John Vincent Bellezza. Spirit-Mediums, Sacred Mountains and Related Bon Textual Traditions in Upper Tibet: Calling Down the Gods. Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2005. Hardcover, xv + 532 pp.
Most Westerns who are somewhat familiar with Tibet’s culture associate it with Buddhism. A few are aware of the existence of an “indigineous” Bön tradition, and of those most seem to subscribe to the belief that Bön was replaced by Buddhism. A more knowledgeable person understands that Bön has not only influenced Buddhism but is still very much a living tradition. Where even informed opinions differ is in regard to the origins of Bön and the role it has played in Tibetan culture.
Here is where Prof. Bellezza’s work is of signal importance. He is best known for his recent archaeological monographs Divine Dyads: Ancient Civilization in Tibet (1997), Antiquities of Northern Tibet (2001), and Antiquities of Upper Tibet (2002). The present study, based on his archaeological and ethnographic surveys as well as textual studies, makes a convincing argument in favor of a proposition voiced by Tibetanists, namely that Bön is the principal conduit for pre-Buddhist archaic culture and spirituality.
Even if one were to find Bellezza’s conclusions still insufficiently substantiated, the materials he presents in this ample volume add unprecedented detail to the discussion. As he shows, the tradition of local spirit-mediums (men and women) in Upper Tibet has long historical antecedents and has been kept alive by family lineages of “professional” shamans capable of being possessed by local spirits during trance states.
This volume includes interviews with fifteen spirit-mediums conducted between 1997 and 2002. Since 1959, the Communist presence in Tibet has greatly curtailed the activities of these mediums. Even the interviews had to be conducted following strict guidelines imposed by the authorities of the “Tibet Autonomous Region.” According to Bellezza, many of his interviewees have not practiced mediumism or only to a minimal extent since the country’s takeover by the Communists. Thus, he notes that his interviews “were a kind of salvage operation intended to document the remnants of a rich tradition.”
Prof. Bellezza thinks it highly likely that the profession of spirit-mediumship in Upper Tibet will become extinct within a generation. Therefore his volume is all the more precious, especially as his materials once again bring to our attention that, as the spirit-mediums insist, illness and misfortune are caused by negative relationships between humans and the environment, which is also the home of supernatural entities—however we moderns may choose to conceive such beings.
Copyright ©2007 by Georg Feuerstein. All rights reserved.
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