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Sacred Dance of the Yungdrung Bön Tradition

Cham dance at Menri Monastery on the 29th day of the 12th month. Photo credit: Unknown

As part of the Tibetan New Year monastic rituals and celebrations, sacred dances are performed and public viewing is allowed. Sacred dance exist in both Buddhist and Yungdrung Bön religious traditions as a means of conveying wisdom related to the path of enlightenment as well as the mundane world. Sacred dances, Tibetan: cham, are performed by both monks and laypeople. Each cham has its specific characteristics such as the particular costume, if there is a mask or no mask, the specific dance steps and body movements, which instruments are to be played as an accompaniment, and so on. When an ordained person wears the dress and ornaments of a deity and performs the dance, they dissolve attachment to their own identity and merge with the body, speech, and mind of the enlightened deity. In this way, the dances are meant to be viewed not as entertainment but with devotion and a pure view that one is witnessing the actual deity. Thus, illness, obstacles and negative influences are pacified and health, longevity and prosperity are strengthened and a multitude of inconceivable blessings are received.

Among the variety of cham within the Yungdrung Bön religious tradition, there are three cycles of sacred dance that are commonly performed: (1) Sacred dance of the Mother Tantra, (2) Sacred Dance of the NIne Zema Sisters, and (3) Sacred Dance of the Nine Indestructible Shenraps. 

His Holiness the 33rd Menri Trizin Lungtok Tenpa Nyima Rinpoche is widely credited with personally rescuing the Bön traditional sacred dances from obscurity. He was a student in Amdo and had responsibility for the dances for six years. During three of those years, he performed at the end of the line of dancers. After those three years, he performed as the dance master at the beginning of the line. He trained both monks and nuns to perform the traditional dances. Having danced as both a novice at the end of the line as well as the dance master at the head of the line, he was able to preserve the complete performance instructions for the dances.

His Holiness 33rd Menri Trizin demonstrates sacred dance steps at Menri Monastery. Photo credit: Unknown

The Sacred Dance of the Mother Tantra was not commonly performed for the public until after the 15th century. It is similar to Buddhist Mother tantra cham dances in that it demonstrates the path of liberation. It also shares the characteristic of the dancers wearing black hats with black coverings hanging in front of the eyes. This cham is performed after creating the mandala of the Mother Tantra and performing the feast offering for the collective Mother Tantra deities. The steps of the dance can be divided into three categories that are named according to the first three syllables of the Tibetan syllabary: KA, KHA, and GA. During the KA steps, all of the deities are invited with the sound of the large drum. With the KHA steps, the six emanations of Sipé Gyalmo, the forty peaceful and wrathful deities, the forty-five female guardians, and the thirty-five supreme deities of space are presented with offerings. With the GA steps, the four kinds of enlightened activity are accomplished and blessings are bestowed. This dance has been greatly supported by the Shen family, who are the descendants of the the Lord Buddha Tönpa Shenrap Miwoché.

Mother Tantra cham with its characteristic black hats. Photo credit; Unknown

The Sacred Dance of the Nine Zema Sisters depicts the beginning of our world system according to Yungdrung Bön cosmology. According to one account, the goddess  Lhamo Chucham Gyalmo and Lha Gö Tokpa produced twenty-seven eggs. From the first nine eggs emerged the Zema Gu, or the nine Zema sisters who have animal heads and human bodies. These nine sisters were appointed as protectors by Takla Mebar. It is said that this dance began with the tertön Shenchen Luga who discovered the text in 1017 AD.

During the dance, the dancers wear animal masks that represent each of these nine sisters. From all twenty-seven eggs emerged one of twenty-seven sisters. In the early days of Tibet, all twenty-seven sisters were depicted in the dance. This cosmology is deeply rooted in Tibetan history such that the country of Tibet was once referred to as “born from an egg.” The nine zema sisters are:

  1. Blue Dragon-headed
  2. Dark-green Snake-headed
  3. Black Garuda-headed
  4. White Lion-headed
  5. Red Bear-headed
  6. Dark-red Wolf-headed
  7. Dark-brown Tiger-headed
  8. Yellow-green Garuda-headed
  9. Female Lu with a hungry mouth

This dance has fifteen different kinds of steps:

  1. Guiding along the Path steps
  2. Tiger Steps
  3. Gait of a lion steps
  4. Peaceful and Wrathful steps
  5. Meri steps
  6. Mother Tantra steps
  7. Wrathful manner steps 
  8. Welcome steps
  9. Energy moving steps 
  10. Drawing the Arrow
  11. Taming the Sky
  12. Taming the Earth
  13. Shooting Four
  14. Sipé Gyalmo steps
  15. Cycle of Bön Lamas steps

Monk dancers dressed as the six emanations of the protector Sipé Gyalmo. Photo credit: Unknown

Sacred Dance of the Indestructible Shenraps is different from other dances in that there are many lead dancers. It has been performed since the 15th century every year on the 29th day of the 12th lunar month as instructed by the founder of Menri Monastery, His Holiness the 1st Menri Trizin Nyammé Sherap Gyaltsen Rinpoche. This sacred dance depicts nine religious protectors of the Yungdrung Bön tradition that have all taken vows to protect the religion and its followers. The dance has nine distinct types of steps that each have a precise meaning.  The nine protectors depicted in the dance are:

  1. Sipé Gyalmo who is the principal of the dance

  2. Mudü who is the chief of the fierce dré and srin spirits

  3. Tsen who is chief of the powerful tsen dré spirits

  4. Absé Gyalwa who is another chief of the powerful tsen spirits

  5. Nyipangsé who is a gyalpo or king spirit of Zhang Zhung

  6. Dzam Ngon who is also known as Blue Dzambhala or Kubera and is a wealth deity

  7. Sheltrap Chen

  8. Drakpa Sengé

  9. Tago

Monk dancers emerge from the meditation hall to perform before the crowd at Menri Monastery. Photo credit: Unknown

Tibetan translations by Raven Cypress Wood

Raven Cypress Wood ©All Rights Reserved. No content, in part or in whole, is allowed to be used without direct permission from the author.

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

Tibetan prayer flags at Boudhanath Stupa in Kathmandu, Nepal. Photo credit: Raven Cypress Wood

“May the life force and vitality increase!

May the body’s strength increase!

May personal power and influence increase!

May the force of good luck be well developed!

May the soul and prosperity increase!

May the life force, vitality, health, personal power, soul, and lungta be well developed!

May all lungta, soul, and prosperity that have been diminished become well developed!

Essence of the three jewels and a supreme rarity, kind root lama, please think of me!

May external, internal, and secret obstacles be cleared!

May these wishes bring the accomplishment of all goals and intentions!”

— Prayers from a Yungdrung Bön lungta prayer flag

Tibetan translations by Raven Cypress Wood

Raven Cypress Wood ©All Rights Reserved. No content, in part or in whole, is allowed to be used without direct permission from the author.

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The Tibetan New Year: Removing Obstacles & Making Aspirations

Ransom effigy. Photo credit: Raven Cypress Wood

The Tibetan New Year, known as Losar, falls upon the 1st lunar day of the 1st lunar month each year. In 2021, this day coincides with February 12, 2021 on the Western calendar. In the weeks leading up to Losar both the monasteries and households are busy with preparations. It is customary to make many fried Tibetan cookies known as khapsé. These khapsé are offered to the shrine and also to guests during and after the Losar celebration. Wheat grass seeds are planted in small pots and the young green shoots are placed with the other offerings as a symbol of a good harvest in the coming year. Monasteries and nunneries prepare for the traditional sacred dances as well as the end-of-year prayers and rituals.

Khenpo Tenpa Yungdrung Rinpoche with New Year khapsé. Photo credit: Unknown

In the monasteries, the extensive ritual of the wrathful yidam Phurba known as the Tro Phur gutor chenmo begins the ceremonial conclusion of the previous year. This ritual lasts for three days and includes many sacred dances called cham as well as elaborate rituals for removing any obstacles or negativity from the previous year. This important gutor ritual begins on the 27th lunar day and concludes on the 29th lunar day of the 12th month. The monastic gutor ritual concludes on the evening of the 29th with the removal of the main prayer flag from the courtyard. In 2021, these days coincide with February 8th-10th.

On the 29th lunar day, which is called nyi shu gu, all Tibetans clean their homes and clear their debts from the previous year. In 2021, this day coincides with February 10th. That evening, a dokpa ritual of turning back negativity is performed in each household. The family shares a special stew of nine ingredients called gu thuk. Although there can be regional variations, according to HE Menri Pönlop Rinpoche, these nine ingredients are meat, wheat, barley, rice, cheese, corn, troma (a himalayan root vegetable), salt, and water. Cooked with the stew are balls of dough which contain items that are meant as a playful divination that reveals the character of the family members who receive them in their bowl of stew. Rather than the actual items, the name of the symbols can also be written on a small piece of paper and placed inside the balls of dough. There is some variation of the items used but for example, whoever receives cotton in their ball of dough will have good health all year. Whoever receives chili is said to be sharp-tongued, and whoever receives the white stone is said to be a good-hearted person, but the recipient of charcoal is a black-hearted person, etc.

Everyone saves a small amount of the last of their stew to be used as a ransom offering for the negative spirits of the previous year. This ritual payment settles any remaining karmic debts with negative spirits so that they become satisfied and go away happy. An effigy is made which must include representations of each of the five senses. Along with the leftover stew, each person also makes a karmic debt torma. This is a small ball of dough that has been rubbed over the body from head to toe in order to absorb any illness or negativity. Then, the ball of dough is squeezed inside the hand so that each of the fingers make an impression. This karmic debt torma is placed on the offering plate with the effigy along with a piece of hair and a string from the clothing of each family member. A small candle is placed on the plate in front of the effigy and it is lit before the ransom is carried out by one of the family members.  Once it has been left in an appropriate place, the person leaving it must not look back as they rush back home.

After the offerings have been collected and before the effigy is carried out, a prayer is recited to formally present the offerings to the spirits and request that in exchange for the ransom, they not create any trouble. The following prayer is from the dokpa ritual of the enlightened fierce deity Nampar Jompa.

The fierce enlightened deity Nampar Jompa.

“OM

Come here, all you spirits who have a commitment to the teachings of the Buddha!

Come all gods, humans, and demi-gods, all spirits that cause harm or disease, all male and female demons. Without excluding anyone, all you spirits, come!

Accept this ransom torma which repays my karmic debts. Do not cause harm to this family or community and don’t create any obstacles to our spiritual practice!

Now, each of you happily return to your homes and listen to the noble teachings of the Buddha.

SO OM BA DZRA TRO TA SUM TRI GHA TSA YA GHA TSA YA 

NÖ JÉ JUNG PO A MU KHA RA YA HUNG PÉ

On the 30th, New Year’s Eve, the houses are decorated, the shrines are cleaned, and fresh offerings are placed on them. It is common for people to be up most of the night preparing for the next day. Even so, they get up early the next morning to perform a ritual fumigation offering and to make aspirations for the new year. The first spring water of the new year is considered very auspicious and it is common for people to go directly to the community well after midnight and try to be the first to collect water to offer on their shrine. Generally, on New Year’s Day everyone stays at home or only leaves home to go to the monastery in order to pray and make offerings.  However, 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 strengthen the positive energy and harmonious bonds for the coming year.

All translations and content by Raven Cypress Wood ©All Rights Reserved.

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Anniversary of the Human Birth of Buddha Tönpa Shenrap Miwoché

Buddha Tönpa Shenrap Miwoché. Photo credit: Khedup Gyatso

The 15th day of the 12th lunar month, January 28, 2021 on the Western calendar is the 18,038th birth anniversary of the founder of the Yungdrung Bön tradition, the Enlightened Lord Tönpa Shenrap Miwo Künlé Nampar Gyalwa.  Already an enlightened being, Buddha Tönpa Shenrap Miwoche chose to be born into this world in order to guide beings from suffering to liberation.  He was born into the royal Mu lineage in the kingdom of Tazig Olmo Lungring.

Traditionally, the anniversary of his birth has been celebrated on the 15th day of the 1st month of the lunar calendar.  However, based upon research by the renowned Yungdrung Bön scholar and supreme lama, His Eminence Yongdzin Tenzin Namdak Rinpoche, the actual date is believed to be the Full Moon day of the last month in the Tibetan lunar calendar.  This is a powerful and auspicious day for performing virtue or spiritual practice.  The benefits of these activities are greatly multiplied.

“Namo!  You are the supreme teacher, one who has gone beyond bliss, an authentic and completely enlightened being, a manifested buddha and teacher, Tönpa Shenrap Miwo. 

You have the wisdom of omniscience and possess both great compassion and skillful means.  You are without emotional afflictions and have ceased all defilements.  You have power and clear self awareness.  A marvelous emanation, you have cleared all obstructions and destroyed the door to birth into cyclic existence.  

Your face is like the sun and moon, and you see throughout the ten directions.  100,000 light rays emanate from your divine body.  You are adorned with ornaments which are like rainbows and your divine body is so beautiful that one does not know how to look away. 

In your right hand, you hold a golden chakshing painted with a turquoise yungdrung which shows that you are lord of the 3,000-fold universe and conqueror of this world system.  Your left hand holds the mudra of equipoise which shows that you have destroyed the door to birth into the cyclic existence of lower rebirth. 

May the cycle of manifested teachings completely turn, I pray!  Please hold us within your compassion myself and all other sentient beings without exception! 

I feel remorse for everything immoral and improper that has been experienced because of the power of the afflictive emotions.  I feel regret!  

Through this open admission of wrongdoing, please agree to cleanse and purify me, I pray! 

Free me from the ocean of suffering and misery of cyclic existence, I pray! 

AH OM HUNG SÉ LA GYER RO HRUN PUNG YÉ SOHA”

— Extracted from Homage to the Enlightened State of the Omniscient Tûlku

According to the text, today is a particularly auspicious day to recite The Tséwang Mönlam, Tséwang’s Precious Mala of Beneficial Aspiration Prayers. This prayer has been translated into English by Raven Cypress Wood and made publicly available for personal use. To find the download link for the translation, go to the Publications page of this website or click https://ravencypresswood.com/publications/ and scroll down.

Tibetan translations by Raven Cypress Wood

Raven Cypress Wood ©All Rights Reserved. No content, in part or in whole, is allowed to be used without direct permission from the author.

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2021: Year of the Metal Elephant

Thangkha depicting the Tibetan astrological symbols and their relationships. Private collection: Raven Cypress Wood

The twelve animals of Tibetan astrology according to the Yungdrung Bön texts are the Rat, Elephant, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Horse, Snake, Sheep, Garuda, Monkey, Dog and Pig.  Each animal has a specific element associated with its life-force and a direction that is determined by that element.  Each year one of these twelve animals is associated with one of the five elements of: metal or iron, wood, fire, water, and earth. In other contexts, metal is referred to as space, and wood is referred to as wind or air. It takes sixty years for all twelve animals to be associated with each of the five elements. This is one complete cycle that repeats again and again.

February 12, 2021 is the Tibetan New Year and begins the year of the Metal Elephant. (Astrological texts outside the Yungdrung Bön tradition use the symbolic animal of the ox or cow.) Therefore, people born on or after February 12th will be a Metal Elephant and will have an emphasis of the specific qualities associated with the Elephant.

Depiction of elephant in the Northeast corner of a Yungdrung Bön astrology thangkha. Photo credit: Raven Cypress Wood

In general, the Elephant is stable, steadfast, and practical.  It can express itself well and is rather independent.  It prefers to approach things logically and without the cloud of emotion.  It is competent and trustworthy, preferring to lead rather than to follow.  It values tradition but can be resistant to change, rigid and authoritarian.  Although it can have a temper, the elephant is generally patient and loyal.

The Elephant’s soul day is Saturday and the life-force day is Wednesday. These are the best days for beginning new projects and activities, signing contracts or making commitments, beginning a pilgrimage or other important travel, and so on.  The obstacle day is Thursday.  This day is best for cleansing, letting go of grievances and discontentment, and practices of purification. It is especially important on this day to not take risks or speak mindlessly, and It is not recommended as a favorable day for beginning new projects such as fundraising, signing contracts, groundbreaking for construction, and so on.

Elephant years include: 1949, 1961, 1973, 1985, 1997, 2009, and 2021

Life-force is one of the five natal constituents that are associated with one of the five elements for each individual. The other four individual constituents are: bodily health, personal power or charisma, lungta or the force of good fortune, and the soul. For individuals born as a Metal Elephant their constituents and associated elements are:

  • Life-force=Earth
  • Bodily Health=Earth
  • Personal Power or Charisma=Metal
  • Lungta=Water
  • Soul=Fire

The element that governs the life-force of the Elephant is earth and its direction is northeast.  So, if an Elephant person wanted to strengthen their life-force, they could focus upon strengthening the element of earth internally and externally. Their positive direction is northeast. Facing this direction while meditating, doing healing rituals or just relaxing and taking deep breaths is beneficial.

Each year it is helpful to calculate the relationship between the elements governing the constituents of the year and an individual’s natal constituents. There are six possible types of relationships. They are: excellent, very good, good, neutral, bad, or very bad. If any of the natal forces have a challenging relationship with the element of the year and need to be strengthened, this can be done by reinforcing the associated element. For example, the life-force element of a Rabbit person has a very bad relationship with the life-force element of the Metal Elephant year of 2021. For this, a simple but effective way of increasing the strength of their life-force would be by raising prayer flags. Bön and Buddhist prayer flags are printed on material representing the colors of each of the five elements and contain prayers and mantra to strengthen and protect the natal constituents.

Prayer flags at Menri Monastery in India. Photo credit: Unknown

If you were born during a previous year of the Elephant, 2021, as well as other Elephant years, is considered an obstacle year and a time when there is a greater possibility of misfortune, missed opportunities, accidents, and so on. This same astrological principal applies for all of the other eleven animal signs during their associated year. Therefore, it is recommended to engage in practices that support good fortune and spiritual merit such as engaging in any kind of virtuous activity, hanging prayer flags, saving or protecting the life of other living beings, repairing any broken spiritual commitments or damaged relationship with one’s spiritual brothers and sisters, and/or performing prayers and rituals to remove obstacles.

Although the associated elements to four of the five natal forces change according to the birth year, the element of the life-force is determined by the animal and remains the same. Therefore, it is possible to calculate the relationship of the year of the Metal Elephant upon the life-force of each of the natal animals without having knowledge of the birth year or the other element of the other four natal forces.

The relationship of the natal animal’s life-force to that of the Metal Elephant of 2021:

Rat: Excellent

Elephant: Neutral

Tiger: Very bad

Rabbit: Very bad

Dragon: Neutral

Snake: Very good

Horse: Very good

Sheep: Neutral

Monkey: Bad

Garuda: bad

Dog: Neutral

Pig: Excellent

For each of these animals, there remains the four other natal constituents to consider in order to have a better idea of the potential influence that 2021 will have upon the individual. For example, although the life-force calculation could be bad, the lungta calculation could be excellent. Because lungta is the natal force that has the power to raise the other forces, it could have the effect of strengthening the life-force. Traditionally, these calculations are done yearly. If the yearly horoscope calculations result in any challenging aspects, preventive measures are taken in order to remove or decrease the potential for any problems to manifest.

According to the words of Buddha Tönpa Shenrap Miwoché, the practice of developing sincere, unbiased and unlimited compassion is the greatest of all protections, and engaging less with non-virtue and more with virtue supports all the forces of our vitality, health, and good fortune.

A common prayer within the Yungdrung Bön tradition that is used to remove obstacles is the Bar Che Lam Sel, The Spontaneous Wish-fulfillment of Removing Obstacles from the Path. The English, Spanish and Portuguese translations of this prayer are offered by Raven Cypress Wood for the personal use of any sincere practitioner. Click on the Publications tab above and scroll down to the download links for the prayer.

Geshe Yongdong Losar. Photo: Courtesy of Sherab Chamma Ling.

For those interested in a traditional Tibetan astrological horoscope to calculate the influence of 2021 on their natal constituents of life-force, bodily health, personal power, lungta and soul, Geshe Yongdong Losar of Sherab Chamma Ling in Canada offers Tibetan astrological horoscopes through his website. Additionally, he offers life horoscopes, partnership horoscopes and horoscopes for the deceased which are traditionally used in order to determine how to best remove obstacles for the deceased and support conditions for their positive rebirth. Follow this link for more information about Geshe Yongdong and his astrological calculations: https://sherabchammaling.com/product/astrology-reading/

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