Friday, July 23, 2010

Wrapping Up this Round of the Eternal "Validating Initiations" Discussion

Several people have raised interesting points concerning this discussion.  In a comment on the second post  Gypsy Lantern said:
I don't think it's necessarily as black and white as that. I get along quite happily in my relationships with the Lwa without having received initiation. I came to it as a sorcerer, and I am very much a sorcerer, but I also embrace the religion and that is the foundation of everything else that I do.
In my experience, most of the people who work with the lwa do not need an initiation into Vodou. Unless they are called to work as clergy (and Gypsy Lantern states that she has not to date received that call), there is no reason for them to make Kanzo. There is no shame in honoring the spirits and receiving their blessings for your efforts: there is no reason to take on responsibilities you do not want and for which you are not prepared. 

Nutty Professor responded with:
Gypsy, since many, if not most Haitians (in Haiti) serve lwa without priestly initiations, I don't see that this is a problem, unless I am not understanding you correctly. What is not clear to me is why there is so much anxiety in America around these questions: now that is an article Kenaz should explore!
That one is easy to answer. In America we worry so much about these issues because we have to. We (meaning the non-Haitian readers of this blog) come to these traditions as outsiders. We have no way of knowing whether we are receiving a "valid initiation" or getting the Tourist Special. Since we are not (at least initially) a part of the community, we have no way of knowing our initiatior's standing within said community. 

The obvious answer to this is: become a part of Vodou laity before signing up to become clergy. Get to know your prospective initiators: attend ceremonies at their house and at other houses. See if you wish to follow this path and if you want these people to guide you to Gineh. This takes more work than sending in a Paypal payment and purchasing an airline ticket, but it is necessary if you actually wish to work as a member of the community rather than as a title collector.  ("Last year I became a Peruvian medicine man, this year I'm becoming an Houngan Asogwe in Haiti and next year I'm going to Siberia to become a Tungus shaman! Or am I going to Mongolia this year and Cuba the next: let me check my calendar when I get home...").

Commenting on the third post, Brother Christopher asked:
On the other hand, this whole discussion on validating initiations, As I have been reading I wonder to myself, what purpose does this argument serve?
I think it can serve several purposes. It brings up issues of cultural appropriation: when we become clergy of a living tradition, what responsibilities do we incur to its indigenous practitioners? It brings up issues of truth in advertising. It would be easy to write off everyone who ever exaggerated their initiatory status, but some have produced otherwise worthwhile material: Carlos Castenada and G.I. Gurdjieff come to mind immediately. And it reminds us that Scott Adams was onto something when he said "On the Internet, no one knows you are a dog." A fancy website says nothing about one's initiatory status - and initiatory status says nothing about one's morality and trustworthiness. Some of the most brutal members of the Tonton Macoutes were validly initiated Houngans and Mambos. All these things are worth considering.

And speaking of Gurdjieff, on Visionary Shamanism Stephen Kennedy offered this quote from the master of awakening and mustache wax:
Initiation is customarily regarded as some act whereby one man "The Knower" transfers to another man "The non-knower" knowledge and powers hitherto not peculiar to him and without any trouble on his part; assigning it as thing which becomes his inalienable possession. But from all that has been said by me today, you will already be able to understand, that there is no such transfer and cannot be. There is only self-initiation, which is got by constant and stubborn work, by constant efforts. No one conceals the knowledge of truth. It simply cannot be transferred, just as the finest mathematical ideas cannot be transferred to a man unacquainted with mathematics.
Gurdjieff has a point: an initiation ceremony is useless to one who is not ready to receive it. According to one hadith, Muhammed (PBUH) said "Many people who fast get nothing from their fast except hunger and thirst, and many people who pray at night get nothing from it except wakefulness." A proper initiation works on both the interior and exterior individual. It marks one's status in a community and provides an office, but it also leaves a mark upon the individual's personality and alters hir way of looking at the world.  Unless the acolyte puts in the work toward those changes, they simply won't happen.

That being said, Gurdjieff was well aware of the importance of a teacher and a lineage. Consider this Gurdjieff quote, taken down by P.D. Ouspensky on pp. 142-3 of  In Search of the Miraculous.
How many times have I been asked here whether wars can be stopped? Certainly they can. For this it is only necessary that people should awaken. It seems a small thing. It is, however, the most difficult thing there can be because this sleep is induced and maintained by the whole of surrounding life, by all surrounding conditions.
"How can one awaken? How can one escape this sleep? These questions are the most important, the most vital that can ever confront a man. But before this it is necessary to be convinced of the very fact of sleep. But it is possible to be convinced of this only by trying to awaken. When a man understands that he does not remember himself and that to remember himself means to awaken to some extent, and when at the same time he sees by experience how difficult it is to remember himself, he will understand that he cannot awaken simply by having the desire to do so. It can be said still more precisely that a man cannot awaken by himself. But if, let us say, twenty people make an agreement that whoever of them awakens first shall wake the rest, they already have some chance. Even this, however, is insufficient because all the twenty can go to sleep at the same time and dream that they are waking up. Therefore more still is necessary. They must be looked after by a man who is not asleep or who does not fall asleep as easily as they do, or who goes to sleep consciously when this is possible, when it will do no harm either to himself or to others. They must find such a man and hire him to wake them and not allow them to fall asleep again. Without this it is impossible to awaken. This is what must be understood.