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A Critical Genealogy of Shamanism in Tibetan Religions - PART V

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Soundings of Tibetan Shamanism by Anthropologists


Over the last three decades shamans have resurfaced in numerous anthropological studies on Nepal and Tibet, but the scholar's perspective on the shaman has changed once again.

One of the most important transformations to occur in recent ethnographic studies is that the shaman's social and religious role is examined in relation to Buddhist lamas, resulting in a dialectical approach to defining the two ritual specialists.

To consider shamanism relationally within a contested social arena marks an advance over the free-floating conceptions and definitions of shamanism used by earlier scholars.

Since the 1970s there have been numerous dissertations and monographs in anthropology published on shamans in Nepal, but most do not address the historical relationship between Buddhist lamas and the shamans in Tibet.

A few anthropologists such as Robert Paul, David Holmberg, and Stan Mumford have pursued their research among Tibeto-Burman groups in Nepal where shamans and Buddhist lamas compete as ritual specialists.

Moreover, their research has an ethno-historical purpose in trying to reconstruct diachronically the tense relationship between Buddhist lamas and their Bon "shaman" counterparts in Tibet.

Many of the Nepali shamans in fact claim Tibetan descent, and some even trace their lineage back to the Tibetan Bonpos, such as the Tamang Bombos studied by Holmberg,[1] the Ghyabrê and Paju shamans researched by Mumford,[2] and the Sherpa shamans described by Paul.[3]

These (fictive) lineages give these anthropologists license to reconstruct pre-Buddhist culture in Tibet teleologically, using the contemporary shamans as the basis for recuperating the original form of Bon shamanism.

Their ethnography is thus meant to fill in the silences of the Tibetan historical record, and to account for the process of "Lama-ization."[4]

Inevitably, the images they present of the Bon shaman and the Buddhist lama are oversimplified.

The anthropologists tend to exaggerate the gap between the complex and hybrid forms of Shamanism and Buddhism that they encounter in the field and the ideal type of the shaman and the lama that are retrojected into the past.

There is a common dialectical model found in the research of Paul, Holmberg, Mumford, and Samuel that places shamans in duel and dialogue with Buddhist clerics.

The shaman and lama serve as two opposing "ideal types" with conflicting modes of authority.

The modern Nepali and ancient Tibetan shaman is understood to be a practitioner of ecstatic techniques and healing rites, concerned with restoring harmony to their ailing clients.

These scholars tend to regard their authority as nearly autonomous, deriving from their ecstatic experiences, their charisma, as well as their understanding of the local deities and demons who require propitiation, a form of "local knowledge" passed down orally by shaman practitioners.

Tibetan lamas, on the other hand, are presented as elite representatives of a universal "great" tradition, with its hierarchical monastic institutions and strict moral injunctions.

Their clerical authority derives from their institutional affiliation as well as their ability to read sacred texts.

Yet despite all their institutional ties, the lamas are preoccupied above all with the "otherworldly" concern of liberation, rather than with achieving harmony in the world.

The anthopologists' shaman/lama dichotomy is identified (and subsequently critiqued) by Brigitte Steinmann as follows: Nothing differs more than the lama and the shaman. They seem to stand at opposite poles of religious experience.

The shaman acts out of a world of irrationality, trance and possession, delirium and dream and forms part of a community ruled by the force of sacrifice, personal powers and a chieftain's charisma.

The lama, in contrast, presents himself as the embodiment of measure and exegesis.

He has chosen his vocation within a lineage of men organized according to hierarchic principles.

His deeds are founded on a doctrine transmitted according to the tradition, and in writing.[5]


The formation of these opposing "ideal types" raises a host of interpretive issues, but here I will limit my analysis to some of the problems with the representation of the shaman. Paul argues that many of the characteristic features of Tibetan shamanism, such as the spontaneous ecstatic experience or the soul journey to the netherworld, have been transformed in its confrontation with Buddhist clerical religion.

In the institutionalized context of monastic Buddhism, monks pursue experiences that bear a structural resemblance to shamanic ecstasy, but the highly ritualized form of Buddhist meditation has substantially changed the archaic shamanic techniques.

Paul contends that the overlap of spiritual domains and functions resulted in tension between the shaman and the lama. Because they represent two distinct social strata, their similar religious powers become opposing social forces.

The shaman, a highly charismatic layperson, unaffiliated with any institution and not under the jurisdiction of a formal ethical code of behavior, becomes a subversive threat to his spiritual colleague the lama, who represents the monastic institution and abides by its strict moral prescriptions. Historical development, however, favors the lama as the representative of the institution, over the village shaman.

Paul subscribes to a Weberian view of historical evolution, in which the telic thrust of history is towards greater rationalization, the growth of institutions, hierarchies, and the routinization of charisma: Whereas religious virtuosity may once have coincided for the Sherpa with magical power or charisma, which could be had by village shamans, today it corresponds to obedience to a higher number of moral regulations. I have no particular hypothesis to put forward as to why this should be the case, other than it seems to be the overall direction of the movement of history, as Weber and the Hegelians before him pointed out.[6]

Paul suggests that the shaman's future in Nepal and in the Tibetan cultural context will be insignificant, as he will become drowned out by the rising wave of historical progress.

While Paul views the shaman's institutional and ethical independence as a liability, Mumford, Holmberg and Samuel tend to idealize and overstate the shaman's radical and transgressive ecstatic experiences.

From their perspective, the shaman's purported autonomy gives him a privileged place on the boundary, capable of criticizing the official orthodoxy and the hegemonic social authority of the lamas. Sounding much like Ch'an masters,[7] the shamans claim that their ecstatic experiences and healing abilities are not dependent on words and scriptures, and they position themselves as the only mediators with direct access to the divine, open to the influence of alien spirits during their spontaneous experiences.

For instance, Mumford records how the modern Ghyabrê and Paju shamans in Nepal interpret the story that features the famous competition of magic between Milarepa and the Bon siddha named [[Naro Bon chung[[, in which the traditional Buddhist accounts present Milarepa as the victor.

According to the Paju shaman's version of the story, however, after Naro Bon chung was defeated in the contest by Milarepa, the Bonpo destroyed his own written texts by burning them in a fire.

As he watched his sacred texts turn into ash, the Bonpo siddha heard a divine voice that commanded him to commit the content of the texts to memory.

He proceeded to eat the ashes and "swallow the knowledge," thereby internalizing it.

To this day it is claimed that the Paju shamans who descend from Naro Bon chung have their ritual and magical knowledge safely sealed in their minds, while the rival lamas must rely on texts that they can hardly read in the dark, when exorcism rituals must be performed.[8]


One can see the shaman's one-upmanship operating here against the lama, whose knowledge is lost without his texts, while the shaman's authentic knowledge is based on direct experience and not dependent on texts.

Mumford argues (contra Paul) that shamans are better able to adapt to cultural change, while the lama remains bound to a conservative and hegemonic institutional ideology.

His characterization of the shaman turns him into an enlightened social critic, an ironic and elusive trickster who undermines the lama's moral seriousness, and especially his preoccupation with karma and individual destiny: [The shamans] do not draw a boundary around their identity....

They embrace the interpenetration of different wills, allowing spirits from the periphery and from previous eras to enter their own being.

They enter alien realms on behalf of the community.... Because of this self-image the Paju and Ghyabrê are able to view their own motives and images as unbounded, incomplete, and historically changing....

They view their own truths as partial and in need of further elaboration from other sources.[9] Such a view of the shamans' self-identity as reflexive, dialogical, and decentered tells us more about Mumford's Bakhtin-inspired idealization than about the Nepali shaman or the Bonpo, who undoubtedly consider their own role and tradition to be centered within the boundaries of the true insider.

The anthropologist perhaps unconsciously identifies his own ambiguous status, moving betwixt and between cultures, with the shaman moving effortlessly between divine and human realms and serving as a mediator for their clients. Anthropologists often succumb to "ethnographic ventriloquism" (to use Geertz's phrase) when they speak not just about another form of life but speak from within it.

While a few anthropologists have sought to become the shaman's apprentice in order to learn about their trance states,[10] others like Mumford and Holmberg use their ethnographic authorial control to give voice to the shaman's immediate experience.

The idealization of the shaman's healing role in restoring harmony to the world may also reflect the western anthropologist's quest for re-enchantment in nature and redemption from modernity, with its repressive bureaucracies and hegemonic hierarchies.

Holmberg's characterization of Tamang shamans (the Bombos) and their soundings also underscores the immediacy of their experience.

He voices their claim to be "less dependent than the lambus and lamas on the formalities of training and the necessity of texts and proper procedures."

One of his Bompo informants tells him that "Lamas read from books, bombos must speak from their mouths. All comes from the innards.

It is not poured from a flask or dumped from a basket [the way lamas and lambus practice]. If you have no consciousness you cannot do it."[11]

What seems overlooked here is how the shaman's "spontaneous" experiences and apparently effortless performance is carefully regulated and ritualized, the result of intense formal training, learned from teachers whose authoritative knowledge has been transmitted through a lineage.

While Holmberg notes the importance of lineage for the Bonpo shaman, who receives initiation from a preceptor, he finds their rhetoric of immediacy persuasive and the elusiveness of their authority intriguing.

He declares that the Bombos are enigmatic figures and masters of paradox and ambiguity, who dwell in the breach "reveling and revealing enigmas of experience and order."

In response to the dominant narratives of the lamas, who impose closure and hegemonic order, the Bombos offer a "deconstructive voice" that fathoms the "arbitrariness of the social order."[12] Again we see the image of the shaman as a trickster, who offers an alternative and liberating perspective on society, an authentic perspective that he gains through his dreams and from his direct religious experience with the gods.

After Holmberg and Mumford, the most recent anthropologist to use a version of the shaman/cleric dyad model for interpreting Tibetan religions and societies is Geoffrey Samuel.

His work Civilized Shamans presents an ambitious effort to encompass all of Tibetan religion within the twin categories of shamanic and clerical, taxonomic categories that are sometimes presented as complementary dyads, and other times as tensely antagonistic.[13]

For Samuel, the "shamanic" is present in analogical, metaphorical, and mythic modes of thinking, in the visionary states and ecstatic experiences of the spirit medium and tantric siddha, in a sociocentric sense of self with a charismatic form of authority, and in small-scale decentralized societies.

The clerical, on the other hand, is present in rational, linear, and goal-oriented modes of thinking, it gains its authority in the mediations of scripture and texts, and it is found in centralized, hierarchical, and bureaucratic societies.

Although Samuel repeatedly emphasizes that both shamanic and clerical modes are present in Tibetan religions, it is clear that he values more highly the shamanic mode: "I believe that the sophisticated body of shamanic practices within Tibetan Buddhism probably constitutes Tibet's most important single contribution to humanity."[14]

In doing so, Samuel reiterates the valorization of the shaman over the clerical monk found in the work of other anthropologists, which also reverses the valorization of the Buddhist monk over the diabolical Bon shaman found in the pioneering studies by Das, Kawaguchi, Waddell, and Hoffmann.

The "civilized shamans" found by recent anthropologists are inverted mirror images of the uncivilized shamans found by pioneering Tibetologists.

How does the shamanic-clerical model map on to Tibetan religions? For Samuel, the shamanic is most clearly evident in the folk or "nameless" religion.

Both Bon and Buddhism have shamanic and clerical aspects, although he distinguishes Bon and Nyingma as more shamanic because they are less centralized and hierarchical orders, while the Dge lugs pa and Sakya monastic orders manifest the clerical hierarchies.

What Samuel finds especially valuable about the shamanic mode of the Bon and Nyingma traditions is their reliance on creative visionary experience and revelation, as manifest in their "treasure literature."

What is neglected or overlooked in Samuel's somewhat romantic image of direct, unmediated religious experience is the extent to which the practitioners were concerned with legitimizing their treasure texts and revelatory experiences in terms of past precedent, making them more conservative and traditional (and clerical) than he supposes.[15]

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  1. David H. Holmberg, Lama, Shaman, and Lambu in Tamang Religious Practice, unpublished Ph.D dissertation (Cornell University, 1980), p. 288. Holmberg quotes a ritual recitation of the Tamang bombo "shaman," who affirm their own identity with the ancient Bon lineage of Tibet: "I [am] of the ancients. Watch in front, watch within. Ancient to ancient, Bon to bon.... I am the bon of an ancient trunk, the branch in a line. I am in the pillar of a bon."
  2. Stan Royal Mumford, Himalayan Dialogue: Tibetan Lamas and Gurung Shamans in Nepal (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989), pp. 52-3.
  3. Robert Paul, "Some Observations on Sherpa Shamanism" in Spirit Possession in the Nepal Himalaya, ed. by John Hitchcock and Rex Jones (Delhi: Vikas Publishing Co., 1976), p. 141-152. For a more recent study of the Yolmo Sherpa shamans, see Robert R. Desjarlais, Body and Emotion: The Aesthetics of Illness and Healing in the Nepal Himalayas (Philadelphia: University of Penn. Press, 1992).
  4. Mumford, Himalayan Dialogue, pp. 7, 12, 30-1.
  5. Brigitte Steinmann, "Shamans and Lamas Exorcise Madness," in Les habitants du Toit de monde ed. by Samten Karmay and Philippe Sagant (Nanterre: Société d'ethnologie, 1997), p. 419. Steinmann concludes her analysis of the exorcism rituals of a Tamang bombo "shaman" and a lama priest by noting their similarities, since they operate in the same "field of religious representations." She concludes that "our vision of the shaman as more original than the lama consequently seems a highly romantic delusion" (435). Steinmann's conclusion here is compatible with those made in this article.
  6. Paul, "Some Observations on Sherpa Shamanism," p. 149.
  7. Bernard Faure, The Rhetoric of Immediacy: A Cultural Critique of Chan/Zen Buddhism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991).
  8. Mumford, Himayalan Dialogue, p. 53.
  9. Mumford, Himalayan Dialogue, p. 246.
  10. See for instance Robert Desjarlais, Body and Emotion: The Aesthetics of Illness and Healing in the Nepal Himalayas (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992).
  11. Holmberg, Order in Paradox, p. 149.
  12. Holmberg, Order in Paradox, pp. 167, 216, 221.
  13. Geoffrey Samuel, Civilized Shamans: Buddhism in Tibetan Societies (Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1993), p. 435
  14. Samuel, Civilized Shamans, p. 8.
  15. Samuel, Civilized Shamans, p. 34.