Marginal Powers and Messages from the Divine

Stephanie Guyer-Stevens ’86 documents the unique power of female shamans in Bhutan.

Randall Barton | September 2, 2022

For nearly two decades, Stephanie Guyer-Stevens ’86 has been telling the stories of women who find their power on the margins of society. In 2003, she began producing a series of radio documentaries called Outer Voices, profiling women leaders from remote parts of the world who innovate unique solutions to community problems. Near the end of 2010, she traveled to Bhutan scouting for stories and met Françoise Pommaret, who was doing anthropological work and had written her PhD dissertation on a particular kind of female spiritual leader in western Bhutan known as a delog. She suggested these women—who served their communities in a very unique way—might be a subject for Stephanie to pursue because the culture of delog seemed to be dying out.

Bounded on three sides by the Himalayas, the small country of Bhutan—like much of the region—is a place where people can pursue their religious practice in solitude. Vajrayana Buddhism, practiced by more than three quarters of the population of Bhutan, is said to have been brought to the country in the eighth century by Padmasambhava (Guru Rinpoche). The religion spread without annihilating the native animism, in which deities or spirits were believed to inhabit everything from rocks and mountain crags to local streams. It was understood that the myriad local deities recognized the preeminence of Buddhism and were in service to its tenets.

Operating outside the traditional, male-dominated power structures of Buddhism, female divine messengers or delog act as intermediaries between the spirit and temporal worlds. The delog is a woman who dies, visits the hell realm, and returns to life bringing back messages from Yama, the Lord of the Dead. She is able to die many times in her lifetime, each time bringing back new information, messages, and instructions, including advice for living ethically and means to help dead relatives and loved ones gain release from the realm of hells. Stephanie and Françoise teamed up to write a book about these women called Divine Messengers (Shambhala Publications, 2021).

■ ■ ■

It was at Reed that Stephanie got a taste for research and writing. Although she is well traveled now, when she set off from Massachusetts for Reed, she had never been west of New York State. At the time, she says, the college was made up of “a lot of free thinkers who were not necessarily fitting into the box, and that was me. Reed was very liberal socially, very stringent academically, and that was a good combination for me.” Her plan was to major in anthropology, but she was disappointed with her first anthro class and then didn’t find what she was looking for in philosophy, her second choice. She ended up majoring in religion. It seemed to serve as a kind of crossroads between anthropology and philosophy, presenting the things she wanted to think about in the way she wanted to think about them. She wrote her thesis, “All My Relations: Theology of a Natural Order in the Work of Mary Daly and Alfred North Whitehead,” advised by Prof. John Kenney [religion 1980–95]. “By writing my thesis,” she says, “I learned I could write something that was long, not as long as this book, but it was like, ‘I can do that.’ The whole process of how to research I credit to Reed, totally 100%.”

After college, she got a job with a magazine in New York City and then became involved in the nonprofit world, continuing to do journalism on the side. She helped establish and became executive director of an organization that focused on self-help care for women and children. As a result, she was invited to a conference of women leaders from around the world, which set her trajectory.

She was living in Hawaii after having her first child, working on an organic farm she owned with her husband, when a friend who worked for NPR came for a visit. Stephanie shared her idea that stories about these women leaders would make a great book. “I don’t know anything about writing books,” her friend said, “but I think it would make great radio.”

Stephanie put together a team and in 2003 began creating stories for radio under the umbrella Outer Voices. “I’m a documentary maker,” she says, “For me, it’s always been a crossover between community activism and journalism. I’ve always looked at how we can use the media to make change.”

After agreeing to partner on a book, Stephanie and Françoise hired a guide and translator to help them connect with divine messengers. Summarizing the mission, Stephanie says, “Our job was to hear them out; to hear about their lives and understand what their world was; see what their roles were in the community; and to see how that was playing out for them. It was very similar to the kind of work I’d been doing previous to that.”

■ ■ ■

Some of the women who devote their lives to bringing divine messages to their local communities do not consider themselves delog. The distinction, Stephanie explains, is that a delog commonly has a shamanic experience.

This means that they have some experience where they die to this life and then return to life having learned something, seen something, experienced something that completely transforms them. Their experience is that they die and they travel through the Tibetan hells, of which there are 18, guided by the Lord of the Dead, who shows them all of the terrible things that befall people in hells and also points out individuals who are suffering—some of whom the delog knows or are relatives of people in her community. When she returns, the delog does two things: she teaches about Buddhism and also provides a side door out for the people who are in the hells. She will tell relatives what they can do on behalf of the people in their lives who are stuck in the hells.

The nonlinear world inhabited by these divine messengers may be difficult for Westerners to understand. Stephanie postulates that it is also likely that as people leave Bhutan’s agrarian society to go to school, they may not retain the capacity to embrace and accept such experiences. In any case, she adds, “the actual delog experience is diminishing, but in its place, another version is starting to crop up in spades.”

Does the delog actually die, or is this experience metaphorical? “What I’ve learned from Françoise is that it is up to them to decipher that,” Stephanie answers. “They say they die. We take them at their word. Are they really dying? Let someone else figure that out. It’s not our job to figure that out.”

Contrasting the delog with an American New Age channeler or psychic, Stephanie says, “The delog is engaging with the Lord of the Dead and all of his minions. Divine messengers have a full interaction with deities and with the Buddhist realm of experience and explanation about life. It’s different from oracles, who transmit information by way of divine processes, but basically are transmitters.

Stephanie says, “in Bhutan, and other places I’ve been, people are really comfortable moving into various rooms of their reality. There’s no limitation or special notation when you’re inhabiting what we would see as a myth world. The place we inhabit is strictly Cartesian—rug, floor, bed, chair. There’s no break really. That is what I was trying to remark on. The limitation we have is so great by not having that.”

Stephanie and Françoise witnessed a medium going into a trance state who was speaking in different voices and in obvious physical discomfort. “We could tell this was hard on her. For the shamans I’ve met, this isn’t something where they go, ‘Yay, I get to be a shaman now.’ It’s more like, ‘This sucks. I go through a huge amount of physical pain. I don’t have any real control over this process. It’s just something I have more control over now that I understand what it is and can name it.’ It’s often accompanied by a lot of mental anguish.”

The myriad deities that the divine messengers work with tend to be specific to a geographical area. Stephanie describes them as lower deities in the hierarchy of the divine. “It’s like community organizing versus national politics because they’re dialing into a local area and can be accessed for the specific needs of that area.”

The stories the divine messengers tell are frequently connected to the local, natural surroundings, which gives the stories resonance and helps people relate to them. In Tantric Buddhism, it is understood that absolutely everything is interconnected.

“In quantum physics, we know that to be true,” Stephanie says. “Move your finger through space and that pushes atoms in the air; everything is interconnected. The Buddhist philosophy—which I would say more than their religion—is based on this premise that everything you do has a relationship.

“You can express that strictly in the tactile sense. But you can express it as, ‘If I am a being, so is a rock. It’s just that its molecules move more slowly.’ How you relate to a rock in such a way as to respect the interdependence can turn into ‘I honor that rock. I honor what that rock does. I honor the fact that that rock doesn’t move. I honor the fact that in its immobility that rock is kind of a protector.’”

Considering that Divine Messengers is a niche book, it’s been well received. “There are some larger themes that speak to a lot of people,” Stephanie says. A friend who was raised in a very Irish Catholic family gave the book to her 88-year-old mother.

“She was raised a true-blue Irish Catholic,” Stephanie says, “and over time was betrayed one step at a time by the church until she found herself a complete outlier and realized that the church didn’t speak at all to a woman’s experience. She felt that this experience of the delog was a parallel one and was glad that these women were in this position; that they were able to speak about what it is to be a spiritual person but have to play that spirituality out only in the margins. I think that’s a universal theme.”