to either mental or physical causes. In Shakespeare, Macbeth asked a doctor if there was any medicine that could cure his wife and the doctor replied: ‘More needs she the divine than the physician.' What he meant was that some diseases can only be cured if the mind is strong enough to face facts in life. Some severe mental disorders manifest themselves in a physical manner as in the case of ulcers, stomach aches, and so on.

Of course certain diseases are purely physical and can be cured by a competent doctor. And finally, some inexplicable disorders could be caused by what Buddhists call the ripening of the karmic fruit. This means we have to pay for some evil deed that we had committed in a past life. If we can understand this in the case of some incurable diseases, we can bear it with greater patience, knowing its real cause. This is not fatalism: we must still make all reasonable efforts to find a cure. But we do not expend unnecessary energy feeling sorry for ourselves. This is what we would call a realistic attitude.

People who cannot be cured of their sickness are advised to consult a medical specialist and obtain specialised attention. If after having gone through a medical check-up, a person still feels he or she is in need of attention, then he or she may want to seek spiritual guidance from a proper religious teacher.

Buddhists are strongly advised against falling into the miserable pit of superstitious beliefs and allowing the mind to be troubled by unnecessary and unfounded fears. Cultivate strong will-power by refusing to believe in the influence of charms.

A short meditation course may also prove very helpful to clear the mind of unwholesome thoughts. Meditation leads to strengthen the mental energy. A developed mind automatically leads to a purified and healthy body. The Buddha-Dharma is a soothing balm to get rid of sickness of this nature.

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Consulting mediums is not a Buddhist practice: it is just a traditional belief to bring psychological relief.

IN many countries, people seek the advice and guidance of mediums to overcome their problems in situations which they consider as beyond their comprehension. The medium's help is sought in many ways and for various reasons. In time of sickness when medical help is apparently ineffec­tive, some people may become desperate and turn anywhere to seek solace. At such times, mediums are often consulted. Some people also turn to mediums when they are faced with a complex problem and are unable to find an acceptable solution. Others consult mediums out of greed in order to get rich quickly.

Some people believe that when a medium is in a trance, the spirit of a certain god or deity communicates through the medium and offers advice or guidance to those seeking help. Others believe that the trance-state is the work of the subconscious mind which surfaces and takes over the conscious mind.

Consulting mediums is a fairly common practice amongst the public in certain countries. The Buddhist attitude towards consulting mediums is non-committal. It is difficult to verify whether what the medium conveys is correct or not. The practice of consulting mediums is not a Buddhist practice; it is just a traditional practice that some people believe in very strongly.

Consulting mediums is for worldly material gain; the Teaching of the Buddha is for spiritual development. However, if people believe what the medium conveys is true, there is no reason for Buddhists to object to such practices, especially if there is no animal sacrifice involved, or others are not disadvantaged.

But, if a person really understands and practises the Teachings of the Buddha, he or she can realise the nature of the problems. Problems can be overcome without consulting any medium.

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‘Life is nothing but a dream.'

ONE of mankind's greatest unsolved problems is the mystery of dreams. From the very earliest of times people have tried to analyse dreams and have tried to explain them in prophetic and psychological terms, but while there has been some measure of success recently, we are probably no nearer the answers to the baffling question: ‘What is a dream?'

The great English Romantic poet William Wordsworth had a startling concept: that this life we live is merely a dream and that we will ‘awake' to the ‘real' reality when we die, when our ‘dream' ends.

  ‘ Our birth is but a sleep and forgetting:
  The Soul, that rises with us, our life's star,
  Hath had elsewhere its setting,
  And cometh from afar. '

A similar concept is expressed in a charming old Buddhist tale which tells of a deva who was playing with some other devas. Being tired, he lay down to take a short nap and passed away. He was reborn as a girl on earth. There she got married, had a few children and lived to be very old. After her death again she was born as a deva amongst the same companions who had just finished playing their game. (This story also illustrates the relativity of time, that is, how the concept of time in the human world is very different from time in another plane of existence).

What has Buddhism to say about dreams? Just as in every other culture, Buddhism has had its fair share of people who claimed to be skilled in interpreting dreams. Such people mislead by exploiting the ignorance of those who believe that every dream has a spiritual or prophetic significance.

According to Buddhist psychology dreams are ideational processes which occur as activities of the mind. In considering the occurrence of dreams it is relevant to remember that the process of sleeping can be regarded as falling into five stages.

1. drowsiness,
2. light slumber,
3. deep slumber,
4. light slumber and
5. awakening.

The significance and the cause of dreams were the subject of discussion in the famous book MILINDA PANHA or THE QUESTIONS OF KING MILINDA (written 150 years before the birth of Christ), in which Venerable Nagasena has stated that there are six causes of dreams, three of them being organic, wind, bile and phlegm. The fourth is due to the intervention of supernatural forces, fifth, revival of past experience and sixth, the influence of future events. It is categorically stated that dreams occur only in light slumber which is said to be like the sleep of the monkey. Of the six causes given Venerable Nagasena has stated positively that the last, namely prophetic dreams are the only important ones and the others are relatively insignificant.

Dreams are mind-created phenomena and they are activities of the mind. All human beings dream, although some people cannot remember them. Buddhism teaches that some dreams have psychological significance. The six causes mentioned earlier can also be classified in the following manner:

Every single thought that is created is stored in our subconscious mind and some of them strongly influence the mind according to our anxieties. When we sleep, some of these thoughts are activated and appear to us as ‘pictures' moving before us. This happens because during sleep, the five senses which constitute our contact with the outside world, are temporarily arrested. The subconscious mind then is free to become dominant and to ‘re-play' thoughts that are stored. These dreams may be of value to psychiatry but cannot be classified as prophetic. They are merely the reflections of the mind at rest.

The second type of dream also has no significance. These are caused by internal and external provocation which set off a train of ‘visual thoughts' which are ‘seen' by the mind at rest. Internal factors are those which disturb the body (e.g. a heavy meal which does not allow one to have a restful slumber or imbalance and friction between elements that constitute the body). External provocation is when the mind is disturbed (although the sleeper may be unaware of it) by natural phenomena like the weather, wind, cold, rain, leaves rustling, windows rattling etc. The subconscious mind reacts to these disturbances and creates pictures to ‘explain' them away. The mind accommodates the irritation in a seemingly rational way so that the dreamer can continue to sleep undisturbed. These dreams too have no importance and need no interpretation.


Then there are the prophetic dreams. These are important. They are seldom experienced and only when there is an impending event which is of great relevance to the dreamer. Buddhism teaches that besides the tangible world we can experience, there are devas who exist on another plane or some spirits who are bound to this earth and are invisible to us. They could be our relatives or friends who have passed away and who have been reborn. They maintain their former mental relationships and attachments to us. When Buddhists transfer merits to departed ones they invite the devas to share the happiness accrued in the merit. Thus they develop a mental relationship with their departed ones. The devas in turn are pleased and they keep a watch over us and indicate something in dreams when we are facing certain big problems and they try to protect us from harm. While we say that devas can protect us, we are not contradicting what we said earlier about the gods being unable to save us. Our spiritual upliftment must be undertaken by ourselves.

So, when there is something important that is going to happen in our lives they activate certain mental energies in our minds which are seen as dreams. These dreams can warn of impending danger or even prepare us for sudden over­whelming good news. These messages are given in symbolic terms (much like the negatives of photographs) and have to be interpreted skilfully and with intelligence. Unfortunately too many people confuse the first two kinds of dreams with these and end up wasting valuable time and money consulting fake mediums and dream-interpreters. The Buddha was aware that this could be exploited for personal gain and He therefore warned the monks against practising soothsaying, astrology and interpreting dreams in the name of Buddhism.

Finally, our mind is the repository of all karmic energies accumulated in the past. Sometimes, when a karma is about to ripen (that is, when the action we did in a previous life or early part of our life, is going to experience its reaction) the mind which is at rest during sleep can trigger off a ‘picture' of what is going to happen. Again the impending action has to be of great importance and must be so strongly charged that the mind ‘releases' the extra energy in the form of a vivid dream. Such dreams occur only very rarely and only to certain people with a special kind of mental make up. The sign of the effect of certain karmas also appears in our minds at the last moment when we are going to depart from this world.

Dreams can occur when two living human beings send strong mental telepathic messages to each other. When one person has an intense desire to communicate with another, he or she concentrates strongly on the message and the person with whom he or she wishes to communicate. When the mind is at rest, it is in an ideal state to receive these messages which are seen as dreams. Usually these dreams only appear in one intense moment because the human mind is not strong enough to sustain such messages over a long period of time.

All worldlings are dreamers, and they see as permanent, what is essentially impermanent. They do not see that youth ends in old age, beauty in ugliness, health in sickness, and life itself in death. In this dream-world, what is truly without substance is seen as reality. Dreaming during sleep is but another dimension of the dream­world. The only ones who are awake are the Buddhas and Arahats as they have seen reality.

Buddhas and arahants never dream. The first three kinds of dream cannot occur in their minds, because their minds have been permanently ‘stilled' and cannot be activated to dream. The last kind of dream cannot happen to them because they have eradicated all their craving energy completely, and there is no ‘residual' energy of anxiety or unsatisfied desire to activate the mind to produce dreams. The Buddha is also known as the Awakened One because His way of relaxing the physical body is not the way we sleep which results in dreams. Great artists and thinkers, like the German Goethe, have often said they get some of their best inspiration through dreams. This could be because when their minds are cut off from the five senses during sleep, they produce clear thoughts which are creative in the highest degree. Wordsworth meant the same thing when he said that good poetry results from ‘powerful emotions recollected in tranquillity'.

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Faith healing a psychological approach by activating the immune system.

THE practice of faith-healing is prevalent in many countries. Many people try to influence the public through emotional persuasion designated as faith healing. In order to impress on their patients the efficacy of their healing powers, some faith healers use the name of a god or a religious object to introduce a religious flavour into their faith healing methods. The introduction of religion into faith healing is actually a guise or a decoy to beguile the patient into developing more devotion and to enhance the confidence or faith of the patient in the faith healer. This healing act if performed in public is intended to get converts to a particular religious denomination.

In actual fact, in so far as faith healing is concerned, religion is not all that important. There are numerous cases of faith healers performing their faith healing acts without using religion at all. A case in point is the science of hypnotism, the practice of which involves no religious aspects at all. Those who associate religion with faith-healing are in a way engaging in a subtle form of illusion trying to attract converts to their particular religion by making use of faith healing and describing certain cures as miraculous acts.

The methods employed by faith healers are to condition the minds of patients into having a certain mental attitude with the result that certain favourable psychological and physiological changes invariably take place. This attracts the condition of the mind, the heart, the consequent blood circulation and other related organic functions of the body, thus creating a inspiration in the mind which influences the immune system. If sickness is attributed to the condition of the mind, then the mind can certainly be properly conditioned to assist in eradicating whatever illness that may occur.

In this context, it is to be noted that the constant and regular practice of meditation can help to minimise, if not to completely eradicate, various forms of illnesses. There are many discourses in the Teaching of the Buddha where it was indicated that various forms of sicknesses were eradicated through the conditioning of the mind. Thus it is worthwhile to practise meditation in order to attain mental and physical wellbeing.

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‘People ridicule the superstitions of others, while cherishing their own.'

ALL ailments have cures but superstitions do not, at least for the most part. And if for some reason or other, any superstition crystallises into a religion, it easily becomes an almost incurable malady. In the performance of certain religious functions, even intelligent people of today forget their human dignity to accept the most ridiculous, superstitious beliefs.

Superstitious beliefs and rituals were adopted to decorate a religion in order to attract the multitude. But after sometime, the creeper which is planted to decorate the shrine as it were, outgrows and outshines the shrine, with the result that religious tenets are relegated to the background and superstitious beliefs and rituals become predominant—the creeper blocking out the shrine.

Like superstition, dogmatic belief also chokes the healthy growth of religion. Dogmatic belief and intolerance go hand-in-hand. One is reminded of the Middle Ages in Europe with its pitiless inquisitions, cruel murders, violence, infamy, tortures and burning of innocent beings. One is also reminded of the barbaric and ruthless crusades. All these events were stimulated by dogmatic beliefs in religious authority and the intolerance resulting therefrom.

Before the development of scientific knowledge, ignorant people had many superstitious beliefs. For example a lot of people believed that the eclipse of the sun and moon brought bad luck and pestilence. Today we know that such beliefs are not true. Again some unscrupulous religionists encourage people to believe in superstitions so that they can make use of their followers for their own benefit. When people have truly purified their minds of ignorance, they will see the universe as it really is and they will not suffer from superstition and dogmatism. This is the ‘salvation' that Buddhists aspire to.

It is extremely difficult for us to break up the emotional feeling that is attached to superstition or dogmatic belief. Even the light of scientific knowledge is often not strong enough to cause us to give up the misconceptions. For example, we have noticed for generations that the earth moves round the sun; but experientially we still behold the sun rising, moving across the sky, and setting in the evening. We still have to make an intellectual leap to imagine that we are, in fact, hurtling at great speed around the sun, because we see the earth as static.

We must understand that the dangers of dogmatism and superstition go hand-in-hand with religion. The time has come for wise people to separate religion from dogmatism and superstition. Otherwise, the good name of religion will be polluted and the number of non-believers will be increased, as they have already done.

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Buddhist Teachings Divination and Dreams