Improvements in the Meeting of Shamanism and Christianity among the Indigenous Peoples of East Asia and Oceania

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A Report on an International Symposium held in Taiwan in February 2006

By Oliver Lardinois, SJ
(Translated by Edmund Ryden, SJ)

 Oliver Lardinois, S.J. is from Belgium and has worked among the Tayal indigenous people in Taiwan for the last 15 years. He is also the present coordinator of the Research Center for Aboriginal Theology at Fujen University in Taipei where he teaches pastoral theology. He holds licenciate degrees in Pastoral Theology from the Catholic University of Louvain and the International Institute for Catechesis, Lumen Vitae, Belgium.

In February 2006 the Research Centre for Aboriginal Theology at the Theologate of Fujen Catholic University and the Taipei Ricci Institute held an international symposium to discuss the encounter of Christianity and shamanic practices of the indigenous peoples of East Asia and Oceania. The symposium was held in Taitung, a small town on the Pacific coast of Taiwan, following an invitation from the Auxiliary Bishop of Hualien, Msgr. John-Baptist Tseng, the only indigenous bishop in Taiwan and President of the Commission for indigenous pastoral ministry of the Taiwanese Bishops’ Conference.

Motivation and Aims of the Symposium

The reasons for holding such a symposium were as follows:


  • The continuation of shamanic practices among many Asian indigenous Christian converts, even though they have been Christian for some 50 years, as in Taiwan where 85% of the indigenous population are Christian (mostly Catholic or Presbyterian), but also in the Philippines, northern Borneo, and Australia.
  • A renewed interest in certain traditional shamanic practices among young indigenous people, searching for their identity (Korea, China, Taiwan, Malaysia, Australia).
  • The emergence of various kinds of neo-shamanism which are quite successful among urban, educated Asians (Siberia, Korea, Taiwan).

To circumscribe what is meant by shamanism the organizers used the definition of the anthropologist R. Hamayon:

Originally, the term shamanism referred to the religious practices observed by indigenous Siberian peoples who lived by hunting and fishing. These practices are characterised by a relational symbolic exchange between human beings and the spirits of the various species of wild animals they feed on. Today, the term refers more generally to any form of religious practices which consist in dealing with the spirits so as to obtain certain goods whose acquisition is as uncertain as that of hunted animals, such as rain, fertility, health, luck, success in love or at play, prosperity, absence of torments, etc.1

This definition enables the term shamanism to cover a wide range of religious practices which are often judged as “superstitious,” and which are present in the popular religiosity of a great number of Asiatic cultures. In East Asia, as elsewhere, shamanist practices exist alongside one or more developed religions (Buddhism, Christianity, Islam), which rarely succeed in completely eradicating from popular belief these “archaic” and deeply-rooted forms of religion. In other cases, especially in the case of popular Taoism and the New Age movement, we are faced with religions or religious currents that are rooted in various forms of archaic practice but which are continually renewed under the influence of new forms of practice which themselves are constantly evolving. The constant interference between established religions (or recognised religious movements) and older popular religious practices cannot be ignored, for if it is ignored, shamanism will continue to exist in secret or give rise to confusion or even a sense of guilt that is not liberating.

The first part of the symposium consisted of the presentation of some ten research papers dealing with shamanism according to various approaches (anthropological analysis, study of comparative religions, pastoral reflection) in a variety of cultural contexts (Siberia, Korea, minority peoples or popular religions of China and Taiwan, indigenous people of Borneo, and Australian aborigines). This very varied presentation permitted the participants to better grasp the complexity of the problem and the issues at stake. It also helped to show how much inter-religious dialogue is necessary at this level. Finally, it showed how Christianity can be enriched if it was more ready to listen and learn from shamanic traditions which witness to a real wisdom in the way they accompany men and women faced with human misery. After this long series of talks, the second part of the symposium, unfortunately rather too short, was devoted to trying to draw some conclusions that would be relevant for theology and pastoral work.

Two Situations Linked to the Chinese World

The first two papers presented the situation in the Chinese world. Professor Tsai Yijia, an ethnologist from Dong Hwa University, Taiwan, showed how Taiwanese Taoist associations offer a formation in becoming a “medium” for people with little education or who are psychologically fragile, but who experience liberation through their formation. Professor Tsai described the formation offered by one such association and showed how the pupils could come to psychological, affective, and spiritual maturity, which they could then use in the service of other people in difficulties.

Benoît Vermander, S.J., Director of the Taipei Ricci Institute, presented a paper on the evolution of shamanism today among the Nosu people of the high mountain region of Sichuan Province in China. He showed how all “archaic” religious systems are intimately linked to the historico-spatial context in which the human community is living. In the case of Nosu shamanism we find a religious tradition which consolidates, constructs, and protects the ethnic identity of the people in the face of outside threats (very rough conditions of life, Buddhist proselytism, possible assimilation into the dominant Han Chinese culture…).

Other Contexts and Issues: Siberia, Korea, Malaysia, and Australia

The five papers given on the second day of the symposium looked at a broad range of contexts. Professor Tatiana Bulgakova, an anthropologist from Alexander Herzen Univeristy, St. Petersburg, Russia, gave an interesting analysis of the renewal of shamanism among the Asiatic minority peoples of Siberia in reaction to the domination of European Russia identified both as Communism and as Orthodox Christianity. She showed that in fact what is emerging is very different from traditional shamanism. In fact this neo-shamanism even borrows structural, moral, and dogmatic elements from Christianity: construction of places of worship, teaching of shamanism in public schools, construction of a shamanist morality and theology greatly inspired by the Judeo-Christian tradition.

Daniel Kister, S.J., emeritus professor of comparative literature at Sogang University, Seoul, spoke about the renewal of traditional shamanism in Korea and showed what this had in common with certain aspects of Christianity: Accepting to become a shaman is a particular vocation which implies an asceticism of service to suffering people; the sense of beauty and the deep meaning of Korean shamanic rituals have elements that are similar to the Eucharist (the use of ritual signs, words and objects, music and gestures which make the divine truly present); crises are overcome by a ritualization of the drama of family and community life; the Korean shaman spends his life trying to better understand the influence of good and bad spirits from his own experience. Kister noted that shamanism now figures among the courses taught to Korean seminarians along with classes on the traditions of Buddhism and Confucianism.

Two presentations covering the Malaysian part of Borneo were instructive at another level. Jojo Fung, S.J., a Malaysian of Chinese origin who is much involved with the local indigenous people, gave a theological reflection on the role of a Catholic priest studying with local shamans, even to the point of undergoing an initiation. In the same line, Anne Lasimbang, an indigenous Catholic active in the NGO PACOS (Partners of Community Organizations), which works towards the long-term formation of indigenous communities in the forests of Borneo, showed that there can be no real success in help for the lasting development of local communities unless one is also concerned to maintain the wisdom and spirituality of the traditional shamans.

Brian McCoy, S.J., who wrote his PhD on aboriginal health at the Centre for Health and Society at Melbourne University, gave a summary of his thesis which is entitled Kanyirninpa: health, masculinity, and wellbeing of desert Aboriginal men. He showed how the lack of dialogue between the three centers of healing in desert communities (the clinic, the local Christian community, and the traditional healers) can create a real obstacle to the restoration of physical, mental, and spiritual health for most indigenous adult men. McCoy is in favor of common and comprehensive health projects, which truly take local culture into account so as to combat the deep sense of ill-health which affects most aboriginal men.

Indigenous Christian Communities in Taiwan

The five papers delivered on the third day of the symposium all dealt with indigenous people in Taiwan. Professor Liu Pi-chen, an ethnologist from Dong Hwa University, Hualien, gave an interesting paper on the shamans of the Kavalan people. She explained why the role of shaman was always reserved to women of weak physical or mental health, and so whose wisdom is rooted in the experience of having overcome suffering themselves. She also explained the important social function played by the shamans of a given locality meeting together to work together and to initiate younger shamans.

Two ministers of the Presbyterian Church from different indigenous backgrounds, Tong Sen-yong and Namoh-Siyo, showed two quite different approaches. Pastor Tong, the older of the two, was happy to announce that all shamanic practices on Orchid Island have stopped, owing to the success of Christianity. All the Tao shamans are either dead or converted. Pastor Namoh-Siyo expressed his willingness to take account of the persistence of shamanism in many Amis villages and show his openness and creativity. Although many of his congregation disapproved, he dared to enter into dialogue with the shamans of his village and even take part in their rituals. He also promoted a space for possible meeting in the prayer for healing practised among Pentecostal churches and in the Catholic Charismatic renewal. However, he noted that as a Protestant he lacked the sufficient theological tools to defend his views in front of his colleagues.

Four Catholic indigenous pastoral workers spoke next. They shared their questions and suffering in the face of inconsistent Church policy. Two retired catechists of different indigenous tribes remembered how this lack of coherence had deeply affected the history of local Catholic communities. At the time of evangelization in the 1950s and 1960s converts were called to renounce everything that was related to their traditional religion, not only to reject traditional shamanism but they also had to accept new rites (the Eucharist and the sacraments) and a new ritual language (Latin). In the early 1970s the local languages were used but this was not easy for the older Catholics to accept because by using the local language in the liturgy and prayers, certain expressions from shamanic ritual were inevitably introduced, even though most missionaries condemned shamanic rituals themselves. Now the Church is more open to shamanic practices. But most pastoral workers no longer understand them and so are unable to help the people to discern between the wheat and the tares. Moreover, there is also the recent appearance of indigenous forms of neo-shamanism which sometimes is simply folklore, or even worse, charlatanism.

Fr. Norbert Pu, a priest from the Tsou tribe, was formed by the sinicised Church from a young age and so cut off from his culture, a feature which characterizes most indigenous priests in Taiwan. Faced with a successful indigenous revival among the young, it is not always easy for priests who have been so long outside their culture to be credible or listened to by their own people. Young people are more apt to accept the words of intellectuals or politicians—and some of them are rather scrupulous—who preach a return to a pure and simple traditional religion, than to listen to indigenous priests who have become very timid because they no longer know their own culture well enough. In this context, they find it difficult to contribute to the necessary discernment faced with the return of traditional shamanism or the arrival of an indigenous neo-shamanism. To fill the void, Pu insists that priests and catechists should study their own culture. He himself spent two years reappropriating Tsou culture. Bishop Tseng gave a rather more optimistic picture:

Dialogue is still possible. We have already done much better in inculturating the lived experience of the Catholic faith in our local indigenous communities. How much more could be done if we only had the faith to do it!

The last talk was a theological and pastoral reflection on shamanic practices that persist among Catholic indigenous communities in Taiwan. It was a commentary on a report made after an enquiry carried out by the Research Centre for Aboriginal Theology at the Theologate of Fujen Catholic University. A sample of ten Catholic shamans, men and women, from five different tribes was interviewed. The conclusion of the report is as follows:

The survey invites us to a more open and welcoming attitude towards the good fruits that are bound to this, more or less Christianized, shamanic inheritance. Throughout the enquiry we found that the indigenous shamans sought essentially the physical and psychological well-being of persons. We have also noted that, beyond the simplistic or strange external practices, in fact the healing capacity of the shamanic consultations rested on two laudable pillars: sincere listening to the patient with the aim of trying to truly take into account all aspects of his/her personal and social life; and a wisdom full of common sense on the part of the person consulted. Finally, we also found that all were clear in their denunciation of the two main possible deviations of a healthy shamanic practice: its use to cast evil spells and/or its development purely for financial gain. The survey, nonetheless, has also revealed certain practices which are questionable because it seems they could still serve as vehicles for beliefs in sharp contradiction with Christian faith, such as fear of the souls of the dead, a too easy and direct link made between illness and punishment and recourse to the help of spirits whose power is not explicitly founded in God… Such practices should not necessarily be condemned outright but at least they call for real dialogue and a serious discernment to help all concerned to have a better grasp of what is at issue.

Theological and Pastoral Reflection

The joint reflection which followed the presentation of the papers tried to draw some conclusions that would be useful for theology and pastoral work. Rather than trying to give a detailed report of the debate that ensued, we shall simply present the most pertinent remarks made by three of the participants. These remarks both take up the key issues from the presentations and also give a clear direction for the future.

Bishop Tseng insisted that it was necessary to continue to study the problem so as to free the minds, as soon as possible, of those indigenous Christians who, faithful to their own culture, continue to practice certain traditional religious rites. We must show that they are not at fault because the Church does not condemn everything that is good and beautiful in traditional indigenous religion. It is also necessary to help in a discernment of the wheat and the tares but not before one has first sat down and truly learnt from the elders. The Bishop considers that the best way in which the Church can show her respect for the praiseworthy and beneficial practices of traditional religion is to integrate them into the life of the Church herself, for example, by inviting the elders and shamans to take an active part in the liturgical and pastoral life of the local Christian communities, or else by inviting pastoral workers to better respect and understand the ancient tradition.

Luc Mees, M.J., professor of missiology at the East Asian Pastoral Institute, Manila made several remarks in the fields of anthropology and theology:


  • Encounter with shamanism helps in the reflection on the nature of religion as awareness and recognition of the Mystery, to which we confidently surrender. Any religion is based on some kind of revelation (insight) in view of some kind of salvation (hope, meaning). The ways and forms of revelation and the ways in which people reach out to the Ultimate Reality are many, different, and varied (cf. Heb 1:1).
  • Conceptual categories like truth, absoluteness, and uniqueness have caused divisions and tensions between religions. Truth is not about concepts but about fruits. A ‘true’ religion is liberating, transforming, energizing, harmonizing, healing. It gives meaning to all dimensions of human reality and takes away fear. It is often said that all religions are “equal,” but some are more liberating and meaning-giving than others. Only in dialogue can religions understand their differences, commonalities, richness, and deficiencies, and their complementarity.
  • In inter-religious dialogue, followers of primal or cosmic religions have been largely overlooked as partners in dialogue in favor of the followers of metacosmic religions. Dialogue with primal religion may be difficult, but is not less urgent than dialogue with metacosmic religions.
  • Shamanism is one of the ways people deal with the Mystery; it belongs particularly to the ways of primal religions all over the world: the ways of the sages, seers, healers, and prophets. It provides us an important window on primal religions. The symposium was an invitation to learn to listen to men and women who have a profound experience of the Other. Shamanism invites us to appreciate better the different experiences of the Beyond. Shamans and sages are able to see, hear, touch, and understand what others do not.
  • Listening to the shamanic experience has several implications for rethinking and enriching parts of Christian theology: Christology (consider Jesus Christ as a shaman); pneumatology (evidently!); theology of religious pluralism; inculturation; and local theologies. 
  • Openness to shamanism is important in dealing with several pastoral-missionary challenges: the struggle of indigenous Christians for the survival of their own identity and culture; the approach to popular religion; the phenomenon of dual religious belonging; the positive or negative, open or closed attitude one can adopt in the face of so-called “religious syncretism.”

Benoît Vermander concluded the discussion in ten points that help us to appreciate the various issues involved in the meeting with shamanism:


  • We are dealing with a variety of phenomena: local religions, shamanistic practices, Neo-shamanism in a globalized market economy, reinterpretation of one’s identity, encounter with Christianity.
  • There is indeed an opposition between Christianity and many of these phenomena.
  • However, there are also similarities and possible points of encounter.
  • Shamanism challenges the way Christianity sometimes conceives the tension between Unity and Plurality within the Divine.
  • It also challenges the way we evaluate the relationships between the two Testaments.
  • It challenges us to display more liturgical inventiveness.
  • It encourages Christianity to be more of a “healing religion.”
  • It reminds us of the diversity of charisms, of our duty to “liberate” charisms and to empower those with particular charisms.
  • To be able to exercise discernment of spirits and to judge them by their fruit is the key to entering into dialogue with shamanism
  • There seems to be a strong need to promote “holistic health projects” among indigenous people in Taiwan and elsewhere.



1.     Hamayon, R., “Shamanism as an Exchange System, or How to trade for Vital Force with Spirits,” Lecture at the Academia Sinica, Taipei, 16 October 2000.