The Third Conference of the International Society for Shamanistic Research, Nara, Japan, November 25—29, 1995

Kira Van Deusen (Hornby Island, Canada)

The third international conference of the International Society for Shamanistic Research (ISSR) was held November 25—29 in historic Nara, Japan. Researchers gathered from more than fifteen countries. The five days included exchange of information and ideas on both formal and informal levels, together with sightseeing and cultural activities. Our hosts for the conference were Masayoshi Mizuno, President of Nara University, Tokutaro Sakurai, ex-President of Komazawa University, Kokan Sasaki of Komazawa University, Taizen Tsujimura, President of Gangoji Institute, plus a wonderful team of volunteers who worked behind the scenes helping with everything from transportation and interpreting to keeping us equipped with cookies to feed the famous deer of Nara park.

The first two days of the conference were held at Nara University and the following days at the Todaiji Temple and Nara Prefectural Hall. As we moved from the modern university to these historic spiritual areas, the ancient temples and shrines and the beauty of the fall foliage reminded us of the links between the living Shinto religion and shamanism.

The opening session began with an illustrated talk by Masayoshi Mizuno on "Shamanic Ecstasy in Ancient Japan" which unfortunately was not translated into English, leaving many of us wishing we knew more about it.

Kokan Sasaki spoke on "Topics and Present State of Shamanism Research in Japan with special reference to Post-War Achievement", outlining the religious-anthropological, historical-folkloristic and social-psychological or social-psychiatric approaches.

Mihály Hoppál, president of the Western Office of ISSR then gave a talk on the current state of Altai shamanism. He spoke about the varying degrees of persecution of shamans during the Soviet period, and about the survival and revival of shamanism today. In some societies shamanism survived to the present time either nearly intact or on the verge of extinction, and in others today’s developments are urban, newly re-invented traditions. He raised the question of whether what we see today are the last pages in the history of shamanism. Will the tradition survive in anything resembling its traditional form, or move into completely different areas in the future?

Although Tae-gon Kim of Kyung Hee University in Seoul Korea was not present due to illness, his opening address was read. After discussing the possible origins of bronze mirrors, he went on to distinguish among trance, possession and ecstasy. Trance he defines as a change of consciousness, loss of power or self-control, possibly including becoming someone else. In possession one is invested with power to communicate with the spiritual world. The origin of possession is in trance. Ecstasy is a change of consciousness similar to trance when considered as a religious phenomenon.

The next morning the main body of the conference began with five sections devoted to shamanism and its connections with religion, folklore, medicine, art, and the theory, history and philosophy of shamanism. At this point a more important breakdown took place. No provision had been made for translation, except in a few cases where speakers themselves provided translations of their own work. Thus Japanese and English-speaking colleagues wound up spending most of their time in separate rooms. The English-speakers complained more loudly about that than the Japanese, at least in my hearing. Another problem was that many speakers had not arrived. This resulted in gaps and schedule changes which disrupted the continuity of the five areas. It also meant that participants had to choose among five sessions on the first morning, whereas by the second morning we were all able to sit together in one room. If the organizers had been more aware of the actual number of speakers present, the papers could have been better distributed.

In the section on religion the concept of the soul aroused much discussion. The presentation by Olga Balalaeva and Andrew Wiget on the Khanti and Mansi discussed changing contemporary concepts of the soul relative to the classic description, while Sedenjav Dulam discussed Mongolian souls of flesh, bone and mind, their abilities to be reborn and their relationship to shamanism. Firdaus Khisamitdinova introduced the Bashkir concepts of soul, name, fortune and breath, and the ways they are preserved in contemporary customs.

Several presentations touched closely on folklore traditions. Svetlana Mukhopleva of the Sakha Republic detailed the functions and qualifications of the epic singer relative to those of the shaman. Marjorie Mandelstam Balzer spoke about the continuing process of folklore creation around shamans in the Sakha republic, and the relationship of that process to politics. My own presentation was on the specific story traditions around women shamans in the Amur river region and their differences from those of men. Ichiko Shiga spoke on various forms of Chinese spirit writing and its persistence in the literary, religious and folk traditions. Theresa Ki-ja Kim talked about the function of laughter and the grotesque in Korean shamanic folk culture. Daniel A. Kister discussed Korean storytelling and theater and its place in shamanic ritual.

In summing up the sessions on shamanism and folklore, Michael Harner led a lively discussion on whether journeying is necessary to shamanism. This is an area in which the Japanese and Western views differ. Many feel that the journey is essential, while in other cases, like the Korean, the spirits come to the body of the shaman.

Several papers on shamanism and art dealt with music. Liu Gui-Teng’s photos showed Manchurian musical instruments, Wang Guo-Xing talked about the important function of performing arts in Chinese shamanic tradition. Michael Oppitz explained the function of specific chants in every stage of the making of new shaman’s drums in the Magar tradition of Nepal.

Rock paintings presented by Kan Wada, Hidetoshi Ooshima and others show shamanistic features dating from ancient times. Christina Stack showed the parallels between shamanism and the creative act in her own work as an artist, bringing shamanism out of the realm of the exotic and close to everyday life.

Sandra Harner summed up the session on shamanism and medicine. Her own talk showed the results of her study on the effects of shamanic journeying (including drumming) on health of contemporary North Americans, including the fact that there may be a connection between psychological dimensions and the effect of shamanic journeying and drumming on the immune response. Eri Katamoto discussed contemporary uses of shamanism and its relation to psychotherapy and environmental treatment. Takako Yamada talked about the dialogue between shaman and patient among the Ladakhi of Tibet, and the shared nature of the work which brings wholeness to both. Jaques Lemoine showed the architectural structure of healing among the Hmong, including the conceptual tools used to understand the vital mechanisms of the patient’s self, the spiritual third parties involved as direct or indirect causes of illness, and the shaman’s power and skill to uncover and overcome the patient’s condition. Mordechai Rotenberg, in his use of Cabalistic techniques, offers journeying as a form of "immunization" against death.

Theoretical issues centered mainly on symbolism. Ruth-Inge Heinze discussed the nature of living cultural symbols in her analysis of the images of lotus and serpent. Luiza Gabysheva gave a fascinating detailed explanation of symbolic aspects of the Yakut shaman suit, showing the relation of human body parts to the cosmos. The cape becomes a map of the worlds the shaman travels. Liubov Novgorodova explained from the inside how sacred ancestral knowledge has been passed down through the generations among the Sakha.

The conference was greatly enriched by the presence of scholars from cultures with living shamanic traditions, Sakha, Mongol, Bashkir, Korean, Japanese and others. Their presentations had great depth of detail and a sense of living presence. In this regard, I was disappointed that no North American shamans were present, nor were any representatives of their people. In the future I would hope that Native peoples of North America might become interested in the organization.

Films played an important role in the conference. Josiane Cauquelin’s work with the Zhuang people of China and Takefusa Sasamori’s film on the blind female shamans of Northern Japan were particularly popular in their presentations of rituals that have survived to the present day. Film/video is one of the best possible ways to get a true sense of an unfamiliar culture, and it is to be hoped that there will be more such presentations at future conferences.

In addition to those cultures already mentioned, we heard presentations on the Oroqen, Manchu, Okinawan, and other traditions.

At the closing session, practical issues were raised, particularly the need for increasing membership and subscription to the journal if the organization is to survive. Organizational difficulties were discussed, including the expense involved in holding the conference in Japan. In the future provisions must be made to make it more possible for scholars from countries with low incomes to attend. The topics that came up repeatedly for further discussion were the concept of the soul in different societies and the issue of possession or merging.

Professor Tokutaro Sakurai gave a closing talk in which he called for further cooperation between Japanese and western scholars. He then gave a concise overview of shamanic traditions in Japan today and studies about them. He pointed out that in urban areas many people are turning to shamanism to help close the gap between traditional and modern life.

Mihály Hoppál announced that an invitation has been received from Roberte N. Hamayon in France to host the next conference, probably in conjunction with visits to the newly discovered caves containing ancient rock art.

After the end of professional meetings, we were treated to two days of touring the beautiful temples and shrines of Nara, including a tea ceremony conducted by students from Nara University and a Gagaku performance. This made a very pleasant ending to a rewarding conference.

(Published in Shaman 4/1-2. 192-196)