My wife, Solongo, and I have been having many interesting discussions lately about the topic of spiritual legitimacy. Who is a real practitioner of a particular spiritual path and who is a poser? This is a common question among many in the Pagan community, since we deal particularly with religions of other peoples. For example, should American Indians be the only ones allowed to practice the various North American tribal religions or can whites also practice? Does a practitioner need to be a blood-member of the tribe? What percentage of blood ancestry does one have to have in the group? Who is a legitimate practitioner and who is guilty of the grave crime of cultural appropriation, as many are accused of.
The fundamentalists say that only blood members of a group or tribe can practice their ways legitimately. Only a white with sufficient Scandinavian ancestry can practice Ásatrú. Only a blood Siberian can practice shamanism. Only a black can practice Santeria. But that does not explain the frequent occurrence of “foreigners” being taught and accepted by the native communities as legitimate.
That leads us to another possibility, that in order to be a legitimate practitioner, one must be appropriately trained and certified by a living practitioner of that spiritual tradition or group. But where does that teacher’s legitimacy come from? Generally, most people say the teacher needs to be a blood member of the ethnic group that owns the tradition. This means the foreign student must physically visit and learn, for years at a time, from a willing and able teacher. Though it would be wonderful if everyone can do that, but most people cannot do this. Sometimes the teachers are half a world away and the student does not have the resources to travel and live there. That is an easier problem to solve, though, with some wealth magic.
What if the ethnic group that practices the desired spirituality is dying, as most are. Many of the old teachers are quite old and infirm, unable to spend the necessary energy teaching a new student. Many of those teachers have even forgotten much of the actual practice, since it was illegal and dangerous for many decades or longer in most parts of the world. For example, shamans in Siberia were persecuted by the Russian government since the 16th century. Most of the old shamanic traditions are dead there, except for a few remote areas like Buryatia and Tuva. In Mongolia, they were persecuted and killed for much of the 20th century. Though there are some shamans still living in those areas, they have only recently been able to start practicing openly. How much have they forgotten in the meantime? How many were lost to murder and old age? How much have their practices permanently changed during the time of persecution?
Unfortunately, state-sponsored genocide and persecution have a long history with nearly all indigenous spiritual and religious groups. The Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Statists, and others have all focused on killing off spiritual traditions that compete with their own “enlightened” ways. As a result, most pre-Christian spiritual traditions lack any unbroken blood line at all. All of the old, blood practitioners are dead, many have been dead for centuries. Does that make the spiritual tradition itself dead? What about the traditions where the people are still alive, but all have abandoned and forgotten their old ways?
If a tradition has no living blood practitioners, then is it declared dead and no legitimate practitioners can ever exist again since the cord is broken? Or can a tradition with no living blood members can be picked up by a “foreigner” and be revived as legitimate. How a foreigner can learn a dead tradition legitimately is hotly debated. The most common ways are through book study and communing with the disincarnate spirits of that tradition, but how can people evaluate that person’s training as proper and correct?
The problem with these ways of thinking is that it assumes that the living human blood relative of the spiritual tradition is the sole source of legitimacy. But where did they get their credentials? From their teacher, of course. And their teacher received it from their teacher. This is how Catholic priests receive their spiritual legitimacy, their Apostolic Succession. In Paganism, we call it our lineage. But if all of these passers of lineage are or were living humans, how did the first practitioner receive theirs? Who crowned the first king?
All traditions of lineage connect their source with deity. The beginning of the Catholic line of Apostolic Succession is Jesus Christ. Kings traced their line back to their God. The ancient Finns tied their shaman’s legitimacy through their teachers lineage back to Väinämöinen, the first, primeval Finnish shaman who received his powers from the Gods (his mother was the Primeval Maiden of Air who was impregnated by the waves of the sea). The Mongolians trace their shamanic lineage back to Eagle, who trained the first Mongolian shaman and granted his powers. Every pre-modern group has a tie in their history to the Gods or spirits as the source of their lineage and legitimacy.
Though we have been talking about legitimacy, it’s time to take a look at what it is we’re talking about. What is spiritual legitimacy? Is it simply a piece of paper granting authority, like a university diploma or an ordination certificate? What does it indicate about someone who has it that someone who is not legitimate lacks? I see legitimacy as having the power and the knowledge to work with a spiritual entity or group and have cooperation from those spiritual entities. If a shaman calls to his spirits to help someone through a problem and they do indeed assist, then that person has spiritual legitimacy. One might call it a standing blessing from the patron deity or spirits.
This blessing can be passed on from teacher to student because the student learns the ways those spirits or Gods wish to interact with people. They learn the correct offerings and words that please the spirits. They learn the correct ways to move, live, and interact with the world in accordance with those spirits’ wishes. But what if the human teacher is missing from this process?
I think the conclusions one arrives at regarding spiritual legitimacy is based very heavily on one’s faith and view of the universe. If you believe at your core, your most dearly-held beliefs that are practiced daily, that humans are the top of the hierarchy, then you will conclude that only living humans can grant legitimacy to another. This is what most people believe, the world over. It is because their true religion, their innermost beliefs that they live and breathe, regardless of the words they say, is Secular Humanism. It is a religion that took over the world over the last 500 years, promoting that God is impotent or confused, and that people, humans, can improve upon God’s shortcomings. It is what leads people to believe strongly that the government, designed and run by humans, is the best way to control all aspects of life to ensure that Bad Things don’t happen. Secular Humanists believe that when people design a system properly, perfectly, then it will give them control, safety, security and a predictably pleasant life. They believe that if something bad happens, such as the shooting of 20 young children at school in America, that it’s because humans have not implemented the correct system, or in the correct way. Make those adjustments to human government, and such things will never happen again.
It is Secular Humanists that believe that believe and push that the only proper way to gain spiritual legitimacy is through another human and the student probably requires to have the correct DNA in their blood and grow up among the group that practices the desired tradition.
As you have probably guessed, I am not a Secular Humanist. I believe that humans are not the top of the hierarchy, but instead we are in the middle. There are spirits above us, and Gods above them. Above the Gods, is the Great Mystery, of which we do not know or understand. We have limited knowledge and limited experience to understand the knowledge we do possess. As a result, any system that humans design and implement is not going to achieve its desired goals beyond a certain point. We cannot stop “gunmen,” as the media likes to call them, from killing innocents by legislating the bad thoughts and the means of defense away from people. We need to instead have faith in the Gods that They will guide events in the proper way and to the proper end, which is something we cannot possibly understand while we are still human. The best we can hope for is to have some basic level of government, such as mutual defense and protection as best we can, and put our faith in the Gods and the spirits to protect us further.
It is the Gods and the spirits who possess the power and knowledge we seek in our spiritual journey. As a result, it is the Gods and spirits who can grant True Legitimacy. A human can grant some legitimacy to another, but if the Gods and spirits don’t agree, then the human legitimacy is a worthless piece of paper or cloth. On the other hand, if a student has contact with the spirits and Gods of their desired path, then they can gain the knowledge directly. Will it be the same specific practices that human-trained members of the ethnic community use? Not exactly. The Gods and spirits know that time and space make a difference in the practices. For example, if the spirits train a student in the art of the sweat lodge, but willows don’t grow near the student, then the spirits will teach the use of a substitute acceptable to Them.
His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, has indicated that he is considering a break with tradition and he may reincarnate in a body outside of Tibet. He may even be born as a non-Asian. He has been reincarnating for centuries according to the tradition of only appearing in the body of a native-born Tibetan, but since times and situations have since changed, he has said he will change with it.
Spirits and Gods wish to have their practices and traditions live on. If they were unwilling to adapt, then their tradition would die among human practitioners. Therefore, it is definitely acceptable for someone to be taught by their spirits their practice and gain their true spiritual legitimacy from them. What other humans say about it not being acceptable is not up to them and should be ignored, as long as the spirits and Gods have granted the succession to the student. Just make sure your faith in your Gods and spirits is strong and you follow what They instruct you to do, regardless of what other humans say or think. Otherwise, if They don’t grant you legitimacy, or revoke it, then no human teacher in the world has the power to restore it.