Monday, September 7, 2015

Mystic, Shaman, Oracle, Priest (MYSHOP) - a book review

A joint review with the Chinese medicine scholar & friend Dr. Phil Garrison
about Dr. Michael Saso's newly released book 

Pecheva: Based on many years of in-depth study and profound experience of several different spiritual traditions, the new book by Professor Michael Saso, Mystic, Shaman, Oracle, Priest (MYSHOP), provides many high-level insights and discloses some rare details about the spiritual practices described therein. It is written sincerely, in a unique multi-layered style, with many interesting personal anecdotes interspersed between the various spiritual teachings.

1d. Yamada Eitai Ozasu Goma
Yamada Eitai Sama offering the Goma (Agni-hotra) fire rite
   The author takes us on a sacred journey, where we encounter practicing Daoist masters from China and Taiwan, Buddhist monks in Tibet and Japan, and an assortment of other priests, mystics, mediums and spiritual healers from around the world. Readers will experience a Piegan-Blackfoot medicine dance in Montana and sacred Cham dances in Tibet, meet a charismatic mudang shaman in Korea and danggi trance mediums in Taiwan, perform the Agni-Hotra fire rite in Japan, and survey sacred heiau sites in Hawai'i with a Kahuna.
Garrison: Professor Saso's engaging narrative style brings the reader on a cross-cultural pilgrimage. Beginning with the author's own experiences as a Jesuit novice in California, we travel with him to different parts of the world to encounter masters from different faiths and traditions.
Daoist Master Zhuang
Daoist Master Zhuang

   I was particularly captivated by the section on Daoism, since I visited Long Hu Shan several years ago while in China. Those who have read The Teachings of Daoist Master Zhuang will feel right at home, as we are once again transported to Zhuang's residence in Taiwan. In addition to containing transcriptions of the author's conversations with Zhuang, this section also chronicles Professor Saso's quest to return a number of sacred texts to their rightful monasteries. These texts were smuggled out of China and brought to Taiwan by Lin Rumei in 1868-1869. The task was appointed to Lin by the 61st Celestial Master of Long Hu Shan monastery, who had a prophetic vision that the texts would be destroyed if they remained in China. The texts eventually made their way to Master Zhuang's maternal grandfather, and they were passed down to Zhuang, whose dying request was that Professor Saso return them to their monastic homes in China. We travel with the author on his historic quest, visiting the monasteries and monks at Mao Shan, Long Hu Shan, and Wu Dang Shan.

Pecheva: To those who are interested in the Yijing (Book of Changes), MYSHOP discloses details that are seldom found elsewhere. Professor Saso provides a thorough explanation of how the principles of the Yijing are used in Daoist meditation and ritual — from the sacred Daoist dance of the eight trigrams (the “steps of Yu”), to the four coded mantic words in the Yijing (元亨利贞) and their relation to the four stages of Daoist meditation, to the eight trigrams as the eight steps of cyclical change in Nature.

Garrison: The four coded mantic words in the Yijing were fascinating to me. I was particularly intrigued by this section, because all four words occur in the first two hexagrams: Qian (pure yang) and Kun (pure yin). Moreover, the meanings of these four words closely correspond to the four seasons which, themselves, are a tangible expression of the ebb and flow of yin and yang. Although many scholars have written about the seasonal aspects of the Yijing, the explanation of the four coded mantic words is unique to MYSHOP. The fact that the first two hexagrams contain all four mantic code words is particularly significant...almost as though the hexagrams themselves are speaking to us and revealing their secrets! In Professor Saso's words: “The Yijing uses the 64 simple statements, written at the beginning of each hexagram, as a coded way to respond to external change, and keep our hearts in harmony with nature (p. 59).”

Ikkyu, the great 15th c. koan master 
Pecheva: In addition to the Daoist tradition, Michael Saso's book explores the works of Teresa de Avila, Juan de la Cruz, Ignatius of Loyola, Lao Zi, Farid ud-Din Attar, Moses de Leon, and others. With deep respect to all sacred teachings, the author points out that apophatic (no-word, no-judgement) prayer and meditation is shared by many faiths and traditions, and represents the best path to inner—and world—peace. Professor Saso defines “the basic structure of a universally valid apophatic path (p. 35),” as:

1. Cleansing all negative words and judgement
2. Filling the mind with sacred images
3. Emptying the mind of all images
4. Union with Transcendent, absolute presence

Garrison: It is also noteworthy that the author includes a few caveats for potential travelers of the apophatic path. He acknowledges the commercialization of certain spiritual practices in the West, and the rise of “meditation-for-profit” teachers. He dispels the myths surrounding popular Western ideas like “The Dao of Sex,” and reminds would-be “shamans” that shamanic initiation traditionally comes in the form of a near-death experience, or prolonged periods of intense suffering. In the world of MYSHOP, spirituality cannot be bought, or learned from a weekend course—perhaps the hardest lesson to accept in our modern society of instant gratification.  In the author's own words:
"Sometimes I think that China does much more to preserve its minority cultures and languages than does the United States. The various ethnic cultures of Yunnan, the Muosuo, Nakhi, Pumi, Aini, Miao-Hmong, Yao-Mien, and others, all maintain their own unique languages and cultures. Their languages are taught in the universities of China. In the Pacific Northwest of the United States, only the Crow and Kootenai languages seem to be intact. Medicine and so-called shaman practices have survived better in popular movies and fiction". (p. 158).
The climax of the "deer dance", celebrated at Ta-er-si monastery, Qinghai, north Tibet
  Let us hope that the experiences and wisdom of Professor Michael Saso will inspire future generations to keep these practices alive in their authentic, non-commodified, form.

Pecheva: On a deeper level, Mystic, Shaman, Oracle, Priest serves as a mantra that brings wisdom, light and blessings to its readers. The deep wisdom it contains encourages the reader to practice apophatic meditation and be at peace with oneself, humanity, and the world.  

Special thanks to Professor Michael Saso for providing the photos that appear alongside this review.

The book can be ordered directly from the author and his website:


                                                 About Guest Blogger Dr. Phil Garrison  

Dr. Phil Garrison, DAOM, earned his master's degree in Traditional Chinese Medicine from Five Branches University (Santa Cruz, CA), with a focus on the Han-dynasty medical classics. In 2014, he completed his doctoral work at the Pacific College of Oriental Medicine (San Diego, CA), where his doctoral research focused on the Huang Di Nei Jing. Dr. Garrison is a former Herbal Consultant at K’an Herb Company (Santa Cruz, CA) and a former Instructor of Chinese Herbalism at Five Branches University (Santa Cruz, CA). He currently practices Chinese herbalism in the San Diego area, is the Chief Science Officer at Immortality Alchemy, and teaches Chinese medical classics in the doctoral program at the Pacific College of Oriental Medicine. You can read Dr. Phil Garrison's blog with many unique articles and interviews at the link here:

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