A shaman leads a ceremony in Java, Indonesia
A shaman leads a ceremony in Java, Indonesia

The term "shaman" is controversial and has no single agreed-upon definition, but many academics use it to refer to spiritual practitioners in a number of different cultures who enter a trance state to communicate with spirits or heal the ill. Buddhist monks meditate and perform Buddhist rituals with the goal of becoming enlightened like the Buddha. They may perform healing or purifying rituals to show compassion or earn spiritual merit, but this is never their primary role as monks.

Separate Practices

Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka
Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka

The word "shamanism" originally referred to spiritual practices found among the Tungus peoples of Siberia, but is now used by many academics to describe similar practices found in other cultures. In some Buddhist traditions from the Theravada branch of the religion, Buddhist monks are forbidden from participating in shamanistic practices. For instance, Sri Lankan Buddhists sometimes consult professional exorcists who induce a trance state to remove harmful spirits and cure illnesses. Sri Lankan Buddhist monks are not allowed to be present for these rituals, even though both the exorcists and their patients are usually Buddhists.

Different Purposes

Tibetan monks completing a mandala
Tibetan monks completing a mandala

Unlike the Sri Lankan Theravada monks, Mahayana Buddhist monks in Tibet also perform many of the activities usually associated with shamanism, such as healing, exorcism and communication with spirits. The mutual influence of Buddhism and shamanism in Siberia and Mongolia is so pervasive that many scholars believe the word "shaman" to be a loan word from the Sanskrit "sramana," meaning a Buddhist monk. However, it is still generally the case that Buddhist monks are trying to achieve enlightenment, while most shamans are concerned with achieving practical goals for their clients, such as influencing the spirits to give rain or cleansing an area of hostile spiritual forces.

Ethical Differences

A shamanistic monument in rural Mongolia
A shamanistic monument in rural Mongolia

Shamanism and Buddhism co-exist in Siberia and Mongolia, where they have had a complicated and sometimes hostile relationship for centuries. For instance, when the Mongol ruler Altan Khan converted to Tibetan Buddhism in 1576, he banned shamanic practices in his territories. Rivalry between Buddhist monks and shamans is sometimes based on ethical differences, such as Buddhist opposition to blood sacrifice. In other cases, it is simply competition for local support and patronage. From the perspective of the shamans, animal sacrifice may be seen as necessary so that the spirits do not turn against the community.

Different Beliefs

A large gold statue of the Buddha
A large gold statue of the Buddha

Shamans usually worship the traditional deities of their own cultures, but Buddhist monks insist on the primacy of the Buddha and will accept local gods only in a lesser role. In Mongolian shamanism, gods called "ongon" are of native origin and gods called "burkhan" are of Buddhist origin. Traditionally, some shamans worked with both types of deity, while others preferred to avoid the gods of Buddhist origin. Most modern Mongolian shamans work with both, and sometimes use Buddhist mantras in their ceremonies. However, the worship of Buddhist gods or the use of Buddhist mantras does not necessarily imply that the shaman accepts the belief system of Buddhism. Similarly, a monk who performs healing or trance rituals with shamanic elements does not necessarily accept a shamanic worldview.