Ancient Tibetan Bonpo Shamanism

by John Myrdhin Reynolds

The roots of Tibetan culture lie deep in the archaic soil of Northern and Central Asian shamanism. This is also true today when most Tibetans are practicing Buddhists-- their Buddhism being a religious culture deriving from ancient and medieval India. In Tibet, however, this Indian Buddhism has been amalgamated with the ancient indigenous shamanism and pagan animism of that country, thus giving Tibetan Buddhism its unique and especially colorful character. The principal function of the shaman is the healing of the illnesses that afflict the members of his or her tribe, and so one can rightly say that ancient Tibetan religious culture centered around the practices of healing. The therapeutic expert or professional in this regard was the Bonpo shaman-healer who treated and cured not only the diseases of the physical body, but more especially the illnesses of the soul, in order to bring the psyche of the afflicted individual back from
fragmentation and alienation into wholeness and well-being. Furthermore, the shaman served the clan or tribe not only as a healer, but equally as a guide for the human soul on its journey beyond the present life through the perilous Bardo into its next rebirth.
The shaman was able to function as a healer and a guide of souls pre-eminently because of his or her mastery of alternate states of consciousness, "the archaic states of ecstasy", so that one could voluntarily enter the Otherworld of the spirits, a nonordinary reality parallel to our familiar world of the senses and its conventional reality.
The shaman could thus enter into and explore the landscapes of the mind, the collective unconscious psyche, and return thence with treasures of knowledge and power in order to benefit humanity.

As a spiritual and psycho-therapeutic technique, shamanism goes back to the very origin of the human race which itself is lost in the dim mists of time. The presence of the shaman is already well-attested in European cave paintings belonging to the Paleaolithic era. Archaic traditions found among primitive tribes throughout the world claim for shamanism a celestial or extra-terrestial origin, and thus another principal
function of the shaman over the course of countless millennia, besides healing and guiding the dead, was to maintain this direct communication between humanity here below on the surface of the earth with the heaven worlds above. In terms of human evolution in primeval times, the shaman was the first culture hero, bringing humanity out of the nighttime darkness of a purely animal existence into the daylight of true human consciousness. The shaman was the first of all humans to speak with and walk with the Gods. In the pursuit of this knowledge, the shaman ascended into the heavens and descended into the underworld where one encountered certain archetypal figures, both gods and ancestors, who initiate the individual into a death-and-rebirth transformation of one's total being, and confer upon one the wisdom and the power to aid and protect and guide humanity, relieving its ills and suffering.

But the shaman belongs not only to the heavens, but equally to the earth. The shaman's religion is a pagan religion of nature where the human being is seen as a part of nature and not as something existing in opposition to it. The purpose that is taught here is to live in harmony with the natural environment on a very personal and intimate level, as did early humanity generally in the days before our now omnipresent urban-industrial civilization spread across the face of the earth like a corrosive cancer. Thus, besides healing, yet another primordial function of the shaman was insuring the ecological balance by way of inter-species communication. Through ritual magic and clairvoyant knowledge, the shaman could ensure success in the hunt for the tribe, that they might survive to live another season, but no species would be hunted in excess or to the point of extinction. And with regard to the hunt, he negotiated a covenant between his own
people and the spirits of the hunted species.

Generally, in the context of shamanic culture, illness or disease was seen as arising from a disharmony or break in the natural order and in the moral order of the world, as well as from an imbalance in and weakening of the personal energy field of the human individual. The energies within the individual and those outside oneself in the natural environment must be brought into balance and into harmonious interaction. This balance and harmony existed primordially, from the time of the beginning, but has been interrupted and shattered by the thoughtless and sinful actions of mankind. To
rediscover and re-establish this lost primordial harmony, all obsessive and negative thinking which serves to block the free flow of the energy within the individual must be dissolved. In this way, the individual can come into the realization of his full innate potentiality, manifesting his energy in the world about him without disrupting the natural order of things.

But it is especially due to the destruction of the natural environment by human groups and by individual human beings that diseases have come into manifestation in our world.
Humanity is not alone in this world. This planet earth, itself a living organism in its totality, is surrounded by and suffused throughout with an aura of energy that is like an atmosphere or ocean. Nature spirits live in this dimension of the energy of our planet, like fish living in the waters of the sea. Disturbed and offended by the thoughtless destructive actions of mankind, such as the ploughing up the earth, the cutting down of the forests, the damming of streams and rivers, the polluting of lakes, and so on, they inflict illness upon an erring mankind as a terrible retribution. Since these nature spirits are energy beings, they can directly effect the energy of the individual and that individual's immune system which is correlated with one's personal energy field. In such a case, it was then necessary to call in an expert healer or shaman in order to reestablish the primordial harmony existing between humanity and nature, thereby effecting a cure and a healing.

This ancient Tibetan shamanism and animism, the pre-Buddhist spiritual and religious culture of Tibet, was known as Bon, and a practitioner of these shamanic techniques of ecstasy and ritual magic, the methods of working with energy, was known as a Bonpo.
Bonpo is still the designation for a shaman in many tribal regions of the Himalayas. But increasingly, over the centuries, the ecstatic shaman has been replaced by the priestly Lama or ritual expert, and so later Bonpos in Central Tibet also came to fill a role more ritualistic than ecstatic. There exists a parallel here to what occurried in ancient India
where the Rishis or ecstatics of the early Vedic period, who communed directly with the celestial gods during ecstatic flights into the heavens, were later replaced by Brahman priests, experts in the performing of rituals and sacrifices in order to invoke the powers of the gods and ensure their cooperation for human benefit and prosperity.

Originally the word Bonpo meant someone who invoked the gods and summoned the spirits. Thus a Bonpo was an expert in the use of mantra and magical evocation. Mantra or ngak (sngags) is sound and sound is energy. Mantra is the primordial sound that calls the forms of all things into being out of the infinite potentiality of empty space which is
the basis of everything. Sound or word has a creative power. But this term Bonpo in ancient times appeared to cover a number of different types of practitioner, whether shaman, magician, or priest. Here there seems to be a strong parallel of the role of the Bonpo in ancient Tibet with that of the Druid in ancient pre-Christian Europe. Just as the Druidic order was divided into the three functions of the Bards, the Vates, and the Druids, who were singers, soothsayers, and magicians respectively, so the ancient pre- Buddhist kingdom of Tibet was said to be protected by the Drung (sgrung) who were bards and singers of epics, the Deu (lde'u) who were soothsayers and diviners, and the Bonpo (bon-po) who were priests and magicians. Another archaic term closely related to Bonpo was Shen or Shenpo (gshen-po), and this term may have originally designated the shaman practitioner in particular. The Shen system of practice was transmitted
through family lineages, especially in Western and Northern Tibet, then known as the country of Zhang-zhung, so that Shen also came to designate a particular ancient clan or tribe.

The first shaman, the archetypal shaman, so to speak, who brought the knowledge of shamanizing from the heaven worlds above to a nascent humanity living on the surface of the earth, appears to have been originally known in the Tibetan tradition as Shenrab Miwoche (gShen-rab mi-bo-che), a title meaning "the great supreme human shaman". Of
course, in the traditions of the later monastically organized Yungdrung Bon and in the extant Bonpo texts from at least the eighth century of our era, Shenrab Miwoche is represented as being much more than an archetypal shaman; he is a fully enlightened Buddha, comparable in every way to Shakyamuni Buddha who appeared in Northern India in the sixth century before our era. Tonpa Shenrab descended from the heavens, specifically, from the heaven-world of Sidpa Yesang (srid-pa ye-sangs), in the form of an azure colored cuckoo bird, the herald of spring. This occurred some 18,000 years ago, according to the traditional Bonpo reckoning. He thereupon incarnated as a human being in the country of Olmo Lung-ring which surrounded the holy nine-storeyed cosmic mountain of Yungdrung Gutsek (g.yung-drung dgu-brtseg) in Tazik or Central Asia. In this mysterious land at the center of the world, which was in later Indo-Iranian
tradition identified with Shambhala, he combatted and overcame the evil schemes and machinations of the black magician and incarnate demon-prince Khyabpa Lag-ring.
Then he instructed humanity, not only in the spiritual path to enlightenment and liberation from Samsara, but in the various techniques of ecstasy in order to communicate with other worlds and invoke the positive energies of the gods (lha gsolba), and also in the rites of exorcism (sel-ba) whereby human beings might free themselves from demonic influences (gdon) and the various diseases caused by demons and other hostile spirits.

The history of the development of Bon may be divided into three phases:

1. Primitive Bon more or less corresponds to the archaic shamanism and paganism of ancient Northern and Central Asia. This shamanism is still practiced in its original and unreformed version is remote areas of the Himalayas, as well as on the borders of Tibet and China.,br>

2. Yungdrung Bon or Old Bon (bon rnying-ma) was the high religious culture of the ancient kingdom of Zhang-zhung which centered around Gangchen Tise or Mount Kailas in Western Tibet. This kingdom, which possessed its own culture and language and writing, maintained an independent existence long before the rise of civilization in Central Tibet in the seventh century with the coming of Indian Buddhism to that country. In the next century, the Zhang-zhung kingdom was incorporated into the newly expanding Tibetan empire established by the Yarlung dynasty of Central Tibet, and the Zhang-zhung culture ceased to have an independent existence. However, the teachings of Yungdrung Bon did not solely originate in Zhang-zhung, but were said to have been brought from Tazik, that is, Iranian speaking Central Asia, to Zhang-zhung in Western and Northern Tibet by a number of mysterious white-robbed sages long before the political events of the seventh and eighth centuries. Besides shamanism, healing, magical rites of exorcism, astrology, and divination (these practices belong to the four lower or Causal Ways among the Nine Ways of Bon), Yungdrung Bon contained the higher spiritual teachings and practices of Sutra, Tantra, and Dzogchen. Moreover, due to the spiritual influence of Yungdrung Bon and later Indian Buddhism, many animistic practices have been reformed and the practice of blood sacrifice more or less eliminated in Tibet, although it is still practiced on occasion by the Jhangkri shamans of Nepal. In Yungdrung Bon, Shenrab Miwoche is portrayed as a perfectly enlightened Buddha who is the source of the philosophical, psychological, and ethical teachings of Sutra, the profound methods of psychological transformation and psychic development of Tantra, and the ultimate mystical and gnostic enlightenment of Dzogchen. Yungdrung Bon continues to flourish even today in many parts of Tibet and among Tibetan refugees in exile in India and Nepal.

3. New Bon (bon gsar-ma) was a deliberate and conscious amalgamation of the Bon of Zhang-zhung with the Buddhism of Indian origin, especially as this spiritual tradition was represented by the Nyingmapa school in Tibet. New Bon greatly revered the luminous figure of Guru Padmasambhava, the Tantric master from the Indo-Iranian country of Uddiyana, who first established the Nyingmapa tradition in Tibet in the eighth century of our era. And like the Nyingmapas, the the New Bon greatly relied upon Termas (gterma) or rediscovered "hidden treasure texts", recovered over the centuries by various Buddhist and Bonpo masters and visionaries. These Termas had been concealed in the
distant past by illuminated masters of the esoteric tradition, such as Padmasambhava and Dranpa Namkha, because the times were not yet ripe for their revelation and dissemination among the Tibetans, and they were rediscovered in later centuries. In the reformed Bon, one finds a monastic system, philosophy colleges, and a scholastic tradition and curriculum fully comparable to that found in the other schools of Tibetan Buddhism, especially the Nyingmapas. On the other side of the matter, many ancient Bonpo rituals and practices have been accepted into the Buddhist schools of Indian origin in Tibet and, in particular, as the cult of the Guardian spirits, the old pagan pre- Buddhist deities of Tibet who are now the protectors of the Dharma.

Furthermore, shamanism continues to be practiced in Tibet in its archaic form and such a practitioner is generally known as a Pawo (dpa'-bo) or Lhapa. This social function is clearly distinguished from that of the Lama or priest. A Lama is usually, although not always, a monk, whether he is nowadays a Buddhist or a Bonpo. In general, a Lama relates to the higher divine reality as a supplicant, communicating with that dimension through the medium of prayer, meditation, and the performing of offering rituals called pujas. In addition, there exists another kind of practitioner, the Ngakpa (sngags-pa) or Tantric magician and exorcist. Whereas the Lama or priest prays and petitions the higher spiritual order, the Tantrika or magician, by virtue of his magical power and his mastery of mantras, or spells and invocations, commands the spirits to obey his will and to do his bidding. The Pawo or shaman, on the other hand, is characterized by ecstasy, the entering into an altered state of consciousness, in order to have direct personal contact with the spirit world. But in Tibet, the methods of these three types of practitioners of healing-- the Pawo or shaman, the Ngakpa or magician, and Lama or priest-- are not necessarily exclusive. Many Ngakpas, although usually married men
and not monks, are called Lamas because they also perform pujas or offering ceremonies, as well as shamanic exorcisms and other magical rituals. In addition, they may be accomplished scholars and teachers, having large followings among both monks and lay-people alike, and are not just simple village sorcerers. They may be either Buddhist or Bonpo in terms of their religion, although nowadays the majority of Ngakpas belong to the Nyingmapa school. Moreover, the most Pawo shamans in Tibet, although their shamanic techniques are of a different origin, now identify themselves as Buddhists in terms of their religious affiliation.

In general, the Pawo is characterized by spirit possession. After entering into an altered state of consciousness or trance induced through drumming and chanting, his or her consciousness principle known as the Namshe (rnam-shes) is projected out of the physical body through the aperture at the top of the skull into one of the three symbolic mirrors arranged on the shamanic altar. These three mirrors represent the gateways to the other worlds of the Lha (the celestial spirits), of the Tsen (the earth and mountain spirits), and of the Lu (the subterranean water spirits), respectively.
These three types of spirit correspond to the three zones -- sky, earth, and underworld-- into which the world was divided in the ancient Bonpo shamanic cosmology. The shaman has direct access to these three worlds and their inhabitants by means of an altered state of consciousness. At the moment when one's Namshe leaves the physical body, one's guardian spirit or spirit-guide, also called a Pawo, enters one's now vacated inert body and thereupon speaks through the shaman as a medium. This spirit-guide responds to questions and can diagnose the cause of the illness in question, usually that being some offended spirit. Then he recommends a procedure for effecting a cure and this usually
includes the performance of a healing ritual (gto) in order to restore a harmonious balance of energies between the afflicted individual and his natural environment. In this way, a healing or a reharmonization is realized.

With the establishment of Buddhism, together with its monastic system, as the official religion of Tibet in the eleventh century and thereafter, certain among these Pawo shamans came to be employed by the larger monasteries, and even later by the Tibetan government, as oracles. Such an oracle is known as a Lhapa or Sungma (srung-ma). The most famous among these oracles is the State Oracle attached to Nechung monastery, and he is usually possessed by the spirit Pehar, who is said to have been originally a deity of Turkish origin. The State Oracle continues to function in exile at Dharamsala in India, the seat of HH the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan Government in exile.

The Ngakpa, on the other hand, as a Tantrika and an exorcist, is rarely possessed by the spirits. Rather, the Ngakpa is able, by way of certain meditations and other psychic techniques, to enter into an altered state where one's consciousness or Namshe leaves the physical body in a subtle mind-made body (yid-lus) and enters into the dimensions
of the Otherworld, where one searches for fragments of the soul of the afflicted person which has been stolen by deceitful spirits or imprisoned there by a black magician. A patient suffering from soul-sickness or loss of soul is characterized by inertia, weakness, depression, and loss of interest in one's surroundings and everyday affairs. If the La (bla) or the soul, this being a subtle energy field that serves as the vehicle for the individual's emotional life, is not recovered and restored to wholeness in the patient within a sufficient period of months, there exists the possibility of physical death. The Ngagpa may also perform a ritual procedure for this purpose known as La-guk (bla 'gug), "recalling the soul". The Ngakpa, by virtue of his power to enter the Otherworld and return with treasures of knowledge and power, is able to diagnose the causes of diseases and prescribe a variety of methods for effecting cures.

These same practitioners among both the Buddhists and the Bonpos have also been responsible for the rediscovery of Termas or "hidden treasure texts" which have contributed so much to the spiritual heritage of Tibet. Because the Tibetan people were thought not yet ready to receive these teachings, or else there was an actual danger of persecution, these Terma texts were concealed in ancient times at various remote places in Tibet by certain illuminated masters of the past, principally Padmasambhava.
Then they were rediscovered many centuries later by Tertons (gter-ston) who were the reincarnations of the original disciples of those ancient masters. Some of these Termas were found as actual physical objects and texts (sa-gter), others came through visions (dag-snang) and auditions (snyan-rgyud), and yet others were channelled directly through divine inspiration and automatic writing and therefore constitute "mind treasures" (dgongs-gter). Not the least among these Terma texts is the famous Bardo Thodol (bar-do thos-grol), now widely known in the West as the Tibetan Book of the Dead.

The Lama, whether Buddhist or Bonpo, is also profoundly engaged in healing practice.
Many Lamas have been specifically trained in the practice of Tibetan medicine at a monastic college. Moreover, the most common ritual performed by Tibetan Lamas at the popular level is the tse-wang (tshe-dbang) or "long life empowerment", a kind of psychic healing that invokes and channels healing energy into the participants in the ceremony, whether they are ill or not. In many ways, the Lama and the Ngagpa have usurped in Tibetan society the archaic function of the shaman, and after the introduction of Buddhism into Tibet, many cultural figures such as Guru Padmasambhava and the famous yogi Milarepa, have been assimilated to the archetype of the First Shaman. Thus
it came about that the archaic shamanic techniques of the Palaeolithic have now been absorbed into the high spiritual and intellectual culture of both Buddhism and Bon in Tibet. This may be seen, for example, in the Tibetan Book of the Dead, where the Lama or the Ngakpa functions as as a psychopomp or guide for the perilous journey of the individual soul through the Bardo experience leading to a new rebirth. Or again, with the practice of the Chod rite, using visualization, as well as chanting and dancing to the accompaniment of the shaman's drum, the practitioner gains mastery over the spirits through offering to them the flesh of one's own body. In many ways this Chod ritual recapitulates the initiatory experience of shamanic initiation, with its motifs of dismemberment and resurrection. The practice of the Chod is said to be particularly effective in preventing the spread of plagues and infectious diseases. Both of these traditional Tibetan practices, the Bardo rituals and the Chod rite, represent a journey from fragmentation to psychic wholeness.

Thus, in Tibetan culture, we find a harmonious integration of the archaic techniques of altered states of consciousness deriving from a primordial North Asian shamanism with the highly sophisticated psychic sciences of Buddhism and Bon. Now that we are on the threshold of the twenty-first century, our urban-industrial technology and rampant unrestrained commercialism threaten to devastate our natural environment world-wide, imperiling the very survival of the human race on this planet. It is this author's belief that the ancient wisdom and profound psychic sciences of Tibet, which emphasize living in a harmonious relationship with the natural environment, as well as with other human beings, will have a profound contribution to make to evolving a new type of global civilization that is both humane and wise.

A Collection of Studies on the Tibetan Bon Tradition

Main Library