The Yogi and the Shaman

With regard to the Buddhist response to Tibetan culture, Buddhism engaged in direct competition with the indigenous shamanic presence and the established ritual traditions. At the same time that the new religion was required to prove itself dominant in practical efficient terms, it was also constrained to establish and maintain its soteriological superiority. The relationship between Buddhist lamas, shamans, and other ritual specialists of a given group or region has been the focus of a number of studies dealing with the relationship between Vajrayana Buddhism and indigenous traditions. The title of Geoffrey Samuel's study of Tibetan culture-Civilized Shamans-captures his thesis that the literate lamas of Tibet function as shamans and that Vajrayana techniques function as a sophisticated means of training shamanic practitioners. The lama as shaman is a correlation that a number of scholars have made based on the observance that Tibetan lamas perform rituals of exorcism, healing, demon-suppressing, divination, or guiding the dead; in fact, as Samuel has shown, whatever service is performed by a shaman can be performed by a lama. Further, the reputation of certain lamas for rain-making, mediating the counsel of a deity through possession, or for magical powers are also features to be found among shamans, and in all these ways lamas be compared to shamans. However, the crucial differences that allow Tibetan Buddhist lamas to entirely differentiate themselves from shamans and their practices cannot be ignored in favour of the outward similarities of the practices. Some writers go too far in their comparisons, as for example Barbara Aziz does in an article relating the shamanic phenomena of spirit possession to the idea of the tulku, the reincarnate lama. She suggests that the tulku can be regarded as possessed from birth by a deity, in other words, possessed for life!

Tibetan Buddhism encompasses the concept of 'god-fallen-on' (lha babs) or 'god-seized' (lha adzin): in these cases, an oracle becomes possessed by a spirit, and exactly as in shamanic forms of possession, the spirit speaks through the oracle-medium. A tulku may well be someone who can divine by means of possession, but to say that the tulku is, by virtue of his or her reincarnation, 'possessed' would seem to stretch the concept of possession into meaninglessness. According to Buddhist thought, all beings are reincarnate and by that logic everyone would be possessed for life by the spirit of past lives. Similarly, in William Stablein's study of the ritual dedicated to the tantric deity Mahakala, although he admits that the Vajramaster does not become possessed in the same way a shaman does, he continues to say that "if a shaman can say, 'I am possessed by a spirit', the Vajramaster, after the invitation phase of the ceremony, can say 'I am Mahakala'. "

Again, the writer seems to ignore the fact that these two statements would arise from entirely different premises within the shamanic and Buddhist traditions and that their meanings would therefore be entirely different. The shaman's statement acknowledges the reality of himself and the spirit that speaks through him. The lama’s statement actualizes (or ritually represents that state) in himself of the ultimately empty nature of all phenomena including self and deity. With regard to the relationship between Tibetan Buddhism and shamanism, Stablein comes to the conclusion that the Tibetan Vajramaster is a "neo-shaman" and that "Vajrayana Buddhism as practiced by the Tibetans offers us an example of how shamanism may have evolved from a preliterate to a literate stage of development." 7) What is persistently missing from such studies, including Samuel's Civilized Shamans, is an emphasis on the fact that Buddhism as it arrived in Tibet was already imbued with Indian tantric yogic practices, the shamanic components of which have yet to be satisfactorily distinguished from the tantric elements, but which, nevertheless, constituted an entirely separate tradition from the indigenous religion of Tibet.

In his research on Bon, Per Kvaerne has argued, Both bon-po and chos-pa [buddhist] sources suggest that Buddhist siddhas, i.e. tantric adepts, and possibly also Sivaist yogins, established themselves in what is now Western Tibet . . . This happened prior to-or at least independently of-the official introduction of Buddhism in Tibet in the form of chos [Dharma]. Siddhas ... establidied themselves in Tibet where they, as all sources agree in stating, became violently opposed to those Buddhist groups who enjoyed the particular favour of the royal house and who designated their doctrine as chos.

This indicates that apart from the indigenous shamanic layer, there were two other competing religious systems--the tantric and the normative Buddhist. These three strands then, provide the framework for the development of Tibetan religion. As Buddhism became acculturated to the region, it further absorbed and transformed for its own soteriological purposes aspects of the shamanic tradition which were familiar to its tantric heritage. This acculturation process enriched the Buddhist tradition, generating new ideas and new forms of _expression. In turn, it is not difficult to find Buddhist ideas that have filtered into the shamanic practices of the peoples who have been in touch with them and which, similarly, have been used to further the goal of the shaman.

To say that Tantric Buddhist masters are neo-shamans or that Tibetan Buddhism represents the intellectualization of shamanism is to subvert the integrity of both Buddhist and shamanic worldviews.
One of the strongest distinctions to be drawn between the Indian tantric tradition and shamanism is the yogic emphasis on what Matthew Kapstein terms "perfectabilism."

The Buddhist monk, as shown in the 'Smell-thief' story above, is one who aims for moral perfection. The tantric adept is called a siddha, meaning 'accomplished', 'perfected', 'completed' one. This concept of perfection is related to a central concern of classical Indian religious thought-the idea of marga, the 'path' to liberation, the perfect accomplishment of which is the religious goal. Regardless of the similarities between the dress or practices of the Indian siddhas and those ritual specialists that can be called shamans in whatever culture they are found, the emphasis on attaining to perfection of all kinds including the perject salvation from the suffering that ensues from ignorance and delusion is a mark of the yogin that is not present in the shamanic world-views related to Tibetan culture. The idea of exiting the world entirely, based on a mode of behaviour in life, as a positive religious goal, so far has not been shown to play a part in Siberian or Central Asian shamanism. The indigenous tradition of Tibet, which is more closely related to these cultures, would not have shared the pronounced soteriological outlook of Buddhism. In contemporary life, Mumford's study shows that the Tibetan Buddhists of Gyasumdo continue to distinguish themselves as spiritually superior to their shaman neighbours based on their perception of the shaman's lack of concern with merit and the goal of universal freedom from rebirth. The shamans in turn point to the hypocrisy of the Buddhists: "They say we are sinning by killing the animals, but after their fast they come to our village and buy the meat for food."

In such ways, the shamans point to the conflict in Buddhism between the lay life and the religious life that Sherry Ortner noted in her study of the Sherpas-a struggle that she describes as both manifested in, and mediated by, shamanistic rituals.

Shamanism and Soterology Ninian Smart gives the meaning of soteriology as 'doctrine of salvation' or 'way of salvation'. He states: "The implication of the idea is that human beings are in some kind of unfortunate condition and may achieve an ultimately good state either by their own efforts, or through the intervention of some divine power.”

This definition ties the concept of salvation to the human condition (characterized as unfortunate) and the utter transcendence of that misery (characterized as 'ultimately good'). In an article that traces the ancient Mediterranean sources of the concept and its Christian usage, Willard Oxtoby notes three aspects that inform the traditional Western view of salvation: victory over death, victory over sin and evil, and victory over purposelessness.

These three aspects relate to the Christian emphasis on resurrection, the final defeat of Satan, and the ultimate goal of human life. It is this view of salvation that has formed the standard against which the doctrines and ways of salvation of other religious systems have been determined and judged.

Scholars who apply the concept of soteriology to shamanic complexes often interpret salvation in terms of traditional themes such as resurrection and victory over death and evil. For example, with regard to tribal religions Smart says, "in small-scale societies the figure of the shaman is often important in serving as the expert who provides healing and reenacts the death and resurrection of the person who has experienced evil.”

Alternatively, the concept has been interpreted in terms of shamanic themes such as the vision quest. In his study of the encounter between the Tibetan yogi Khyung-po and his teacher the yogim Niguma discussed above, Kapstein identifies four different types of soteriological themes in the story: the soteriology of the shamanic vision quest, of the guru's grace, of yogic perfection, and of Buddhist insight.

The latter three all deal with salvation as traditionally understood-the utter transcendence of the unfortunate human condition-accomplished by means of devotion to the guru, the practice of yoga, and insight arising from meditation practice. The first is based on Kapstein's recognition of shamanic themes in Tibetan Buddhism:

Their [shamanic motifs] superabundance in the culminating of a pilgrim's quest must be seen above all as the hero's attainment of a shaman's salvation, through power won from a woman during a dream-flight on a magical mountain of gold.

It is difficult to say just exactly what Kapstein understands as a "shaman's salvation" except perhaps the successful completion and fufillment of the vision quest which he compares to the quest for enlightenment . Such an understanding, however, would miss the crucial point that the completion of the vision quest in a shanianic tradition marks the successful beginning of a shanian-s journey, not the culmination of the religious life as it is in the Buddhist tradition. Further, in the traditional Christian understanding of the concept, salvation is once-and-for-all, and associated with the state of the person after death. This accords with the Buddhist understanding of the attainment of Buddhahood as the final stage in the spiritual path beyond both life and death. It would be difficult to find such an idea of finality with regard to a spiritual goal strongly represented in many shamanic traditions.

Jonathan Smith is one scholar who questions whether or not soteriological patterns must rely on the theme of triumph over death. He proposes a basic dichotomy of worldviews, the "locative" and the "utopian" in which the locative refers to those traditions or currents in a tradition that emphasize one's place in the world, the delineation of boundaries and the labour of maintaining the fragile balance of the cosmos. The utopian vision of the world stresses the value of no place, the breaking of all boundaries and limits.

According to Smith, for locative traditions, to return from the dead is not a sign of salvation: “What is soteriological is for the dead to remain dead. If beings from the realm of the dead walk among the living, they are the objects of rituals of relocation, not celebration.”

In this instance, however, 'soteriological' could only signify something very general like 'uItimate good', and as has been discussed, to speak of ultimate good from a shamanic perspective can be misleading in light of the shamanic view of the necessity of according evil its place in the cosmos. Perhaps it would be fairer to simply admit the disjunction between a place-oriented world-view and the idea of salvation as ultimate freedom from place than to try mid adjust the concept to include a shamanic perspective. This is not to say that Smith's idea of a utopian vision of breaking all bounds and limits is entirely missing from small-scale tribal religious systems. Smith warns against the tendency to identify the locative, place-oriented view with 'primitive' or 'archaic' society and the utopian, freedom-oriented view with 'modern' society and religion:

Both have been and remain coeval existential possibilities which may be appropriated whenever and wherever they correspond to man's experience of his world. While in this culture, at this time or in that place, one or the other view may appear the more dominant, this does not effect the postulation of the basic availability of both at any time, in any place.

The beliefs of the indigenous cultures of Siberia, Central Asia, and what can be gleaned of pre-Buddhist Tibet, for example, fall primarily under Smith’s locative category, but other cultures exhibit a combination of these strands. For example, Gerardo Reichel Dolmatiff’s study of the Tucano Indians shows that their use of narcotic drugs "is always, connected with the aim to transcend the bounds of empirical reality and to obtain a glimpse of that 'other world' where the miseries and trials of daily existence may find their remedies.”

Another South American tribe, the Warao, have the idea of eternal life after death with a patron deity for those artisans who have perfected their skill in the crafts associated with their gender, such as canoe-making for males or hammock-weaving for females. Johannes Wilbert writes that for the Warao, the soul of an expert canoe-maker is assured of eternal life:
Throughout his adult life, this artisan practices his trade with diligence and careful observation of the ethical code that governs it. He knows that only utmost dedication will please the Mother of the Forest in the southeast and guarantee him a place on the sacred mountain with this patroness of the boat-builder and his fellow artisans.

Such examples show that the issue of relating shamanism to a concept of salvation is a complex one. Some tribal cultures encompass ideas that might resonate with a traditional Western concept of salvation, but it is questionable as to whether the idea of salvation in the sense of a universal goalof religious behaviour can be said to play a role, in the ritual way of shamans.


go back to the Shamanism Central Page:


For updates click homepage here





shopify analytics