In order to accomplish the benefits of a spiritual practice, it can be necessary to be removed from the ordinary world. Here, a monk poses in front of a closed retreat hut. Inside, the retreatant is in complete isolation except for this small opening through which food is passed each day. These types of retreats continue for 49 days, 100 days and sometimes for years.
In the days following the celebration of the Tibetan New Year, Yungdrung Bön monks studying in the dialectic schools will undergo a retreat in order to practice the deity of wisdom, Mawé Sengé. This is done in order to support and increase their intellectual capacity. Students who graduate from the dialectic school are awarded the title of ‘Geshe’. Translated, the title literally means ‘Knowledgeable, spiritual friend.’ This degree is similar to a doctorate of religious philosophy in the West but takes well over a decade of study to complete. In addition to the Yungdrung Bön, the Buddhist schools of the Geluk and Sakya also have geshe degree programs. Recently, a geshe program was begun for the Yungdrung Bön nuns of Rayna Menling which is located near Menri Monastery in India.
Studies in the dialectic schools are demanding and exacting. Many thousands of pages of text must be memorized and then recited without error in front of one’s teacher. These texts cover a wide range of subjects. Not only supporting the student’s knowledge, this memorization is needed during the debates, a central feature of the dialectic education.
In a debate, there is a ‘defender’ (seated) who puts forth a thesis and aims to defend the thesis with statements of truth and without contradiction. The ‘questioner’ (standing) rigorously questions the validity of statements put forth by the defender and aims to lead the defender into contradicting his thesis. Once the proper beginning rituals are complete, the questioner begins the debate by posing a question to the defender which allows them to put forth the statement of their position. In the beginning, the questioner might ask questions in order to further clarify the defender’s position. Once this is clear, the questioner proceeds to try and draw the defender into accepting the truth of statements which will either lead to a contradiction of the thesis or establish a position that is beyond common sense. In formal debates, the defender must answer quickly or the audience will join the questioner in adding pressure to hurry, or worse, openly taunt the defender. If the defender reaches the point of directly contradicting the opening position, the debate is over and the questioner is victorious. However, it is also possible that the defender will put forth an argument strong enough that the questioner is left without a strategy and can think of nothing to say. In that case, the defender is victorious. It is also possible for the debate to conclude without a clear winner. Debates are very physical activities and can even appear to an unknowing observer as quite aggressive. Formal debates can last for many hours and continue until very late into the night.
Once the student has passed their final examinations, there are many ceremonies and rituals to be performed which occur over the course of many days. After graduation, many geshes return to their home regions in order to take on positions of leadership and education within the local temple. Others stay at the monastery or travel throughout Asia, Europe and the West in order to offer the teachings of the Yungdrung Bön.
In Tibetan astrology, there is a twelve year cycle. Each of these years is characterized by a different animal and associated with one of the five elements. Therefore, a full cycle of the twelve animals being associated with each of the five elements takes sixty years. The twelve animals according to the Yungdrung Bön texts are the Rat, Elephant, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Horse, Snake, Sheep, Garuda, Monkey, Dog and Pig. Each animal has an associated element for its life-force and a direction which is determined by the life-force element. Not only are these twelve animals associated with a particular year, they are also associated with particular months, days and hours.
2008 was the year of the Rat. Therefore, people born during this year would be a Rat and would have an emphasis of the specific qualities associated with Rat. (It is important to remember that this year corresponds with the Tibetan lunar calendar which begins somewhere between February and mid-March each year.) 2008 was also governed by the element of Earth and was a male year. So, people born during this year would be Male Earth Rats. The element which governs the life-force of the Rat is water and its direction is North. So, if a Rat person wanted to strengthen their life-force, they would focus upon strengthening the element of water internally and externally. Their positive direction is North. So, facing this direction while meditating, doing healing rituals or just relaxing and taking deep breaths is beneficial.
In general, the Rat is considered to be charming, extroverted, friendly and generous. The Rat is attracted to money, luxury, and success and often uses its extensive social contacts as a way to further these interests. Because it is independent, clever, discreet and potentially selfish, it finds ways to turn situations to its advantage. Therefore, the Rat often finds success in its endeavors as long as it does not over extend and become scattered. Although a Rat who feels betrayed in some way can become manipulative, vengeful, and aggressive, they are generally sentimental and generous to their loved ones.
The Rat’s soul day is Wednesday and the life-force day is Tuesday. These are the best days for beginning new projects and activities that are meant to increase or develop something. The obstacle day is Saturday. This day is best for cleansing and letting things go. It is not a favorable day for beginning new things.
Rat years include: 1948, 1960, 1972, 1984, 1996, 2008, and 2020
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.
One of the Four Immeasurable Qualities is ‘Compassion‘. In the Tibetan language, it is ‘Nying jé‘. Nying jé is the practice and aspiration that all beings be free from suffering and the causes of suffering. Training the mind to feel an authentic quality of compassion towards all beings, one sets the intention that all actions arising from one’s body, speech and mind will help to alleviate the suffering of all beings that one encounters either directly or indirectly.
In South Sikkim, there is a Yungdrung Bön monastery with over 30 children. Many of them are completely dependent upon the monastery to take care of their every need. The abbot of this monastery is Khenpo Yongten Gyatso.
If you would like to know more about these children, the monastery, or how you can become a sponsor, please follow the link below.
One of the Four Immeasurable Qualities is ‘Love‘. In the Tibetan language, it is ‘Jampa‘. Jampa is the practice and aspiration that all beings have happiness and the causes for happiness. Training to feel an authentic quality of love towards all beings, one sets the intention that all actions arising from one’s body, speech and mind will support the happiness of all beings that one encounters either directly or indirectly.
The Full Moon is a time when energies are naturally rising. This is an auspicious time to perform virtue such as spiritual practice, making sacred offerings, visiting sacred places, giving to charity, or protecting the lives of other beings. It is also an ideal time to engage in activities that will strengthen and increase one’s positive qualities and good luck such as raising prayer flags, bringing sacred or precious things into the home, or performing smoke offerings. Here, a group in Tibet uses wind-horse papers which are printed with mantra and prayers for good luck and good health. By tossing them into the sky, it is believed that the energy of the mantras and prayers are activated and will lift one’s energy of luck, vitality, personal power and prosperity.