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Bön: Culture of Ancient Tibet


Bön is the indigenous spiritual culture of Zhang Zhung, the area surrounding Mount Kailash in present day Tibet. The Bön tradition holds a rich history of tantra, shamanism and meditation, with evidence dating back 4,000 years, and an oral history of 18,000 years.


Buddha Tonpa Shenrab, in the system of Shenrab Miwoche, taught many Bön teachings for relative as well as ultimate happiness. These are collected into the Nine Ways of Bön or nine paths, each a set of practices dependent upon one's level of awareness, from relieving suffering in daily life to gaining ultimate awareness (Dzogchen).

The Bön Kangyur (200 volumes) and Tangyur (300 volumes) or ancient scripture contains teachings in sutra, tantra and Dzogchen. There are currently over 500 monasteries and nunneries in the Tibetan and Himalayan regions. In these challenging times, the Bön culture continues to survive, but much is needed to preserve the ancient teachings. 


The Himalayan people of Zhang Zhung cultivated powerful and effective practices and rituals to allay the effects of living in a harsh environment. In addition, meditators of great ability received teachings and transmissions for healing temporal as well as ultimate issues. Among the most widespread of these are the Four Causal Vehicles, including Signs—divination, astrology, medicine, and clearing and nourishing rites; Appearances—various types of protective rites; Magical Power—wrathful rites; and Funerary Rites. These methods primarily address issues for worldly happiness. They contain beginning practices for the spiritual aspirant, teaching them how to achieve happiness in future lives.

The Bön believe that there are five inner and five outer elements, which are interdependent. The outer elements are fire, water, air, earth and space. They, as well as most Tibetans, also believe there are many beings that are not visible to the ordinary eye. Many of them live in and care for the sky, water and earth. Humans often disrespect non-humans by destroying the environment which incurs wrath and obstacles for humans such as sickness, accidents, and other destructive actions. When the elements and our relationship with the earth and spirits become damaged, methods are used to restore ourselves and surroundings to proper balance.

Hundreds of ancient rituals exist for addressing problems in daily life, including peaceful and wrathful methods to create greater harmony and peace in the universe/ all environments. Many of these rituals continue to be of great benefit. When we live in balance with the elements, with the earth and spirits, and hold a deep reverence and oneness with nature, harmony and abundance are more likely to abide.


• smoke and water offerings
• water purification
• soul retrieval
• ransom and restoration rituals
• balancing the elements
• removing negative spirits
• retain and restore life force
• guidance through death and dying


Example: Naga Sutra

The Naga Sutras are an extensive three volume collection of ancient sacred teachings which Buddha Tonpa Shenrab taught to the Eight Naga Kings and Queens to resolve environmental problems, including illness or other obstacles of Naga and humans. Particular emphasis is placed upon the importance of keeping outer and inner elements in balance. Every year there are more natural disasters; as technology increases, people are less and less aware of natural forces. There are many practices and rituals which bring us into greater harmony with spirits and nature – for example, divination, astrology, medicine, and practices to purify and rejuvenate. Our bodies and environment are all comprised of the elements. Outer and inner elements are connected. Invisible beings like nagas support the earth and water. If the outer elements- the earth, oceans, air, etc. are harmed, the spirits can cause difficulty for humans. These Naga Sutras are included in all Tibetan Buddhist canons and are frequently practiced.


Example: Sand Mandala

Kunsang Gar presented a rare and special Naga Sand Mandala Ritual in September, 2019. This extensive Five Naga King Mandala Ritual was given by Buddha Tonpa Shenrab approximately 4000 years ago in the ancient Bön region. The healing ceremony removes obstacles to peace, harmony, health and happiness. 

The mounting desires of people over time have led to increasing devastation of the natural environment through activities such as digging the earth, destroying rock, cutting trees, poisoning and polluting water and air, etc. Due to these kinds of activities, the five elements become disordered and out of balance. Nagas are the powerful and temperamental beings that rule the earth and waters. Thy possess great power and, when disturbed, are relentless in their retaliation. They react by wreaking more and more havoc, including causing intractable illness and disease, accidents, war, or natural disasters such as earthquakes, flooding, fire, storms, volcanic eruptions, and so on.

There is a category of disease caused by the Nagas which are often resistant to normal healing methods or medicines. With deep focus, conviction and faith during the ritual, many problems can be resolved, including the physical, emotional, and mental health of attendees, family, and communities. Remarkable healing outcomes can and have been experienced through making the extensive offerings and prayers. Other benefits such as wealth in terms of well-being, housing, aid, peace, or harmony, etc. can result.

Sand mandalas transmit positive energies to the environment and to the people who view them. While constructing a mandala, chant and meditate. A mandala’s healing power extends to the whole world even before it is swept up and dispersed into flowing water—a further expression of sharing the mandala and ritual blessings with all.

The Naga Sand Mandala and Offerings are made in order to purify and acknowledge the destructive actions people have made and to heal our relationship with the nagas and the earth. The mandala itself represents an extraordinary palace and is offered to the eight Naga Kings and all the nagas; additional offerings of mantras, meditation, chanting, holy objects and teachings are made—all to satisfy and pacify the nagas and restore harmony. This ritual creates a greater balance of all inner and outer energy between mother earth and beings.


Example: Soul Retrieval 

In the Tibetan tradition, the mind is the force that reincarnates. Soul, on the other hand, is a term that signifies a temporary support for life, a kind of life-energy inside every living being. It is not identified as matter or consciousness, or even as persons themselves. It has varying types and degrees of energetic potency similar to consciousness or form. 


In relation to this, ancient texts speak of a three-fold category: mind or consciousness — ‘sem’ in Tibetan; thought or intellect — ‘yi’ in Tibetan; and soul — ‘la’ in Tibetan. The analogy given for the relationship between these is that the mind is like fire, the intellect is like firelight, and the soul is like smoke. In this context, mind or consciousness could also be said to be like the ocean, which stays in one place, thought or intellect like the waves, and movement of the ocean and soul, like mist or clouds rising from the ocean. 


Soul can very easily become separated from the body. When a person experiences a serious accident or emotional trauma such as intense fear or loss, part of their soul can be separated or lost, or perhaps taken by negative spirits. Then the ritual master is requested to conduct the ritual to call back the person’s lost soul, give offerings as ransom to the spirits, and to draw in auspicious elements for longevity and prosperity.

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