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The Five Elements: Space

ah-w-watermark  The element of Space is called namkha in Tibetan.  It is symbolized by the shape of a circle and the color white.  The unique vibration of this element is the sound ‘AH’.  It is associated with the center.  In general, Space allows  for the many varied manifestations of the other elements without interfering or being damaged in any way.

Environmentally, the sky allows the manifestation of many types of weather, planets, stars, animals, etc.  Everything that exists, exists within Space.  Everything that has ever happened, that is happening right now, or that will happen in the future, happens within the element of Space.  Among the five elements, Space is the strongest because it is indestructible.  Although anything can happen in Space, nothing diminishes or damages it in any way.

Within our bodies, the element of Space is associated with our awareness.   It is also associated with the heart.  When the element of Space is balanced within us, we are aware of ourselves and our surroundings without losing ourselves or being overwhelmed by events or experiences.  Even in the midst of difficult circumstances, we do not lose ourselves or feel constricted with worry.  We are open to experience without being vulnerable to it.

However, if the element of Space is in excess, we are literally ‘spacey’.  Rather than being grounded in Space, we drift from one thing to another without connecting to anything.  We lose track of ourselves and our purpose.  We become lost in Space and easily distracted.

If the Space element is deficient, we feel as if we are being suffocated by life.  We feel as though there are too many demands, too many obligations, too much ‘out there’ and not enough of ‘us’.  We begin to say to ourselves and to others, “I need some space!”  We have lost contact with the Space within ourselves.

In order to bring the element of Space back into balance, there are specific yogic exercises within the Yungdrung Bön tradition which use the focus of the mind together with the breath and movement of the physical body to balance and strengthen each of the elements within us.  To learn more about these yogic exercises see Healing with Form, Energy and Light by Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche.

As the other four elements are brought into balance, the Space element naturally becomes balanced as well.  Allowing Space for experiences rather than struggling with them develops the relationship with the indestructible quality of the element of Space.

In the more advanced teachings of Yungdrung Bön, Space is the most important element.  Recognizing and becoming familiar with the pure, luminous, boundless Space of the mind is the practice of wisdom.  This Space is the basis for all things that arise, including all of the phenomena of the other four elements.  Many people are uncomfortable with too much Space.  This is clear by the seemingly endless things that we use to distract and entertain ourselves.  However, we can develop more comfort and familiarity with the Space element by minimizing these distractions and developing our capacity to relax into the stillness of our body, the silence of not talking, and the spaciousness of our mind that has taken a break from worry and emotional upset.  This kind of taking a break from constant movement and thought is the best medicine for physical, emotional and spiritual well being.

Lifting Our Energies with Prayer Flags

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Prayer flags are made of colored cloth using one of the five colors of the five elements.  There are many kinds of prayer flags each with their own prayers, mantras and images.  Some prayer flags have a central image of an enlightened Being with prayers and mantras specific to that deity.  Also common is the image of the wind-horse in the center and the animals of the four directions.  The prayers and mantras are activated when the flag is moved by the wind.  Although there are certain auspicious days during the year when prayer flags are traditionally raised, they can be put up at anytime in order to bring benefit.  Generally, they are first consecrated and then raised in the morning outside at a sacred place or a place that is high such as a mountain.

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The Five Elements: Wind

yang-w-watermark         The element of Wind or Air is called lung in Tibetan.  It is symbolized by the shape of a rectangle and the color green.  The unique vibration of this element is the sound ‘YANG’.  It is associated with the direction North.  In general, Wind gives the ability to move, change, and transform.  Even within popular culture, the phrase ‘Winds of Change’ is commonly used in songs, poems, and even political speeches to express a time of change and transformation.

Historically, Wind has played a large part in affecting the course of events by determining the ability of war ships to attack, or not.  By allowing explorers to reach their destinations, or not.  And through calm or violent weather, determining the success or failure of many ventures.

Environmentally, Wind has often been seen as an expression of the supernatural or the divine.  In many cultures, a gentle Wind that arises at the conclusion of  a ceremony is a sign of its success.   In Greek mythology, there are twelve different gods associated with each of the winds of the twelve directions. Ecologically, the Wind’s quality of movement is important as a source of seed and pollen dispersal for plants as well as having a profound effect upon weather and climate.   It can be beneficial such as being used as a power source for transportation, energy or recreational activities.  Or it can be indescribably destructive through the force of tornadoes and hurricanes.

Within our bodies, the element of Wind is associated with our breath and is responsible for providing the ability for things to move.   It is specifically associated with the lungs.  When the element of Wind is balanced within us, we can be flexible.  We move from worry and anxiety to a solution.  We are able to let go of our point of view and see the perspective of others.  If the Wind element is developed, we easily move from anger to love, fear to peacefulness and from feeling blocked to feeling unblocked.  Even in the midst of a problem, we remain aware of all of the things that are going right.  Wind is also associated with communication and verbal expression.  Well developed Wind can also give the ability to communicate or receive information psychically and to perform acts that are beyond the limitations of the physical world.

In the Yungdrung Bön tradition, it is believed that the mind is effected by the movement of subtle wind.  Therefore, if the element of Wind is in excess, one of the effects is that the mind is unable to concentrate because it is constantly moving from one thing to another.  We are impatient.  There is an almost constant need to talk or ask questions.  But this kind of talking has little depth and we are thinking of our next question even before the first one is answered.  We are unable to meditate because of the constant movement of the mind which often prompts the body to begin moving.  To the extreme, an excess of Wind can cause severe headaches or even madness.

If the Wind element is deficient, we feel blocked.  There is an inability to progress in our outward activities or our inner growth and spiritual practice.  We are stuck.  Things become stagnant and stale.  There is no freshness.  Our mind is still, but there is no clarity or sharpness to our awareness.

In order to bring the element of Wind back into balance, there are specific yogic exercises within the Yungdrung Bön tradition which use the focus of the mind together with the breath and movement of the physical body to balance and strengthen each of the elements within us.  To learn more about these yogic exercises see Healing with Form, Energy and Light by Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche.

Also, the simple act of inhaling and exhaling with awareness can be quite helpful.  Imagine inhaling pure, fresh Wind or Air and then exhaling all impure, stale Wind.  Imagine this Wind traveling throughout the body.  Similarly, imagine a ‘Wind of Change’ gently blowing into any area of your life that feels stuck.  If the Wind Element feels disturbed and there is too much erratic movement, then focus more on the Element of Earth and imagine the Wind becoming calm and stable.

The Five Elements: Fire

ram-w-watermarkThe element of Fire is called mé in Tibetan.  It is symbolized by the shape of a triangle and the color red.  The unique vibration of this element is the sound ‘RAM’.  It is associated with the direction West.  In general, Fire provides enthusiasm, creativity and intuition.

Environmentally, our dependence upon the element of Fire is clear by the importance of the sun for life on the planet.  The inner core of the earth is dominated by the element of Fire and it is believed to be about the same temperature as that of the surface of the sun.  Fire has enabled us to cook, which greatly increases the amount of food available to us.  And it has also allowed us to live in climates which would ordinarily be too cold.

In the Yungdrung Bön tradition, spiritual realization and the perfection of wisdom are associated with inner heat.  There is a spiritual practice, called Tummo, which is specifically develops and increases this inner heat which naturally ripens our positive qualities and burns away our negative qualities. This practice involves a very detailed visualization of Fire.

Within our bodies, the element of Fire rules the warmth of our bodies and the heat of digestion.  More specifically, it is associated with the liver.  When the element of Fire is balanced within us, we are engaged with activities that inspire us and bring us the joy of accomplishment.  We are enthusiastic about life and feel joy.  A balanced Fire element gives us the energy and drive to accomplish our goals and find creative solutions for any obstacles that might arise.

If the Fire element is in excess, we can be quick to become agitated, frustrated and angry.  We can overreact with our actions or words.  We find many things intolerable and can view others as our opponents.  There is constant movement and instability.  Our thoughts are incessant.  Physiologically, we can experience fevers and skin symptoms.

If the Fire element is deficient, we lack energy and inspiration.  Nothing excites us.  We don’t feel motivated or feel that we lack the energy necessary to manifest our goals.  We lack curiosity and life can feel like a boring routine.  Physiologically, our metabolism can slow and we have difficulty digesting our food.

In order to bring the element of Fire back into balance, there are methods such as Tibetan medicine, ritual and meditation practices such as Tummo.  There are specific yogic exercises within the Yungdrung Bön tradition which use the focus of the mind together with the breath and movement of the physical body to balance and strengthen the elements within us.  To learn more about these yogic exercises see Healing with Form, Energy and Light by Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche.

Additionally, if the Fire element has become weakened, spend more time being active with things that bring you joy.  Spend time with extroverted, enthusiastic people.  Go to an unfamiliar environment and learn about it.  Greet strangers with a smile or begin a conversation with someone about a subject that interests you.  You can also spend time near an open fire such as in a fireplace or with a candle and meditate upon the energy and quality of the fire existing inside of you.  If the Fire element is in excess, spend more time with earthy people who have a grounding effect upon you.  Slow down.  Be mindful of rising agitation and take deep breaths to release or practice patience with yourself and others.  Take time to finish and enjoy the accomplishment of one project before beginning another.  Spiritually, balanced Fire gives us the motivation and joyful effort needed to be diligent with our practice.  It also gives the ability to progress more quickly in our development.

The Five Elements: Water

mang-w-watermarkThe element of Water is called chu in Tibetan.  It is symbolized by the shape of a circle and its color is blue.  The unique vibration of this element is the sound ‘MANG’.  It is associated with the direction South.  In general, Water provides joy and comfort.

Environmentally, our dependence upon the element of Water is evidenced by the value placed upon its ‘ownership’ by principalities and governments.  Civilizations have been founded upon the availability of water for agriculture, travel, trade and fishing.  Dependent upon this resource for the health of their citizens as well as their commerce, civilizations have also fallen when access to water became restricted for various reasons.  In the Yungdrung Bön tradition, it is believed that one of the spirits who live in water is called lu, also referred to as naga.  These lu also live in trees and rocks, but are primarily associated with water.  Frogs and many other water inhabitants are thought to be used by the lu as their domestic animals.  The lu realm and the human realm are thought to be in continuous relationship with one another.   In ancient times, accomplished lamas, as well as the Buddha himself, taught the sacred teachings to the lu.  Therefore, among this group of beings, there are followers of the Buddha who act to protect the teachings.  However,  just like any group of beings, there are those among the lu who have less compassion and patience with the actions of humanity that cause damage and destruction to their environment.  Because of this, there are rituals and prayers specifically for apologizing to the lu, purifying the damage that we have caused, and thereby pacifying their grievances against us.

Within our bodies, the element of Water rules our blood.  More specifically, it is associated with the kidneys.  When the element of Water is balanced within us, we feel comfort with ourselves, happy and contented with our life.  Our emotions are balanced and there is joy in our spiritual practice rather than it being a dry, intellectual exercise.  If Water is in excess, we can be lost in our comfort and lack the energy to be productive.  We can become too fixated on pleasure and enjoyment.   Or we can be lost in our emotions, making our decisions based solely upon the ebb and flow of our moods.  To the extreme, we spend the day either weeping or laughing.  If the Water element has become weakened, we are uncomfortable with ourselves and others.  We do not feel content or happy with whatever is happening around us.  We constantly feel unsatisfied.

In order to bring the element of Water back into balance, there are methods such as Tibetan medicine, ritual and meditation practices.  There are specific yogic exercises within the Yungdrung Bön tradition which use the focus of the mind together with the breath and movement of the physical body to balance and strengthen the elements within us.  To learn more about these yogic exercises see Healing with Form, Energy and Light by Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche.  Additionally, if the Water element has become weakened, we can spend time near a river, stream or ocean and focus upon experiencing the feeling of the water in the body and energy.   Literally, drink more water.  But do so with the awareness that this is restoring strength to your Water element.  Practice being more generous with your time and with your possessions.  Take advantage of opportunities in which you can offer even a little kindness to those with whom you come into contact.  If the Water element is in excess, focus less on your own comfort and focus more upon improving the comfort of others who are less fortunate or who have less capacity to do this for themselves.  When the element of Water is balanced within us, we can maintain joyful effort in our daily activities and feel happiness, satisfaction and gratitude in our lives.

The Five Elements: Earth

kham-earth-w-watermark The element of Earth is called sa in Tibetan.  It is symbolized by the shape of a square and its color is yellow, or golden.  The unique vibration of this element is the sound ‘KHAM’.  It is associated with the direction East.  From the Yungdrung Bön point of view, East is one of the cardinal directions but it is also associated with ‘the front’.  For instance, when looking at the image of a deity, East is always considered the front of the deity.  Earth provides solidity and stability.

Environmentally, our dependence upon the element of Earth is obvious since this is the name of the very planet that we live upon.  Additionally, it is the soil in which we grow our food and the foundation upon which we build our homes.  In the Yungdrung Bön tradition, one’s relationship with the environmental element of Earth is not only with the form.  It includes the spirits of the element itself as well as seeing the land as a living being.  Before beginning construction of a building, it is important to examine the characteristics of the land.  Traditionally, it is seen as a turtle.  If you build upon the turtle’s ‘head’, then the spirit of the land will ‘die’ and the soil will become barren and empty.  It is best to build in the ‘stomach’ of the turtle because here, there is more empty space and no ‘major organs’ will be disturbed.  Once the proper location has been determined, it is important to communicate with the spirits of the land that are already in residence at that location and to assure them that you mean no harm and that you apologize for any disturbance that the building causes them.  To simply begin digging holes, cutting down trees and erecting buildings would be similar to someone barging into your house and rearranging furniture and knocking down walls without even acknowledging your existence.  Therefore, these things are considered important for maintaining harmony.

Within our bodies, the element of Earth rules our flesh.  More specifically, it is associated with the spleen.  The element Earth, along with the other elements, also exist within us in a more subtle form as a kind of wind that ideally moves upwards in our bodies and brings nourishment to our five senses and to our brain.  The balance or imbalance of this subtle Earth wind affects our internal experience.  When the element of Earth is balanced within us, we feel stable, secure, confident and able to handle whatever comes our way.  We are steady and consistent in our relations, our commitments, and our routines.  We feel that we have enough support for our life.  And we have sustained concentration and diligence in our meditation practice.  If Earth is in excess, then we feel lazy, weighed down, and heavy.  Our bodies and minds literally plod along.  Our thinking is dull and lacks creativity or inspiration.  To the extreme, we become depressed and only want to sleep.  If Earth has become weakened, we are literally ungrounded.  It is difficult to maintain focus on anything long enough to finish it or follow through.  We are filled with doubt and find it difficult to make decisions.  We feel insecure and dissatisfied.

In order to bring the element of Earth back into balance, there are methods such as Tibetan medicine, ritual and meditation practices.  There are specific yogic exercises within the Yungdrung Bön tradition which use the focus of the mind together with the breath and movement of the physical body to balance and strengthen the subtle elements within us.  To learn more about these yogic exercises see Healing with Form, Energy and Light by Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche.  Additionally, there are other methods available to us.  For example, if the Earth element is weakened, spend time feeling the pull of gravity upon your physical body.  Sit and meditate upon the image of a mountain.  Eat heavier foods and avoid caffeine and being overly busy.  Sit still.  If the element of Earth is in excess, then get up and move the body.  Go for a walk or do other kinds of exercise.  Eat lighter more easily digested foods.  Avoid the temptation to sleep too much.  Spend time with people who are active and creative.  Pay more attention to the wind and the movement of things around you.  When the element of Earth is balanced within us, we can remain grounded and focused in any situation without getting stuck or losing the ability to change and be flexible.

The First Way: Divination, Astrology, Ritual and Medicine

Detail from the tree of health and illness which shows the root, branches and leaves of both health and illness. Photo credit: Raven Cypress Wood

The First of the Nine Ways of Bön is The Way of the Shen of Prediction and contains methods of divination, astrology, healing rituals and medical diagnosis which deal directly with the concerns of this present, worldly life. As in all of the Nine Ways, the basis for all practice is compassion.  Although the ultimate goal is enlightenment and complete release from the suffering and misery of cyclic existence, the perspective of The Way of the Shen of Prediction is upon the individual’s immediate circumstances during this very lifetime.  Within the Yungdrung Bön tradition, the knowledge related to the divination, astrology, healing, and medical diagnosis is vast.  In the words of the Buddha Lord Tönpa Shenrap Miwo:

“In general, there are 360 different kinds of divination.  There are 360 kinds of astrological calculation.  There are 360 kinds of ritual and 21,000 methods of diagnosis in order to avert the danger of death.” 

Divination or mo, This is a method through which one can obtain guidance for worldly questions such as, “Will my new project be successful?” or “Will my travel be safe?” If the answer is negative, the text will either recommend a different course of action or suggest an antidote such as prayers or ritual that could change the projected course of events for the positive. It is common to ask a lama for a divination for any number of reasons such as success of new projects, buying or selling a home, traveling, health, or marriage.

Copy of an old text detailing a method of divination taught directly by Lord Tönpa Shenrap. Photo credit: Raven Cypress Wood

There are four categories of divination within Yungdrung Bön tradition: 1) using a mala or die, 2) using the drala, or powerful protective spirits who are considered messengers of the gods, 3) dreams, and 4) reading signs and symbols. For each of these methods, it is necessary to receive instructions, transmission and empowerment. Then, a prescribed individual retreat is undertaken in order to receive the blessings and power of the respective deity associated with the divination.

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Astrological deities and symbols of the Yungdrung Bön. Photo credit: Raven Cypress Wood

Astrology or tsi, is a method to determine the harmony or disharmony with the external forces of the universe as well as a calculation of the flow of time.  For example, the Tibetan New Year begins somewhere between the beginning of February and the end of March. The exact date is determined astrologically. Each year is characterized by one of the five elements and by one of twelve animals which are alternatively male or female.  The qualities of this element and animal combination are identified with every individual born within that year. Subsequently, it is possible to use astrology in order to calculate the probable effect of any given year upon an individual in relation to health, success, wealth etc. For example, someone born in the year of the Male Wood Rat (1984) would have their force of good luck ruled by the wood element.  The year 2013 of the Western calendar was a Female Water Snake year and the year’s  force of good luck is ruled by the water element.  Because the wood element and the water element have a naturally positive relationship, the Male Wood Rat person is likely to have a very positive year related to their force of good luck.  It takes sixty years in order to complete the cycle of twelve animals and five elements.

Astrological calculations are important in order to ascertain the most favorable date and time for important events such as religious festivals, marriages, travel, significant business dealings, healing rituals, funerals, etc.  In this way, the events that take place can be in harmony with the natural energies of the universe and therefore amplify the positive outcome.

A Yungdrung Bön monk prepares for a longevity and life ransom ritual. Photo credit: Geshe Chapur Lhundrup Rinpoche.

Ritual or to, ritual methods used to prevent or stop harm coming from unseen, external forces.  According to the texts, what we perceive as empty space is actually crowded with beings that are invisible to us.  Because humanity damages and pollutes the external environment without consideration for these other beings, we cause harm and offense to these unseen spirits who then seek repayment or revenge.  This can lead to sudden unexplained loss or illness that is resistant to medical cure.

Once divination or astrology has established that the source of the disturbance is one or more of these external unseen forces, a specific ritual is advised in order to restore health and harmony.  Traditionally, a lama is asked to come to the home in order to perform the necessary ritual.  The family hosts the lama and the assistants for the duration of the ritual.  Some rituals are concluded in a single day.  Others may can take many days to complete.

Medical Diagnosis  or men, is a method of diagnosing the cause of a physical illness and prescribing a medicine to bring about a cure. The root of health is awareness and virtuous behavior, and the root of illness is ignorance and non-virtuous behavior.  This idea is expounded at great length in the Yungdrung Bön medical texts.   Health is the balance of the qualities of wind, bile and phlegm within the body.  Illness is the weakness, damage or excess of any or all of these qualities.  The hot or cold nature of the imbalance is also taken into consideration.

Old-style Tibetan medicine bags. Photo credit: Dr. Nyima Gurung.

When diagnosing the root cause of an illness, the doctor will use the three techniques for diagnosis: 1) seeing, 2) touching, and 3) questioning. These include observing the general demeanor of the patient, listening to the sound of their voice, studying the appearance and shape of their tongue, examining the qualities of their urine, and feeling the multiple pulses of both wrists.  The doctor will also question the patient about their behavior, diet and the onset of symptoms.

When prescribing medicine, the Tibetan doctor gives herbal medicines that are to be taken at specific times of day.  Medicine is most effective when taken at the time that the disease is most active or at the designated time of the affected organ.  Additionally, the doctor will give advice for diet and behavior, sometimes prescribing that a patient be more generous and less greedy, or to spend more time with spiritual practice and less time with mindless distraction.  Prevention of disease includes the discrimination of beneficial and harmful activities as well as an appropriate diet with a proper balance of rest and activity.

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