Category Archives: Tibetan Culture & History
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 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.
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
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.
- NyatriTsenpo: He was anointed the first king of Tibet in the Wood Mouse year of 1136 BC
- 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.
- Dingtri Tsenpo, son of Mutri Tsenpo
- Sotri Tsenpo, son of Tingtri Tsenpo
- Dingtri Tsenpo, son of Sotri Tsenpo
- Daktri Tsenpo, son of Dingtri Tsenpo
- Siptri Tsenpo (aka Tride Yakpo), son of Daktri Tsenpo who was enthroned at the age of thirteen.
- 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. https://ravencypresswood.com/2016/10/16/the-second-spread-of-the-yungdrung-bon-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.
- 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.
- 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
- (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.)
- Ah Sholek Tsenpo, son of Tolek Tsenpo
- De Sholek, son of Ah Sholek Tsenpo
- Te Sholek, son of De Sholek
- Guru Lek, son of Te Sholek
- Drong Zherlek, son of Guru Lek
- Sho lek, son of Drong Zherlek
- Zanam Zindé, son of Sho lek
- Dé Namtrul Zhungtsen, son of Za Nam Zin Dé
- Se Nol Nam Dé, son of Dé Nam Trulzhung Tsen
- Se Nol Dé, son of Se Nol Nam Dé
- Dé Nol Nam, son of Se Nol Dé
- Dé Nolpo, son of Dé Nol Nam
- Dé Gyalpo, son of Dé Nolpo
- Dé Srintsen, son of Dé Gyalpo
- Gyal Toro Lobtsen, son of Dé Srintsen
- Tri Tsen Nam
- Tri Dra Pungtsen
- Tri Tokje Toktsen: He invited many Bön Shen to Tibet from Zhang Zhung and therefore strengthened ties between to the two countries.
- 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.
- Trinyen Zungtsen
- Drong Nyen Déru
- Takri Nyenzik: He was born blind but his eyesight was restored by the royal Bön Shen of the court, Khu Bön Mangjé Lopo.
- 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 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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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, https://ravencypresswood.com/2016/10/01/the-first-spread-of-the-yungdrung-bon-teachings-within-the-human-realm/. 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 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.
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.
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.