Nirala Interviews : In Conversation with Larry Peters

Larry Peters photo

Dr. Larry Peters is a world-renowned scholar and initiated shaman in the Tamang tradition. He was recipient of the Regent’s Fellowship at the University of California Los Angeles, and an NIMH post-doctoral fellow at UCLA’s Neuropsychiatric Institute. Dr. Peters holds advanced degrees in both Anthropology and Psychology. He has conducted ethnographic fieldwork in Nepal, China, Mongolia, and Siberia and is a Nepal Research Associate of the Foundation for Shamanic Studies. Dr. Peters has published extensively on shamanism, conducts workshops on Tamang and Tibetan Shamanism in the United States, Europe, and Asia, and leads experiential Initiation Journeys to Nepal. In 1999, his highly acclaimed book, Tamang Shamans: An Ethnopsychiatric Study of Ecstasy and Healing in Nepal appeared in the Nirala Series. His second book, Trance, Initiation and Psychotherapy in Nepalese Shamanism: Essays on Tamang and Tibetan Shamanism was published in 2004 in the same series. His pioneering research, Yeti: Spirit of Himalayan Forest Shaman came a year after. Dr. Peters is a retired professor of Anthropology and Psychology at the California Graduate Institute in Los Angeles, California. Dr. Peters is a licensed psychotherapist in the State of California, the author of five books and many dozen articles, including Ode to Dreams, a poetry compilation.

In response to the questions about his work in the Himalayas where he met his first shaman Guru, Birendra and later his current Guru Ama Bombo, Dr. Peters sent us an intriguing account of his ethnographic work with Nepalese shamans.


Over the decades Peters has brought hundreds of scholars and those seeking shamanic initiation to work with Nepalese shamans like Aama Bombo of Boudha and led an eventful life as ‘Sahib Jhankari’ ( Gentleman Shaman) as he’s known in the Himalayas today.

Here are excerpts of his response to us.

lpdrum

Most significant experiences in my life occurred in altered states of consciousness. When I was 24 years old, I developed a meditation practice focused on some very vivid dream experiences. Over the years (I am now 71), I studied various methods of interpreting their meanings. I studied psychology and underwent both Freudian and Jungian psychoanalysis. Currently I am a licensed psychotherapist, hold a PhD in anthropology, and conducted post-doctoral work in psychiatry. I learned most of my dreams were mirrors of my own psyche telling me symbolically who I was and was becoming. A few, however, were windows giving me an anomalous foreknowledge into important life events. Psychological analysis provided few answers because it reduced dream experiences to one or another system. Systems that were often at odds with one another, and that did not speak to the heart. As I said, I had a few prophetic insights from dreams that could not be rationally explained. The overwhelming majority of my dreams and visions, however, revealed little knowledge of the future. What was missing in all my early research was relationship to the various images. That is, the dream images were not just lifeless symbols of psychological processes, be they “complexes” or “archetypes,” but beings with their own ontologies. In other words, spirits! This is shamanism. Nothing else qualifies. Such is the essence of Nepalese shamanism and my understanding of shamanism world-wide. I discovered this in Nepal during my apprenticeship with Bhirendra in 1975-76 and later with Aama Bombo beginning in 1993 after Bhirendra had passed.

The early 1970’s were a very unorthodox period to be studying anthropology at UCLA. Carlos Castaneda was a student and part-time lecturer. Carlos had apprenticed himself to Don Juan, a Yaqui Indian shaman living in Mexico. Carlos experienced unusual consciousness states, learned much about healing, and about the nature of another reality well beyond the common worldview held in the West. Carlos’ books became very popular and initiated a type of anthropological research called “experiential anthropology.” This was my research design and I received a grant in order to conduct it. I wanted to experience shamanism; that is to say, the “shamanic state of consciousness;” and then return to academia and attempt to explain that experience in psychological and anthropological terms. In this way, the terrain to be explored anthropologically was of an “inner landscape” of images as I experienced them under the initiatory tutelage of Bhirendra.

The chairman of my dissertation committee was Professor Jacques Maquet, who had done a similar study of Vipasana in Burma and Sri Lanka. Many of my fellow students were deployed to other corners of the world. We thought of ourselves as “gnostic intermediaries” attempting to bridge the gap between modern psychology and different spiritualities, their methods of induction, and of altered states of consciousness within the religious and cultural context.

As mentioned above, I had a meditative practice for years and had studied psychology and had personal analysis. I also had taken workshops and made pilgrimages to ashrams and monasteries, and learned from Buddhist lama and Hindu sages. I therefore felt that I had prepared myself academically, psychologically, and spiritually to move to Nepal for a year to study the shamanic state of consciousness. What I discovered was that I had very limited talent to be a healer. My jochana (divinations) were not windows into another reality but more like mirrors into my own heart and psyche. I had other problems too. My language skills in Nepali are weak. I could drum for hours but I never learned to shake. Consequently, I never became possessed. However, I had visions. Bhirendra called many of them “crazy visions.” But I was persistent, and soon I learned to develop relations and interact with the dreamscape images, that is to say the spirits. Bhirendra thought some images I described to him shared identity with some spirits of Nepal, and these spirits became my guides and inner teachers. Through a translator, I described my visions to Bhirendra and, in this manner, he taught me about Tamang shamanism. I learned about the shamans’ deities and who their “chief gurus” were, and Bhirendra’s, and later Aama’s, and I would then visit the deities’ shrines, and I would receive initiations, power transmissions, and blessings for continuing my work. Many full moon days, I pilgrimaged to the sacred shrines and danced in costume with Bhirendra, also with Aama, and other shamans and students. I have gone on tirta nach, a pilgrimage dance, to Kumbeswaar, Kalinchok, Richeswaar, etc. etc. I also experienced one three-day and two five-day gufa (cave) ceremonies with Aama that are described in my book, Trance, Initiation and Psychotherapy in Nepalese Shamanism. In this way, Bhirendra and Aama’s brand of Tamang shamanism became my spiritual discipline and, in time, I came to develop a relationship in dreams and visions to a small yeti who became my spirit guide, chief spirit guru, and teacher, about death and destruction, love and mercy, generosity and kindness.

I met Bhirendra in Boudhanath, which was much less populated in 1975 than it is today. I did a census and there were only about 1200 people residing in Boudha and the neighboring village of Tin Chuli. Often, at night, I would hear the drums of ritual and I would follow them. More often than not, I met shamans doing healing puja at their clients’ homes. There were at least 14 folks who identified themselves as being a shaman. Bhirendra was one of them. I immediately noticed that he delivered a fuller rendition of the healing puja than the others had performed, and he seemed to be more proficient at telling the mythologies and sacred shamanic stories. Bhirendra was a ban jhankri, an initiate of a smaller-than-human yeti-like creature.

Indeed, early on, some identified me as a sahib jhankri (gentleman shaman). This was a complimentary but not an accurate epithet. I was merely an experiential researcher into shamanic techniques of altered consciousness, not a healer like Aama and Bhirendra, and the other shamans and shaman disciples in Boudhanath. In other words, becoming a sahib jkankri was not my intention. I am an anthropologist as well as a psychotherapist, but my orientation has always been experiential research focused on altered states of consciousness: dreams, trance, visions, channeling, contemplation, etc. Shamanism is a gateway, as are other spiritual disciplines, albeit shamanism is the earliest spiritual practice of humankind. Shamanic trance also has elements in common with various active imagination and “daydream” techniques of psychotherapy, but only in shamanism is relationship to spirit developed.

The skilled and dedicated Nepalese shaman also believes in modern medicine, and can recognize the difference between those illnesses that are medical and those caused by lagu or bad spirits. Both Aama and Bhirendra referred their acutely ill patients to the appropriate doctors. Indeed, both availed themselves personally of Western medicine when ill. I know that Aama has a very good relationship with a few of the doctors at the Teaching Hospital in Kathmandu.

Thus there isn’t any antipathy towards modern medicine on the part of the shamans. In fact, in my research in the 1970’s, I gave due attention to Nepalese shamans as knowledgeable about the ills of their community, noting they could be utilized, after some training, to be “barefoot doctors” when medical facilities are not available in remote locations.

Shamanism is at least a 40,000-year old survival strategy that still exists. In the west, it is not yet integrated into the medical model as are some other transpersonal practices that fulfill spiritual needs, like meditation. The ecstatic states of shamanism are at least as valuable. There are currently numerous shamanic schools, teachers, and healers from various cultural backgrounds working in the West. Consequently, we in the West now face a similar problem to what has already occurred in Nepal. How does one tell the charlatans who say they are shamans in order to line their own pockets from those with real concern for their clients’ welfare? When conducting research in Nepal. I met a few claiming to be shamans that I thought were fake. But how does one prove such a thing? Actually to accuse one of being a fraud, and exploiting others, is tantamount to accusing someone of being a bokshi (a sorcerer), something neither Bhirendra nor Aama ever did. Manipulation and exploitation are not the work of a true shaman. Indeed, charlatanism is a problem, but not only in shamanism. In my experience, it is a fact of life. Jiwan yastai chha.

A shaman is not a priest for any religion. A shaman is like a doctor, and people who are ill, and therefore vulnerable to manipulation, are the clientele of both. However, there are no official degrees or licenses, or legal and ethical review boards in shamanism. To be considered a shaman is only a matter of what a person claims to be true and his or her reputation for results.

It is possible to make a conscious decision to become a medical doctor or a psychologist, work hard and become successful. However, traditionally this is not how one becomes a shaman. To be a shaman, one must have a “calling.” The calling is an involuntary experience in which one is chosen by the spirits. Eliade, the University of Chicago, Historian of Religion, called shamanism an “involuntary vocation.” Spirit comes to the person on its own. It is not desired, but comes nonetheless. In some cultures, the future shaman becomes ill, almost dies, and has visions. Others believe him to be crazy. He has vivid hallucinations, sometimes nightmares. He may speak in an unknown language, or even run away, or be kidnapped by the spirits and then taken to the edge of civilization, perhaps into a jungle or forest, or to a mountain, or cave, or some other uninhabited area. Sometimes the candidate is forced to fast and goes without food or even drink for days on end. And, when he returns, if he has been able to escape death and return to his community (not all do!), the unwitting candidate may speak of having been taught by the spirits to do something new, to become someone new, to have nearly died or to have had a “near-death experience,” and yet to be reborn to a new way of being in the world with a new purpose in life. This is not the type of job one can refuse. If he tries, the candidate might become crazy, lost in madness, or perhaps fall ill and die. “No” is not an option when the shaman is “called.”

You may recognize the outline of the ban jhankri and I believe of the yeti as well, especially the small yeti who is called ban jhankri in the Nepalese mythological literature. In other words, the identity of the two is not my idea but is found in the literature of Nepal, researched by Nepalese scholars, all of whom are cited in my book. I must admit to having a special relationship to the ban jhankri.

For sure, some of the interest in shamanism in the West was a part of the New Age interest in many types of spiritual practices – some traditional and others innovative. However, shamanism is part of traditional practices on every continent. It is universal and has many elements in common with contemporary psychotherapy: faith, suggestion, corrective emotional experience, and group support, to mention a few. However, what is distinct in shamanism is the element of spirit relationship. That is, humans possess a psychological constitution that makes it possible to perceive a non-ordinary reality filled with spirit beings with their own ontology. Meeting with them and integrating them into one’s life is healing for psyche and soma. For me, the shamanic techniques of ecstasy permitted a dream-like journey into another reality to meet spirits that have guided my life for the better. That is, when I am wise enough to obey.

Thus I see shamanism as an adjunct to modern psychotherapy, but also think that it is a spiritual discipline. That is to say, shamanism utilizes archaic trance techniques and methods that can open new worlds. Fortunately, it is possible to learn these techniques as techniques and not as part of a religious dogma in the West. My Western teacher for the past 25 years is the anthropologist Michael Harner, Founder of the Foundation of Shamanic Studies, who has made these once forgotten methods accessible which has thus opened up another reality full of healing, compassion and wisdom that is sorely needed in the modern world.