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4.4: Compactness, Differentiation, and Syncretism

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    As noted in Chapter 3, in small-scale, nonliterate, tribal societies-so-called "primitive" or native cultures-only the ways of sacred rite and shamanic mediation are distinctly evident. Virtually all Native American traditions, for example, have both. The same is true for native African traditions, native Asian traditions, the native peoples of the Pacific, and Australian Aborigines. Most (secular) historians of religion hold that this is probably true as well for the earliest forms of religious life reflected in archaeological evidence around the world. We do occasionally see indications of the other ways in compact, relatively undifferentiated cultures but in such instances never as distinct ways of carrying on religious life that stand on their own apart from sacred rite and shamanic mediation. In any case, it seems clear that ways of being religious other than the ones a tradition starts with are able to emerge only as the tradition extends over time, geographic area, and population diversity, as those populations become literate (especially insofar as they develop a religious literature to any extent), and as the traditions are elaborated sufficiently to allow for diversity of expression and a more individualized form of religious life to develop. This suggests that sacred rite and shamanic mediation may be a kind of matrix or womb out of which other ways differentiate themselves. Historically this is certainly not true of all religions, taking each of them on their own. However, it appears that religions that did not begin with sacred rite and shamanic mediation emerged as the errant offspring of preexisting religions that did so begin and whose precedents in ways of being religious appear to have played an important role in influencing the shape of the daughter religions, at least by way of reaction.

    An interesting case in which just such a "primitive" religious tradition has become differentiated in this way over time is Shinto, Japan's native religious tradition. It has by no means remained "untainted" by other religious influencesnotably Buddhism, Confucianism, Daoism, and, to a lesser extent, Christianity, but it has retained much of its distinctive character despite this syncretism. Most of its sacred rituals (especially those associated with Shrine worship) are traceable to pre-Buddhist contact, and its shamanic elements remain vital in many rural areas (and in some suburban areas) to this day. Yet, partly through the stimulus and precedent of these other influences, there have emerged Shintoist expressions of each of the other ways (especially when some of the so-called New Religions of Japan are included as subtraditions or offshoots of Shinto): right action, devotion, mystical quest, and reasoned inquiry.19

    This raises the question of how to sort out religious expressions that are the result of a kind of syncretism between preexisting religious elements and elements that are imported from the outside. Are all such expressions "genuine" or "true" expressions of the original tradition? The very phrasing of the question may beg the question. In virtually every religion that has moved across cultural (or even subcultural) borders, so-called syncretic phenomena can be found. How does one decide whether such phenomena are authentic or not? This author does not pretend to resolve this question here but would like to suggest something that he does not believe has been proposed before. Sometimes (and this is far from including all cases of syncretism) the imported religion and the preexisting religion exemplify different ways of being religious. On the one hand, converts to the new religion from the old will bring with them some existential motivations addressed by the old religion but unaddressed by the new. They will also likely bring with them elements of a religious sensibility (such as expectations, dispositions, or a sense of what is appropriate and not appropriate) linked with the way of being religious found in the old religion. As a result, so far as the new religion is flexible enough to adapt itself, new religious forms will more than likely result, bringing expression to the old way of being religious within the new system of religious symbols. Significantly, at times this is not so much syncretism-least of all a syncretism that compromises essentials in the new tradition-but rather an occasion for the emergence of one more way of being religious within the new tradition, one that might very well have already found emergence in another time and place. Alongside this development, persons who remain adherents of the old religion, seeing how the way of being religious in the new religion addresses existential needs that the old religion never addressed well, if at all, may attempt to adapt the old religion's symbol system to incorporate the new way of being religious. And of course, a new religious movement might begin with a symbol system resulting from a merger of both prior traditions-in which case it would be unquestionably syncretic.

    Examples of both kinds of appropriation and adaptation can be found throughout the history of religions wherever different religions have encountered and competed with one another, especially in the history of missionary religions like Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam in each of the countries they entered. Buddhism's introduction into Tibet, for example, resulted in new forms of Buddhism and specifically the emergence and institutionalization of a form of Buddhism, Tibetan Vajrayana, that incorporates elements of the ways of shamanic mediation and sacred rite. 20 Some Western interpreters have argued that this represented a compromise to original Buddhism by taking into itself the alien forms of the indigenous religion of Tibet, known as Bon. Though some of this may be at work, what happened can also be interpreted as an occasion where two generic ways of being religious emerged within the Buddhist tradition that for a variety of reasons had not had opportunity or as much opportunity to develop freely before. In any case, they clearly seemed to address the existential needs of the people of Tibet.

    A similar thing can be said for shamanic practices in rural, so-called folk religious practice within Islam, Christianity, and Buddhism in other parts of the world. As already mentioned, African Americans, with a religious sensibility rooted in native African religion, influenced the rise of Pentecostalism in America. Also, it is interesting to note the emergence of uniquely African forms of Christianity, in South Africa for instance, that place a central emphasis on shamanic mediation and have only a tenuous resemblance to the Protestant Christianity first introduced there by European missionaries.21 In such cases, it is not so much a religious practice alien to these traditions as it is a generic way of being religious that might just as well have emerged in these traditions as in any other, though it seems to have taken exposure to this way within another indigenous tradition for it to come to birth in these traditions too. To say this is not to endorse such phenomena as fully authentic to, say, Islam or Christianity, for there may be aspects of the core system of symbols that some spokespersons would say denies them legitimacy. But it implies that it is only natural that such a thing does occur and perhaps that one should be more tolerant of it and open-minded toward it when it does occur than one otherwise might be.

    Another interesting case is the way that Zen Buddhism (the Japanese name for what is called Ch 'an in China and dhyana in Indian Sanskrit) came to be the major patron of traditional Japanese art forms (including the martial arts) as ideal contexts for realizing and expressing the enlightened "Buddha-mind" that is sup-posed to be there, beneath the superficial mind, in each person.22 These highly ritualized art forms called dO-including calligraphy, flower arranging, painting, landscape gardening, cooking, carpentry, archery, swordmaking, swordfighting-are unlike anything in Buddhism found elsewhere, except to some extent in Chinese Ch'an. Though some of their roots lie in pre-Buddhist Shinto culture, they have in this case become thoroughly Zen Buddhist expressions of both the way of right action and the way of sacred rite. They are particularly well epitomized in Cha-do or Cha-no-yu, the Tea Ceremony-which, if anything, is a sacramental rite comparable to the Mass for Roman Catholic Christians.23 Has Buddhism here become something alien to itself? Hardly.

    This page titled 4.4: Compactness, Differentiation, and Syncretism is shared under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Dale Cannon (Independent) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.