a reflection on shamanism and synthesis
©1997 Heinz Insu Fenkl
By quitting one's own country and dwelling in foreign lands
one should acquire practical knowledge of non-attachment.
- from The Precepts of the Gurus2
The world turns in cycles and epicycles, and usually we are brought back to the things closest to our hearts and spirits only at the end of a long journey away. Things avoided or let go eventually come back not only to haunt us, but to complete us in unexpected ways, and it is when our heads meet our tails that we finally form that unifying shape like Ouroboros, the Hermetic symbol of the circle made by a serpent.
In the spring semester of 1996 I was team-teaching a course called "Asian/American Folk Traditions," which examined deeply-resonant Asian traditions like Yoga, Taoism, Buddhism, and Shamanism, and then traced the threads of their influences into the American "New Age." The course was really about consciousness and religion. My colleague, Larry Mamiya, brought to it his religion background, and I contributed an eclectic range of information I had studied throughout my unfinished graduate career in Cultural Anthropology; by the end of the course we had touched on a remarkable array of topics ranging from Kundalini Yoga to Quantum Physics.3
We had many visiting lecturers4--not all of whom were well-received or exceptionally meaningful for the students. But among them was Christina Stack, an American practitioner of "core shamanism,"5 who left the most lasting impression. After she left, the students would describe her as "wolf-like," "totally self-assured," "disturbingly powerful." Even those who did not experience anything remarkable during the shamanic journey she conducted with us would agree that she had a certain resonant strength of character.
Stack had come with rattles and a large round skin drum of the Siberian/Inuit type. She had lit candles and incense in the darkened multi-purpose room, and after a brief lecture on the nature of core shamanism, she had taken us all on several "drum journeys" into the underworld. For some, the journeys were merely relaxing, but the experience was so intense for some students that they had to be "brought down" individually after the ceremony; other students retained incredibly vivid memories of their journeys, and yet others reported an influence in their dreams for weeks afterwards. To me, in was no accident--perhaps I should call it a "synchronicity"--that Christina Stack practices a form that has very strong parallels with the Siberian tradition, the same tradition that is dominant in Korea.6
I must admit that my own journey during that ceremony, as we lay on the rug in the dark multi-purpose room, our eyes covered with strips of black cloth, was not as immediately intense as those of some of my students. In the midst of my visualizations of spiraling down that dark tunnel into the lower world, I found myself remembering simultaneously a ceremony I had attended in 1985 and one, from my childhood, for a boy who was killed by a taxi. When the shaman whistled, I recalled the sound of the reed flutes, and when her drumming resonated at some particular cadence, I recalled the beat of the hourglass changu drums and the up-and-down leaping dance of the Korean manshin. I suppose what I experienced then was a disjunction between memory and reality, or rather, an unexpected conjunction of momentary reality with multiple layers of memory displaced in time.
It's a hot summer afternoon in 1985,7 and on the altar sits a boiled cow's head, with rolled 1,000 won billsprotruding from its ears and nostrils as offerings to the spirits; the head is slowly leaking its juices onto the small table that supports it, and a swarm of hungry flies buzzes around, each fly cutting its angular flight path with erratic precision. The manshin,8 in her black military hat and her bright red-blue-green silk costume, pulls the money out of the cow's orafices to chuckles of amusement, and then she shoos the flies away, lifts the massive head with a grunt of effort, and skewers it--with a sickening crunching sound that makes everyone wince--onto a short-shafted trident. Now she lifts the heavy head again, with the shaft protruding from underneath like a ridiculously-thin neck, and slowly lowers it onto a pile of coarse salt on top of a cutting board. If the head balances the spirits are pleased; if it does not, more offerings will be needed. With all the participants gathered anxiously around, she rocks the head back and forth on top of the salt, adjusting the shaft this way and that, letting her assistant hold on to the oddly tranquil-looking head as she packs the salt underneath. There's no way the head can stand on that shaft--it must weigh fifty pounds; it would be like trying to balance a bowling ball on a chopstick--but then, at the signal, they let go, their fingers hovering scant millimeters from the cow's head and the trident shaft, and unbelievably, it stands. It's so solidly balanced that the shaman smacks the trident shaft with her folded fan and the head does not waver. It seems as if it's been hammered right through the cutting board into the floor. Auspicious!
And now, with the cow's head back on the altar, the manshin is dancing frenetically on the floor in front of it, waving brilliant colored banners--yellow, green, blue, red--for her flag-divining ceremony. She flourishes the silk flags so quickly she leaves afterimages in the air, and then rolls them up together so their colors cannot be distinguished from the rods that protrude at the top. My wife, Anne, selects a flag to have her fortune told--it's an inauspicious color. She does it again, and again it's inauspicious. Anne wants to petition the spirits, but something must be done first; the shaman announces that Anne will have to be exorcised of the bad influences that are hovering around her.
The mansin leads her by the hand and makes her squat down in front of the entrance to house. She drapes the flags over Anne's head and makes her hold the short-shafted spear and trident--still dripping with the juices from the boiled cow's head--across her abdomen. While Anne is crouching there, disoriented and confused, head-down, and face hidden, the mansin calls out for the bad spirits to be gone and with a large butcher knife she violently cuts and thrusts at the air around Anne's head, missing her by a scant inch each time.9
Finally, the mansin fills her mouth from a dipper full of fresh water and sprays Anne's face three times. After tossing some food out toward the gate of the house to attract the spirits away from Anne, she declares the exorcism finished, and as promised, Anne chooses an auspicious flag in her very next attempt.10 The audience cheers, and their cacophony, combined with the afterimages of the flag behind my closed eyes, takes me momentarily back to another shamanic ceremony I saw when I was a child. I am six years old, and a boy in the neighborhood has died after being hit by a Corona taxi.
I had known the boy and played with him, but it had never occurred to me--though I certainly knew about death by then--that this boy would always be gone. Forever. I was puzzled by the fact that in my memory the images of him were as vivid as the images I had of people who were alive. Now that the boy was dead, there was a disjunction between reality and memory, a disjunction of which I could not make sense. I had recently lost a pet bird, but there were other, living, birds that looked enough like the dead one to remind me that it was only one of many; with people, I had somehow come to believe that each one was an individual--we did not look enough alike to be substituted for one another, and so the death of one person was a permanent thing, the loss of something irreplaceable.
Shortly after the boy's death, there was a great racket in the neighborhood, and it wasn't long before we realized that it originated from his house. His mother had hired a mudang to perform a ceremony to ensure that his spirit would pass into the next world and not linger in this world to make trouble for the living. From the crack of dawn we heard a cacophony of hand gongs, reed flutes, and drums along with singing and chanting. I endured the noise with great curiosity all day, and sometime in the afternoon, I followed my aunt and mother to see what was going on.
I am not sure if I had ever experienced a religious state of consciousness before that day, but late that afternoon, as the shamanic ceremony came to a close, I saw something that resonates with me now as my first memory of religious affect--that feeling of awe that verges on terror, but which simultaneously provides a sense of profound and peaceful connection to the cosmos.11
I know now that towards the end of the shamanic ceremony, the music and the shaman's dancing had put me in an altered state of consciousness along with many other participants and audience members. The shaman, in her bright and multicolored outfit, finally snapped her fan shut and stepped up to the very end of a long, narrow sheet of canvas that several people were holding up between them (I remember it being as thick as sail cloth, but it was probably thinner). The people stood like a gauntlet with the canvas stretched between them so that it hung, suspended in their hands, like a long, pale road. And, in fact, this was representative of the road the deceased spirit was to take into the next world. At the end of the ceremony, the shaman struck the very end of the canvas with her closed fan, and the cloth ripped--with surprising force and speed--from one end to the other, with a loud tearing sound, so that its two halves spread out like the wings of a giant egret. The dead boy's spirit had moved on.
That tearing sound sent a shiver through my body, and I remember feeling that it was I, and not the boy's spirit, that went down that path. At that moment I felt entirely disembodied, and yet connected to everything and everyone there in the courtyard of the dead boy's house. The sounds, the colors, the odors, the textures--they were all so unusually vivid that when I remembered this incident later, or recall it now, some of the images are so clear I can still stop them and dwell on them as if they were single frames of a film.
I have had my share of shamanic dreams and met my guardian animals in inexplicable or rationally dismissable circumstances, but I do not consider myself a shaman. I have practiced Zen and Yoga, and have found that the mystical states all converge with one another though they are ascribed different ultimate meanings by each tradition.
The balancing of the cow's head and the ripping canvas path, I know, are just parlor tricks. I've balanced salt shakers on edge in the very same way, and I know the canvas has been pre-cut to tear more easily. But those are not the meaningful aspects of the shaman's rituals--they're a consentual distraction and entertainment for the purpose of creating shared meanings. The tricks are cultural placebos that allow the real treatments to work.12 Shamanism is really about synthesis, about the bringing together of things that might otherwise appear to be disparate: the world of the living and the world of the dead; the past, present, and future; the individual and the community; humans and animals; men and women; the person and the cosmos--and in every case, the synthesis creates a form of healing.
I think I am particularly moved by the power of the shaman because my own background was so full of displacement, disjuncture, and liminality even before my birth.13
My father's life was a series of geographical displacements. He was displaced during his childhood when the Germans annexed the Sudetenland. He was born in a town near Prague, but then moved to a town in southern Germany near Munich with the other displaced Sudeten Germans, people who were outsiders while they were Czech, and who ironically became outsiders once again when they were absorbed into Germany. My father was a Hitler Youth, and when Germany fell, he was in a military academy digging tank traps. Had he been a few years older, he would have been in one of the youthful SS units that served as Germany's last line of defense against the Russians. After the end of the war, he served in the Labor Service, which was a German contingent in black uniforms working under the U.S. Army during the reconstruction. In 1952, he came to the U.S. and worked for the Maryknoll fathers on a dairy farm before he joined the U.S. Army and was sent to Korea where he met my mother in the late 50s.
My mother's life was also full of displacements, even before she married my father and was forced to move with him every time his duty station changed. During the Korean War, she didn't want to hide out in the hills with the other women of her village, so she dressed as a boy and traveled around the country. Her family was not divided by the war since their clan of Lees was localized around Sambongni, but because she was the youngest of ten children, she was shuttled from relative to relative after the death of her parents, when the family land was parceled out among the sons. The major displacements in her life were also isolations--she had to move to Washington State, then Germany, then to various other Army bases in the U.S., to follow my father after their marriage.
After my father's second tour of duty in Vietnam the Army had sent him up to the Joint Security Area to be the sergeant of the Honor Guard at Panmunjom (in Korea's Demilitarized Zone).13 On his visits home he talked about applying to be stationed in the states when his time in Korea was up because he wanted me and my sisters to be raised properly, away from what he called the barbarism and the pagan ceremonies he saw in our house. He wanted us to be going to church, saying confession, being confirmed as good Catholics, though he himself certainly was not one. He had seen the Virgin Mary during a malaria fever in Vietnam, and since then he was concerned about our spiritual welfare. It wasn't enough that we had all been baptized--since the Virgin Mary had come to him, perhaps he felt that he owed it to her to take us all to church and worship her son.
It was 1971 and I was eleven--a smart boy angry at my father and his religion. I had read the Bible by then, but in the church I had no sense of how each bit of the Jesus story was supposed to teach a lesson. What I remembered was that Christ had knocked over the table of the moneychangers, he had let a prostitute anoint his feet, he had saved the life of an adulteress by pointing out the hypocrisy of her accusers, he had healed the sick and exorcised the possessed, and then his people had let the Romans nail him to a cross. I imagined Christ in dusty robes and dirty sandals walking through the desert, but in church there was the priest in a gold-trimmed, pure white cassock telling men--whose job it was to kill other men--that they should be Good Samaritans and build their houses on stone. The priest made the Jesus stories into riddles, but he was not a clever storyteller, and his ploys did not fool me, even at that age. I thought perhaps he could not say what he really meant because he was an Army priest saying mass in a chapel used by the Protestants, who were an enemy of his religion; the Protestants would call him an idol worshipper even when they shared the same God and prayed to the same murdered son. I understood the way each Buddhist temple up in the Korean hills had a separate shrine dedicated to the old man of the mountain, how even Buddhists often prayed to nature spirits and honored their ancestors, how Korean Christians often lapsed and called upon a mudang to perform healings, how everyone would give alms to the mendicants tapping their hollow wooden knockers--but the American religion I could not understand.
I went to a Korean Catholic church once to see if their priest was more logical or if he told better stories about Jesus, whose stories were, after all, very beautiful. But there I saw Christ's dead body on the cross, blood dripping from his crown of thorns and the nails through his palms and feet, a red gash under his ribs and tears of pain and abandonment dripping from his eyes. And the sarcastic banner above him--INRI: Jesus of Nazareth, King of Jews--the gross insult of the Romans. I wondered, How could these Catholics worship under this thing? Their savior abandoned by his father and left to die alone between two thieves? How could they line up under his body and eat the white disks that were supposed to be his flesh, sip the red wine that was supposed to be his blood, and go away healed? How could I worship this man with the unbearable agony in his eyes or the father who sent him to earth to be tortured to death? I could make myself pray to the Madonna, the mother of Christ who was also his father's mother, whose name as the great Virgin was the same as the name of the prostitute. I could understand that if the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost were separate and yet one, then the mother of God could also be both the mother and lover of his son. But I also understood that my father's religion was one whose miracles were old; they were in the stories of the healing, the walking on water, the multiplying fishes and loaves; there were no miracles now. My father's priest could not lead the souls of the restless dead into the other world or heal the man whose arm was paralyzed by his ancestors because he had beaten his wife once too often. He could not bring luck to a family whose house was full of tragedy or bring children to a barren woman. My father's religion wallowed in stories and pictures of tragedy and suffering, but it could not heal what happened every day outside the gates of the U.S. Army post. And so, even at that age, I could not worship his God or the murdered son--I believed in ghosts and ancestors and portentous dreams of serpents and dragons because those were the things I could touch in my world.
My family left Korea, for the final time, in 1972. Following my father's new duty stations, we moved to Ft. Benning, Georgia, then Baumholder, Germany, then to Ft. Bliss, Texas, and finally, to Ft. Ord, California in 1976. While we were in Europe, I had visited several cathedrals, including Notre Dame in Paris, but in none of them did the awe I felt (which I interpreted more as an aesthetic response) compare to that simultaneous sense of dislocation and connection I had experienced in the shamanic ceremony in Korea. Even seeing the odd assortments of prostheses, crutches, and canes at a church near my German grandmother's town of Waldkraiburg--all evidence of the healings that had gone on there--did not produce in me that "primal" religious feeling.
Before I graduated from high school, I read Freud, Nietsche, Jung, and Hesse. In college I continued my readings: Hans Kung, Thomas Merton, D.T. Suzuki, Alan Watts, Mircea Eliade, Lao-Tzu, Chuang-Tzu, Einstein, more Freud, more Jung. Having had meaningful contact with Vassar's nondenominational Chapel Board group and their charismatic leader,15 I found myself attracted to Zen; I consorted, for a time, with the Christian Fellowship. But the meanings I was searching for never converged. I was in too much turmoil over the complex personal and political issues surrounding my emerging consciousness of my liminal identity, and I was growing through the last phases of my adolescence, finally emerging from the long shadow of my father after he passed away, in 1982, from an Agent Orange-related cancer.
It took my return to Korea on a Fulbright in 1984 and then an immersion in anthropology and psychology as a graduate student to close the circle for me. I studied the anthropology of religion, but also the transpersonal psychology of Castaneda and his mythic Yaqui shaman, Don Juan.16 I researched the topic of lucid dreaming,17 and later, the issue of negation in the dreaming of Australian Aborigines.18 And finally, having left my graduate career behind, I found myself applying all of the eclectic knowledge I had gathered to teach an American Culture course purposely misnamed to attract students interested in Asian Studies.
So in the spring of 1996, as I lay on the floor of the dark multi-purpose room imagining that tunnel spiraling into the underworld, I found myself displaced in time, with epicycles of memory playing out in ways more complex than I could imagine then. Later, I must admit I was rather envious of the students who had had the intense experiences--I, too, wanted to emerge in the underworld with that hallucinatory shamanic clarity and meet my spirit animals; I, too, wanted to leave this mundane reality and then return having learned some valuable lesson or being healed of some spiritual malady. It was only much later, after I had the leisure to reflect on what I had experienced, that I realized that I had gone through a shamanic process that day. Those flashes of interlinked memory that had taken me back to two different times, joined forward and backward with each other and to the moment that had evoked them--they were a shamanic synthesis of things and persons long separated. The six-year-old child at the house of a dead boy, the 25-year-old student back in his transformed homeland, the 36-year-old professor teaching at his alma mater--I had thought their differences nearly irresolvable, with only the happenstance of chronology linking them into the same person. And yet their paths had crossed and recrossed that afternoon in a way that made sense of all their engagement not only with the shamanic ceremonies in which they found themselves, but with each other. Again and again, I have thought myself to be forever caught in that problematic state between categories of culture, language, blood, nationality, and place of origin. Ironically, it was by dwelling in the state between displacements and disjunctures that I arrived at a realization of underlying wholeness. On the floor, with my eyes closed, with the drumming so rhythmic it seemed to be the oscillation of my own consciousness, I had known all of this effortlessly and intuitively in the way of the shaman.
Too many steps have been taken returning to the root and the source.
Better to have been blind and deaf from the beginning!
1. The Ouroboros image above is from a 3rd century B.C. Greek manuscript as reproduced in Carl Jung (ed.), Man and His Symbols (London: Aldus Books, 1964). The character which I have written in the middle is pronounced "wu" in Chinese and means "divination" or "magic"; in Korean it is pronounced "mu" and is the first character in mudang, which means "shaman." Those familiar with Buddhism will note the multi-lingual wordplay on both wu and mu.
Many thanks to Russell Leong for his patience, his quick feedback, and his insightful critiques of early drafts of this essay. Thanks also to Laurel Kendall, who helped arrange the shamanic ritual for the Fulbright Summer Seminar in 1995; Yongsu's Mother, who performed the chaesu kut; and Christina Stack, who performed the shamanic ritual at Vassar College in the spring of 1996.
This essay is forthcoming in David Yoo, ed., New Spiritual Homes: Religion and Asian Americans (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1998).
2. W. Y. Evans-Wentz, Tibetan Yoga and Secret Doctrines (London: Oxford University Press, 1965), 71-72. See especially footnote #1 on 72.
3. For example, the course covered Hinduism and Yoga, Chinese Taoism and Qi Gong, Zen Buddhism and Kung Fu, Tibetan Buddhism and the Bardo, and American Spiritualism and Chiropractic. Some of the less conventional topics included near death experience, out of body-experience, and remote viewing (all of which, oddly-enough, were addressed, though in different terminology, by a Qi Gong master).
4. Madison Smartt Bell, author of All Souls' Rising (New York: Pantheon, 1996) talked at length about Julian Jaynes' theory of the origins of consciousness and the breakdown of the bicameral mind as well as his experiences with voodoo while researching his Haiti novels. William Linacre lectured on American Chiropractic, and during his demonstration, he surprised us by telling us how it emerged from the Spiritualist tradition. Martial artist Larry Tan presented a demonstration on Kung Fu and discussed his own quest for identity. Tianhui Liu demonstrated Qi Gong and discussed its transmission to her via her ancestors.
5. Christina Stack is a former student of Michael Harner. See Michael Harner, The Way of the Shaman (New York: Harper & Row, 1980) for a definition of core shamanism. The classic work on shamanism is Mircea Eliade, Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy [Willard R. Trask, tr.] (Princeton University Press, 1964).
6. Archaeological evidence indicates the presence of shamanistic rituals as early as in the bronze age (see Jung Young Lee, Korean Shamanistic Rituals, New York: Mouton Publishers, 1981, pp. 2-3), but if one does not distinguish Shamanism and animism (of which it is a development), then the shamanic tradition is arguably part of the most fundamental religious consciousness. See Laurel Kendall, Shamans, Housewives, and Other Restless Spirits (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1985) for a concise background on Korean Shamanism, particularly as a woman's tradition.
7. That summer, Anne B. Dalton (then Coordinator of the Fulbright Summer Seminar on Korean History and Culture) and I made arrangements for a formal shamanic ceremony with the help of Laurel Kendall, who is one of the leading researchers on Korean shamanism. Since Kendall had just recently finished her book, she introduced us to Yongsu's Mother, the shaman she had studied with during her fieldwork. After some debate we decided to hold a chaesu kut for Fred Carriere (then Director of the Korean-American Educational Commission) and for the sake of the Fulbright Summer Seminar in general. A chaesu kut is a shamanic ritual for good luck or good fortune.
8. Manshin literally means "10,000 spirits" in Korean. It is the term by which shamans, also called mudang, generally refer to themselves. The term is somewhat more respectful than mudang, which often has derogatory connotations in general use.
9. I had no idea what Anne was feeling then. Later, she told me that the experience was terribly frightening--that she had felt disembodied or "split off" in the way sufferers of profound trauma feel detached from their bodies. I was probably assuming, at the time, that she shared some of my amusement and ethnographer's interest, but in retrospect I realize that I was also in an oddly abstracted state, partially from attempting to be a participant and a facilitator at the same time, partially from my own emotional resonances with that earlier kut in my past (not to mention the visceral fear of a possible accident).
10. While all 19 participants of the Summer Seminar attended the kut, eight of the ten men left early to wait in the bus. Interestingly, the two men who stayed for the duration of the performance were both from the South; one of them was the only Black participant of the Seminar. In later evaluations of the event, the women were overwhelmingly positive (some said it was the most important aspect of the Seminar) whereas the men (with those two exceptions) thought the kut was a waste of time and money.
11. Freud calls this "the oceanic feeling."
12. Fred Alan Wolf, author of The Dreaming Universe has a good discussion of this in The Eagle's Quest: A Physicist's Searth for Truth in the Heart of the Shamanic World (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992).
13. Some of the next few paragraphs is taken from my essay, "Images from a Stolen Camera: An Autoethnographic Recursion," presented at "Transnational Korea: Division and Diaspora II," The Korean Studies Institute SSRC Conference, University of Southern California, Fall 1995. The essay is forthcoming in the conference volume edited by Michael Robinson, Nancy Abelman, and John Lie.
14. The next three paragraphs are adapted from my autobiographical novel, Memories of My Ghost Brother (New York: Dutton, 1996), 239-241.
15. George Williamson told brilliant parable-like stories during his sermons, and they had a deep effect on me. Many years later, I realized I could apply the same sort of layered narrative rhetoric by featuring my storyteller uncle in my novel.
16. This was a seminar on cognitive psychology at the University of California, Davis, with Charles Tart, author of Altered States of Consciousness.
17. See Stephen LaBerge's now-classic work, Lucid Dreaming (New York: Ballentine, 1986).
18. See Aram Yengoyan, "The Clothes of Heaven." This was the essay that formed the basis for my Research Mentorship projectt, with Professor Yengoyan, during which I had the opportunity to spend a year studying contemporary theory and research on the nature of dreaming.
19. From "10 Bulls," transcribed by Nyogen Senzaki and Paul Reps (compiler), Zen Flesh, Zen Bones: A Collection of Zen and Pre-Zen Writings (New York: Anchor/Doubleday, n.d.), 152.