Shrine for the Tibetan New Year, or Losar, and other celebrations at the Yungdrung Bon Monastery of Menri in Dolanji, India
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
Photo by Marieke ten Wolde
This is a view into a traditional Tibetan household in Kham, Tibet. This photo was taken by the photographer, Marieke ten Wolde, who documents her travels throughout Tibet with her camera and on her blog. You can see an example of her work in her new book about changes and modern Tibet, Freeing the Fish.
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.
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.
The 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 second of the Nine Ways of Bön is called The Way of the Shen of the Phenomenal World and includes rituals for communicating with external forces such as rituals of protection, ransom of the soul and life-force, and expelling negative or harmful forces. It is called ‘Phenomenal’ because it deals with phenomena that are visible and real for us. As in all of the Nine Ways, the basis for everything is compassion.
The texts of the Yungdrung Bön tradition include many details about the categories of unseen spirits and the specific kinds of harm and illness that they can cause for humans. In order to reverse these kinds of interferences and obstacles, the corresponding ritual needs to be performed to appease or turn back the unseen, external force. In general, there are four categories of rituals in the Second Way: rituals for exorcism or turning back negativity, rituals for the spirits known as dré and si, rituals for ransoming the soul, and rituals of the masters.
Rituals of Exorcism: These rituals have the immediate effect of reversing the direction of whatever harmful energy or force that is directed towards us. In some instances, it is more accurately a cleansing rather than an exorcism because it directly involves the removal of the pollution or defilement created by negative actions or circumstances. Because humans engage in activities which are impure, they create a basis for negativity. This leads to a disturbance of both the positive external spirits as well as lower kinds of spirits who become angry and seek revenge in response to harmful, human activity. In general, there are twelve different kinds of exorcism. One of the most commonly practiced rituals within this Second Way is the Sang, also called Lha Sang. This ritual uses fumigation with smoke to cleanse the impurities caused by humanity. This ritual is commonly performed in the early morning on hilltops on auspicious days. From the Offering of Sang to Local Spirits and Guardians:
“Having satisfied you with these offerings, do not send contagious illnesses, shortages of food, fighting or arguments, frost or hail to our crops, lightning or loss of property, human illness or illness to our animals. Act as a friend and give us the strength and power of your support.”
Rituals for the Dré and Si: The dré and si are two different classes of negative spirits who delight in causing harm to others. It is said that these negative spirits came into being at the first moment of phenomenal existence and that they reside at the center of the Earth. Among other things, they have the power to cause sudden accidents, create wars between nations and spread epidemics. These rituals are primarily concerned with offering gifts of appeasement and ways of subduing them.
Rituals of Ransom: The enlightened Lord Tönpa Shenrap Miwoché defined ‘ransom’ as the exchange of two things. In these rituals, elaborate offerings are given to the offending spirits as a ransom for the soul, life-span or vital life-force of an individual. There are many kinds of ransom rituals, but in general they fall into one of three categories: 1) ransom for men, 2) ransom for women, and 3) ransom for children. The ritual preparation, offerings and performance are quite specific and elaborate and can take many days.
Rituals of the Masters: In general, these rituals are of four types: 1) making offerings to the powerful but worldly gods, 2) offering to the powerful spirits who live in the atmosphere, 3) offering to the guardians, and 4) pacifying the spirits of the land, trees, water and rocks. These rituals specify appropriate offerings for each type of spirit and the proper method for giving the offering. In this way, a harmonious relationship with the spirits is maintained and suffering and obstacles towards humans are averted or resolved.
Raven Cypress Wood ©2013
Beautifully illustrated, this text is for the generation and increase of wealth, good luck and supportive circumstances. This, and various other texts, can be found in the home of laypeople. On a chosen auspicious day each year, one or more monks are requested to come and read these texts out loud in the family home so that the family may receive the blessings of the prosperity practice as well as the virtuous activity of hosting the monks during the recitation.
It is the seat of Shiva according to Hindus. Many Jains believe it to be the holy site where the founder of the Jain religion, Lord Rishabhdev, attained liberation. It is the place where Milarepa lived and practiced according to Buddhists who call the mountain Gang Rinpoche, Precious Snow Mountain. And according to the Bönpos, it is Mount Tisé, sacred dwelling place of deities, the place where Buddha Tönpa Shenrap Miwoché taught and meditated, and where many sages after him, such as the great lama Drenpa Namkha, Choza Bönmo and Lishu Taring, practiced the teachings of the Yungdrung Bön. For all of them, to make a pilgrimage to this place and to circumambulate the mountain has great spiritual significance. “Whoever visits Gang Tisé will achieve liberation after three lifetimes.” And, “If you cleanse with the purification waters of the four directions (of the mountain), you will be reborn in a pure realm.”
In Sanskrit and on most English language maps, it is called Mount Kailash. It is located in far Western Tibet in the Ngari region which is a remote and arid landscape only spotted with vegetation. With no source of wood, campfires are fueled with goat and horse dung. Reaching the area through a pass of over 16,000 feet in altitude, the air is thin and the light intensely reflects upon every object in the landscape. Until recent history, there were no roads in to this region. The mountain has a 22,028 foot peak that is topped with snow year round. Each of the four sides of the mountain are distinctively different. It has never been climbed. For the devout, that would be an unthinkable desecration. In 1980, Reinhold Messner was given permission to climb it by the Chinese. However, he declined. In 2001, a Spanish team led by Jesus Martinez Novas was given permission to climb the mountain. However, due to international disapproval, the Chinese reversed their decision and banned all attempts to ever climb the mountain.
Mount Tisé was at the center of the ancient kingdom of Zhang Zhung. Tisé is a Zhang Zhung word referencing the mountain as the source of many waters. It was the soul mountain of both the Zhang Zhung king and the kingdom and was considered the center of the world. The Zhang Zhung deity, Walchen Gekho and his 360 emanations, reside at its summit. It is described in many historical Yungdrung Bön texts in great detail. “In the center of the phenomenal world is Mount Tisé, the Nine-storied Yungdrung Mountain. From it, four rivers flow towards the four directions.” These four great rivers which originate in the area surrounding the mountain are the Karnali, also known as the Ganges which flows Southward, the Sutlej also known as the Punjabi which flows Westward, the Brahmaputra which generally flows Eastward, and the Indus which generally flows to the Northwest from the area. The texts say that Mount Tisé will survive the fires that will destroy the world at the end of the current eon. The texts describe it further: “It looks like a crystal chorten. It’s four sides are like four equal squares in the four directions.” And, “It has the four kinds of qualities: peaceful, expansive, powerful and wrathful. It is an immeasurable shrine with great blessings”
Pilgrimage season is generally May-September. The circumambulation, or korwa, begins at Tarchen, a small settlement on the South-side of the mountain. Until the Chinese invasion, it was a major center for the region’s trade. Now, although the summer continues to be the busy trade season, it is much diminished from the past. By the time a pilgrim reaches this starting point, it is possible that they have spent years getting here, often prostrating the entire journey. Once here, if a pilgrim is unable to undergo the hardship of the korwa, here at Tarchen someone can be found to be sponsored to go in their place. In that case, the merit generated by the virtuous activity is shared between the sponsor and the one actually doing the korwa. For the Bönpo and the Jain, the korwa is counter-clockwise. For Buddhists and Hindus, it is clockwise. The path is marked by many sacred places of veneration where great sages meditated or where the power and blessings of deities reside. There are also four places designated for prostrations along the way. These are areas large enough for the pilgrims to stop and spend time prostrating and paying homage to the sacred mountain. However, there are those practitioners who choose to perform full prostrations the entire length of the thirty-two mile circuit around the mountain. Doing this, a single circuit takes about two weeks. These pilgrims must carry their provisions with them and wear thick, leather aprons and mittens to protect their body from the stoney ground. For those who walk around the mountain, most choose to finish within three days. Others choose to begin hours before dawn so that they can complete the journey in a single 13-15 hour day. The pilgrim’s path rises in the thin air to an altitude of 18,500 feet at the Dolma la Pass, the highest point of the route.
In general, pilgrims perform three circumabulations of the mountain. If the pilgrim is completing the circuit in a single day, they will take a day of rest in between the three korwa of the mountain. Some make a commitment to complete 1o8 circuits. This takes two pilgrimage seasons. From the starting point at Tarchen, there is also an inner korwa. Several miles North of Tarchen past a couple of monasteries, there is a smaller mountain, called Nandi, whose korwa brings the pilgrim close to the very face of Mount Tisé. This inner korwa is forbidden until one has completed at least thirteen circumambulations of the outer korwa.
Just seeing the mountain is a blessing. And undergoing the arduous task of its korwa is said to purify one’s negativity. It is vitally important in the history of Yungdrung Bön. According to the text, “Mount Tisé, the crystal chorten, soul mountain of Yungdrung Bön, is like nine stacked yungdrungs. Externally, it is like a chorten made of crystal snow. Internally, it is like the palace of the three tutelary deities. Secretly, it is the vast and profound gathering place for the mother and sister khandro.” “Having washed away karmic traces by purifying oneself with the healing waters, you will be reborn in a joyous realm of the gods. Having reversed obstacles and adverse circumstances by performing the korwa through prostrating, you will be able to live out the full extent of your lifespan.” Thus it is said.
To read more about Mount Tisé see Sacred Landscape and Pilgrimage in Tibet by Geshe Gelek Jinpa and Charles Ramble. The Light of Kailash by Chogyal Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche. Or The Sacred Mountain of Tibet by Russell Johnson and Kerry Moran. And in Tibetan, Gangs Tise’i sKor by HE Menri Yongdzin Tenzin Namdak Rinpoche.
“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 track of the mantra recitations. Malas can be made from various materials. Traditionally, many of these materials were symbolic. 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 performed using the mala. Although there are one hundred eight beads, one complete 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 ‘additional’ 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 power that is being generated. 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 mantras that have been recited.
The mala is a sacred object and should not be worn as though it is a kind of 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.
(Samling Monastery in Dolpo, Nepal)
There are three hagiographies of Buddha Tönpa Shénrap Miwoché’s life. They are commonly known as the Do Düs, the short version which has only one volume. The Zer Mik is the medium length version with 2 volumes. The Zi Ji is the long version and has 12 volumes containing a total of 61 chapters. All of these texts are classified within the Kangyur. It is within the longer version, the Zi Ji, that the teachings of Yundgrung Bön are explained by the Buddha within the context of nine different ways, or vehicles. The 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th Ways are classified as The Causal Ways, or the Bön of Causes. The 5th, 6th, 7th, and 8th Ways are classified as the Ways of the Result, or the Bön of the Fruit. The 9th Way contains the teachings of the Great Perfection, or Dzogchen. From the 1st to the 9th Way, the view, or perspective, of the methods and teachings becomes increasingly higher. However, even though one is a practitioner of a higher ‘Way’, this does not exclude the practice of one or more of the lower ‘Ways’ should the need arise. Although the methods differ, all of the Nine Ways have compassion as their base.
In centuries past, during times of persecution, the Bönpo would hide their texts rather than have them destroyed. Later, after the political environment had changed and they were no longer in danger, the texts would be searched for and brought out from their hiding places. In this way, there came to be three different classifications of the Nine Ways of Bön according to the region in which the texts were found after being hidden. These three are referred to as The Southern Treasures, The Northern Treasures, and The Central Treasures.
In 1961, the Rockefeller Foundation gave funds to various universities who had established Tibetan studies programs in order to allow them to invite Tibetan scholars for a 3 year period. Yongdzin Tenzin Namdak Rinpoche, Geshe Lungtok Tenpa’i Nyima Rinpoche, the future abbot of Menri Monastery, and Geshe Samten Karmey were invited to England by David Snellgrove. During this time, Yongdzin Rinpoche suggested the translation of excerpts of the Nine Ways based upon the Southern Treasures. Yongdzin Rinpoche personally selected the passages that David Snellgrove translated. In 1967, these excerpts were published as The Nine Ways of Bön. At that time, very little was known about the Yungdrung Bön tradition among Western scholars. There was a great deal of theorizing and conjecture. So, although Snellgrove’s translation of the text is quite accurate, his own personal conclusions as to the origins and influences of the Yungdrung Bön should be taken within the context of the time in which he was writing. However, to-date, his translation remains the only extended translation of the Nine Ways that is available.
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The Nine Ways of Bön according to the Southern Treasures:
1. The Way of the Shen of Prediction: This Way includes divination, astrology, various rituals, and medical diagnosis.
2. The Way of the Shen of the Phenomenal World: This Way includes rituals dealing with communication with external forces such as rituals of protection, invocation, ransom of the soul and life-force, and of repelling negative or harmful energies.
3. The Way of the Shen of Manifestation: This Way includes venerating a deity or master and then applying mantra and mudras in order to accomplish a goal such as requesting assistance from natural energies.
4. The Way of the Shen of Existence: This Way is primarily focused upon rituals for the dead and methods to promote longevity for the living.
5. The Way of the Virtuous Lay Practitioners: This Way specifies the proper conduct of lay person taking vows.
6. The Way of the Fully Ordained: This Way specifies the proper conduct for those who are fully ordained practitioners.
7. The Way of the White AH: This Way is primarily focused upon tantric practice using visualization.
8. The Way of the Primordial Shen: This Way is primarily focused upon higher tantric practice.
9. The Unsurpassed Way: This Way is primarily focused upon the practice of Dzogchen, or The Great Perfection. This Way does not rely upon antidotes of any kind, ritual or practice with a meditational deity. It is concerned with the realization of the true nature of one’s own mind.