boat logo

Village Gate

Teaching Hut

Article


The Hawaiian Kupua: a Polynesian-style shaman
by Serge Kahili King

On the islands of the South Pacific, influenced by a world of sea and sand, volcanoes and palm trees, and the spirit of aloha, there exists an ancient path of life so powerful and so practical that it works as well in modern times as it did in the misty past. This path is sometimes called the "Way of the Adventurer" and its practitioner is called, in Hawaiian, a kupua. Although Hawaiian legends do not always speak kindly of the kupua, it is the Polynesian equivalent of a special kind of healer - the shaman. Trickster, magician, psychic, traveller of the inner worlds ... the kupua is all of these, yet always a healer.

Before discussing the concepts which show similarities between Polynesian and Amerindian shamanism, it might be best to acknowledge a few of the most important differences.

For one thing, the Polynesian kupua do not use drumming as a means of entering the spirit world. There is no evidence that any Hawaiians ever used drumming for other-worldly trance purposes. Drumming is used instead to increase energy and focus in this world. Sometimes that focus is so intense that it might seem like a trance to an observer, but it is centered in the present moment, and not elsewhere. To aid entry into Po, the inner realms, the kupua uses natural sounds like waterfalls or surf, natural sights like birds in flight or clouds, or natural movements like breathing. There is some slight evidence in legend that spinning may have been used, also.

Another difference is that the Polynesians in general do not use masks or costumes as an aid to becoming one with a natural force or spirit. For this purpose imagination, gesture, and body movement alone are used.

The third most important difference is that the Polynesians have no tradition of using mind-altering drugs as aids for entering "Special States of Consciousness" (SSCs). Although some fish with hallucinogenic properties were used as medicine, the only drug used for spiritual purposes in ancient Polynesia was the sacred drink called 'awa or kava,' which turns out to be a mild narcotic that even when fermented gives one a pleasant "buzz" at the most.

To describe the kupua path it would be best to "talk story", as the Hawaiians say, in order to present the principles that form the basis for its practice. What follows is a correlation between ancient and modern uses of the kupua system, which is still very much alive.

In the early eleventh century a middle-aged man wearing a pure white robe made from the pounded bark of a tree squats down on an outcropping of lava rock, facing the ocean. From out of a woven raffia pouch he takes a worn stone carved to vaguely resemble a fish and sets it down on the black lava. In a trilling, chanting voice he speaks to the stone, moving it in various directions in response to some internal impulse that only he is aware of. Finally. he stops chanting , relaxes and smiles down at the piece of stone which now has its head toward the mountains behind him. Then he stands up and shouts to the fishermen who have been waiting. "Get the nets ready. The fish will be here in abundance when the sun reaches kahiki-ku, in the late afternoon."

In the early twenty-first century a young island woman in a well-tailored business suit is on her way to an important meeting. Strapped comfortably in the window seat of the 777 jet, she leafs through the airline magazine to pass the time. Suddenly she puts the magazine down, aware of an event forming in her environment. Moments later the plane shakes as it enters rough air, the warning lights for seat belts go on, and the captain's voice announces that everyone should stay seated because there will be considerable turbulence ahead. The woman calmly takes a deep breath and extends her spirit beyond the confines of the airplane. There she blends her energies with those of the wind, talks to it soothingly and smoothes it out with her mind. Less than two minutes later all the turbulence is gone so she comes back to her body and returns to her magazine.

These two people, separated by a thousand years and incredibly different cultures, have something in common. They are both kupua. Both are trained in and are following the Way of the Adventurer, the shamanic tradition of the South Pacific.

They have learned to integrate into their lives the seven basic principles of the Polynesian shaman, the kupua.

They have learned that the world quite naturally responds to their thoughts. It is, in effect, an exact reflection of what they think it is, no more and no less than a dream. As kupua, they know that this dream we call physical reality is generated from beliefs, expectations, intentions, fears, emotions and desires. The kupua simply learns to shift "mindsets" at will in order to produce specific effects under various circumstances.

They have also demonstrated the second kupua principle in the above examples, that there really are no limits, no actual separations between beings. So the man was able to communicate with the stone, and through the stone with the fish out in the ocean. And the woman could leave her body in the seat to become one with the wind, and go back again without the slightest difficulty. Believing there are no limits is a way of granting oneself tremendous freedom, but its corollary is total responsibility for one's actions and reactions.

The third principle they used is that energy flows where attention goes, a poetic way of saying that the concentration of attention on anything produces a concentration of energy connected with the object of focus, whether physical or not. And the energy thus concentrated will have a creative effect according to the nature of the thoughts that accompany the attention. The man focused on the fish with the intent to influence their direction for the good of the community, and the woman focused on the wind with the intent to eliminate the turbulence for her comfort and that of her fellow passengers.

Both of these kupua operated with a fourth principle, knowing that their power exists only in the present moment. However, they also know that this present moment is as large as their present focus of awareness. Their sense of time, then, is quite different from that of the typical modern individual. They know that they cannot act in the past or the future and so they do not waste time on past regrets and future worries. At the same time they know that from this present moment they can change both past and future.

One of the most far-reaching and profound discoveries of the ancient kahuna kupua - master shamans - is that love works better than anything else as a tool for effective action. For the kupua, love, or aloha, is a spiritual power that increases as judgement and criticism decrease. A truly loving intent is the most powerful spiritual force the world can know. The kupua expresses aloha as blessing, praise, appreciation and gratitude. Separation diminishes power, and love diminishes separation, thereby increasing power. The man in the robe connects with the fish through love, as does the woman in the suit with the wind.

Neither the man nor the woman called upon any force outside of themselves to help them in their endeavors. They know the sixth kupua principle, that all power actually comes from within. It doesn't come from their personality or from their individuality as apart from anything else, but from the source of their own being. Since this source is within as much as without and there is never any separation from it, the two people have only to look within for it.

Being eminently practical, the kahuna kupua of old Hawaii developed the principle that effectiveness is the only valid measure of truth. Absolute truth carried to its logical extreme comes out translated as "Everything is." Since this is hardly helpful at the human level, the kupua measure truth by the question, "Does it work?" If it does, then for all practical purposes, in that moment, it is true. The kupua therefore feels free to change mindsets and shift belief systems in order to achieve the best effects in a given situation. Was it true that the man in the robe really spoke with the stone and that it answered back? Yes, because the fish came. Was it true that the woman in the suit really blended with the wind and smoothed it out with her mind? Yes, because the turbulence stopped. Cause and effect are not the same for the kupua as they are for the ordinary person in modern society.

Thus, the kupua learns quickly and effectively to view ordinary reality in non-ordinary ways, to recognize non-ordinary events in ordinary circumstances, and to create new circumstances. Life then becomes a marvelous adventure every day.

palm isle
[Top of page]

Copyright 2005 Aloha International
Contact us