ST Sep 10, 2009
Need for more education and understanding of Taoism
I REFER to Tuesday's report, 'Teen medium 'made suicide pact with six friends' '. It grieves me, as a fellow Singaporean and a Taoist, that two young people lost their lives in such a manner.
Mediums, or tangki as they are known in Taoism, have existed in Chinese history for the past few thousand years. Mediumism is a form of Taoist 'art'. Many are fascinated by its mysterious facade but, at the same time, such reports never fail to add to its negative image in modern society.
The deaths of the two teenagers heighten an urgent need for more education in Taoism, as well as the need for Taoist practitioners, followers and devotees to further understand the religion itself.
Tay Hung Yong
Mediumship is a common aspect of Taoism. Every year, in modern Singapore, there are public events where you can see Taoist mediums at work. Some of these events attract large crowds (hundreds of people). This link provides extensive information about tang ki practices in Singapore.
Also, on the same topic, here is a book in English - Ritual is Theatre, Theatre is Ritual: Tang-ki: Spirit Medium Worship. The book is not of a sensationalist nature, but is a genuine attempt to document the local tang ki culture (including the weird stuff). In fact, the author Margaret Chan based the book on her PhD dissertation at the University of London.
One caveat here. I believe that even if any particular type of paranormal activity (not just mediumship) is genuine, in practice there may be many instances where it's just a charlatan at work, or where the persons involved are just mistaken or mentally ill. So it is best to remain critical.
I also believe that in general, any genuine paranormal phenomenon should transcend cultural borders. The phenomenon would not be limited to, say, a specific ethnic group living in a particular part of the world, and having a particular set of cultural practices and beliefs. For example, in my preceding post, I had discussed near-death experiences. If NDEs were reported only by, say, villagers from Papua New Guinea who practise animist religion, then that is a reason to doubt the authenticity of NDEs. On the other hand, if NDEs are a worldwide phenomenon, and if they are reported by people of different ages, races and religions (and also by atheists), then this suggests that NDEs, whatever they are, are not merely the result of social/cultural conditioning.
(In case any of you are wondering, yes, NDEs are indeed reported globally by people of different ages, races and religions. And yes, staunch atheists have had NDEs too).
Back to mediumship. Does it transcend cultural borders? Well, mediumship in Taoism comes with definite cultural trappings (eg specific rites, mantras, costumes etc). The following short documentary film - here - shows actual footage of tang ki's at work, in Singapore, and you can clearly see the influence of Chinese culture here.
However, mediumship does definitely transcend cultural borders. In some other parts of the world, it is more commonly known as channelling. I have come across modern-day (actual or alleged) examples of mediumship/channelling in countries as diverse as Kenya, Brazil, Taiwan and the United States.
Some channels and mediums are quite public personalities - they write books, participate in conferences and regularly allow themselves to be filmed. In one instance that I'm aware of, the channel (Joao de Deus, nicknamed John of God) allowed scientists from Harvard to measure his brainwave frequencies while he was channelling his "angels". The results shocked the scientists, because his brainwave frequencies were completely normal before and after he commenced channelling, but were accelerated to highly abnormal levels while he was actually channelling.
The channelling phenomenon is sometimes just that - a purported spirit comes through, and begins to speak and answer questions, through the medium's body, often in an altered voice, and often delivering information which the medium himself seems unlikely to have had any way of knowing. However, quite regularly, a variety of other paranormal phenomena may occur at the same time. For example, in Taoist mediumship, the medium may allow himself to be hit or beaten with instruments such as a metal rod or even knives, and yet he will apparently suffer no pain and his body will show no signs of injury.
You may recall that recently, the Singapore courts had to deal with the bizarre case of Amutha Valli and the pastor at Novena church. Amutha, an Indian woman now in her 50s, had apparently been able, since the age of 12, to regularly go into trances and channel some kind of "snake spirit". She would then hiss and slither like a snake. In the late 1980s, the entire team of psychiatrists at the National University Hospital had already seen her.
The court case, spanning two years, involved Amutha suing the pastor at Novena Church, for some trauma she had allegedly suffered, while he was performing an exorcism on her. It was a long, complicated case which received a lot of media publicity. In the end, Amutha lost, on the ground that she could not prove that the pastor had actually caused any damage or harm to her.
I also see the "speaking in tongues" phenomenon in Christianity as another example of channelling/mediumship. This phenomenon continues to exist today and is ancient - the Bible itself describes it. Of course, the Holy Spirit is the entity being channelled there. Channelling (or mediumship) continues to be regularly practised in Christianity today, in an entire branch of Christianity known as the Spiritualist Church.
I don't know what other mediums and channels may be channelling. From the different accounts, it seems that a wide range of different entities come through. Some could be powerful and benevolent, some could be stupid but harmless, some could be ... dangerous and evil.
Many entities which do come through (assuming that that's what really happening) seem willing to state their names, introduce themselves and explain their own background. Some are happy to do extensive Q&A sessions too (including the local tang ki's and their spirits). In the US, Lee Carroll channels an entity which calls itself Kryon. Kryon was invited to give a speech, and did indeed give a speech, to a United Nations delegation in New York City in March 2006.
For my next post, I may briefly discuss what happens if the mediumship process becomes involuntary, and the spirit will not leave the medium's body. If I do discuss that, I will refer to a certain recent book written by a psychiatrist. In this book, the psychiatrist explains the difference between mental illness and demonic possession, and extensively describes two cases of demonic posession which he personally witnessed, studied and filmed.
Before anyone starts scoffing, I should say that this particular psychiatrist's qualifications include a B.A. degree magna cum laude from Harvard College; and an M.D. degree from the Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine. He was also formerly the Assistant Chief of Psychiatry and Neurology Consultant to the Surgeon General of the US Army, and had attained the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel, before resigning to pursue a career in private practice.
My main point here is that the man's personal credentials are very solid. This doesn't mean that we should necessarily believe everything he says. But it does mean that it could be imprudent to immediately dismiss him as an outright quack.