Shamanism in the Native Bon Tradition of Tibet-By Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche

Shamanism, an ancient Tradition found in cultures throughout the world, values a balanced relationship between humanity and Nature. Because of the recent alarming increase in pollution and exploitation of the environment, along with the consequential negative ramifications, such as the emergence of new illnesses, it has become even more important for humankind to recover the principle of harmony central to Shamanism in order to repair the damage done to the Earth, as well as to save people and Nature from negativity and illness.

There is an ancient Tibetan myth on the origin of negativity that recounts the causes of illness:

From the vast voidness wherein nothing exists, there arose light, Nangwa Oden (Appearance with Light), and also darkness. Male darkness, Munpa Zerden (Rays of Darkness) lay with female darkness, Munji Gyatso (Ocean of Darkness), and by their union they gave birth to a poisonous egg. This egg was hatched by the force of its own energy and steam issued into the sky, giving rise to the negative energy of space. Thunder, hail and planetary disturbances came into existence. The albumen spilled onto the Earth and polluted it, giving rise to naga-derived illnesses such as physical handicaps, leprosy and skin diseases. The shell gave rise to harmful weapons and infectious diseases, and the disturbances and illnesses of humans and animals came forth from the membrane. From the yolk essence there came forth Chidag Nagpo (Black Life-Stealing Fiend) with bulging wrathful eyes, gnashing teeth, and matted hair with blood rising into the sky like a cloud, holding the black cross (of evil power) in his right hand and the disease-dispensing lasso in his left.

It was the negative powers of this egg that produced birth, old-age, sickness and death – the four sufferings which are as vast as the ocean.

Black Life-Stealing Fiend is the demon of ignorance, and he has a retinue of four demons. The white demon of jealousy, like a tiger-headed man, forces one to undergo the suffering of birth; the yellow demon of attachment, with a chusin (crocodile) head, forces one to undergo the suffering of illness; and the black demon of hatred, who wears a kapal (skull cap), forces one to undergo the suffering of death.

These five demons together manifest the poisons of the five passions (ignorance, jealousy, pride, attachment and hatred), that give rise to the 80,000 negativities which they introduced into the six realms of existence of beings: gods, demigods, humans, animals, hungry ghosts and hell denizens. These almost completely destroyed the essence of beings and of the Earth.

In that moment the great Bon sage Sangwa Dupa (secret essence) manifested as the wrathful yidam deity Tsochog (Foremost Excellence) and vanquished the five demons. Through the vow the demons were forced by Sangwa Dupa to take on that occasion, his teaching still has the power to communicate with these negative forces.

This is the vow Tibetan shamans recall in rites when they communicate with disturbing spirits, particularly the five great demons, to convince them not to create problems and confusion: “Because of your promise to Sangwa Dupa, you must not disturb my sponsor or my people, for which I pay you with this offering.”

In fact in the Tibetan tradition, although the shaman may not see the particular spirit, ordinarily invisible, that is causing a specific problem, it is through the power of the shamanic rite that the shaman contacts the spirit, reminding it of its vow not to disturb humanity. This rite must be performed in the proper way by reciting the myth that recounts the origin of the rite and making appropriate offerings.

This myth comes from the ancient Bon religion of Tibet. According to the teachings of Dzogchen, the highest spiritual path in that tradition, illnesses and disturbances are deemed to be the result of the imbalance caused by the dualistic vision that arises when a person does not remain in the ‘natural’ state of mind.

Through conceptualising, negative and stressful emotions arise that afflict man with nervous disorders and physical diseases. However, just like the Native American shamans, the shamans of Tibet hold a different view. They believe the source of the illness to be the energy imbalance that humans create between themselves and all existence, where they provoke the spirits of Nature. To heal people, the Earth and space, it is necessary to contact these spirits, in order to restore balance and re-establish harmonious relationship with them.

These spirits (that humans disturb by their various activities) are the spirits of the five elements (space, air, fire, water, and earth), of the four seasons, and the natural spirits of the Earth, (trees, rocks, mountains, rivers, plants, the sky, sun and moon, stars and clouds, etc.,).

People disturb the sadag (Earth spirits), the nye (tree spirits), and the tsen (rock spirits), by digging the ground, cutting down trees and excavating mountains. They provoke the theurang (space spirits) by polluting the air, and they disturb the lu (water spirits) by polluting rivers and lakes.

This pollution affects people’s inner being as well as the environment. By polluting space, they pollute their minds; by polluting fire, they pollute their body heat; by polluting external water, people internally pollute their blood; by polluting the earth, they pollute their bodies.

Shamans do heal adventitious, mental and physical disturbances, though only at a gross level. According to the Bon teachings, ailments are caused either by nad (physical disease) or by a disturbance of vital energy by a don (spirit). The sick person is diagnosed by a doctor to ascertain if the illness has a physical etiology, through urine and pulse tests.

However, if it is found to be due to a provocation of energy by a spirit, then it will be necessary to call a shaman healer. Through divination or astrology, or sometimes through meditation, the shaman will discover the nature of the disturbing spirit and the way to remove it, such as by payment of a ransom.

The founder of the native Tibetan Bon religious tradtion was Tonpa Shenrab Miwoche, and a follower of his teachings is called a Bonpo. An ancient term for a master practitioner of Shenrab’s teachings is Shen. Bonpos classify the spiritual teachings and practices Shenrab expounded, in nine ways or vehicles. These are divided into four causal and five resultant ways.

Tibetan Shamanism is found in the first four causal ways. Shamans in Tibet take a very earthy and dualistic approach to life, healing the disturbances and illnesses in this life without being concerned about the next life.

Although their motivation is the altruistic ambition to relieve others’ suffering, it lacks the generation of universal compassion that is found in the resultant ways. It is the absence of the cultivation of compassion for all sentient beings, and the aspiration to realise Buddahood as the inspiration for practice, that is the major difference between the causal and resultant ways.

These first four causal ways of the native Tibetan shamans’ paths, are called: Chashen (The way of the Shen of Prediction), Nangshen (The Way of the Shen of the Visible World), Trulshen (The Way of the Shen of ‘Magical’ Illusion), and Sichen (The way of the Shen of Existence).

Chashen, the first way, comprises medical diagnosis and healing, as well as various ancient divination and astrological rites performed by the shaman to determine whether the person who needs to be healed has an energetic imbalance, or is being provoked by a demonic spirit, or negative energy (as mentioned above). Nowadays these rites are still widely practised in Tibetan communities.

The second way, Nangshen, comprises various rituals for purification to summon energy and enhance prosperity, to suppress and liberate negative forces, and to invoke and make offerings to powerful deities and pay ransoms to demonic spirits.

These practices are very widespread in Tibet. Families perform small ones, while large scale ones are usually performed collectively in towns, villages and monasteries. In ransom rites, an effigy is prepared which represents the beneficiary of the rite, or the shamanic practitioner who is performing it. I remember when my mother had been ill for a long time we tried to heal her by means of different medical treatments, but nothing helped. We then performed several minor rites, but these did not work either. So finally we invited some shaman monks, who performed a big ransom rite, in which they prepared a large effigy of her (in fact, people often make life-size effigies) and we dressed it in her clothes, so that it was very lifelike and resembled her closely. Then we performed the ritual, offering the effigy in her place to repay her karmic debt to spirits. She was given a new name, Yehe Lhamo, in place of her old name, Drolma, as a kind of new birth into the world, and she recovered from her illness.

Shamans of the third way, Trulshen, go where there is strong, wild energy, where they perform practices to conquer the spirits and demons that inhabit those places, subjugating them into their service. One achieves this through practising mantra (words of magic power), mudra (meaningful hand gestures to communicate with gods and spirits), and samadhi (meditation), while performing sadhanas (devotional practices) to engage various wrathful goddesses such as Walmo and Chenmo. The aim of these wrathful practices, which are directed against enemies of the teaching, are to protect the practitioners and the teaching against danger and threats.

It is very important to perform these actions with an attitude of love and compassion towards other beings, and should not be performed solely for the shaman’s benefit.

Working with the soul of the living and the dead is the most important feature of the fourth way, Sichen, which contains a detailed explanation of the principle of the la (soul), yid (mind), and sem (thinking mind). “The la is the karmic trace, which is stored in the kunzhi namshe, (or base consciousness). The sem follows the karmic trace and produces blissful, painful and neutral experiences which are experienced by the yid.”

When a living person’s soul is lost, shattered, or disordered, there are practices to recall and reinforce its energy, such as soul retrieval. In relation to the dead, there are explanations of 81 different types of death, such as accidental death, suicide, murder, and sinister death.

Following these kinds of death, it is very important to perform appropriate rites, especially if the death occurs in a place which is energetically disturbed (for instance, a place where untoward events such as accidents regularly occur).

A particular specific method found in this way, is that of the ‘four doors’, to vanquish negative spirits, using 360 different methods. There are also funeral rites to guide the soul immediately after death, communicating with the ghost of the deceased and feeding it until its next rebirth.

One of the most important practices performed by Tibetan shamans of the sichen path is soul retrieval – Lalu (literally redeeming, or buying back the soul), and Chilu, (redeeming the life-energy).

These practices are widespread in the Bon tradition and also in all Tibetan Buddhist schools. One could discuss the soul and life-energy philosophically at great length; but in brief, life energy is the force that keeps mind and body together and the soul is the vital energy of the person. External negativities can cause these two forces to decline, be disturbed, or even lost. Through the lalu and chilu rites, these forces can be recalled, repaired and balanced. To recall the life force in the chilu ritual, the shaman sends out energy as light rays, like a hook, to catch the blessings of the Buddhas; the power of all the protectors, protectresses and guardians; the magic power of all the spirits and eight classes of beings; and the vital energy of the life force of the beings of the six realms. He summons this powerful energy from all the corners of the universe and condenses it into syllables, which he introduces into the disturbed person’s heart through his crown chakra, reinforcing his life force.

Shamans perform several different soul retrieval rites. In one rite, a deer – that will recall the soul – is placed on a plate floating in a vase of milk. The shaman then stirs the milk with a dadar (auspicious long life arrow), in order to determine whether the soul has returned. In fact if the deer is facing the house altar when the plate stops turning, the rite has been successful; if it faces the door it has not, and the rite has to be repeated.

In another rite, the beneficiary has to cast white dice on a white cloth, betting against a person of the opposite sign (according to Tibetan astrology), who casts a black dice on a black cloth. When the beneficiary wins this means the rite has been successful.

One of the principle ways of reinforcing the life force is recitation of the mantra of the life deity. The texts say that through this power, the shaman recalls the life force wherever it has strayed. If it is finished, he prolongs it; if it has declined, he reinforces it; if it is torn, he sews it; if it has been severed, he fastens it.

Lalu soul retrieval is performed in a similar way: the shaman summons the spirit which has stolen, or disturbed the person’s soul, and offers it a torma (offering cake) representing the union of the five sense pleasures – completely satisfying it with the visualised object, so it will immediately give back the soul it has taken.

There also seems to be a strong connection between the practice of soul retrieval and the popular lungta practice, which is performed to reinforce fortune and capacity, by ‘raising the wind-horse’. This is a very powerful rite, performed by large groups of Tibetans, on top of mountains on the first, or third day of the New Year. The participants arouse and invoke the mountain spirits by making smoke offerings, putting up prayer flags and throwing five-coloured cards bearing mantras into space in order to reinforce prana (vital air), which is the support of the la. In this way the la is also healed and reinforced, and consequently the participants’ capacity, fortune and prosperity increase, and whatever venture they undertake becomes successful.

These healing rites, in which Bon masters and shamans communicate (either fully conscious or through out-of-the-body experience) with spirits and demons, are widely practiced in all Tibetan Buddhist schools.

It is interesting to note that one of the ways the Buddhist schools attempted to suppress Bon, was by accusing Bon practitioners of being ‘intellectually uncivilized’ – of being mere primitive shamans. However, in the deepest sense, shamanic belief is the Tibetans’ very lifeblood. Tibetans of any religious school who get ill will enact rituals, such as putting up prayer flags, to invoke their guardian spirits and perform ransom rites to remove disturbing spirits, without a moment’s hesitation.

Shamanism contains much wisdom that is used to harmonise imbalances, by working on re-establishing good relationships with spirits. The work of Native American shamans in contacting guardian animals for guidance, strength and knowledge, is of great value for healing and for restoring a harmonious relationship with animals, the elements, the sky and the whole environment.

A practitioner of the Bon ways, however, might warn contemporary western shamans about the dangers inherent in certain of the practices they perform

The drum journey is one such example, used for finding the ‘guardian’ animal (which they then trust completely) and collaborate with in healing. It is by no means certain that the ‘guardian’ animal that the shaman meets during the drum journey will be beneficial. In that kind of journey, or out-of-body experience, one can meet hundreds of different beings, just as a non-human being, coming into the human world, will meet hundreds of humans.

The shamanic experience is very important, so it is crucial to have the right guardian, which must be found through real awareness and realisation.

In Tibet most locations, towns and mountains have their own guardian protectors, just as the various religious schools share protective guardian deities. Yet it was yogis, lamas and realised masters who recognised, subjugated and initiated these powerful beings as dharmapalas, or guardians, of the teachings. Until meeting these masters, many of these beings were wild and untrustworthy spirits or the ghosts of evil or confused people, just as the guardian animals the shaman meets may be evil.

In conclusion, it seems to me that many shamans now active in the West focus on working with the emotions and problems of this life, relating with spirits through shamanic drum journeys to heal themselves and others. This practice is very beneficial in curing mental and physical disturbances, and certainly the work shamans do is also very important to restore ecological balance, but it should not remain at that level.

Rather, their work could be enhanced by deepening their knowledge, to obtain comprehension of the nature of mind, and generating the aspiration to engage in contemplative practice to realise Buddhahood.

In similar fashion, if the causal means of shamanism were practiced widely in the world, it would be of great benefit for the environment and the world community.

It would be of even greater benefit if all nine vehicles were practiced.


Lama Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche is the founding director of the Ligmincha Institute, a centre devoted to the education of students in the thought and practice of Bon religious teachings and transmissions. He is also a lineage leader of a living Bonpo tradition having received the precious Bon transmissions directly from his teachers, Lopon Sangye Tenzin and Lopon Tenzin Namdak. In particular, he received the entire oral teachings of Zhang Zhung Nyang Gyud. He is the author of ‘Wonders of the Natural Mind; the Essence of Dzogchen in the Native Bon Tradition of Tibet‘ – a newly-published book, concerned primarily with communicating the Bonpo view of Dzogchen as a spiritual path. Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche also teaches at Rice University and travels widely in the US and Europe giving workshops.

This article first appeared in Tantra Magazine Issue 8.
We thank Tantra for their kind permission to reprint it.

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