All over the world, especially in traditional cultures, people seek to ensure a better afterlife for others. In Catholicism before the reforms of the 1960s, people could pay the Church to get their dead relatives and friends out of Purgatory and into heaven. Although that seems strange to us today, even stranger practices not only still exist but continue to develop. One of these is a shamanistic based practice called lingji that is a New Age development folk Taoism. The word lingji itself means “diviner of spirits.” Lingji is a rapidly spreading grass-roots religious phenomenon in which practitioners cultivate increasingly intense states of ecstasy.
Healing souls is largely accomplished through trance mediumship and possession by any one of Taiwan’s goddesses. Rituals, dance, movement, and speech are never fixed but are allowed to flow as spontaneous expressions of a strong intention to help. Nevertheless, the influence of Chinese qigong practices is clear. Lingji style soul healing is open-ended, ungoverned by any specific sect, temple or institution. Hence it is elastic and can be adapted to fit other cultural traditions, as is now occurring in Singapore.
The Taiwanese practitioners focus a considerable amount of their attention or curing the souls of deceased emperors. They believe that the poor condition of imperial souls instigates national unrest, crime, and illness, and corrupts government. They also attempt to comfort lonely souls. On August 4, 2014, an annual ceremony took place to serve the “ghost” of those who have no relatives. It was held in a structure built from six-meter high bamboo poles and draped with white cloth leading into the canal.
Baskets strung in the poles carried offerings of meat, vegetables, and sweets, and are placed around the temple’s altar. The altar faces west, where the sun sets, which, as in so many cultures, signifies the region of the afterlife. Ghosts apparently move across the cloth like a bridge to reach the altar and feast on the offerings. Other spontaneous rites help the souls of living individuals.
The Taiwanese notion of the soul is far more complex than any version known in the West. Nevertheless, the methods and beliefs for rescuing souls are to some degree recognizable to mediumistic western practitioners. According to one researcher, karma plays a big role in the soul’s overall condition. I have no idea, however, how much western researchers try to grapple with what is so difficult for them to understand by fitting it into their own frameworks of Southeast Asian religions. Whatever the academic interpretations are and whatever the Taiwanese beliefs really are, the point is–focused intention does the work. The United States seems to be in its own oddly parallel grass-roots development in which mediumship is now a cottage industry. Even better, it is quickly spreading to the masses, where it truly belongs, as the Taiwanese seem to know. It is time to reopen those gates. Although many of us are dedicated to working with the dead, we still need a core people committed to rescue work.
The video below is made by one of the new researchers in the equally new field of lingji shamanism. Despite his flat presentation (he is reading a script), the content is interesting. His filming of lingji in action, which you will see after his introduction, is worth the watch.