Dialogue on Shamanism, I

Clyde Davenport (clyde@BUS.HIROSHIMA-PU.AC.JP)
Fri, 17 May 1996 20:16:18 +0900

Excerpts from Dialogue on Shamanism, Part I
John Pastore/Clyde Davenport

CD: I'd agree that one way of looking at it is that the shamans
leave their bodies. Some shamans insist, though, that when they
travel places shamanistically they take their bodies with them. Other
people have seen them be so to speak at two places at one time which
provides a kind of collaboration. In some ways I think the easiest
solution to this problem (aside from discounting the problem of
shamanism all together and taking a vacation to the Caribbean) . . .

JP: Not a bad idea: the Caribbean that is. I'm on a permanent
vacation on the Caribbean --the Mayan Caribbean, though its a working
vacation at that. But it doesn't escape the problem --to the contrary
you are just that much closer to where shaman are active.

CD: . . . is to say that the ordinary body is in some ways illusory.
That the body is either at rest or moving is unreal. Shamans/ @
meditation adepts, etc. take advantage of this. They have virtual
movement anywhere because the body is really located nowhere
to begin with.

JP: I'll have to think about that for a while, and not because
I disagree.


JP: That and: both survive as shaman themselves and perpetuate
the knowledge of their shamanism from their generation to the

CD: Yes but: I somehow dislike the nuances of the word survival
(the grand sweep of rhetoric from Darwin to sociobiology) . . .

JP: OK. Strike "survive" for perpetuate.

CD: ... and the problem of transmission is difficult in that on the
one hand we have Eliade's model of the shaman being chosen by the
spirits ("election," there's no way out of the fate, a kind of predestination)
and then the more culturalist model that sees shamanism as something
that is handed down from person to person.

JP: There is a third, but I'll be addressing that later.

CD: In a different realm, there is the same kind of problem in terms
of Zen Buddhism. It's all supposed to be inner insight, but there are
a lot of conventionalities to the way the seal of enlightenment gets
handed down from master to disciple.

JP: I can't agree with the supposition that it's all inner insight,
but that too I will be addressing later


CD: Or is there also not another movement of conventional reality
entering shamanistic reality in that shamanistic experience is itself
something cultural? (And thus we can speak of shamanistic societies
as a type of culture.)

JP: The universality of leaving the body to fly and hover above a
scene (not participate necessarily or intervene, but to observe)
makes it seem that there is something very basic and cross-cultural,
though the accoutrements will vary, about shamanism. Its genuineness
also seems proportional to the extent, the shamanism is based in an
animistic society.

CD: Again, yes, but: do they really leave the body or do they not
take it with them?

JP: I still have to think about whether they really leave their
body or take it with them, but not for reasons you might suspect. In
the meantime, if, as you say, the body is nowhere to begin with, than
where it might be anywhere else at any time is kind of irrelevant
anyway, including its vulnerability to attack, accidents, or even
death (meaning the predicament a shaman would be in if, while
outside his body, his body should die), as Don Juan warned when
having spread one's self so thin, so to speak, to be in both


CD: This kind of thing is universal although the details vary. In one
new religion in Japan the founder was able to walk between places in
an impossibly short period of time. There was no mention of flying,
but the description was ultimately about the same kind of problem of
appearing to be at two places at once. I'd agree that in general the
truly animist societies have a more genuine kind of shamanism.

JP: As a matter to just keep in mind, Japan's Shintoism is animistic.

CD: Well, if Shinto is animist, it is not animist in a simple sort
of way. There are many levels to the Shinto tradition. But more on
this later.


CD: But what does animism mean? How is it different from shamanism?

JP: The only difference is that a shaman can participate in the
non-ordinary reality, while another member of an animistic society
may only be able to observe it.

CD: This means that animist and shamanist societies/cultures are
the same thing. The shaman is merely one type of individual within
an animist society. Also, what is the difference between "observe
non-ordinary reality" and "participate in non-ordinary reality"? Is
not the observation of non-ordinary reality that you speak of more
the observation of the shamanistic performance, the recreation of
the space of non-ordinary reality in the midst of ordinary reality?


CD: Why is it that we have no fitting word for the non-animistic

JP: Because animism begins with an 'a,' animism cannot become
aanimism in the same way that typical can become atypical, so
everyone settles for non-animistic? If deficient, and we tried to
invent a new word we would run into the problem that monotheism
is not the contrast to animism.

CD: I'm not sure I know what you mean by this. To me, Christianity,
Islam and Judaism are monotheistic, they have one god, a ruling God.
And it is because they are monotheistic that the word animism acquires
its meaning: one god vs. many spirits.

JP: No, you can't make this simple division. Christianity, Islam (I
suppose) and Judaism has the God (as in the Holy Spirit) omnipresent.
God, a spirit, is everywhere which would include what scientists regard
as inanimate objects, thus, animizing them. Thus, monotheism is not the
contrast to animism, though animism appears polytheistic to those who
cannot perceive spirits as anything but individual entities rather than
single aspects of a single "Great Spirit" --whether that Spirit or God be
the Thunderbird, or Hunab-Ku, etc.

CD: Monotheism may perhaps only be contrasted to animism in that
monotheism seeks to replace animism. This is quite clear in the Old
Testament. Yahweh conquers/subdues the other gods and goddesses
leaving only himself. And Christianity has a long history of defining
itself against the pagan world, both internally (witchcraft/the Devil)
and externally (other non-Christian cultures, excluding only Jews and
Moslems). You are right, though, that monotheism should be able to
harmonize itself with animism through a one-in-the-many kind of
perspective. For the most part, though, it hasn't. Furthermore,
while Hinduism has this kind of one-in-the-many perspective (brahman
and atman), I wouldn't call it monotheism. In the case of Buddhism,
Buddhism has the one-in-the-many kind of perspective, too, but it
is fundamentally atheistic, not recognizing the existence or non-
existence of atman and brahman as well as individual gods and


CD: But what of Hinduism, Buddhism, etc. which are also organized
religions? They have many gods as in animism. Why though have they
become something else than animism?

JP: Once any religion, as if animism is one, is institutionalized,
like anything else institutionalized, a whole new cloak of
accoutrements is added, further removing, or insulating, in this
case, animism from its original concept at a rate probably
proportional to the rate the society is urbanizing, or removing
itself from its more natural environment--a new environment that
becomes so distracting to a practicing animist that the whole of the
original concept becomes lost.

CD: While I think it is important that we recognize the process which
you talk about here--accoutrementization and/or insulation in the
urbanization of animistic "religion"--it may not always mean that the
original concept has been lost. If we look at various movements within
Buddhism and Hinduism (such as Tantra) we will see a resurfacing of
animist elements, albeit in a slightly different context.


CD: Confucianism is perhaps not even a religion. It is an ethical
system that draws its imagery from the ancestor cults of dim
antiquity (as well as the emperor cult) but at the same time not
only promulgates a social ethic but also advances a scientized
(rationally systematized) form of shamanism, i.e. yin-yang. Taoism
is irreconcilably split (at least to Western scholars, and to elite
Chinese groups) into a total aesthetic philosophy and a cult of magic
and immortality.

JP: Whooa, I don't think so. I think a Taoist would see the split
between aesthetic philosophy and a cult of magic as two components
to an individual whole that when functioning in harmony becomes more
than just the sum of its parts, and what Lao-Tzu would describe as
the "nameless" --unless your use of the word magic means its
significance on an elementary level as illusion. If such were the
case the two concepts wouldn't, I think, be compatible to serve as
components to a possible whole.

CD: Here, you speak of the philosophical kind of Taoism based on the
work of Lao-tzu (who might not even have been a real person since his
(?) name means the Old One). What is termed religious Taoism
concerns protection from spirits, control of spirits, the search for
immortality or other powers through creating elixirs, the magical
power of the (written) word, etc. It is not clear exactly what the
origins of religious Taoism were. Some forms of it did though borrow
a lot from Buddhism in terms of institutional structure and rituals.
If you want to get an idea of what the more popular kind of religious
Taoism is like (a distorted view, but one that is home-grown) try to
find a kung-fu movie about vampires. Watch it and then try to decide
what the relation of this kind of Taoism is to the Taoism of Lao-tzu.
It's not that easy.


CD: And we as observers outside of shamanism, how do we see this
same relation of shamanistic reality to conventional reality?

JP: By taking yourself from the outside in.

CD: True, but in ways you miss my point. I use the "we" of the

JP: No, that's where you miss my point. I intend to take them from
the outside in.


CD: Anthropologists constitutionally cannot believe that shamanism
has any kind of reality more than the conventional reality of the
cultures it finds itself in. Anthropologists are willing to study it
and make believe that they believe in it in order to understand it,
but this is the make believe of the scientific method.

JP: We'll see.


JP: Shamans of any culture have their 'conventional' realities too.
You (CD) are looking for a relationship that does not exist:
"shamanistic" reality as opposed to "conventional reality". You need
to first look for and recognize "non-ordinary" reality, and then make
the relationship with "conventional reality". The only real abilities
a shaman has over his or her non-shaman neighbors is this ability to
perceive the parallel "non-ordinary" reality, and then be willing to
participate in it.

CD: Yes, and no. Shamans must still provisionally speak their message
to others in terms taken from conventional reality.

JP: Why should that be a problem when, being residents to
"conventional" or let's start saying: "ordinary" reality, shaman are
versed in the languages of their societies and can, thus, ordinarily
express themselves anyway --if the delivering of a message, as
opposed to merely using the knowledge learned by the message, is an

CD: About the delivery of a message, I think of the Buddhist idea of
skillful means (upaya). They go out into a different world, but then they
must be able to bring it back home again.

JP: Bring what back home with them? What is the "it" you refer to?

CD: The "it" is their insight, the knowledge they have gained in
non-ordinary reality. In Buddhist terms this would be their wisdom.


CD: If they were not able to do this they would not be able to
engage in an ordinary occupation alongside their shamanism (as you
[JP] mentioned about Mayan shamans in the present day.

JP: You (CD) are making it sound like Shaman are superhuman beings,
which they are not. Everyone has the potential of being a shaman,
it's a matter of learning how to perceive. More later...

CD: You misunderstand my point. If shamans have anything of the
superhuman about them it is in the context of non-ordinary reality.
But when they return to ordinary reality they are merely human. Yet
why do they return to non-ordinary reality? One reason is to train
other shamans. And they can do this because everyone does have the


CD: We have our own conventional reality as members of mass cultures
at the close of the 20th century.

JP: Despite whatever preconditioning, "non-ordinary reality" is
there, and you can learn to perceive it.

CD: Of course. But why don't we want to give ordinary reality up? And
why do the people who are willing to give it up (even if only temporarily,
provisionally) end up being either reductive anthropologists or equally
spurious new age types?

JP: The "reductive" types are not giving it up. They have yet to
perceive and accept that anything other than the ordinary reality
that they have become accustomed to exists. Therefore, for them,
there is nothing to give up. As for the new-age types, they are the
contrary. They look for anything to not give-up, but to embrace,
whether they either have ever perceived non-ordinary reality or not.
(If they had ever perceived non-ordinary reality, they would not be
new-agers). They are still looking for it in crystals, rather than,
perhaps, through them. They remind me of people who are novices to
pot. They smoke and then wait for some replays of their favorite
looney-tunes on the bedroom's curtains. After awhile they learn
(sometimes not) that being stoned is not a rerun of Captain

They, definitely, are not looking for knowledge, though they may
think so. They are looking for belief, or a creed, which would
require faith --no matter how novel the apparent faith may be to
seemingly disguise it as anything else but faith. Even in the faith
of the faithlessness of it all. They have yet to realize that any
creed is not only not required, of the essentials of shamanism, but
anathema to it. They are, in fact, looking for gratification, in the
knowledge that the "belief" they believe they can, or have, embraced
is more than merely the vapid gratification of having found a
'belief' for their faith. The gratification they experience is
merely camaraderie, the shared consensus, found in the "true belief"
of any mass movement.

CD: I don't want to include you (JP) in this definition, nor I hope
am I including myself in this definition. But why is it that it is
easier to be one way or the other --to be a reductive scientist type
or a new-age type? If people could read, they could read between the
lines. If they could shamanize they could read between the light

JP: People can read, but that doesn't mean that all of them have
enough, say, cultural I.Q. within the language being read to be able
to read between the lines, or seeing between the light rays -- which
becomes more than just an understanding, but an actual vision. As if
the words between the lines become physically visible (which has
never happened to me, though, they can become audible)...