The early Taoist classic Inward Training (1) says:
By concentrating your vital breath as if numinous, the myriad things will all be contained within you.
The word translated as ‘numinous’ is ‘shen’. And it shows the contemplative Taoist’s debt to China’s long tradition of shamanism. For shen can also refer to the external spirits or numina of mountains, rivers or ancestors, “the powers that descended into early Chinese shamans and shamanesses during their ritualized trances”.
Harold Roth (the translator of Inward Training into English) also points out that this text does not use a word for ‘emptiness’. Instead, it uses a metaphor – ‘cleaning out the lodging place of the numinous’. This is suggestive of either an external temple being cleansed in preparation for the descent of a divinity or the purification of a shaman in preparation for serving as a medium. Roth quotes A. C. Graham (2) as suggesting “that the meditation practised privately and recommended to rulers as an Arcanum of government descends directly from the trance of the professional shaman”.
The Indian story is somewhat similar, according to Mircea Eliade (3): most Indian spiritual practice inherits the structure of early shamanistic culture. He reminds us that the shamanic tree has seven, nine or sixteen steps, each symbolising a heaven, and climbing it is the equivalent of ascending the cosmic tree or pillar. Then he goes on to say, “The Brahmanic sacrificer mounts to heaven by ritually climbing a ladder; the Buddha ascends the cosmos by symbolically traversing the seven heavens; the Buddhist yogin, through meditation, realizes an ascent whose nature is completely spiritual. Typologically, all these acts share the same structure: each on its own plane indicates a particular way of transcending the profane world and attaining to the world of the gods, or Being or the Absolute. The one great difference between them and the shamanic experience of ascent to heaven lies in the intensity of the latter: … the shamanic experience includes ecstasy and trance”.
It seems to me that early images of an antlered sitter – on a seal from Mohenjodaro, the ancient city state of India, and on the Gundestrop cauldron (4) – are equally appropriate to vatic trance, walking-between-the-worlds and contemplative meditation. Indeed is perhaps anachronistic to make such distinctions, for we know little about actual practices in their cultures of origin. What we can say is that contemplative and shamanistic traditions share the same roots and that modern practitioners – like Druids! – may stand to gain from exploring both at the same time. The Tibetan Bon tradition has adopted this approach for many centuries, as Tenzin Wangal Rinpoche shows when looking as the five elements in Tibetan Shamanism, Tantra and Dzogchen (the contemplative aspect), brought together as a unified developmental system within the Bon path.
1: Roth, Harold D. (1999) Original Tao: ‘Inward Training’ and the foundations of Taoist mysticism New York, NY: Columbia University Press