Evolution, Shamanism and the Chinese Dao
Varieties of Shamanic Experience
The main links on this page connect up with the exploration of how certain time-honoured religious practices can help us make sense of our lives in the present day. How can the trance state of the traditional tribal shaman, or the wit and wisdom of the ancient Chinese mendicant-scholar, reveal to us essential aspects of our own struggle? What have they to do with our own attempts to make sense of who we are, what we are doing and where we are going?
The connection holds, only in the context of the theory of evolution offered in these pages (mainly in the section entitled Apes, Angels and Outlaws) - which posits a close kinship between the personal struggles of you and me, with the struggles engaged in by every human being. It will have been essentially the same adventure, ever since we began our extraordinary cultural/historical/evolutionary odyssey - with that earth-shaking decision of starting to talk to one another. If this conjecture is valid, then you and I are actually brother and sister to the shaman and to the Daoist scholar.
The shaman in his/her vision quest - traditionally described - is on a journey to another world - which perhaps also corresponds to the "Underworld" of ancient Greek mythology. I am simply pointing up the resemblance of this, to those regular trips that all of us take - our departure from present-time reality in the moments when our real self or our real situation feels less desirable than the conjectures, schemes, distractions and daydreams we may have addicted ourselves to.
I am suggesting that all of these wanderings of our conscious focus may be regarded as botched shamanic journeys - "botched" insofar as they fail to lead us back into real present-time enriched with some valuable cargo from the Underworld. When the journey is botched, we are left to wander instead, half here and half not-here - not quite realizing we have left the scene, and not quite able to find our way back to where we belong.
Looked at this way, the test of success of the "trip" or "journey" is the pragmatic criterion of what is the quality of our participation in reality after we have returned. Such questions refer to an actual practice, and so long as we a sitting at our computers, or reading our books, we are not in a position to really answer them. We are treating with the question at one remove, at the very least.
(The questions, in other words, are hypothetical and part of the thought experiment we are engaged in here together. Within the confines of this web-site we have to be satisfied to explore possibilities such as this in our mind's eye, and to consider how they may join up with the maps, theories and alternative perspectives which interweave in the broad general approach I am offering here.)
The sections relating to the Dao de Jing and the Dao of Beginning Again refer to a way of systematising or codifying the shamanic experience. My belief(1) is that the early developers of the Dao-ist philosophy were a dispersed community of seekers and scholars, who were attempting to live the shamanic life in the many varied contexts of the sprawling empire of ancient China - and to share and systematise their experience in an array of working practices. The same hypothesis is to be found in the work of Charlotte Bach, which we consider here in the section of this site named biology, culture and evolution. (Readers should note that this is very much a minority viewg - and is not subscribed to by the broad spectrum of anthropologists and other enthusiasts on the scene.)
NOTE TO THIS SECTIONHere I am following the interpretation that is to be found in the study by Michael Lafargue The Tao of the Tao Te Ching
© all content: copyright reserved, Michael Roth, January 2004