Shamanism and the Three Kinds of Magic

Shamanism and the Three Kinds of Magic

a talk
(pub. 1981)


Our existence has three primary dimensions. There is the body and its whole elemental realm. There is the mind or psyche and its whole realm. And there is the Transcendental or Divine Condition of the body-mind and the unqualified Field in which it exists. These three dimensions correspond to three kinds of magic. “Earth magic” relates to the field of the body and to the body itself. “Sky magic” relates to the field of the psyche or mind. “Transcendental magic” relates to the whole matter of the realization of Truth, or submission to the Radiant Transcendental Being and the Field of infinite existence.

What we call shamanism today is basically, though not exclusively, a form of earth magic or vital magic. In general, the practice of shamanism is found in the older, vitalistic types of human culture. If we want to study shamanism today, we go to these old types of cultures. The specific practices that we call “shamanism” can be found in aboriginal or tribal groups in such areas of the world as Africa, South America and Mexico, central Asia, to some degree in India, among Native Americans here in this country, and the like.

The vitalistic magic or earth magic associated with shamanism can be practiced, as a self-contained discipline, from two points of view: either as white magic or as black magic. The latter is commonly called sorcery, which is generally considered to be a dark, evil art. White magic, in contrast, is associated with healing, having good visions, and constantly restoring the order and well-being of a tribal community.

As it appears today, shamanism tends to be not only associated with vitalistic cultures but also dissociated from some of the higher aspects of spiritual practice and realization that could still be called shamanism. Shamanism, you see, is really the oldest form of higher human culture in the world. In the most ancient days, shamanic techniques and the culture of magic that builds up around shamanism could be found all over the Earth. You could even say that all the most sophisticated religious philosophies and yogic and mystical systems that have appeared since ancient times have been developments of shamanic culture. Thus, I would say, for instance, that mystical practices of a yogic kind are actually forms of shamanism. But such matters are not studied under the heading of shamanism today. They are studied as if they were something else.

Historically, shamanism has also been associated with sky magic, the process of psychic ascent or travel into higher realms. Frequently in the traditions of shamanism you could develop two kinds of practice, the vitalism of earth magic or the higher psychic and mystical activity of sky magic. Shamanism in the form of sky magic can still be found in some tribal groups here and there around the world, but the basic form that sky magic has taken historically is in the cultures of yoga and mysticism. The mystical element of religion is actually a kind of shamanism and, for the most part, is a development of sky magic.

The third dimension to the magic of existence is transcendental magic. It is expressed historically in the schools of religion and spirituality that strive toward realization of the essential Truth or Transcendental Being, which is the Self of consciousness and the Nature or Condition of all phenomena.

STUDENT: Could you say that vital magic is associated with the descending or outward-moving forms of life-force and that sky magic is associated with the ascending, inward-moving forms?

ADI DA: Yes, you could say that. The historical development of mankind since ancient days has created a fragmentation of human consciousness, so that the practice of being human is now limited by your territory, by the culture in which you live. In the most ancient times, at least in certain areas, there were synthetic or total teachings that integrated all aspects of magic with one another. Earth magic, sky magic, and transcendental magic were all present in a unified culture, and they were understood and practiced from a unified disposition.

We can point to historical examples that fairly well reflect this kind of dynamic synthesis. Tibetan culture, for instance, exemplifies a disposition in which all three forms of magic are present. One dimension of Tibetan culture is definitely associated with vitalistic magic in both positive and negative terms. There are examples of black magic as well as white magic at the earth level, or bodily level, of Tibetan culture. Just so, there are examples of sky magic in Tibetan culture, including all of the psycho-physical yogas and tantras present in their spiritual system. Likewise, there is an orientation to transcendental magic that is present in their culture through the influence of Buddhism. A number of streams of culture have been involved in the development of the Tibetan life-way. Because of its unique position in the old world, the Tibetan culture was able to synchronize many surrounding cultural systems. The enlightened Adepts from Tibet, such as Marpa, journeyed into the regions surrounding Tibet and brought back teachings and practices which they then synthesized into Tibetan practice. Thus, Tibetan culture is a thoroughly magical culture in which earth magic, sky magic, and transcendental magic are all present.

A similar kind of synthesis has appeared from time to time in various other sects and groups in other parts of the world. In India, for instance, there are examples of synthesis similar to Tibetan culture. But in general the historical development of human culture since ancient times has been a gesture toward fragmentation, a disintegrating and spreading out from a more or less synthetic or whole point of view. In the course of that fragmentation pieces of this great synthesis were developed in and of themselves. Each such development created a limit of human possibility, and that particular limit often became the basis for the creation of a great social or cultural movement. In this historical movement away from a total and universal point of view, the various levels of magic—transcendental magic, sky magic, and earth magic—tend to develop independently of one another. Thus, we see great cultural systems that have exclusively developed one or the other of these three points of view in practice.

Whenever one of the three primary dimensions of magic is separated from the others and developed independently, certain characteristic limitations tend to develop. Earth magic, when developed independently of the other two forms of magic, has two primary liabilities. The first is that in the exclusive development of the earth-magical consciousness, a natural dissociation takes place from sky magic and transcendental magic, or from the higher purposes of psychic and mystical activity and from the transcendental spiritual point of view. Another liability of earth magic, when developed independently, is that it tends to develop in its negative rather than its positive form. In the magical cultures of the West, for instance, we see the historical development of earth magic in both positive and negative formulations.

When sky magic develops independently, as we see in many of the schools of Hinduism for instance, there are again two primary liabilities. One is that sky magic is not sufficient in itself for right understanding or realization of Truth. It simply is a development of higher psychism and, therefore, when developed in itself, it dissociates itself from transcendental wisdom. It begins to presume that psychic phenomena of a higher kind are themselves the Truth or the Highest form of realization. The other consequence of the independent development of sky magic is its dissociation from earth magic. The yogic, mystical, or sky magic cultures tend to be ascetical, otherworldly, and negative in their disposition toward the body, the world, and ordinary relationships and human functions. They often strive to abandon the vehicle and the condition or circumstance of gross existence. Such existence is presumed to be maya, “sheer illusion,” or something altogether negative. This presumption gives rise to a tendency to develop sky magic, or the ascending processes of yoga and mysticism, through strategically programmed, ascetical dissociation from gross physical life. By this same process, psychic illusions develop and the Transcendental Truth is no longer present. In its place is a substitute truth that is self-based.

The development of transcendental magic independently and for its own sake also has consequences and liabilities. We see this happening in certain schools of Buddhism and Vedanta, where a choice is made to associate with the Transcendental Truth independent of association with the psycho-physical processes related to earth magic and sky magic. As a result the practice becomes impotent; it has no vital or psychic force. The being tends to enter into a negative nirvana, the chaos of nothingness, or of consciousness independent of cognition and perception of forms. As a result an illusion about the Truth develops. In the lesser schools of Buddhism nirvana is pursued for its own sake. The realization of the “one flavor” of all existence, or the equation of nirvana and samsara, is not developed. That exclusively nirvanic orientation is associated with a regressive, dissociative disposition in which psycho-physical conditions are suppressed and turned away in the pursuit of conscious confinement to the essential Being.

Thus, when the culture of transcendental magic is pursued in and of itself, independently, it becomes impotent through dissociation from the magic of the body-mind. When sky magic is pursued independently, it dissociates itself from the Transcendental Truth, substitutes psychic states of one or another kind for that Truth, and becomes ascetical, dissociated from the realm of earth magic. When earth magic is pursued in and of itself, it dissociates itself from the Transcendental Truth as well as from the higher forms of psychic development and tends, under certain conditions, to become a form of black art or sorcery.

The point of view of the Teaching and Way of practice in our Fellowship is that of Transcendental understanding rightly conceived, and fully associated with the total spectrum of psycho-physical phenomena. Therefore, our cultural orientation and practice relate to all the features of magic that have been present in the world since ancient times. Earth magic, sky magic, and transcendental magic are all associated with our practice and our consideration. In this Way, however, all of them achieve a balanced economy relative to one another, and all of them are expressed through a dynamic practice in which all three fundamental dimensions of our existence are associated with the process of ultimate realization. Thus, in this Way the magical fullness of human existence is expressed.