Thursday, March 15, 2007

Shamanism as I Know It So Far

Early this month I visited for the first time in Mongolia a Buddhist Temple, which is probably still considered the country’s official if not predominant religion. Though Shamanism may be considered a more indigenously Mongolian spiritual expression, it is less defined and not considered religion at all by some. To my knowledge there are no temples to visit. This may explain why all I know of Shamanism is what I’ve heard people say and read in books. I’ve never seen a séance or spoken with a Shaman, yet.

Boo, the Mongolian word for a Shaman, right off can seem a little scary to an English speaker. Mongolians, when asked of this mysterious indigenous spirituality, don’t want to classify it as a religion. Christians may perhaps be afraid to speak or know too much about it, or just don’t know much about it, but seem to say it’s not really a religion. Another non-Christian also characterized Shamanism as not a religion, but more of a gathering of good energy from nature like mountains, rivers and lakes.

He particularly described an event in his life where he was prescribed a spiritual pilgrimage to solve a problem in his high school years. His mother visited a Buddhist monk, and the monk said he needed to go to the mountain three early mornings in a row. He was given specific words to say in prayer. And whether his bad energy was really replaced by good energy, he wasn’t really certain. But the problem that he had faced was taken care of, though he is careful to say, it may have just been a coincidence, or a psychological benefit of believing the problem would be solved, and so it was. It seemed that in this Mongolian’s mind, this was a kind of a Shamanistic prescription, even though it was advised by a monk, perhaps because it involved appealing to nature for power.

Other people tell stories about bad energy, or illnesses, that bring Mongolians to seek a spiritual solution from a Shaman. It seems word of mouth is the means by which the Shaman is located and chosen. Some that have good results get better word of mouth reviews, and more visitors. I heard of a somewhat famous Shaman coming to Darhan from Ulaanbaatar. People were going out to the top of a mountain near a forest to seek spiritual solutions to their problems, because they heard other people were getting what they asked for. Gifts given to the Shaman for services rendered began to grow in value as the news of their spiritual power spread.

In books I’ve read accounts of visitors entering a Ger, or Teepee type dwelling, and the Shaman comes out in an ornate or tattered costume, with a mask and not a little peculiarity. It seems the accounts I read more often are those of old women, who read fortunes from bones, consult the dead, go into a trance, or otherwise try to intervene on behalf of the person who has come for their services. But this image of a kind of poor smoke and mirrors astrologist-fortune-teller can’t be the whole picture.

Other books describe the father of Mongolia, Chingis Khan himself as a great Shaman. Before setting off on his history-altering mission to unite the Mongol tribes and conquer most of Eurasia, he left hundreds of his followers, who were convened in a huge congress awaiting his decision, three whole days in a row. Where did he go? He went up the Bogd Khan Mountain to seek direction. From this mountain he received what his marching orders and power to do what no one before him or since has been able to do.

Whether Chingis Khan considered this act religious or just a simple spiritual transaction is not known. We do know that with all his faults, he was known for his great tolerance of world religions. Reciprocally, I hope Christians can learn more about the spiritual hunger that Shamanism meets. I hope this tradition is not demonized by missionaries, but studied to discover how Christ might choose to enter an existing indigenous spiritual dimension in the Mongolian identity. Could God use His power to meet natural needs of people, and grant them the hope of Heaven as even an unsought bonus to temporal needs? Would Jesus accept a Christian spirituality where people only came to church when they needed healing or other intervention, as they do with Shamanism? I don’t yet know.

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