Gary Snyder's American-Asian Shamanism

By Chung, Ling | The Comparatist, May 2005 | Go to article overview

Gary Snyder's American-Asian Shamanism


Chung, Ling, The Comparatist


In Kyoto on 15 June 1956, in the second month of his first long sojourn in Asia, the young Gary Snyder (1930-) already found evidence of what he called "American-Asian shamanism": "Leaving the temple this morning walked by a small fox shrine where a Zen monk was chanting: there I heard the subtle steady single-beat of oldest American-Asian shamanism. The basic song" (Earth 35). The passage indicates that Snyder sensed traces of shamanism in both contemporary Japanese Buddhism and Shintoism, since the chant was uttered by a Buddhist monk, whereas the shrine's fox-spirit image represents a Shinto kami. (1) The passage also reveals that Snyder's belief in shamanism includes an intercontinental feature: Shamanism is "American-Asian," an epithet that links shamanistic practices in American-Indian and Asian traditions. Furthermore, behind the "American-Asian" epithet lies Snyder's belief that the Pacific Rim forms a single cultural zone and a single bioregion. (2)

The present essay will try to answer the following questions. How does Snyder's personal belief in shamanism both coincide with and deviate from concepts of shamanism generally accepted by scholars in the fields of religion, anthropology, psychology, and literature? What role does shamanism play in Snyder's system of thought? What deities, spirits, and figures in Snyder's writings are presented as American-Asian shamans and shamanesses? What impact does Snyder's knowledge of shamanistic ritual exert on the structure and meaning of his poems? Finally, how does he carry his belief in shamanism into the activities of his life, and how are those activities depicted and presented in his poems?

I

SNYDER'S BELIEF IN SHAMANISM

We have to bear in mind that Snyder is by no means an amateur in the field of myth and ritual theory. When he studied at Reed College, Portland, from 1947 to 1951, he majored in anthropology, and his BA thesis on "The Dimension of a Haida Myth" (3) treats American Indian myth with an emphasis on shamanism and the motif of the swan maiden. Therefore, if some of his notions of shamanism deviate from the mainstream of thought on the topic, it should not be ascribed to ignorance on his part but rather to a need to develop his own system of thought, which has incorporated notions of shamanism along with many other religious and philosophical ideas. In order to discern the unique nature of Snyder's ideas, however, it is first necessary to ascertain what concepts of shamanism scholars in various fields generally accept.

An all-encompassing definition of shamanism is impossible, since study of the topic has branched out into many disciplines, such as religion, anthropology, sociology, psychology, and literature. Roughly, shamanism may be described as a system of practices ministered by a shaman or shamaness who functions as the healer, prophet, or controller of spirits and as a sorcerer for his or her community. The Eliade Guide to World Religions defines shamanism as "not a religion per se, but a system of ecstatic and therapeutic methods whose purpose is to obtain contact with the parallel yet invisible universe of the spirits and win its support in dealing with human affairs" (Eliade, Couliano, and Wiesner 214). Thus, Mircea Eliade considers shamanism to be a set of practices rather than a set of theological ideas.

Since the late nineteenth century, many scholars of religion and anthropology have made field trips to study the shamanistic practices of tribes in Siberia, on American Indian reservations, in south Asia, or in Africa; the tribes were isolated from and relatively untouched by modern civilizations. Largely drawing his conclusions from such field studies, Eliade holds that a shaman is a "great master of ecstasy," who is able to control "his helping spirits, in the sense that he is able to communicate with the dead, demons, and nature spirits without thereby becoming their instrument" (Eliade, Adams, et al. …

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