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13: The Way of Shamanic Mediation

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    For Buddhists and Christians who identify with the modern worldview, shamanic phenomena in their respective traditions are viewed as archaic holdovers from an earlier credulous age, contaminations of "high religion" by animistic folk religion, and in no sense essential to true Buddhism or true Christianity. We shall not enter into this controversy here except to note that the evidence is fairly clear that shamanic phenomena have been a part of each tradition all along-at least on the fringes of institutionalized orthodoxy.

    A full-blown shamanic tradition, however, has hardly ever emerged in either Buddhism or Christianity. This has to do with distinctive reasons each tradition has to be wary of shamanic practices. Buddhism's suspicion stems from two sources. On the one hand, it is stressed that the acquisition of supernatural powers poses a strong temptation to the very egoistic desires and aversions that it is Buddhism's goal to overcome. On the other hand, it is claimed that the exercise of supernatural powers is of no direct help in uprooting egoism in oneself or in others and may likely be counterproductive to that primary goal. Buddhism does not, however, cultivate disbelief in the existence of shamanic powers. As a matter of fact, it teaches that they are a natural byproduct of high levels of meditative attainment and their presence may be taken to indicate a specific level of attainment. Nor does Buddhism teach that these powers are evil. It does teach that they can be used for good and for evil, and there are many stories of the Buddha and Buddhists of high attainment exercising supernatural powers. Perhaps another reason for Buddhism not developing its own shamanic traditions is its encounter with and tolerance of preexistent, indigenous shamanic traditions in the cultures to which it spread. These traditions served existential needs-needs that could be construed as egoistic or samsaric needs-other than those with which Buddhism was most concerned, which pertain to transcending saf!Zsara altogether.

    Christianity's suspicion stems from three sources. First of all, it stems from the conviction that there are spiritual powers at large in the world that are opposed to God and to the ultimate well-being of creation. Consequently, if one is to resort to supernatural resources at all, one should make absolutely sure that they are "of God" and not "of Satan." The power of the Holy Spirit apparently does not tolerate simultaneous resort to "other spiritual powers"-hence the biblical interdictions against resorting to occult practices (e.g., Leviticus 19:31, 20:6, and 27; Deuteronomy 18:9-22; and I Samuel 28). How one is to discern what is of God and what is of Satan is a matter of "spiritual discernment," and has been at times a matter of considerable controversy in Christian history. A second reason for Christianity's suspicion is similar to Buddhism's suspicion, namely, the temptation posed by the acquisition of supernatural power for egoistic motives and for the development of the sin of "spiritual pride." Indeed, the idea that resort to divine power for healing is contrary to a humble acceptance of the all-wise ordering of life by divine providence (a kind of Christian fatalism-for example, "God wouldn't allow me to suffer if he didn't intend it to happen.") seems to have been responsible for the virtual extinction of shamanic Christian healing within the early medieval church. A third reason is the intractability of shamanic power to the kind of order and control prized by the established clerical hierarchy.

    Interestingly, both Buddhism and Christianity condemn sorcery, namely, the use of shamanic powers to implement egoistic, this-worldly motives, especially those that might harm and destroy.

    Despite Buddhism's wariness toward shamanic practices, there seems to have emerged a full-fledged tradition of shamanic mediation (if not more than one) in connection with Vajrayana Buddhism in Tibet, China, and Japan. In Japan, one such tradition is known as Shugendo ("the way [dol of mastering [shu] extraordinary religious power [gen]"). Outside of Vajrayana, whether a full-fledged tradition of Buddhist shamanic practice can be found or not, this author does not know well enough to say, although, as mentioned in Chapter 7, there are cases in Southeast Asia of apparently syncretic fusions of indigenous shamanic practices and Theravada Buddhist understandings. In Christianity, apart from the first few centuries of the Church, there does not seem to have existed a tradition of shamanic mediation as such-though there may be found numerous references at random to shamanic phenomena1-until the emergence of Pentecostalism and the Charismatic Movement in the twentieth century. The tradition of practice that has emerged in connection with these movements has been relatively slow and haphazard in formation, perhaps out of fear of domesticating what is taken to be the essentially intractable power and charisma of the Holy Spirit.


    This page titled 13: The Way of Shamanic Mediation 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.

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