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Shamans, yogins and indigenous psychologies

Abstract and Keywords

This article offers a brief account of the processes of world-view, particularly in selected representatives of the ‘ancient matrix’, and indicates how they may change as the second and third of Michail Bakhtin's phases impact upon them. The forms of religion found in hunter-gatherer societies of the ‘ancient matrix’ are commonly described as ‘shamanic’. Although they vary considerably in form and function, such cultures share several key attributes in common. Members of the society participate in a common understanding or world-view from which they draw an understanding of themselves in relation to their perception of the universe. Shamans usually have a deep knowledge of natural history and/or a sensitive appreciation of their social system and the personal tendencies of community members. Interpretation of social conflict on a ‘cosmological’ level removed from actual social process amounts to an appeal to a neutral world transcending actual interpersonal conflict or sickness.

Keywords: world-view, ancient matrix, Michail Bakhtin, religion, cultures, shamans, universe, social system

35.1. How should we examine culture?

Scattered around the globe on each and every continent are ancient societies of native peoples who in their behaviour, ecological adaptation and world-view still remain largely outside the modern world. In their difference from and resistance to missionary Christianity they were, in the Western colonial period, regarded as ‘primitive’, often treated abusively, exploited for their resources, and even subjected to periodic genocide, dispossession of their lands, forcible conversions and resettlements. Since their remaining territories may stand in the way of commercial forestry, the expansion of ranging land or cultivation, many of these people still suffer social and cultural breakdown under intense economic and cultural pressure with a resultant loss of an intimate knowledge of their own worlds. Yet, as is becoming increasingly realized, such peoples are the repositories of ways of being of immense antiquity, often extreme social complexity and the bearers of world-views that relate very successfully to their environments. Furthermore, there is reason to suppose that their ways of life echo those of archaic peoples of prehistoric times (Lewis-Williams, 2002). They have thus gradually become of the greatest interest to anthropology, particularly perhaps to evolutionary psychologists concerned with the interface between biology and culture, evolution and history.

What then is an appropriate way to approach world-views within evolutionary psychology? Several starting points are important; holism, multi-level selection theory and historical context. First, we need to recall Susan Oyama's (2000) stress on a holistic approach to the development of systems as complex as the organism or culture. She argues (p. 39):

What we are moving towards is a conception of a developmental system, not as the reading off of a pre-existing code, but as a complex of interacting influences, some inside the organism's skin, some external to it, and including its ecological niche in all its spatial and temporal aspects.—It is in this ontogenetic crucible that form appears and is transformed, not because it is immanent in some interacttants and nourished by others but because any form is created by the precise activity of the system.

If we accept this approach then it is through a systems analytical orientation rather than any form of reductionism that we must proceed.

The Russian interpreter of culture, Michail Bakhtin (1981), would certainly agree, arguing that cultural meaning is not contained within social groups, persons or linguistic terms but rather co-emerges between them. A relational rather than a reductionist psychology is implied (p. 520) in such views. In his view, the history of cultural evolution can be seen as falling into three phases.

  1. 1. The ‘ancient matrix’ in which personal identity is relational, structured in terms of the immediate social world and environment of exploitation. The self is deeply participatory, involved within and pervaded by the unified life of the world system as perceived; time is felt as cyclic based on a harmony within nature, the relationship with which is governed by detailed rules regulated by shamanic discourse including means for restoration when broken. The social vehicle is mytho-poetic discourse, often revealed in trance states wherein fantasy reflects themes in both social and environmental relationships.

  2. 2. Individualism is enhanced through an awareness of time as a personal becoming moving towards destinies distinct from the world matrix. This phase coincides with the appearance of class systems and religions of personal salvation emphasizing a separation between identity and the cosmos. Thought is here anchored in reified usages of terms expressing self, identity, ethics and the linear process descriptive of commercial advance and personal salvation.

  3. 3. There is an emerging awareness of personal belief and world-view as contingent upon their context rather than as being in some sense ‘absolute’. Such awareness is necessarily associated with a sense of the relativity of faith and opinion in which the monologic discourses of previous religions/philosophies are opened up to questioning through reflexive awareness.

The second point of departure is the emergence of ‘multi-level selection theory’ based in a reappraisal of the importance of group selection (Sober and Wilson, 1998; Wilson, 2002). Whenever organisms come together in a collective that begins to function as a unit and becomes subject to selection as such, we can perceive group selection in action; the evolution of multicellular organisms from independent single cells is the basic example. We can see that groups possessing traits that prove to have increased fitness will increase in a population of groups. An evolutionary transition shifts the emphasis to a new composite unit. Within-unit selection will enhance their cohesion and internal functioning while inter-unit selection sustains continuing adaptive radiation of such newly integrated groups. In advanced birds and mammals, the mechanisms being selected may or may not have a genetic base; some are clearly cultural. Selection of ‘selfish genes’ does not cease but happens within the context where group selection for altruism may be occurring. Evolution proceeds through operating on contrasting mechanisms at several levels (Plotkin and Odling-Smee, 1981; Odling-Smee, 1995). Among human beings the role of culture in adaptation is presumed to be predominant although explanation in terms of genetics and the operation of evolved cognitive modules (Barkow et al., 1992) may remain important in some contexts. What is needed, however, is an integrative developmental theory of how culture arises.

An important aspect of any such theory must focus on the unique emergence in Homo sapiens of four and in some persons five levels of intentionality. This crucial outcome of primate cognitive evolution allows individuals to assess the motivations of others and to infer others' beliefs about their companion's intentions or purposes. Without these preadaptations, Dunbar (2004) argues, culture based in the communal holding of world-views simply could not exist. This must be especially true when the higher levels are used in the context of elaborate metaphorical symbolism. Such symbolism is made possible through the human ability to fantasize emotional relating. It seems that this is not only an effect of imaginative ability but also due to unconscious processes operating to create representations of everyday events, both present and derived from memory, that come to symbolize social process. This seems to be the reason why dreams are often sufficiently interpretable to make personal and social sense. Dunbar calculates that such abilities underlying communally shared beliefs probably only emerged well after the evolution of language at the time of Cro-Magnon man 200 000 years ago.

The third essential in an examination of the origins of world-views is necessarily the study of the history of ideas through archaeological research related to interpretative readings in depth of ancient texts. Such work indeed provides the material evidence with which we may assess the sequencing of socio-cultural developments (p. 521) that underlies the passage through the phases of change abstracted by Bakhtin as especially significant. This chapter offers a brief account of the processes of world-viewing, particularly in selected representatives of the ‘ancient matrix’, and indicates how they may change as the second and third of Bakhtin's phases impact upon them.

35.2. Shamanic society

The forms of religion found in hunter-gatherer societies of the ‘ancient matrix’ (Bakhtin, 1981) are commonly described as ‘shamanic’. Although they vary considerably in form and function, such cultures share several key attributes in common.

Members of the society participate in a common understanding or world-view from which they draw an understanding of themselves in relation to their perception of the universe. Each society in question may have its own metaphysical picture of reality but all are essentially holistic with individuals deeply involved in a universal process.

The world-view is expressed publicly through a relationship between individuals and those who specialize in its presentation. These individuals are known as ‘shamans’ after the name of such specialists among the Tungus, a Siberian tribe. There is considerable variation in the social functioning of shamans and related specialists in contrasting types of healing (Hitchcock and Jones, 1976; Jacobs, 1990; Winkelman, 2000).

The shaman commonly interprets the world-view through psychological dissociation in trance wherein he travels to spiritual realms, meets spirit beings, retrieves lost souls, speaks with the gods and returns with oracular predictions or announcements. Alternatively the shaman may be possessed by such entities who speak through him when in trance. Psychologically the nature of mental dissociation in trance is still poorly understood. Inconsistent parenting may play a role in contemporary Western cases (Main and Hesse, 1992) and Winkelman (2000) has initiated extensive work on the neurophysiological bases of such states.

The shaman often acquires his status after an illness involving apparent possession by spirits or the psychological force of others. His/her training involves strict discipline under supervision of an older expert until controlled trance can be used in the service of individuals or the community as a whole.

The shamanic world-view is a fantasized image of the natural world symbolized by personifications of natural and psychological forces as sentient spirits. Shamans may travel to their abodes or become possessed by these entities. In lucid dreaming and under the influence of hallucinogens, some shamans go travelling within a complex representation of their natural environment and/or of the belief system of the people. Shamans usually have a deep knowledge of natural history and/or a sensitive appreciation of their social system and the personal tendencies of community members. Interpretation of social conflict on a ‘cosmological’ level removed from actual social process amounts to an appeal to a neutral world transcending actual interpersonal conflict or sickness (Riches, 1994). This enables the shaman to suggest or enforce rules of behaviour that may tend to produce environmental stability through the control of exploitation and the psychotherapeutic healing of disturbed or deviant individuals.

Shamanism is associated with art, music, dance, social, sexual and personal discipline and tends towards community health in the broadest sense. These disciplined societies are none the less commonly highly egalitarian and institutional complexity is absent.

Shamanism is characteristic of hunter-gatherer societies but may not be completely lost when the transition to Bakhtin's second phase occurs. Although the personal definition of the self changes with the increased social stratification associated with agriculture, the appearance of the market, institutionalized religion and government, participation in residual shamanic cults often with healing functions may still occur—even, for example, within so strict a religious environment as Islam (Boddy, 1989). Rationalized theologies, professional clergy and liturgical rituals none the less progressively replace the shaman. Mystical ecstasy and trance become exceptional and increasingly poorly understood, indeed commonly perceived as threatening to the collective power of a priesthood. In the fascinating case of Tibet, shamanic themes have become deeply enmeshed within the complexities of tantric Buddhism to form a (p. 522) unique system of psychological practice with soteriological functions leading to the ‘salvation’ of the self (Samuel, 1993).

In hunter-gatherer and other tribal societies the structure attributed to the self often differs greatly from the individualism apparent in more advanced cultures (Neisser and Jopling, 1997). As we shall see there is commonly a strong identification with the natural world and the group/clan so that the dualism between self and other, self and environment, is far less marked than in modern societies. Attributions to self form part of a world-view just as a world-view is shaped by attributions to self.

Many Africans in their traditional worlds are said to have little conception of a person separate from community. Community and person may be so closely conflated that in a legal conflict in Lower Congo senior members of the matrilineage will argue for the defendant, but the clan as a whole wins or loses a case. Membership of an African community may depend on the presence of certain social properties, positions in a hierarchy or membership of an age class, for examples. Parenthood is often vital because an individual who is not reproductive is not connected to the past or future and therefore not a ‘member’ of the group. Personhood, in contrast, is conferred as a result of participation in the collective world.

Another common feature in such worlds is a failure to distinguish clearly between the spiritual and material, the mind and body. The feeling for communality may extend even to dead ancestors who are perceived as potentially present, playing active parts in the life of the group and to whom various obligations are due. The person exists within a spiritual world and the boundaries of a person may extend beyond the physical self. People may take care not to step on someone's shadow or have their own stepped upon since personal power is lost to the other under such circumstances.

Yet, Africans are also aware of individual idiosyncrasies that are described in folk tales and appear in self-expression, for example in dance. None the less, Lienhardt (1985) argues that, while degrees of individuality are appreciated, the self of a person is seen as hidden or undiscoverable, perhaps because it is not envisaged as an entity separable from society. We may suggest, following La Fontaine (1985), that the notions characterizing a person in a society are closely linked to the nature of authority and kinship in that society as well as its economic functioning. Above all, self-understanding and self-conceptualization arise within the social representations by which an individual's world is conceived. It is within the communal attributions to selfhood that a shaman will play his/her healing roles.

35.2.1. Amazonian shamanism

One of the finest accounts of the world-view of a shamanic society prior to any major impact of the modern world comes from the researches among the Tukano Indians of the upper Amazon by Gerardo Reichel-Dolmatoff (1997). The Tukano are hunter-gatherers who also create gardens for manioc cultivation within the forest. Their world-view is a profoundly elaborate symbolic representation of the natural history and ecological process of their environment based in a conception of energy flow emanating from the sun. There are however two suns, the visible and the invisible. The visible sun is the representative of the invisible ‘sun father’ and fills the cosmos with a spermatic life force, which, however, often manifests irregularly and with destructive as well as creative force. The energy from the invisible sun is always beneficial, it is androgynous in character and underlies the visible energy. The shaman is able to influence this energy to correct any harmful effects arising in visible manifestations. Strangely, this world is in a sense seen as inert because its life is only given in the presence of human interpretation.

Energy is perceived by shamans as present in sensorial phenomena (colour, odour, sound, visions) which in a highly complex discourse are given abstract meanings used in interpreting events that may then be visualized in many forms. Energy is perceived as a flow through phenomena. A key concept is derived from the flickering of light in the heart of a hexagonal crystal, hexagonal shapes appearing again and again in their mythologies. Many of the symbolizations are derived from sexual narratives. A particular term, for a ‘handle’, say, may appear metaphorically on several overlapping and (p. 523) interlacing levels of discourse from the sexual to the ecological.

A key symbolization is that of the ‘master of animals’, commonly an anthropomorphic figure carrying a hunter's spoils that vary seasonally in relation to the reproductive cycles of particular species. When a shaman, or perhaps an individual temporarily lost in forest, ‘meets’ the ‘master of animals’ this is commonly perceived as a warning that too much hunting of specific types is being carried out either by an individual or a group. This personal experience is then utilized by the shaman to adjust behaviour within rules that may have been broken. These rules entail very elaborate constraints, for example specific modes and times of celibacy, dietary restriction and taboos on certain activities.

In order to go hunting a man has to undergo complex ritual preparation. These may include several days of abstinence from sex with his wife and indeed all dreams of an erotic nature. He eats only unseasoned cooked food. On the morning of the hunt he purifies himself by drinking a large quantity of liquid pepper, some of which is absorbed through the nostrils. Tucking special aromatic plants in his belt he paints his body with designs indicating potency and fertility in order to attract animals. A hunt is conceived as a form of courtship and animal behaviour is interpreted through human parallels.

Hunters may spend hours watching animals, for example from a perch in a tree near a saltlick. The somnolent hunter may see animals as if in a dream taking human form, their sound, appearance and odour may trigger images of another world in which patterns of experience from hallucinogenic séances may recur. Places such as salt-licks are seen as thresholds. Shamans say that some hunters may cross the threshold and enter another world, become transformed into tapirs and never return. Reichel-Dolmatoff argues that the elaborate and sometimes threatening interpretation of events symbolizes the natural world and that the taboos and restrictions that shamans may impose have the effect of regulating their exploitation of that world. Groups of Indians practice self-sufficiency largely through the specific coercions on deviance from rules that shamans can impose.

In the largely flat terrain occupied by the Tukano, certain hilly areas with flat tops are regarded as the special preserve of the ‘master of animals’. These are dangerous places to visit. One may for example get lost in the forest for ever and be transformed into another creature. Avoidance of hunting near such areas creates natural reserves for wildlife. Needless to say, the arrival of Western missionaries, together with entrepreneurs, intent on exploiting the Amazonian forest leads to a breakdown of ecological balance through the decadence of unrestricted agricultural capitalism. In other studies, however, whether traditional hunter-gatherers are always good conservationists has been questioned (Cowlishaw and Dunbar, 2000).

On ceremonial occasions, the Banisteriopsis hallucinogen is consumed by adult men, who are led by shamans and attended by encouraging women. The men dance, sing and play musical instruments but these are not frenzied sessions, rather an atmosphere of seriousness prevails. As the evening progresses the dancing becomes more coordinated so that the group appears more and more like a single organism. The drug takes effect in two stages. In the first, dots and squiggles, star shapes etc. (known as phosphenes) appear, weaving complex patterns which are often used in art, for example in house decoration. In the second stage, when the drug may have been reinforced with tobacco, complex hallucinations of living creatures appear that are then interpreted according to the world-view of the people. Finally the images disappear and the men sit silently in a state of serene bliss. Reichel-Dolmatoff remarks: “These trances, then, are of social-ecological importance. The shaman-controlled drug experience is a technique of behavioural modification, and its latent phosphenes continue to influence behaviour in normal states of awareness.” Other studies have suggested that such episodes of social bonding may allow things experienced in such states to be more effectively learnt than when such intense experiences are absent.

The visions are interpreted as a return to the womb, a reversal of time. The ancestors may appear, plants and animals may complain of ill treatment, events from the personal past may be re-lived and re-ordered. The images seen in these states become the topics of discussion led by shamans. The experiences are not private but freely shared and interpreted in a group (p. 524) led by a shaman. Detailed questions about the precise form of experiences may be asked and interpreted in complex, many-layered discussions. Individuals come to understand their experience in the light of the communal world-view in which the authority of the shaman is confirmed.

In sum, Reichel-Dolmatoff has suggested the manner in which these societies maintain a self-regulation in relation to their resources and social cohesion through a world-view of great complexity essential for their welfare. Personal and social disaster commonly follows its loss.

35.2.2. Asian Shamanism in relation to Buddhism

Research on Asian shamanism is extensive (Hitchcock and Jones, 1976) and is particularly interesting for evolutionary psychology in that it reveals the manner in which shamanism of the ‘ancient matrix’ gradually became incorporated within the relatively more rationalized schemata of Bakhtin's second phase. Originally the largely nomadic societies of central Asia found meaning in world-views focused on mediation in a spirit world by shamans whose speciality was journeys in trance to mystical lands to obtain prophecies or advice (oracles), assist the final journey of the dead or to retrieve lost souls. In his pioneering work, Marcel Eliade (1989, first published 1964) considered this to be the fundamental shamanic type. However, a major variation is the Tibetan who becomes possessed by gods, spirits or other spiritual agents while in trance. Here the ‘gods’ come to the shaman rather than vice versa. Such lus.gyer, ‘vehicles for the gods’, have been particularly studied in Ladakh where they have psychological functions in healing states of ill-health often resulting from possession by witches or spirits of place, etc. (Brauen, 1980; Kuhn, 1988; Day, 1989; Phylactou, 1989; Kaplanian [undated]; Crook, 1997, 1998; Rösing, 2003). Asian shamanism appears more directly concerned with personal, social or ethical issues than with the environment. The shaman is commonly concerned with tensions, quarrels or even crimes. By interpreting events on the level of the noumenal he is not involved in judgements that may immediately shame. He provides a symbolic interpretation upon which communal discussion develops and a tension-relieving outcome may arise without direct accusations (Riches, 1994).

The occurrence of shamanic trance is not quite universal. In eastern Nepal, the shaman tells long stories concerning his travels, which may sometimes appear more as dream-like fantasies or lucid dreaming than full trance. These stories are subsequently discussed and interpreted communally to provide meaning (Sagant, 1996). In Ladakh too, the depth of trance may vary, some consultations or social events giving more the impression of wilful drama than possession. It may be that oracles are not always able to enter a deep trance and then ‘ham it up’ to sustain their reputations (Rösing, 2003). In contemporary Ladakh the number of shamans appears to be increasing together with modern forms of stress, but with less meticulous training it may be that the ability to go into full trance may not always be present or only arise fully in matured adepts. In full trance it appears that no memory of what transpires in the entranced session is retained. Extraordinary, even death-defying, feats may be performed and these are often completely convincing.

Possession by spirits or witches is extremely common in Ladakh, especially among young women whose hysterical behaviour is most distressing to the households in which they occur. These psychological disturbances seem closely linked to stress arising within the family on marriage. Although women are generally freer and of higher status than in many comparable societies, young wives leave their homes to enter those of their husbands and find this a formidable challenge. Until recently in this traditionally polyandrous society, two or three brothers may marry the same wife in a system sustaining the subsistence value of the undivided estate, while at the same time maintaining sufficient labour to work it and a low birth rate (Crook and Crook, 1988; Crook 1995). Men are the key figures in the maintenance of the agricultural family. Women are essentially involved only in procreation and have little status until becoming mature mothers of children (Day, 1989; Phylactou, 1989).

Incoming wives are subordinate to powerful mothers-in-law, have to relate to a new household deity and new domestic rituals to avoid pollution, and have to supply high-quality food and drink on social occasions while showing (p. 525) behaviour entailing exaggerated humility (zangs). Prestige in Ladakh is expressed through systems of deference whereby everyone endeavours to present others as higher in rank than themselves. The complex negotiations between this practice and the actual influence of an individual in a community become subtle, requiring tact and interpersonal skill. The system is part of the means whereby the necessary reciprocity between subsistence families in a village is peacefully maintained.

The period after marriage is thus stressful for young women who come to depend on intimate relations with women in similar positions. These dependencies can become fraught through jealousies, paranoid reactions and distrust, none of which is easily expressed in a household of strangers with high expectations of a young wife and concerned to avoid shame. It is in such contexts that women fall foul of witches who are normally projections of their own imaginations, quite often upon a good friend. The actual women privately accused will normally be blameless of any sort of witchcraft as such. The symptoms of possession involve hysterical outbursts damaging to family pride, speaking in another voice and falling into dissociative trance. After some conventional remedies have failed the afflicted is taken to a, the local shaman. Men are less troubled by witches but may fall foul of demons of place etc. in the course of sustaining family well-being.

The will have been authorized to practice by a reincarnating lama (rinpoche) of a nearby Buddhist monastery and will have gone through similar episodes of affliction of a more severe nature in which gods and demons have appeared. There is an extraordinary pantheon of spirits that may cause possession, spirits of the dead, wandering ghosts, harmful last thoughts of the dying, spirits of ancestors, the gods of local shrines and, more rarely, high gods of mountains and passes. The's task is to interview the possessing agent when in trance. The whole negotiation thus occurs between two entranced individuals, demons and benevolent gods are manifested, sorted out, the former being expelled. The's knowledge of community conditions leads her or him to suggest forms of recompense whereby broken relationships may be healed or laid aside. Persistent cases are sent to the rinpoche who may force the spirits to appear only when called upon under vow to help others. If this happens, the possessed is then usually sent for training with a senior and thus to become one himself or herself. Once again the social negotiations on the plane of trance enable the participants to avoid any taint of direct responsibility. Everything has been lifted onto the table of the gods and resolved there.

Lewis (1971) has argued that becoming a shaman, especially in women, is an attempt to promote oneself from a lowly ‘peripheral’ status to a more ‘central’ one. Further he has argued that becoming a shaman is for a woman an escape from the dominance of men and indeed a means for manipulating them. While there is some truth in this view, more recent studies suggest it to be over-precise. What is certainly involved for both genders is a move from low self-esteem and depression to one in which a degree of sometimes fearful respect has been achieved. A maturing woman recovering from possession may either become a respected matron who is no longer afflicted or indeed take up the path of a shaman, receiving ample attention (Crook, 1997, 1998).

A key figure in Ladakhi communities is the oracle who may be a lay person but more usually an accomplished monk. Their roles may be considered to be ‘central’ to the social process in that they participate in the meta-narrative whereby Tibetan Buddhism controls the ‘peripheral’ activities of the lay lha.pas. Some of these monastic lus.gyers can produce the most extraordinary performance in deep trance while uttering advice on local ethics, harvest forecasts and healing the sick. The monk as a trained meditator is reckoned to be above ordinary possession. At the monastery of Mattro two monks are randomly selected every few years to train to become monastic oracles at the major annual festival of the monastery (chams). They do not experience any initiatory illness but are confined to their cells for 9 months visualizing a text while vigorously playing a small drum and bell. They sit in a small box, which, apart from visits to the toilet, they are not allowed to leave. They receive ritual washing from the head of the monastery and are attended by a small boy (usually a relative). The text depicts the spirits of the gorges, the Rong bTsan, who comprise two of (p. 526) five brothers brought from Tibet by a lama many centuries before as personal protectors. At first housed in the monastery, they are now said to spend most of the year in shrines at the head of the valley whence water for irrigation descends. They are thus considered to be protectors of the whole area. As the weeks go by the monks gradually enter trance from time to time. Finally during the festival they emerge in full force, chiding the villagers for their ethical omissions, powering up the whole Buddhist community, and even receiving respectful visits from high officers of the Indian army. Their words are broadcast on the radio locally and are still felt as powerful, although the rulers they formerly advised no longer function politically.

In trance they cut their tongues with swords without harm and run blindfolded along the monastery parapets from which a fall would be instantly fatal. Prior to the festival, they have been strictly confined for months without exercise and have had no prior practice in handling swords, roof-running or any other athletic training. Such undoubted feats certainly raise questions about the nature of enhanced skills while under trance. Other major Tibetan oracles show similar powers.

A clue to the significance of these festivals and the appearance of such powerful oracular protectors at such times lies in the ‘miracle’ plays that form a key aspect of the event. These depict the subjugation of ancient demons and spirits of Tibet by the great tantric master Padmasambhava (Guru Rinpoche to the Tibetans). These stories tell of the overcoming of the old shamanic Bon religion of Tibet by powerful charismatic Buddhist missionaries from India. Their skill lay in not destroying these noumenal forces but in putting them under vow to appear only when called upon to support the Buddha Dharma or as protectors of the community. By accepting these conditions almost the entire shamanic pantheon of Tibet was preserved but now under vow to Buddhism. The repetitions of such plays annually supported by the appearance in entranced monks of some of these spirits thus acts as a reinforcer of the presence of Buddhism and a reminder of its communal power. The meta-narrative of Buddhism over-rules the narrative of the shaman. It is in this relationship that we can trace the transition from the undiluted ‘ancient matrix’ to a more complex secondary development dominated now by the philosophies of Buddhism (Crook, 1997, 1998).

The competition between shamanism and Buddhism did not cease centuries ago but still persists. Stan Mumford (1990) found a community of villages in Gyasumdo, eastern Nepal, where, in a remote region, one village was occupied by Tibetan Buddhists and the other by Gurung shamanic believers. Although at the time of his research the Buddhists were becoming increasingly influential and modern ideas had hardly appeared, many of the ideas of shamanism had penetrated Buddhism to create an ongoing dialogue between the two world-views manifesting in an unstable balance between them. The key contrast between the two was that in shamanism the emphasis was on the cycle of nature and the need to relate oneself to that cosmic reality. The person was to express himself in relation to the seasonality and cyclic changes apparent in the world. By contrast Buddhism offered a precise path whereby a clearly defined individual might progress towards a better life in repeated incarnations ending in a blissful escape from the whole painful process. The implicit individualism and the Buddhist attempt to transcend it along a linear path contrasts markedly from the holistic cycles of shamanism and suggests a very different appreciation of what it is to be a self. This local dialogue between two communities probably depicts what was a long-drawn-out historical dialogue throughout the Tibetan world. That the three-way dialogue continues is probably due to a balancing act that Tibetan religion is able to maintain between the attractions of linear logical progression as the business of life, on the one hand, and more ancient intuitions rooted in the cyclicity of the natural world on the other hand.

35.3. Yogins and the reflexive mind

The Tibetan monk or nun may, given the appropriate inclination, choose an especially arduous path of practice in which it is no longer the journey towards enlightenment that is significant but the discovery of a freedom from all views through the realization that all ideas concerning paths and becoming are no more than expressions of thought based in metaphysical assumptions of (p. 527) the sort the Buddha himself actually refused to discuss. Any one viewpoint is perceived as having no more validity than another since all are contingent upon personal aspirations and relative to systems of belief. In effect, monks following this path (the practices associated with prajnaparamita, madhyamaka and cittamatra philosophies: Snelgrove, 1987) have moved across the boundary between Bakhtin's second and third phases of cultural development and, as a result of acutely accurate inspection of mental process, have understood the whole process of logical reification.

Reification is the process whereby abstract ideas are presented as if they were locatable, precise things, entities or persons. Social or religious abstractions ‘reified’ in this way allow individuals to find security for their equally imputed selves in fictional entities derived from metaphysical abstraction. Such concepts then appear to exist independently from their creators and to possess power to control thought and values. Personal understanding of this process and the entrapment of self that it can entail requires a ‘de-reification’ of the mind that Berger and Luckmann (1967) consider to be a late development in both history and an individual's life.

The Buddhist monk's insight shows that a capacity for ‘de-reification’ is by no means simply a post-modern development based in post-Christian existentialism but goes back at least to the origins of Buddhism itself. The Buddhist world-view developed as the old Vedic economy of India moved from pastoralism to agriculture with concomitant production of surplus, local trade, banking and the shift to social hierarchies based in wealth rather than rooted in religion and caste (Collins, 1982). Political structures were becoming more centralized, requiring leadership by individuals of a much more modern character, thinking in linear rather than cyclic themes. In an extraordinary, scholarly tour de force, Thomas McEvilley (2002) demonstrates how socio-cultural changes paralleling the emergence of urban economies throughout the ancient world (Egypt, Mesopotamia, India and Greece) stimulated shifts in the meanings by which individuals understood their lives. Moral authority became vested in governing institutions of priesthoods derived in part from older shamanic roles in society. Economies based in cities with imperial governance led to the replacement of shamanism by a range of authoritative thought systems of personal transcendence in which rebirth through reincarnation took beneficial or negative forms depending on the ethical quality of an individual's previous life.

Increasingly the explanations and meanings put forward by such religious authorities came to be questioned. The basic syllogisms upon which their metaphysical reifications were based were confronted by the emergence of dialectical questioning that undermined the reasoning upon which the priestly control relied. India appears to have influenced Greece with reincarnational ideas in the pre-Socratic period but philosophically strong forms of deconstructive dialectic appear to have originated in Greece and came to underlie Buddhist philosophy following Alexander's conquests in the later Hellenistic period. The conflict between metaphysical arguments for monotheism apparent in Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam and the deconstructive dialectic of Indian, particularly Buddhist, thought has therefore an ancient origin.

The Buddhist monk/nun practitioners of deconstruction are known as yogins because their practice involves an extensive use of mental yogas of advanced meditation (Crook and Low, 1997). Yogins are the commandos of the Buddhist view who have dispensed with attachment to linear, rational thinking to allow a fuller imaginative picture of mental life to arise, clearly perceived as relative to mental states. The understanding of that very relativity is seen by them as the way to escape attachments to any rigid formula whatsoever. Here too we find the paradoxes of Chinese Zen, which has followed a closely similar path based in the same philosophical analyses of language and thought and the experiential practices that are associated with them (McRae, 2004).

The yogin's practice also involves extensive visualizations of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas with whom he or she identifies in such a way that the psychological principle they embody is realized. Thus the visualization of Avalokiteshvara is associated with compassion, Manjusri with insightful wisdom. In this way the self is slowly transformed from, say, an egotistical personality to someone considerate to others. At the same time, any ‘good’ or any ‘not good’ is perceived as a relative (p. 528) position contingent upon a reifying dualism. Persistent investigation of relativity leads towards a freedom from all relative positions. It is this rather than a linear path towards ‘enlightenment’ that is then seen as the way to freedom and compassion within Buddhist insight.

Yogins do not normally teach this viewpoint, considering it beyond what most villagers would comprehend, but they use its insights in taking up their roles as spiritual consultants at whatever level a troubled soul may approach them. One might risk a comparison with Wittgenstein, who used philosophical investigation to get ‘the fly out of the fly bottle’. A yogin's discourse is pitched at the level of the respondent but has exactly this ultimate aim.

The final development of this understanding of relativity within Buddhism appears in the Hua-yen philosophy of China in which discourse is seen as multi-layered (Chang, 1972). Water can be conceived as wet, as a vapour, as solid like ice, as flowing or rigid, as H2O or the ocean. All such views are equally true and usable, and entwine and envelop with one another. The concept is relative to the context in which it is thought, and development in dialogue may cut across levels. The root of such a view is the ‘law of co-dependent arising’, a prime principle of the Buddha closely resembling modern systems thinking (Macy, 1991; Loy, 1998; Kurak, 2003). Here indeed is an example of Bakhtin's third phase, not as a modern development resulting from the breakdown of Cartesian dualisms, but as a condition of insightful thought that may have arisen more than once through the contemplation of self in relation to confinement by concepts. Indeed, the dialogue between all three levels goes on today. The leading translator of these texts, Thomas Cleary (1983), explains:

The Hua-yen doctrine shows the entire cosmos as one single nexus of conditions in which everything simultaneously depends on, and is depended on by, everything else. Seen in this light, then, everything affects and is affected by, more or less immediately or remotely, everything else; just as this is true of every system of relationships, so it is true of the totality of existence. In seeking to understand individuals and groups, therefore, Hua-yen thought considers the manifold as an integral part of the unit and the unit as an integral part of the manifold; one individual is considered in terms of relationships to other individuals as well as to the whole nexus, while the whole nexus is considered in terms of its relation to each individual as well as to all individuals. The accord of this view with the experience of modern science is obvious, and it seems to be an appropriate basis upon which the question of the relation of science and bioethics … may be resolved.

35.4. Conclusions

The indigenous psychologies of shamans, priesthoods and yogins have emerged through shifts between the three phases in cultural change usefully suggested by Michail Bakhtin. The problems of individuals and communities are approached by shamanic, priestly or yogic practitioners through world-views that may be placed on one or other of these three levels. We have seen, all too briefly, how in our Asian example the ancient shamanic matrix was replaced by the more linear style of thinking of the Buddhist path to salvation but that it never entirely disappeared. Indeed Tibetan Buddhism may be read as a continuing dialogue between themes stemming from both levels.

The emergence of Bakhtin's third phase with its awareness of the paradoxical relativity of concept to mental contingency and allowing a return to a tolerance of mytho-poetic intuitions, has come about through an understanding that personal expression need not be confined by rigidities in patterns of thought. Although such a perception is indeed characteristic of the post-modern world, the Greek and Indian philosophers had already opened its puzzling character to investigation many centuries ago. It seems clear that certain cultural conditions involving profound yogic practices of mind examination, initially at least through retreats well outside the contexts of normal daily life, allow a ‘de-reification’ of thought in a context of hope and healing far from the nihilism of post-modernism. Such perspectives may be of great significance to a world beset by conflict resulting from persistent beliefs in arbitrary metaphysical entities.


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