Shamanism is the term that Westerners use for the ancient spiritual beliefs of Mongolia
A more accurate name for these beliefs is Tengerism. Tengerism means a reverance for
the spirits while “Shamanism” seems to mean reverance toward shamans. Shamans are
not to be worshiped but merely respected as priests of Tengerism.
Calling our beliefs “Shamanism” would like be like calling Christianity “Priestism” or
In Tengerism, the world is alive. The plants, animals, rocks, and water all have spirits.
These spirits must be respected and cared for or the land would become hostile or
barren. Therefore, protection and balance of one’s environment is of utmost importance.
Personal responsibility is the second main tenet of Tengerism. Tengerists believe in a
concept called buyan that is very close to the belief of karma. Being responsible for
one’s own actions is the mark of an upright human being.
The third tenet of Tengerism is balance. Balance is important to keep harmony within
oneself, the community, and the environment. When things get out of balance, there are
harmful effects. This is when a shaman is needed.
Many Westerners try to categorize a shaman as a “medicine man” or “witch doctor”.
Mongolian/Siberian spiritual beliefs are far more sophisticated than that. There are
many kinds of healers that are specialists in their field. There are otoshi (healers),
barishi (bone-setters), and bariyachi (mid wives). All of these specialists are believed to
have some form of help from the spirit world.
It is the shaman, however, that is the true master of the spirit world. The shaman is
chosen by the spirits at birth and an extra soul called an udha enters them. This soul
helps them gather other spirit helpers that protect the shaman. Without this protection,
rituals and other world journeys are dangerous and foolish to attempt.
Becoming a shaman is often just as much of a curse as it is a blessing. Shamans are
chosen by the spirits at birth, but it is not until later in life (usually in their 20’s) that the
shaman is struck down. The striking down of a shaman is to dismember them as a
person and to have them reborn into something else. There are two ways of being
struck. The first is the shaman’s sickness and the second is lightning.
The main function of the shaman is to restore and maintain balance in his community.
Shamans conduct blessings, rituals of protection, hunting magic, and divination. They
also cure sicknesses that have spiritual causes such as spiritual intrusions, spiritual
pollution, soul loss, and curses. Shamans are also the caretakers of traditional culture.
Because of their knowledge of ancient tradition, their counsel has been sought
throughout the ages.
Near Death Experience
The near-death experience of the shaman’s sickness is very traumatic. The would-be
shaman suffers both mentally and physically. This is how the spirits get the attention of
not only the afflicted, but of the local shaman. When the elder shaman is called to help,
they will recognize the shaman’s sickness and take the afflicted as a student.
This does not mean that everyone who has a near-death experience is a shaman. It
means that some people who have one have the potential to become a shaman. Those
with the potential are called butur. Butur means “cocoon” in Mongolian. To grow into a
shaman, they must accept the calling and be recognized and trained by an elder shaman.
The second way to be struck down is to be hit by lightning. Once again, this does not
mean that everyone that is hit by lightning becomes a shaman. It is just an indicator.
Again, it takes an elder shaman to watch for signs from the person who was hit. If they
believe they are chosen, they will take them as a student.
A shaman’s training takes a lifetime of work. It takes a great deal of practice and
discipline. There are 9 degrees (levels) of traditional shamanism. They represent the
nine branches of the world tree. For each level there is an initiation called a shanar. It
takes years of study and training to reach each level. Because each level expects so
much more from a person, the 9th level is rarely reached. Family and other obligations
often keep people from taking their next shanar (initiation).
If anyone claims they can make you a shaman in one weekend for a fee, you should
think twice. If you were to walk into a martial arts equipment store and buy a black belt,
this would not make you a black belt. There are no quick fixes.
To preserve the ancient traditions, official shaman’s associations were founded in Mongolia, Buryatia, and Tuva. The governments of these countries are involved with the registries in order to help preserve the ancient traditions and integrity of Siberia’s aboriginal people.
This is for a good reason. The aboriginal peoples of the Americas have had a great deal of problems with their spiritual beliefs. Their ways have been misrepresented and even blasphemed. Fake “Indian medicine-men” have charged an unknowing public for pseudo Indian teachings and ceremonies. Nobody knows who is the real deal and who is just out to make a buck.
Wanting to avoid such an exploitative situation, the shaman associations make sure that the traditions remain true and keeps dishonourable, or fake shamans, from practicing.
Black, White & Yellow
There are three different types of shamans- Black, White, and Yellow. The first two of these types are traditional and the third, a result of influence from Buddhism.
It is important to note that the designations of “Black” and “White” do not mean “evil” and “good”. There are different types of spirits that shamans work with and they reside within the four directions. In Siberian tradition, each direction has a colour. A shaman’s colour is determined from which direction he gets his power.
Black shamans are the most powerful of all and they get their power from the Northern direction. They are warrior shamans and overcome evil by battling might vs. might. They are the models of courage and discipline.
Historically, Black shamans had fulfilled roles in both times of peace and in times of war. In wartime, they boosted the soldiers’ morale and did ceremonies to help in battle. The power of the army was connected to the Black shamans, so these shamans were heavily recruited in times of war.
During times of peace, Black shamans served as advisors and conducted foreign policy by making peace and alliances. During the time of the Mongolian Empire, all treaties were ratified by shaman ceremonies. Both historically and today, Black shamans do many other types of shamanic work.
They do hunting rituals, healing work, protection, divination, and curse enemies. Black shamans have to be careful to stay in balance, for a shaman that curses too much, will lose their ability to heal and would become an outcast.
White shamans get their power from the white Western direction. Because of this, they direct their prayers to the Western Heavens.
White shamans are shamans of peace and have a special relationship with the spirits of nature. Their main focus is on pacifying angry spirits and helping mankind to live in balance with nature. White shamans also do divination and blessings. One thing that they can not do is a shaman’s curse.
During the Mongol Empire, while Black shamans dealt with foreign affairs, White shamans dealt with local affairs and served as administrators and concerned themselves with the day to day lives of the people.
White shamanism in present time has Buddhist inluence in it’s trappings and style. Some chants are of Buddhist origin and White shamans burn incense instead of the wild plants that Black shamans burn.
It is an incorrect stereotype that all shamans use drums. White shamans do not use drums, but instead have a wooden staff and ring bells during ceremonies. White shamans also do not wear the antlered headdress of the Black shamans, but instead wear a cape called a nemerge.
Lamaism was the main cause of the decline in the numbers of White shamans. During the 17th to 19th centuries, the White shaman tradition suffered most among the Khalkha and Barga tribes, and throughout Inner Mongolia. In present day, white shamanism is returning.
Between the 17th and 19th centuries, Lamaism (Tibetan Buddhism) imposed itself on the people of Mongolia. During this time, it was very difficult for shamans. Lamaists divided shamans into two catagories: Black and Yellow. “Black” shamans were those who kept the old shamanic traditions, and Yellow shamans were those who would submit to the Lamas and serve in a subordinate role to them.
Black shamans refused to submit to the foreign religion. White shamans were divided. Some submitted to Buddhist authority and became Yellow shamans. Other White shamans refused to give up their traditions. These shamans were thrown into the “Black” catagory by the Lamaists. Therefore, both Black and White shamans were in the same catagory between the 17th and 19th centuries.
Because of this, the distinctions between the two traditions was muddied in Lamaist dominated regions. Luckily, the tribes in the Northwest regions such as the Darhad and Urinahai had close contact and solidarity with Siberian peoples such as the Tuvans and Buryats who kept their traditions in tact.
Communism in Mongolia stopped the Buddhist attrocities, but was a step backwards for freedom of religion. When Mongolia changed to a democracy in the 1990’s, shamanism grew stronger in the region again.
“White shamans” have returned and are no longer forced into the “Yellow” catagory. The “Yellow” catagory is no longer a shaman classification.
Tibetan Buddhism is often called “Lamaism”. To avoid confusing Tibetan Buddhism with other forms of Buddhism, Lamaism is a term that will be used here.
The history of Lamaism among the Mongols is long and sometimes violent. It is important to know this history so people can better understand the root of some sentiments between Shamanism and Lamaism. It is also important to remember this history so the atrocities do not repeat themselves.
Since the time of Chinggis Khaan, only people who were of his royal lineage were allowed to rule Mongolia. This frustrated many would-be rulers who were not of this line. Altan khan was the most destructive of these usurpers. He perceived that through the Buddhist faith he could gain legitimacy by claiming to be a reincarnation of Khublai Khaan.
Altan khan chose the Gelug order of Tibetan Buddhism (founded by Tsongkhapa, 1357-1419). In 1577 he invited the leader of this order, Sonam Gyatsho, to come to Mongolia and teach his people.
Sonam Gyatsho proclaimed Altan Khan to be the reincarnation of Khublai Khan, and in return, Altan Khan gave the title Dalai Lama to Sonam Gyatsho. Altan Khan posthumously awarded the title to his two predecessors, making Sonam Gyatsho the 3rd Dalai Lama.
Altan khan then proceeded to convert the Mongols to Buddhism either by choice or force.
“The Mongolian government and Lamaist bodies of that period implemented a variety of measures intended to wipe out Mongolian shamanism. For example, Tumed’s Altan Khan passed a law in 1578 that banned shamanist ideological propaganda and traditional rituals. Shamanist ceremonies, including burial-services that involved the burning of animal meat were forbidden by this law. In contrast, Buddhist annual and monthly fasting was strictly enforced. Laws protected inviolable rights of Lamaist officials as officers of the state according to their rank and positions respectively. The
four main ranks of Lama priests became exempt from military and fiscal dues. Lavish gifts were given to incoming Lamas according to special codes. For example, a Lama should receive at least 100 horses or equivalent, if he were a learned priest, an unlearned one no less than 20, and even a servant or coachman should be given at least 10.
Moreover, images and appurtenances of ongons were burned down and replaced with idols of Mahagal-Burhan. These were to be worshipped with sacrifices of the three kinds of animal flesh (mutton, beef, and horse), and all kinds of milk products.
Households were forbidden to carry out shamanist worship at home. Culprits were to pay a fine in horses related to the number of offenses. These laws on one hand gave Lamaism legal, political and economic privileges, while on the other they persecuted shamans and severely restricted the practice of their customs.
Thanks mainly to the investment, assistance, and support of the Ming Dynasty, many Lamaist monasteries were built and many Buddhist texts were published in Beijing to be sent to Mongolia. It is evident that this zeal on the part of the Ming and Qing dynasties to spread the red and yellow Buddhist sects in Mongolia was primarily in order to undermine the heroic warrior traditions of the Mongols. Encouraging Lamaism or Yellow Buddhism in Mongolia subverted the Mongol traditional values. In this regard the distinguished scholar Roy Chapman Andrews wrote “There were several
contributory causes of the decay of the Mongol race, but the primal factor was the introduction of Lamaism. Before this they were shamanists, worshipping the spirits of nature...in rocks, trees and mountains.”
Until the 1940’s there were a total of approximately 941 Buddhist monasteries, about 70% of which were not established until the 19th century.
The Manchurian Emperors [Qing Dynasty] instigated a number of aggressive and brutal measures against shamanism during the 17th century, including the humiliation of Oirad’s official Neij (1557-1653) and Zayar Bandid Namhayjamts (1575-1662). The teachings of Maydar Hutagt, sent to Mongolia for the intensification of Lamaism, spread in Mongolia. Shamans were killed, murdered, burnt with dog droppings, and subjected to many fines paid in livestock. Between the 1860’s and 1904, there were three mass burnings at campfires around Horchin, at which it was said,“The ones who have real powers will emerge unscathed, but the remainders shall die.”
Another such burning occurred in the 19th century in Besud Yost Zasagt Hoshuu. Besides the killing of shamans, the campaign to wipe out shamanism had many strategies.
First, Lamaist ideology spread by targeting shamans, their family, and their children by telling them they were reincarnations of great Lamas. They would then be encouraged to go to the monastery or send their children there, where they would be “reeducated” in Lamaist dogma. If the shaman was considered powerful or important, Lamaists would target their entire family.
Second, shaman prayers were rewritten with Lamaist influences and dogma. People were forced to recite the new prayers.
Third, Shaman ancestor spirits were “reincarnated” as Lamas or “converted” to
Fourth, Lamaists labeled all shamans “Black shamans”, no matter what their tradition.
From the 17th to the 19th century, this label was used to create confusion, spread mistrust, and break down the different shaman traditions.
Fifth, Mongolian protector spirits were “converted” into Lamaism and were incorporated into what is called the Tsam dance.
Sixth, sacred shamanic sites were taken over and monasteries and stupas built over them.
In 1644 the Qing dynasty in China came to power. Unlike previous dynasties, the Qing dynasty was very involved with Mongolia, Tibet, and Central Asia. Through both military and diplomatic means, the Qing first overtook the Chahar Mongols and the territory of Inner Mongolia.
The Khalkha Mongols of outer Mongolia needed to unite. Tusheet Khan wanted to unite the Khalkhas. He believed that Lamaism could help unify the Mongols if they had their own Living Buddha. With a Living Buddha- a Bogdo Gegen- of Mongolian descent, he could unite the Mongols, and get out from under the over-lordship of the Dalai Lamas in Tibet. He nominated his son, Zanabazar (1635-1723) to be this living Buddha and sent him to Tibet to be recognized and schooled.
The political unity that Tusheet Khan sought was not successful. However, the tradition of a Bogdo Gegen of Mongolia had been born. Zanabazar returned from Tibet and was the first of many Bogdo Gegens.
In 1691, Mongolia was submitted to Qing ruler ship. The Qing government wanted to encourage Mongols to become pacifist-Lamaists and allowed the continuation of the Bogdo Gegen line. They did place many limitations on the Living Buddhas, however. A decree was made that reincarnations of Mongolia’s Living Buddha had to be found in Tibet and may not be related to any Mongolian nobility. These incarnations were also educated in Tibet before their “reign” in Mongolia. These puppet rulers of Mongolia could only engage in Lamaist religious pursuits and could not even travel without
permission from the Qing government.
The series of Bogdo Gegens solidified Lamaism’s role through the region. More and more monasteries were built and people were expected to support them. Lamaist monasteries drained the wealth of the people and changed Mongolian society. By the mid 1800’s, 45% of Mongol males had taken monastic vows.
Many people were forced to serve as bondsmen to the monasteries. Bogdo Gegen had 22,000 monks and 28,000 bondsmen. There were many complaints of children being abused by monks. The monks themselves spread syphilis all over the countryside. The people began to feel unrest. In 1921, requests for assistance to the Soviet Communist government were made. In 1924, when the last Bogdo Gegen died with syphilis, the Mongolian People’s Republic was born.
Today Mongolia is a democracy with freedom of religion.
Shamanism has reemerged in Mongolia and is growing strong. The tribes that had lost shamanic traditions during the period of persecution have been able to look to their cousins who retained their shared indigenous beliefs. Peoples such as the Darhad, Western Buryats, and Urianhay, who were out of the reach of Lamaist rule, had staunchly kept their shamanist traditions. Now, all work in solidarity to bring balance back to our world.
Edited by Y.Zsigo with kind permission of 'Circle of Tengerism' www.tengerism.org