Category Archives: Tibetan Culture & History

The Monastery of Blissful Meditation: Déden Samten Ling

Samling Temple complex. Photo credit: Unknown

The high altitude temple of Déden Samten Ling, or simply Samling, has been significant in the preservation of the Yungdrung Bön religious tradition.  The main temple was established more than 900 years ago by Yangtön Gyaltsen Rinchen in a remote and mountainous region of Dolpo, Nepal near the Tibetan border.  Since that time, this monastery, as well as others in Dolpo, has been maintained by a hereditary line of lamas within the Yangtön family. (For more information about the prestigious Yangtön family lineage, see previous post:

map of dolpo copy

According to a text of the Yangton family lineage, some time during the 13th century Yangtön Gyaltsen Rinchen was staying near Mt. Tisé in Western Tibet (a.k.a. MT. Kailash) when he was visited in a dream by the Bönpo sage and great lama Drenpa Namkha.   The Yangtön lama was instructed to travel to Dolpo and build a temple.  Traveled the distance to Dolpo and having searched throughout its rugged terrain, Yangtön Gyaltsen Rinchen had a series of auspicious dreams while staying in the area of Bijer that convinced him that he had finally found the proper place to construct a Yungdrung Bön temple.

Chortens of Samling. Photo credit: Unknown.

Yangtön Gyaltsen Rinchen was the first of many Yangtön lamas at Samling who collected and preserved sacred texts.  Because of this, many volumes of texts have been throughout the course of many centuries. It was during a trip to Samling Monastery in 1961 that Dr. David Snellgrove discovered a copy of the Zi Ji, a hagiography of Buddha Tönpa Shenrap. He subsequently wrote and published one of the first English language translations of a Yungdrung Bön text, The Nine Ways of Bön.  The Zi Ji text that he consulted for his translation was estimated to be approximately 400 years old.

Left: H.E. Menri Ponlop Yangtön Thrinley Nyima Rinpoche, Center: H.H. 33rd Menri Trizin Rinpoche, Right: Yangtön Lama Sherap Tenzin Rinpoche. Photo credit: Unknown.

Currently, Lama Sherap Tenzin Rinpoche is the head of the monastery.  He was born in 1953 and has received extensive religious training and has been trained in the science of Tibetan medicine.

Losar Tashi Delek Pün Sum Tsok! Happy Tibetan New Year!

Losar shrine table copy

Shrine offerings for the Tibetan New Year, or Losar (Photo credit: Raven Cypress Wood)

Today begins the year of the Earth Pig.  See previous post.

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Tibetan New Year: Purification & Repaying Debts

A ransom offering with hand print dough offerings. Photo credit: Raven Cypress Wood

The Tibetan New Year, called Losar, is February 5, 2019.   This is the 1st day of the 1st month of the Tibetan lunar calendar.  The final month of the lunar calendar is considered a time for purification and cleansing, especially the 26th -29th.  The 29th day of the 12th month is called nyishu gu. In 2019, that date on the Western calendar is February 3rd. On this day, the family gathers together for a special dinner and purification ritual. A special soup of nine ingredients called gutük is made. One of the most important ingredients in the soup is large balls of dough that contain symbolic objects or descriptive characteristics written on paper. Each member of the family must receive one of these balls of dough, and whatever is inside is considered a playful commentary on their character.

For example, whoever receives the ball of dough containing a piece of coal is said to have a “black heart.”  Some of the other possible items that someone might receive are: a piece of wool meaning “kind-hearted,” a sun meaning ‘”light of goodness,” a chili meaning “sharp-tongued,” or salt meaning “lazy.”  Everyone saves a small amount of the last of their soup to be used as a ransom offering to the negative spirits of the past year. This ritual payment settles any remaining debts with the negative spirits so that they become satisfied and go away happy. Along with the leftover soup, each person also offers a karmic debt torma. This is a small ball of dough that has been passed over the body in order to absorb any illness and negativity, then pressed with the fingers of the hand and placed on the offering plate with the other ransom offerings.  A small candle is placed on the plate and lit before it is carried out by one of the family members.  Once the ransom offering has been left in an appropriate place, this person must not look back while returning home.

On the 1st day of the new year, everyone stays at home or goes to the monastery in order to make offerings and prayers.  On the 2nd and 3rd days of the new year, it is customary to spend the day visiting friends and extended family in order to raise the positive energy for the coming year.

“Because of our confusion due to ignorance, we have been killing, and beating others, and stealing their possessions throughout our lives from beginning-less time.  These negative actions have joined together as an immeasurable karmic debt.  And the result of these negative actions has ripened into an experience similar to the cause.  Because of this, I repay my karmic debts owed from previous, present, and future lifetimes.  Through the blessings of the thousand buddhas together with the power of my meditative stability, whatever karmic debts are owed are instantly brought into this ransom offering.” 

Excerpt from “The Skillful Means of Dedicating the Ransom” written by Shardza Tashi Gyaltsen Rinpoche and contained within his Yangzab Namkha’i Dzö. Tibetan translation by Raven Cypress Wood

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The Sharp Point of Wisdom

Monks debating at Nangzhig Monastery. Photo credit: Unknown

Fire Offering for the Holy Physical Remains of a Realized Being

Some of the many Fire Offering Ritual items to be burned with the holy remains. Photo credit: Menri Monastery

During the early morning hours of October 2, 2017, the holy physical remains of His Holiness 33rd Menri Trizen Lungtok Tenpé Nyima Rinpoche will be cremated during an elaborate fire offering ritual at Menri Monastery in Dolanji, India. For the past five days, concluding at 3:30 a.m. prior to the beginning of the actual cremation ceremony, the monks have been performing the Kün Rik Le Zhi Gyü Nga, The Full Cycle of the Four Activities and the Five Tantras with cycles for each of the four kinds of enlightened activity which are classified as peaceful, expansive, powerful and wrathful.

Cremation chorten for HH 33rd Menri Trizen Rinpoche at Menri Monastery. Photo credit: Lee Hartline

In preparation for the cremation, a special cremation chorten has been constructed near the gompa and the butter lamp house. This cremation chorten (Sanskrit: stupa), built under the guidance of Khedup Gyatso who is a treasure of knowledge in the Yungdrung Bön community and a relative of His Holiness 33rd Menri Trizen Rinpoche, will be where the holy remains will be taken for cremation. This chorten has been constructed exactly to the dimensions of the sand mandalas of the Kün Rik cycle that will be burned with the holy remains. After the cremation ash has been collected, this chorten will be torn down.

Extensive offerings for the fire offering ritual for HH 33 Menri Trizen Rinpoche. Photo credit: Menri Monastery

The Kü Dung, or holy physical remains, will take up to three hours to burn. After that, it will take an additional day to offer and burn the vast array of offerings that are housed inside the gompa at Menri Monastery. Everything is made clean through prayer, and cleansing with pure water and incense. Among the many offerings are prayers of aspiration that have been written in pure gold and silver and placed upon tall wooden boards that will be read aloud and then offered to the sacred fire. This vast array of offerings are not given as a support for His Holiness 33rd Menri Trizen Rinpoche.  Rather, his sacred activity of having attained realization is taken as an auspicious opportunity to generate great benefit for all sentient beings.

Prayers of aspiration written in precious gold and silver.

During the time of the Fire Offering Ritual, lay people continuously circumambulate the sacred site. It will take many days for the cremation ashes to cool. At that time, the monks will collect the sacred ash and also look for kü dung ringsel. These kü dung ringsel, or relics of the holy physical remains, can appear in the cremation ash of realized beings and take many forms including the appearance of sacred images on small bone fragments or small, pearl-like spheres. The cremation ash will be made into tsa tsa and placed within a special memorial chorten dedicated to His Holiness 33rd Menri Trizen Rinpoche.

Some of the many offerings for the Fire Offering Ritual dedicated to His Holiness 33rd Menri Trizen Rinpoche. Photo credit: Menri Monastery

Sacred Signs

Handprint in stone of the one known as the Second Buddha, the 1st Menri Trizen, Nyamme Sherab Gyaltsen. Photo credit: Unknown

Gaining Knowledge

Yungdrung Bon monks during exams at Menri Monastery in Dolanji, India. Photo credit: Unknown

Buddha Tönpa Shenrap’s Ninth Deed: The Deed of Complete Awareness

Lord Tonpa Shenrap Miwoche after becoming a monk and assuming the renunciate name of TritsukGyalwa

Because Lord Tönpa Shenrap possessed complete awareness of the suffering of cyclic existence, and out of compassion for sentient beings, he demonstrated a skillful method for sentient beings to release themselves from suffering and misery and to attain liberation.  This method was the path of renunciation.  Being an enlightened being, he did not need to do this for himself but chose to demonstrate this path as an example for his followers of Yungdrung Bön.  Therefore, at the age of 31 (according to shen years which equal 3,100 human years), he announced to his family and disciples that he would leave worldly activities behind and devote himself completely to the path of renunciation.

He removed his jewelry and silk robes, and then cut off his hair with a sword.  Leaving behind all of his possessions, he went to a higher realm in order to receive ordination from a disciple of the Enlightened One of the previous eon.  Returning to earth, he devoted himself to the practice of fasting, disciplined behavior, and teaching the Four Thoughts that Turn the Mind to various groups of demons.  After this, he retired to the nine-storied yungdrung mountain in order to practice in solitude.  Upon entering into the path of renunciation, many of his disciples abandoned him and his teachings and returned to their worldly activities.  However, a few disciples of greater capacity remained with him on the mountain, and to them he taught the highest view, the Great Perfection.

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The Yellow Monk’s Hat

Gathering of monks at Menri Monastery. Photo credit: Unknown

The yellow hat is one of the necessary religious articles of clothing for a monk.   Each detail of the hat is symbolic.  For example, “the clear, deep blue lining of the inside symbolizes the Bönku, the empty aspect of the Bön essence, the source of all phenomena.  The yellow, feathered tassles along the length of the very top symbolize the Enlightened Ones of the good eon continuously being at the top of one’s head.  The countless, yellow threads standing parallel symbolize hearing the limitless collection of the cycle of teachings.

Yungdrung Bon lamas with their yellow hats. Photo credit: Unknown

The four corners beyond the ear symbolize taming those who are not trained through the four qualities which positively influence others.  (These four are 1) Generosity, 2) Gentle speech, 3) Meaningful activity, and 4) Having one’s actions be consistent with one’s words.)  The encircling red cord symbolizes condensing into one the many doors of Bön.”

Translated from Tibetan by Raven Cypress Wood© All Rights Reserved

Tibetan Kings of the Yarlung Dynasty & the Yungdrung Bön

Yumbu Lhakhang, Palace of the Yarlung Kings in the Yarlung Valley of Tibet

At the time when the first ruler of Tibet was established, the empire of Zhang Zhung was vast, the practice of Yungdrung Bön was flourishing and the Buddhism of India founded by Shakyamuni had not yet entered the territory of Tibet.  The principality of Tibet consisted of minor kingdoms but was not yet unified under the rule of a single monarch.  In order to consolidate power, the leaders of central and eastern Tibet decided to appoint a sole ruler of the entire realm.

During this time, it is said that Nyatri Tsenpo, the first king of Tibet, appeared and was chosen to rule over the Tibetans.  His ancestry is of other-worldy origins and has been variously detailed as descending from either the gods or the powerful theurang spirits.  In either case, it is believed that his power and magnificence were greater than that of a normal human being.  It was believed that he had a supernatural connection to heaven known as a mu cord, which resulted in his being able to ascend the cord and return to heaven upon his death.  Therefore, he did not leave a corpse behind.  This was true of all of the first seven Tibetan kings.

The Thirty-Four Tibetan Kings of the Yarlung Dynasty*

1-7 The Seven Tri of the Sky, During their reign, the teachings of Yungdrung Bön flourished.  Connected with the celestial sphere by a mu cord, these kings are said to have ascended to heaven by this cord at the time when their sons were old enough to rule, thereby not leaving a corpse behind.

12-17 The Six Good Ones Upon the Earth, During their reign, lamas of the Zhang Zhung empire acted as the Royal Bön Shen

18-25 The Eight Dé of the Water, During their reign, the teachings of Dzogchen were spread

26-30 The Five Tsen of the Middle

31-34 The Four Bönpo Kings of Prosperity, During their reign, the Yungdrung Bön teachings and practices flourished under the guidance of many knowledgeable lamas.

  1. NyatriTsenpo: He was anointed the first king of Tibet in the Wood Mouse year of 1136 BC
  2.  Mutri Tsenpo, son of Nyatri Tsenpo:  During his reign, thirty-seven Yungdrung Bön practice centers were established.  During their reign, the Yungdrung Bön teachings and practices flourished under the guidance of many knowledgeable lamas.
  3.  Dingtri Tsenpo, son of Mutri Tsenpo
  4.  Sotri Tsenpo, son of Tingtri Tsenpo
  5.  Dingtri Tsenpo, son of Sotri Tsenpo
  6.  Daktri Tsenpo, son of Dingtri Tsenpo
  7.  Siptri Tsenpo (aka Tride Yakpo), son of Daktri Tsenpo who was enthroned at the age of thirteen.
  8. Drigum Tsenpo, son of Siptri Tsenpo.  Although he practiced Yungdrung Bön in his youth, he feared the power of the Bön Shen and therefore began the first suppression of Yungdrung Bön.  (See previous post: The Second Spread of the Yungdrung Bön in Tibet.   Because his mu cord with heaven was severed during his battle with Lo Ngam Ta Dzi, he was the first Tibetan King to leave a corpse behind after his death.
  9. Lo Ngam Ta Dzi: He ruled Tibet for thirteen years after having killed the eighth Tibetan King Drigum Tsenpo, marrying the king’s daughter, and sending the rest of his family into exile.
  10. Pude Gung Gyal, aka Tolek Tsenpo: He was the son of the eighth Tibetan King Drigum Tsenpo who returned from exile in order to claim his right to the throne, and who invited the yogi Tong Gyung Tuchen to Tibet in order to reestablish the Yungdrung Bön teachings
  11. (Unnamed by most historical sources including the Dar rGyas gSal Ba’i sGron Ma.  It is theorized that there was no appropriate heir immediately after the death of Pude Gung Gyal and that power was wielded for a time by a minister.)
  12. Ah Sholek Tsenpo, son of Tolek Tsenpo
  13. De Sholek, son of Ah Sholek Tsenpo
  14. Te Sholek, son of De Sholek
  15. Guru Lek, son of Te Sholek
  16. Drong Zherlek, son of Guru Lek
  17. Sho lek, son of Drong Zherlek
  18. Zanam Zindé, son of Sho lek
  19. Dé Namtrul Zhungtsen, son of Za Nam Zin Dé
  20. Se Nol Nam Dé, son of Dé Nam Trulzhung Tsen
  21. Se Nol Dé, son of Se Nol Nam Dé
  22. Dé Nol Nam, son of Se Nol Dé
  23. Dé Nolpo, son of Dé Nol Nam
  24. Dé Gyalpo, son of Dé Nolpo
  25. Dé Srintsen, son of Dé Gyalpo
  26. Gyal Toro Lobtsen, son of Dé Srintsen
  27. Tri Tsen Nam
  28. Tri Dra Pungtsen
  29. Tri Tokje Toktsen: He invited many Bön Shen to Tibet from Zhang Zhung and therefore strengthened ties between to the two countries.
  30. To To Ri Nyentsen: He led an army into India and claimed many small Indian territories.  During his reign, the first contact was made with Indian Buddhism.  However, it did not have a large impact.
  31. Trinyen Zungtsen
  32. Drong Nyen Déru
  33. Takri Nyenzik: He was born blind but his eyesight was restored by the royal Bön Shen of the court, Khu Bön Mangjé Lopo.
  34. Namri  Songtsen: During his reign, Chinese influenced medicine and astrology were introduced into the country of Tibet.

*Due to political reasons, historical lists of the Tibetan Kings differ among Buddhist and Bön accounts as well as differing among texts within the same tradition.  I have relied upon the Yungdrung Bön text: Dar rGyas gSal Ba’i sGron Ma written by Pa Ton Tengyal Zangpo in 1345.

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The 84,000 Doors of Bön at Your Fingertips


“The mala represents the destined connection with the Enlightened Beings.  The mala string represents the 84,000 doors of Bön.  The head bead represents the principal teacher.  The counting beads represent the Six Subduing Shen, the six enlightened Shen who tame the six realms of cyclic existence.”  ~from The Advice of Lishu Taring

The mala is called treng wa in Tibetan.  It consists of one hundred eight counting beads and one larger main bead, often referred to as the ‘head bead’ or the ‘lama bead’.  Malas can have spacer beads which are not counted during recitation of a mantra but are used for decorative purposes or to lengthen the mala and enable it to fit onto an individual’s wrist.  Various kinds of counters are often added to the mala so that the practitioner can keep count of the mantra recitations. Malas can be made from various materials.  Traditionally, these materials were symbolic because of their energetic qualities.  For example, tantric practitioners would often use malas made of bone to represent impermanence.

Before a mala is used, the practitioner will have it consecrated by a lama.  This blesses it and also removes any contamination that the materials might carry with them that could be an obstacle to obtaining the benefit of the recitations.  Although there are one hundred eight beads, a single round of recitations is counted as one hundred.  In this way, if any beads have accidentally been skipped during the recitation, they are accounted for with the ‘extra’ eight beads.  Many practices require a commitment to recite a minimum of one hundred thousand repetitions of a mantra.  Therefore, these ‘extra’ beads ensure that the commitment has been fulfilled.  In general, during recitation, the practitioner is not allowed to eat, drink, talk, sneeze, spit or cough. These activities expel or diminish the specific power of the mantra that is being cultivated.  Once the session of mantra recitation is complete, the mala is rubbed gently between the hands and blown upon by the practitioner.  In this way, the mala becomes further empowered and blessed by the mantra.

The mala is a sacred object and should not be worn as jewelry. It should be kept clean and not be handled by others.  By wearing the mala on the wrist or carrying it in a pocket on the body, it acts as a form of protection.  The mala is also sometimes used for divination or healing purposes.  Lamas will sometimes give away their mala intact, or one bead at a time.  Because of the power of the lama’s practice and recitation, this gift is a great blessing.

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Link to the Ancient Past

Heir to the Shen Lineage and direct descendant of Lord Tonpa Shenrap Miwoche, Shen Tsukpu Namdrol Rinpoche

The Second Spread of the Yungdrung Bön in Tibet

Yumbum Lhakhang in the Yarlung Valley, ancient palace of the early Tibetan kings

The eighth king of Tibet, Drigum Tsenpo,  fearing the power and influence of the Bön Shen priests, banished them along with the Yungdrung Bön teachings from the kingdom.  This was first persecution of Yungdrung Bön which resulted in the hiding of Yungdrung Bön texts as terma, or hidden treasure.  See previous post,  After the king had banished the priests, there remained no one powerful enough for him to fight.  Therefore, he sent a message to the minor ruler of the Tibetan region of Lho Drak, Lo Ngam Ta Dzi, and commanded him to a challenge with his army.  Although Lo Ngam was not inclined to fight, the king insisted and Lo Ngam had no choice but to agree.  Soon thereafter, Lo Ngam had a dream in which he was given specific instructions on how to defeat King Drigum Tsenpo.  Having followed the advice given in his dream, Lo Ngam was victorious and the king was killed.  He put King Drigum Tsenpo’s corpse into a copper coffin and threw it into the Tsangpo River.  He then banished the king’s sons, made the queen a shepherdess, and ruled the land of Tibet for thirteen years.

The greatly accomplished yogi, Tong Gyung Tuchen

The queen had a son who, after discovering his royal lineage from a minister loyal to the queen, killed Lo Ngam Ta Dzi.   Receiving news of his death, Drigum Tsenpo’s son Pude Gung Gyal, returned to Tibet from exile.  Recognizing that the suppression of Bön had caused the death of his father and the downfall of both his family and the entire realm of Tibet, Pude Gung Gyal made the decision to reinstate Yungdrung Bön along with its priests, the Bön Shen.  He sent an urgent message to the accomplished Yungdrung Bön yogi, Tong Gyung Tüchen, who was practicing in isolation on an island in the Lake of Nam.  He pleaded with the yogi to help him revive Yungdrung Bön.  Tong Gyung Tuchen agreed and instructed Pude Gung Gyal to invite one hundred knowledge holders to Tibet in order to begin its revitalization.  These one hundred Bön Shen performed a rite of purification for the murdered king, Drigum Tsenpo, offered blessings to all of those present, and offered their support as Pude Gung Gyal ascended the throne and assumed the title of King of Tibet.  He became known as Tolek Tsenpo, King of the Highest Good.  Thus, the teachings and practice of Yungdrung Bön flourished and spread again in the land of Tibet.

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*All dates from Gal Che’i bsTan rTsis Phyogs bsDus, A Summary of Essential Chronology, published by Triten Norbutse Monastery.





Pilgrimage: Tardé Miyo Samten Bön Ling Monastery

Tarde Miyo Samten Bon Ling Monastery in Kham, Tibet. Photo credit: Unknown

The Yungdrung Bön monastery of Tarde Miyo Samten Bön Ling is located in Derge County near the Yangtze River in the Kham region of Tibet.  The Land of Blissful Liberation and Unshakeable Bön Meditation was founded by Kunga Namgyal and, although the founding date is uncertain, the history of the monastery records seventeen subsequent generations to the present.  Although the monastery was destroyed during the cultural revolution that began in 1959, beginning in the 1980’s it was rebuilt by the senior monks.  The mountain directly behind the monastery is called Tsang Chen and is believed to be the home of the local deity.

Those in attendance at the 5th Conference on Upholding and Preserving the Bon Teachings. Photo credit: Unknown

In 2016, the monastery hosted the 5th Conference on Upholding and Preserving the Teachings of the Yungdrung Bön.  A number of prominent Yungdrung Bön scholars gave presentations at the conference and there were also rituals and ceremonies to mark the special occasion.

Chortens before the Tarde Miyo Samten Ling Monastery in Kham, Tibet. Photo credit: Unknown


The First Spread of the Yungdrung Bön Teachings within the Realm of Tibet

Depiction of the ancient land of Olmo Lungring

The founder of the Yungdrung Bon religious tradition, Lord Tönpa Shenrap Miwoche, was born into human form as a prince in the ancient land of Olmo Lungring within the ancient country of Tazik in the Wood Mouse year of 16,017 BC*.  Having taught the Yungdrung Bön to numerous disciples within Tazik, the teachings were eventually translated into three hundred sixty languages.  It is said that one hundred ninety-four of these languages pertained to realms beyond the borders of  Olmo Lungring.  Although Lord Tönpa Shenrap Miwoche made one journey into Tibet and taught the offering of torma as a substitute for harming living beings, the Yungdrung Bön teachings were not widespread at that time.

And so, having been translated and entrusted to various knowledge holders, the teachings were spread first into Zhang Zhung before spreading to India and China, and on into countries such as Kashmir, Nepal, Togar, Gilgit, Phrom, Zahor and Sumpa.  From Zhang Zhung, India and China, the teachings spread into the realm of Tibet. Because of this, many of the Yungdrung Bön texts today retain some of the original Zhang Zhung words, as well as words of other languages, which predate their translation into the Tibetan language.

The 1st universal ruler of Zhang Zhung, King Tri Wer Laje, possessor of the Golden Horned Crown and close disciple of Lord Tonpa Shenrap

During the reign of the first seven kings of Tibet, the teachings of Lord Tönpa Shenrap Miwoche flourished and each of these Tibetan kings had one or more Royal Bön Shen, or personal Yungdrung Bön priests, who acted as a kind of spiritual bodyguard to the king by protecting his lifespan, power and wealth as well as giving spiritual guidance.

Yumbu Lhakhang in the Yarlung Valley. Palace of the 1st Tibetan king, Nyatri Tsenpo, and used for centuries by his successors.

The first person appointed to rule as king over the entirety of Tibet, Nyatri Tsenpo, is said to have been of a supernatural lineage and was anointed king in the Wood Mouse year of 1136 BC.  During his reign, the Twelve Kinds of Knowledge of the Causal Vehicles of the Yungdrung Bön doctrine were widely spread and practiced.  His son, Mutri Tsenpo, invited one hundred eight Zhang Zhung scholars to Tibet and established forty-five centers for Yungdrung Bön practice and study.  During the reign of the next five Tibetan kings, the Yungdrung Bön had royal support and flourished.

1st Tibetan king: NyatriTsenpo

2nd Tibetan king: Mutri Tsenpo

3rd Tibetan king: Tingtri Tsenpo

4th Tibetan king: Sotri Tsenpo

5th Tibetan king: Daktri Tsenpo

6th Tibetan king: Jangtri Tsenpo

7th Tibetan king: Tride Yakpo

King Tride Yakpo had a son by the name of Drigum Tsenpo who was enthroned at the age of thirteen.  The Royal Bön Shen continued to be very powerful and influential in the royal court due to their deep connections with the kings of the Zhang Zhung empire.  King Drigum Tsenpo’s ministers began telling him that the words of the Bön Shen were more powerful than that of the king and that they posed a great and immediate threat.  Although he had practiced Bön in his youth, King Drigum Tsenpo called the Bön Shen together and told them that there was not enough room for both his authority and theirs in Tibet.  Therefore, he ordered them into exile.  With the exception of specific causal vehicle practices which were used to protect the king’s power and wealth, Drigum Tsenpo began the suppression and persecution of all of Lord Tönpa Shenrap’s teachings.  This was 683 AD, the first persecution of Yungdrung Bön which resulted in the hiding of texts as terma, or hidden treasure.

The Bön Shen loaded their texts upon domestic animals and traveled to the borderland of Zhang Zhung where they held a conference.  It was decided that in order to preserve the teachings, they would divide the texts among them.  Some of them traveled to the borderlands or other countries in order to spread the teachings.  Others hid the precious scriptures of the Yungdrung Bön and performed prayers of aspiration that the teachings would reemerge in a more favorable time and that the teachings of Lord Tönpa Shenrap would again spread for the benefit of sentient beings.

*All dates from Gal Che’i bsTan rTsis Phyogs bsDus, A Summary of Essential Chronology, published by Triten Norbutse Monastery.

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Doorway to Zhang Zhung

The Six-peaked Doorway into Zhang Zhung. On the right, is the meditation cave of Drenpa Namkha. On the left, is the meditation cave of his son, Tsewang Rikdzin. Photo credit: Unknown.

Offering of Beauty

Kyungkar Yungdrung Tengye Ling Monastery in Tibet. Photo credit: Unknown

Modern Day Female Treasure Revealer

Kongpo Bonri, the Bon Mountain where Khandro Dechen Wangmo stayed in retreat and had many spiritual experiences.

In 1918 at the age of fifty one, Khandro (Sanskrit: dakini) Dechen Chokyi Wangmo revealed a terma, or hidden religious treasure, that contained the hagiographies of sixteen female realized practitioners.  This was only one of many treasures that she revealed during her lifetime.  Born in Nyarong Tibet in 1868, Dechen Wangmo began having clear revelatory dreams by the young age of seven.  These dreams continued throughout her lifetime and often contained the location as well as the key to revealing many terma.  A non-sectarian practitioner, she was a disciple of both Bön and Buddhist lamas including the greatly esteemed and realized Shardza Tashi Gyaltsen.  Her main practice was Dzogchen accompanied by long life practices.  She compiled a chöd text and composed spiritual songs, including a song of revelation while she was practicing at the sacred site of Kongpo Bönri.  (See previous article )

Consort and spiritual companion to the terton Sang Ngak Lingpa, it was Dechen Wangmo’s  dreams that alerted him to the location of many terma as well as giving the key for opening them.  Traveling to Hor, the couple stopped by a lake whereby Khandro Dechen Wangmo retrieves the terma of a statue of Ludrup Yeshe Nyingpo as well as a sacred text from the water spirits guarding the lake.  Having arrived in Hor, she is asked by the king of Hor to give teachings in addition to the teachings and empowerments given by Terton Lingpa.

She had her own disciples, some of whom compiled a hagiography of her which details her many pilgrimages, terma revelations and dreams and sacred visions. Her importance and realization was recognized by many lamas who wrote long life invocations for her.  She and Terton Lingpa traveled extensively but their activities were mainly focused in the Amdo area of Tibet.

Khandro Khachö Wangmo. Photo credit: Unknown

Khandro Khachö Wangmo (1940-1987) was considered an incarnation of Khandro Dechen Wangmo.  She was the daughter of Kundrol Drakpa who was also known as Kundrol Humchen Drodul Lingpa  and was a lineage lama and terton of Sar Bön, or New Bön.  She was a realized practitioner and tertön who in 1986 discovered a small statue of Amitayus, a nine-pointed dorje and blessed khandro dust from the sacred mountain Kongpo Bönri in south-eastern Tibet.  Her discovery was witnessed by the public and documented in an essay by Span Hanna entitled Vast as the Sky, the Terma Tradition in Modern Tibet which is included in the book Tantra and Popular Religion in Tibet by Geoffrey Samuel and Hamish Gregor, edited by Elisabeth Stutchbury.

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The Six Excellent Substances

The Six Excellent Substances are added to the dry tsampa when making torma. Photo credit: Raven Cypress Wood

A common group of ingredients needed for making torma,  and used in many Tibetan medicines is called Zang Druk, the Six Excellent Substances.  These six substances are: 1) Chu gang, 2) Gur gum, 3) Li shi, 4) Dza ti, 5) Suk mel, and 6) Ka ko la.  These substances are ground into powder and mixed together.

There are three types of Chu gang: 1) Tree Chu gang, 2) Rock Chu gang, and 3) Water Chu gang.   Tree chu gang comes from an Indian tree similar to bamboo.  It forms a milky white juice at the joints of the tree.  Rock chu gang is hard like a stone, and water chu gang comes from rivulets found on mountains such as Mount Tisé.

The plant which produces saffron is Crocus sativus.

The common name for Gur gum is saffron.  In general, there is low, medium and high quality grades of saffron. The common name for Li shi is cloves.  The common name for Dza ti is nutmeg.  The common name for Suk mel is cardamom.  This is also known as green cardamom.  The common name for Ka ko la is black cardamom.

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Ancient Medicine for Modern Times

The Enlightened Lord Tonpa Shenrap in his appearance as the Medicine Buddha

Tibetan Medicine originated many thousands of years before Tibet was an autonomous kingdom.  In order to alleviate the suffering of sentient beings, the founder of Yungdrung Bön, the Enlightened Lord Tönpa Shenrap Miwoche, taught medical science directly to his disciples over 18,000 years ago.  In his emanation as master of this knowledge, Lord Tönpa Shenrap Miwoche is called Sangye Menlha, the Medicine Buddha. This knowledge is considered part of the First Way of Bön.  Responsibility for holding this medical lineage was given directly to the Buddha’s own son, Chebu Trishe.    This vast medical knowledge was written into a group of texts known as the Bum Zhi, The Four Volumes.  These four volumes are: 1) The Root which is the Mind, the Blue Sky Volume, 2) Completely Victorious Medicine, the White Volume, 3) Methods of Diagnosis and Healing, the Mixed Color Volume, and 4) Remedies for Curing Disease, the Black Volume.  These texts were translated into the Tibetan language in the 4th century but had to be hidden during the 7th century due to religious persecution of Yungdrung Bön.  One method of concealment involved changing the language so as to reflect Buddhist themes.  This modified text was renamed the Gyu Zhi.  The original Yundrung Bön Bum Zhi was thought to be lost until modern times when the eminent scholar Yongdzin Tenzin Namdak Rinpoche found the text within the Bön Kangyur.  Now, it is being widely distributed once again.

The studies involved in becoming an Amchi, or Tibetan doctor, are quite difficult and take many years.  In addition to knowing the causes and treatments for balance and imbalance within the human body, the Amchi must also devote themselves to spiritual practice and the cultivation of compassion and generosity, understand the intricate relationship between the conditions of the external environment and the internal environment of the patient, and be a master herbalist and pharmacist who gathers, produces and dispenses medicine.

Left: Herbal combination Center: Medicinal substances made into pills Right: Gem medicine, or Precious pills

Within this medical system, there are a multitude of medical treatments that must be mastered such as moxibustion, massage, cupping, precise physical movements & exercises, preparation of medicinal baths and the use of oral medicines.  Some methods have multiple kinds of applications which are determined by the illness being treated.  For example, within the category of administering medicine, there are ten different categories: decoctions, powders, pills, medicinal paste, medicinal butter, medicinal ash, concentrates, medicinal wine, gem medicine and herbal combinations.  Some of these have multiple variations and many of them take days to months to prepare.  The Amchi must determine which method to use and how to properly administer it to the patient.

Left: Amchi Yuthok Tsewang, Amchi Nyima’s father. Right: Amchi Nyima preparing medicine. Photo credit: Unknown

The practice and knowledge of this ancient medical system has remained uninterrupted from the time of Lord Tönpa Shenrap until this very day.  Amchi Nyima Samphel Gurung is a doctor, or Amchi, within the Yungdrung Bön Tibetan Medical tradition.  In 1968, he was born into a medicine lineage of the Jara clan.  This clan had been the personal physicians to the kings of Dzar Dzong, Mustang.  For at least nine continuous generations, and perhaps many more, this family have been the physicians for their region.  Amchi Nyima first studied medicine with HH Menri Trizen Lungtok Tenpa’i Nyima Rinpoche at Menri Monastery.  Returning to his home in Mustang, Nepal, he then studied under the guidance of his father, Dr. Yuthok Tsewang.  Following the advice of HE Yongdzin Tenzin Namdak Rinpoche, he went on to study medicine at the Medical School of the Four Tantras in Dhorpatan.  In 2001, Amchi Nyima graduated during a ceremony at Triten Norbutse Monastery in Kathmandu, Nepal.

Left: Men gyal, the main medicine bag. Right: Men khuk, medicine pouches

At the Medical School of the Four Tantras in Dhorpatan, Nepal, Amchi Nyima studied under Ragshi Tsultrim Sangye.  At the conclusion of his studies, this special teacher made him a men gyal, or medicine bag.  Traditionally, these bags were used when a doctor traveled or visited patients at their home.  The medicine bag would be filled with smaller medicine pouches that contained the various medicinal combinations that might be needed for the patients.  Amchi Nyima’s medicine bag is made of an animal hide chosen for its energetic properties to contain the power of the medicines as they are being carried.  The outside of the bag has symbols representing the Medicine Buddha and his retinue as well as the sixteen powerful khandro and each of the four directions.  Today, it is less and less common for a Tibetan doctor to use one of these traditional medicine bags.

Amchi Nyima currently lives in the village of Muktinath located in Mustang, Nepal.  He also frequently travels to both Europe and the United States in order to treat patients.  Although he has complete knowledge of the many methods of treatment, his specialty is medical massage known as kunye.  When giving a medical massage, Amchi Nyima first generates himself as the Medicine Buddha.  At the conclusion of the massage, he dedicates the activity for the benefit of all beings.

Amchi Nyima reading a patient’s pulse during a consultation

From his experience treating Westerners, Amchi Nyima has observed that there are a few recurring imbalances caused by the Western lifestyle.  The prevalence of raw food such as salad and reliance upon food that has been frozen has contributed to digestive ailments for many people.  He has also noticed that many Westerners believe that they are ‘fat’ and therefore either severely restrict food or skip meals entirely.  He comments that this is a big problem and causes deep imbalance within the body.  In general, he has seen that the tendency to worry and think too much places great stress upon those in Western countries.

Preparation for an appointment with Amchi Nyima begins the day before.  Patients need to refrain from strong physical exertion, sexual activity, and stressful situations.  Also, the patient should not have caffeine such as coffee or strong tea the evening before their appointment.  All of these things affect the pulses.  After the patient has gone to bed, it is important for them to collect the second urine, usually in the early morning, in a clean, dry, glass container.  Ideally, the patient is seen in the morning before eating or drinking anything.  However, this is not always possible.  Therefore, the patient should at least not drink caffeine and eat very lightly until their appointment.  Amchi Nyima relies upon the three techniques for obtaining a diagnosis: 1) Looking, 2) Touching, and 3) Questioning.  He will look at the general presentation of the patient including their face, eyes and tongue.  He will look at the urine’s color, movement, and qualities.   He will touch the patient’s wrists and thereby feel their skin tone, temperature and also read their pulses.  during this time, he will also question the patient concerning their concerns and experience of symptoms.  The entirety of the patient is taken into consideration including their emotional, mental and spiritual condition as well as their external environment.  From this, he is able to ascertain the root cause of illness as well as its branch symptoms.  He will then determine a proper course of treatment.  Tibetan medicine has no negative side effects and is especially ideal for those patients who are weak and have low vitality.

Amchi Nyima Samphel Gurung gathering medicinal plants. Photo credit: Unknown

Traditionally, a Tibetan doctor’s home is also his office.  Patients arrive at any time of day or night and are treated regardless of whether they are rich or poor.  In fact, the services of a Tibetan medical doctor are free and considered part of their practice of compassion.  However, the community understands the importance of supporting the doctor and continuing his ability to serve.  Therefore, patients offer whatever they are able in exchange for medical treatment.  In modern times however, Amchis have needed to adapt to the Western idea of setting a fee for service due to the growing dependence upon a monetary economy as well as the increase of Western patients who are unaware of the understanding between the doctor and the community.   Also, Westerners traveling in Nepal who are in need of medical attention have no knowledge of where to find the local doctor or how to receive treatment.  These are some of the reasons that Amchi Nyima has begun plans for a medical clinic in his village, The Ancient Bumzhi Medical Collection & Processing Center.  The clinic will also cultivate medicinal plants that are in danger of being lost through over harvesting by business interests. In this way, Amchi Nyima is working to preserve this ancient medical tradition for generations to come.

If you would like more information about Amchi Nyima’s travel schedule, please contact Raven Cypress Wood:


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