My introduction to Daoist shamanism came mostly through a good friend who is an anthropologist specializing in Chinese folklore. His focus for many years was the I Ching, but he ruffled a few feathers with a structural-functionalist approach to numerology, which seemed to render obsolete much of the scholarship of various tenured professors who did not appreciate obsolescence. So he moved on to spirit possession, which seemed to be very popular and easily gained a lot of funding. For many years, he worked with a little rooftop temple that had a priestess who would channel various gods and engage in glossolalia. She also issued prophetic advice and would guide other initiates into trance states with reputed therapeutic results.
One time he invited me to come, and I certainly did witness her getting possessed by two different spirits. The timing of her possession was suspiciously excellent, coming right as it did after dinner. It seemed obvious that a certain amount of acting and/or conscious control was involved. However, her channeling was very fluent. One of the spirits spoke in a mixture of Japanese and Taiwanese, and she couldn’t speak Japanese outside of her trance states. My anthropologist friend spent a lot of time analyzing her pronouncements, which involved a lot of archaic linguistic forms and poetic imagery (which he analyzed from a structural-functionalist perspective and cross-referenced to traditional Daoist texts, etc.) I tried to pin him down on whether he considered what she was doing to be real, to which he replied, “What is real?”
Of course, what I meant was, Did she really get possessed by real spirits, or was she just faking it? He, on the other hand, was just a dyed-in-the-wool agnostic anthropologist who was more interested in objectively studying the function of ritual and myth. From his point of view, if something had subjective efficacy, it was real (depending).
Still, he had some weird stories. One time he was riding his motorcycle down a road, and a black cat ran out and slammed into the wheel of his cycle. But when he stopped, he found no evidence of any cat on his vehicle or in the street. The folks at the temple said he was cursed, and they set up an elaborate purging ritual involving him riding his motorcycle over a patch of burning spirit money — which frightened him more than the cat did.
Another friend who was deeply into Taiji Quan and practiced cultivating sensitivity to all sorts of forces that didn’t, from my perspective, seem to be there, also reported passing by a graveyard and being afflicted with some kind of spirit that tagged along with him. (He was a bit overly romantic, though, and I tended to discount whatever he said. I wouldn’t want to get in a brawl with him, though — his martial arts skills were legit.)
In the next part, read about rituals for the dead and what happened when a ceremony dance gets interrupted…