Shamanic Adventures


In the final years of the Twentieth Century I was privileged to make a rather amazing trip to Tuva, the southernmost province of modern day Russia, where Shamanism is thoroughly alive and an integral part of the world view of every citizen, even those who, because of modern influences, do not themselves believe in it. I have later come to feel that my experiences there could be of some interest to those interested in this subject, for several reasons.

Firstly, it is my current understanding that Tuva occupies a rather unique place in the “shamanic world.” In pointing to countries or regions that have a history of shamanism, one quickly finds that this applies to just about the entire planet. Shamanism represents the natural impulse of humans to study and understand their environment, and the equally natural tendency to want to control it. As my teacher, Chu, Ch’u-fang used to say about Taoism, “Taoists were the ancient scientists of China.” But in the present day world, these shamanic origins have been almost entirely subsumed by modern religions, in which they have been incorporated into terminology, ritual, and the nature of religious holidays.

In many parts of the world, you can still find native shamans, and authorities on the subject who will assert that the tradition has been preserved, and the old ways are still being practiced. But closer examination shows that while indeed the “old ways” are preserved, respected, even enshrined in official museums, this is in fact a sign that they are dead, not alive. Living practices do not need official support, recognition, or preservation. The dedicated efforts of a few individuals to pass on ritual knowledge is a kind of spiritual taxidermy, and the conscientious “performance” and “celebrations” of “shamanic wisdom” have the smell of spiritual embalming fluid.

Modern or what I call transcendental religions are very centered around individual conduct and achievement, usually reflecting the conduct and achievement of their world-saving founder. From this point of view, they can be conceivably practiced in total isolation from one’s society, even in secret contradiction to the mores of that society. Christians are familiar with the concept “in the world, but not of it,” pointing to an affiliation to some decidedly extra-worldly reality, to be fully realized at death. If one small area, one last monastery, or even one last devotee is still alive, so can that religion be said to be alive as well. But if there is one thing that I am certain of, from my own, as I have said, quite privileged experience, it is that shamanic practices only have reality within a shamanic culture; and that such a culture can only support shamanism as long as the principle life experience of the vast majority of the people involves a completely natural environment.

Tuva appears to be possibly the last truly shamanic culture left. This is evidenced by several signs, among them the fact that, perhaps uniquely in the entire world, they make no distinction between ancient and modern reality. Everywhere else, there is some point in time, after which all of the aspects of society are subject to critical examination, but before which these aspects are enshrined as “sacred tradition.” Closer examination reveals that this point in time is usually that which dates the overthrow, or perhaps the subsuming would be a better word, of shamanic consciousness by some transcendental religion, and its subsequent relegation to purely cultural affectation and the convert-seeking integration of its rituals into those of that religion. Our own entire western world, and for most purposes, the entire world, dates its modern history from the birth of Christ, an outstanding example of this tendency.

Tuva is almost entirely free of such an event, and as a result sees its history in a startlingly continuous way, one that can produce, to modern sensibilities, a rather false impression of a kind of almost childlike naiveté. For example, one quickly learns upon arriving in Tuva that the “national art” of Tuva is the carving of a native stone into various figures, mostly people and horses. Tuvans love horses. They even put one on their flag. It is slightly puzzling, then, to discover that, in this culture that dates itself in millennia, the originator and founder of this type of art, the man who is completely credited with its entire creation, is still alive.

On one occasion I was being given a personal tour of the shamanic museum in Tuva by its curator and director. I should mention, in light of what I said before about the tell-tale presence of such institutions signaling the actual demise of living practice, that the museum is the result of Communist Russian involvement in Tuvan Society. Because of their desire to stamp out shamanism as a religion, and their lack of sensitivity in public works, they displaced many sacred objects from their natural settings, and these were preserved in the museum. We were looking at one of these, a stone head over six feet tall, dated at over six thousand years. Next to it I noticed a glass case that contained an assortment of apparently beautifully preserved, ornately fashioned knives. How old were these, I wanted to know. The curator told me that they had just been acquired. I said that I meant how long ago they had been made. “Oh,” he said, “we got them from the maker.” “You mean,” I said, “they’ve just been made?” To his affirmative response to this I asked, “What are they doing in a museum?” “Why,” he said, “they’re museum quality.”

The music exhibits a similar effect. I have had lots of contact with Tuvan musicians, and played with them a bit before I even went there. One of the things that charmed me was their lack of sensitivity about any sort of “sacred” way of playing their traditional music. I studied Indian music quite seriously for a very long time, over ten years exclusively, and for a considerable period thought that I would embrace it as my major musical form, almost moving to India at one point. Finally, though, I was turned off by a seemingly inescapable imperative to classical rigidity, this in a form that I at first considered the epitome of freedom. In all honesty, I think that this hide-bound musical dogmatism is more of a factor in America than in India, but that is where I was, and it eventually became the cause of troublesome frustration.

In Tuvan music I found many of the same Oriental scales, rhythms, and incidental harmonies that I was so attracted to in Indian music, but attended by a kind of musical freedom that was extremely exhilarating. The finest musicians in the land were ready at the drop of a hat to cast their most ancient melodies in the most radical and modern forms. The concerts that I gave with Andre Mongoosh, duets with Andre singing and playing a variety of instruments, while I played my own tunable and otherwise supercharged version of the traditional shamanic buben (or, in the Tuvan language, dungoor), were interpreted by many western audiences as my foreigner’s participation in an otherwise highly traditional Siberian musical form. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The tradition never called for drum accompaniment of this kind, and the buben was used for shamanic and healing purposes only. I was told that in other parts of Siberia, my presumption as a foreigner to even play this drum at all, much less in this way, would excite anger and possibly even violence from musical “traditionalists.” The kind of loose and completely non-defensive attitude of the Tuvans is indicative of a tradition that is alive and well, and without need for fretting protectionism for its preservation.

This assessment finds general agreement, in fact, among shamans of other cultures. I have been told this and met a few myself who confirm this impression. One, from the far east of Russia, told me, “I thought that I lived in a shamanic society, but Tuva is a real shamanic society.” In most other parts of Siberia, the influence of Buddhism is far greater, and since Tibetan Buddhism retains a huge number of shamanic elements from its absorption of Bon-Po ritual, a shamanic influence seems to be entirely present. But in most cases, the real nature of the society is no longer shamanic, and the shamanic influence upon their religion of less and less substance.

Another thing that makes my experience, in my opinion, somewhat noteworthy, is the fact that I had absolutely no opinions or even ideas about shamanism when I went to Tuva. To say that I had an open mind would be an understatement. Even now, it is difficult for me to come to conclusions about, not only the exact nature of reality, but even, as I mention in one article, about exactly what I would prefer that nature to be. Nevertheless, this did not prevent me from trying, and you will find those attempts in the article that I am only presently completing, Hindsight on Shamanism. Since, from my Russian perspective, Americans tend to divide themselves into extreme camps about these kinds of things, one determined to reduce the entirety of human consciousness to rational materialism, and the other all too anxious to see the face of Jesus in every overcooked tortilla, and a flying saucer out of every window, I think that my relatively unbiased attitude is a valuable one, and lends further interest to my report.

Also, there is the simple fact that, although I was drafted quite vigorously into the role of shaman, which I now realize is a New Age fantasy of overwhelming attractiveness to some, I sincerely did not want the job. Coincidentally, I have, from as early an age as I can remember, been rather unnecessarily vocal in proclaiming that the one thing that I definitely didn’t want to be when I grew up was a doctor. Not only was I completely ready and even anxious to demonstrate complete incompetence in this area, but I really had no resistance whatsoever to the possible conclusion that the whole thing was, in terms of actual medical effectiveness, cultural role-playing, the placebo effect, or just plain bullshit. If I had any deep-seated desires to add the panache of being a shaman to my persona, they would have definitely surfaced under these conditions. I was given total respect in this role by the entire society. I was interviewed on local television with the caption (in Tuvan) “Shaman Robert Amacker.” I was the center of a combination performance/kamlania, for which purpose the local discothèque was commandeered, that was filmed and shown with endless repetition on local television. Even now, it is unusual for me to meet a Tuvan who does not recognize me, or at least know who I am. Kenin Lopsan, the most highly respected and educated of Tuvan shamans, reportedly still inquires about me and urges my return. When the Tuvan shamans sent a delegation to Moscow, I was the only shaman in Moscow asked to join them in their Kamlania, and this was not for any purpose of publicity, as, in formal dress and wearing my headdress, I was unannounced and indistinguishable from the rest. I have been told that there has been a complete costume made expressly for me (the official maker of shaman costumes - yes, there is such a person - even took my foot measurements for the shoes), entirely of leather for outdoor winter healing and ritual, with snakes drawn on the back (an ornamentation only allowed for established shamans of exceptional strength), and the cool boots with the little curl-up pointy toes. And I freely admit that the experience of healing people was the most psychically high energy event of my life, a life fairly replete with such events. I even have a union card! (Every occupation that is officially recognized in Russia, even this one, has to have a union.) I’m eligible for a pension! And to top it off, in what I considered perhaps the final absurdity in an unbelievably unlikely series of events, I was officially recognized by the local, entirely modern hospital, consulted by and receiving patients from the hospital director. The fact that, in spite of all this, I have not actively pursued my role as a shaman, in Russia or America, should speak for itself.

And finally, there was the added perspective afforded by my other affiliations in Tuva. I was also drafted into teaching a T’ai Chi Ch’uan class at the local karate school, to which in this case I offered no resistance, since this is at least something that I know how to do. This was quite publicized and attracted students from distant regions of Tuva and as far away as Mongolia. I even had an ex-KGB Sambo expert in the class. To top it off, the teacher was a converted Baptist, along with his top student, who gave me a parallel translation of the Bible as a going away present.

But the most interesting perspective was afforded by the musicians whom I met there. My impression was that about half of them hated shamans and the other half were shamans. I realized, in fact, that the scale of shamanic authenticity runs, in Tuva, in a continuous progression from Kenin Lopsan right down to high school girls putting curses on each other. One musician that I know, who tours Europe giving shamanic “performances,” and also gets paid for healing people, I saw put a curse, while hitchhiking, on a passing driver who refused to pick him up. The ones who disliked shamans had a special antipathy for I-Churek, my own personal sponsor. She is somewhat of a Siberian Elmer Gantry, and constantly berating the public at large for cursing (and I don‘t mean saying shit and damn) and drinking, and that might have had something to do with it.

This section of the website will contain a few related stories, but the major substance of my experience is detailed in The Reluctant Shaman and The Reluctant Shaman Returns. These were first published in the distinguished journal of the late Ruth Inga-Heinz, without alteration, and subsequently appeared, combined and in considerably altered form, in Shaman’s Drum magazine, an entry, by the way, for which I have still never been paid. While I do confess that I was given the chance to view the editorial alterations before publication, and was simply too busy and too irresponsible to thoroughly examine them, I was nonetheless shocked at the final result, which, through magnificently subtle alterations, managed to make the overall impression exactly the opposite of what I intended. I considered my experience, especially after later reading other’s accounts of Tuvan shamanism, to be entirely unique, interesting expressly because of the actually humorous contradiction between my completely under confident attitude and my apparently more than adequate abilities, enlightening because it points out the dramatic difference between a shaman and his supposed counterpart in the world of transcendental religion, the priest. The latter position is achieved through dedication, piety, and the supposed acquisition of wisdom, while the former represents the sometimes barely successful channeling of a mental condition that, if not given at least an artistic outlet, results in insanity. Shamans are most definitely born, not made, and my experience was ample proof of that. Their abilities, like many nominally “psychic” occurrences, appear much more desirable to others than to they themselves, and healing, which for many is obviously their most cherished fantasy, is, for the shamans, simply something that, if they don’t do it, they’ll go nuts. It is a well known catch-22, rather a joke among shamans, that anyone who wants to be a shaman cannot be one.

All of these impressions were missing from the edited article. Through what I thought were some rather incredibly cavalier alterations, I became a typical student of Oriental philosophy, who was fulfilling his lifelong dream of meeting real shamans, allowed to sort of “play shaman,” and was now excitedly reporting his experience. They even took observations that I made and, apparently thinking it too egotistical for me to make such presumptions, turned them into wise quotes from “real” shamans. Later I had to show my original manuscript to several shamans who said they would have been angry with me if I had actually so misquoted them, but now howled with laughter instead.

I will begin with the first article about my Tuvan adventure, written just hours after returning to Moscow, The Reluctant Shaman.