When describing a state that inherently contains no divisions, it is challenging to provide any concrete definitions. The state of non-duality is inherently immaterial, endless and ineffable. Therefore, I approach the writing of this article with great caution. As someone who is still very much in the beginning stages of study on this topic, I normally would not presume to embark on such a discussion. However, I choose to do so here for two reasons: because this website, in essence, is a discussion of non-duality and the ways in which working with plant medicines and shamanic practices can bring us nearer to that divine space, and because, in this time of great planetary shift and social movement, I feel strongly that the more information available on this topic, the better. That said, if you are interested in attaining a more complete and accurate understanding of non-duality in the context of Bon, I have included a number of links and references at the end of the article which should help to guide you towards the teachings that are most appropriate to your path.
Every world religion, in some respect, contains discussion on the state of non-duality. Although we are most accustomed to hearing about concepts of non-duality in eastern religions such as Buddhism and Taoism, there are many schools of thought, including Christian and Muslim ones, that emphasise this concept. The Gnostics, for example, often wrote about the inseparability of dualities, such as life and death, good and evil, and so forth. Similarly, Middle Eastern Sufis, such as Jalad ad-Din Rumi, often refer to the importance of experiencing both sides of duality, as seen in the following poem:
God turns you from one feeling to another and teaches by means of opposites so that you will have two wings to fly, not one. ~ Rumi
A discussion of non-duality in world religions would need to be extremely extensive, and would probably encompass several large books. In this article, then, we will be considering the concept of non-duality from the perspective of the Yungdrung Bon practices of Tibet and Central Asia. The reason for this is two-fold – first of all, the Bon tradition contains one of the most extensive bodies of writings and practices related to the concept of non-duality as part of the study of Dzogchen, the ‘Great Perfection’. Secondly, many Bon practices are extremely similar to the shamanic practices found throughout much of Siberia, the Himalayas, and China, and even to shamanic practices found in North America! Therefore, by considering Bon concepts of non-duality, we may also come to understand how many other ancient shamanic cultures viewed and worked with this powerful concept, and we can come to understand shamanic practices and peoples more comprehensively.
What Is Bon?
The tradition known as Yungdrung Bon began on this planet in Central Asia in the Confederation of Zhang Zhung, an alliance of eighteen tribal states that was located in the region of modern day Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Iran, Tibet, and parts of Western China. Far back into ancient times, the people of this region practiced what we now call Prehistoric Bon, a collection of ancient shamanic practices that are very similar in nature to those found in Siberia, other parts of Asia, and even the Americas.
According to traditional Bon histories, in 16,017 BCE the Buddha Tonpa Shenrab Miwo, was born in the central city of this region, Olmo Lungring. There he founded the tradition known as Yungdrung Bon. The primary differences between Prehistoric Bon and Yungdrung Bon are twofold. First of all, Tonpa Shenrab Miwoche taught the people of Zhang Zhung to substitute butter and barley flour effigies for live animals in their sacrificial rituals. This prevented them from experiencing the negative karma associated with causing suffering to other sentient beings. Secondly, he eventually introduced the practices of tantra and Dzogchen, which allowed practitioners to more directly access the divine, non-dual state (Ermakov 2008).
It is important to know that in all forms of Buddhism, Gautama Buddha (the famous Indian Buddha who founded the Hinayana and Mahayana paths of Buddhism) is not the only Buddha. Instead, any individual who achieves full awakening is considered a Buddha. From the Bon perspective, Gautama Buddha is actually the third Buddha of this particular time period. Tonpa Shenrab Miwoche is the first, and Tapihritsa, an ordinary nomad who became fully awakened between the 7th and 8th centuries A.D. is the second. All paths of Buddhism recognize that there are multiple Buddhas, but Indian Buddhism often denies the existence of any enlightened beings prior to Gautama Buddha. As we will see later on, this was a result of political intrigue that occurred in Tibet upon the arrival of Indian Buddhist in the country.
At the center of Zhang Zhung lies Mount Tise, or Kailash, a very sacred site that is venerated by the Jains and Hindus, by Buddhists of all kinds, by Shamanic practitioners in Nepal and other parts of the Himalayas, and of course, by the Yungdrung Bon. Practitioners from all of these traditions believe it to be their sacred duty to make a pilgrimage to this mountain at least once in their life (Ermakov 2008).
So, why does this mountain, which is in a very remote and empty region, have such a sacred status? It seems likely that all of the traditions that venerate this mountain can trace their roots to some extent back to the traditions of Prehistoric or Yungdrung Bon. Indeed, similarities between Bon and Buddhist, Hindu, Taoist, and other practices of the region are many. The doctrinal and practical similarities between Bon and Tibetan Buddhism are so great that most inexperienced individuals would not even be able to tell the difference at first glance! So, by studying Bon practices, we are able to gain a greater understanding of many diverse Asian and Middle Eastern faiths.
Tibet and the Persecution of Bon
Unfortunately, the vast majority of people in the west who have heard of Bon have been informed that it is an ancient shamanic religion which was violent and chaotic. It is said that around 750 AD, Indian Buddhists came to the land of Tibet and pacified and converted these savage peoples. This is not quite true, however, and, at least according to the Bon-po, this viewpoint is the result of deliberate propaganda created in response to political intrigue between Bon-po and Tibetan rulers at that time in history.
It is true that the ancient practitioners of Prehistoric Bon were somewhat chaotic – as discussed above, they practiced animal sacrifice, as did many ancient shamanic peoples. According to the Bon, however, it was not the Buddha Gautama who put a stop to this practice. Rather, as discussed above, the Buddha Tonpa Shenrab taught practitioners of prehistoric Bon how to substitute barely flour and butter effigies for live animals, thus making them a Buddhist people committed to the path of compassion. He did this thousands of years before the birth of Gautama Buddha (who is nevertheless recognized as an enlightened being and teacher by the Bon-po). Tonpa Shenrab also encouraged the people of Zhang Zhung to continue their other indigenous practices of divination, astrology, and healing, many of which are still practiced today. Later on, tantric and Dzogchen (Great Perfection) practices were also introduced (Ermakov 2008).
At the time of the coming of Indian Buddhism, Tibet was a vassal of Zhang Zhung and was ruled by a triad – the king, the Bon-po priests, and the doctrine of Yungdrung Bon. The kings and the priests supported each other mutually, leading to many years of peace in the land. However, some of the kings became unhappy with the lack of absolute power that was a result of this triple system of rulership. One king, Srongsten Gampo, invited Buddhist monks from India to come build shrines and live in Lhasa, the capital city. However, at this time, Yungdrung Bon and Indian Buddhism still coexisted peacefully.
It wasn’t until the reign of Tison Deutsen, born in 718 AD, that the conflict began. Deutsen wanted to become an absolute monarch, and in order to do this, he began to replace Yungdrung Bon with Indian Buddhism. He invited several gurus, including Master Padmasambhava, to come and give teachings in Tibet. Padmasambhava, for his part, was unconcerned with politics, and happily worked with Bon-po practitioners to develop excellent spiritual practices that were and still are very beneficial. Other Indian monks, however, were openly hostile to the Bon-po priests, and would not accept that there were any Buddhas other than their own. The Bon-po were accused falsely of committing animal sacrifices, and King Deutsen exiled the Bon priests, or forced them to convert to Indian Buddhism or commit suicide. Since this time, the history of Tibet has primarily been written by Indian Buddhist clergy hostile to Yungdrung Bon, who characterize it as a backwards black magic religion embroiled in blood-shed and violence. This is similar in nature to the demonization of pagans by the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages, although with somewhat less catastrophic results.
However, Yungdrung Bon and Indian Buddhism are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, they are both based on the same basic principles, and each has much to offer to the enrichment of the other, as a number of sages throughout the years have discovered, despite political conflicts. Guru Padmasambhava and his disciple Vairochana, for example, were not at all hostile to Bon, and Vairochana even spent a great deal of time translating both Buddhist and Bon-po texts on Dzogchen, the path of non-duality. Much of the ritual and teaching of the Tibetan Buddhism that we know today is actually a combination of Bon and Indian Buddhism, especially when it comes to the older schools, such as the Nyingma (Ermakov 2008).
Unfortunately, with the Chinese invasion of 1950 and the Cultural Revolution of 1959, Tibetan Bon schools, along with all other schools of Buddhism in Tibet, were persecuted harshly, and many monasteries, sacred objects, relics, and texts were destroyed. Many practitioners were killed, but others managed to escape and set about the task of restoring Yungdrung Bon, this time bringing it to the world at large. Beside the obvious benefit of these valuable teachings coming to every corner of the planet, the Cultural Revolution also had the unintended benefit of beginning the healing process between all sects of Tibetan Buddhism – political intrigues became unimportant, and slowly the sects are beginning to work in concert to maintain and spread their traditions.
The Two Vehicles of Bon
The teachings of Bon are of particular interest to those individuals who study shamanism because they essentially combine shamanic ritual and the highest teachings of Buddhism into one tradition. The entire body of the teachings of Bon may be separated into two vehicles – the Bon of Cause and the Bon of Fruit.
The Bon of Cause is tailored for individuals who are still firmly convinced of the solidness of physical reality. It contains teachings on divination, astrology, medicine, exorcisms, soul retrieval, funeral rites, and destruction rights meant to liberate the consciousness of wicked demons. It is thought that many of the teachings in the Bon of Cause come from the ancient prehistoric Bon tradition that existed before the coming of Buddha Tonpa Shenrab. He understood that the best way to assist people in attaining enlightenment was to encourage them to continue their present practices, but to remove any traditions that might lead to negative karma, such as animal sacrifice. In this way, the peoples of the land were able continue their shamanic practices while accumulating many benefits.
As Yongdzin Lopon Tenzin Namdak describes, when Yungdrung Bon was first introduced very few people knew how to meditate, and it was difficult to spread the practice. The people were very shamanic and worked as nomads or farmers, often struggling to survive. So the Teachings were first introduced through medicine and divination. The people saw that these practices worked to heal physical troubles and to assist in problems with weather and so forth, and so the Teachings became more widespread and the people gained more trust in the Bon priests. Practices for appeasing and making offering to local deities were also encouraged in order to assist farmers and nomads in having a good livelihood. In this gentle way, the Bon teachings were spread throughout Zhang Zhung and Tibet.
The Bon of Fruit, on the other hand, is tailored towards more advanced practitioners, and contains both tantric and Dzogchen teachings. For reference, the tantra we are discussing here is not directly related to sex, an unfortunate misconception that is common in the west. Essentially, tantric practices are those in which the practitioner works intently with a deity or guru who represents the embodiment of certain absolute qualities, such as divine compassion, love, courage, and so forth. The tantric practitioner strives to unify with and transform into this deity in a spiritual sense, working to fully embody these excellent qualities in themselves. Some tantric practices are sexual, but those are often most advanced. Preliminary tantric practices include mind training, various types of external and internal yoga, and other forms of meditation practice.
Dzogchen practices are considered the most advanced in the Bon teachings, and are completely focused on transcending duality and entering the natural state, the base of consciousness. The rest of this article will discuss the Bon concepts of the universe, concepts of duality, and the ways in which Dzogchen allows individuals to move into non-duality.
It is important to remember that on the path of Yungdrung Bon, practices from all Vehicles may be used by practitioners of all levels. Even the most advanced Dzogchen practitioner may experience difficulties in the physical realm that make it more difficult to practice, such as sickness or interference from negative forces. At this time, practices from the Bon of Cause, such as medicine and offerings to local spirits may be used in order to create a beneficial environment for higher levels of practice (Ermakov 2008).
The Creation of the Universe
In order to understand the Bon concept of non-duality, it is first essential to understand how the Bon believe that duality appeared in the first place. According to the Srid pa’i mdzod phug and Drenpa Namkha’s commentaries on it:
“At the beginning there was empty space, Namkha Togden Chosumje; nothingness. However, it contained the five causes nonetheless. Trigyal Khugpa, the forefather of Ye, the positive dimension of light and virtue, drew those causes unto himself and released the sound ‘ha’ from which arose winds which, taking the form of a swiftly-spinning light wheel, started moving in the emptiness. From the rotation of the wheel there arose heat and thus the element of fire was formed. Through the contrast of the coolness of the winds and the fire’s heat there arose a condensation which became dew, the water element. This in turn was churned by the winds causing particles of matter of the earth element to cluster onto it and be spread far and wide. Traveling in space, these particles condensed and attached to one another forming the earth and the mountains. From the essence of the created elements there appeared two cosmic eggs: the cubic egg of light and the pyramidal egg of darkness.” (Ermakov 2008, 184).
The text goes on to say that from the egg of light, the light gods of the Sky and all good things emerged. From the egg of darkness, the evil gods and all forces of ignorance and evil were born. The ancestors of both gods and humans and demons and evil spirits were also born at this time.
The Manifestation of Duality
According to Yungdung Bon, these two polar forces are in a constant struggle to control reality. These forces are described as Ye, which represents existence, positive, and light, and Ngam, which represents non-existent, negative, and dark. In Prehistoric Bon, this duality was often seen as an external battle between gods and demons. The duality of the universe is also seen in human beings, both internally, and externally. After all, each individual has positive and negative aspects of personality and mind.
However, the true origin of suffering is not the force of darkness alone. Rather, it is the battle between light and dark forces that causes pain in the state of samsara. The methods of the Bon of Cause, as discussed above, are useful in pacifying external phenomena that make practice difficult, but the true way to escape suffering is to “wholly pacify internal dualistic tendencies thereby bringing them to the fruit of complete Buddhahood” (Ermakov 2008, 187).
Dzogchen – The Great Perfection
So, essentially, it is the battle between light and dark that causes suffering. To look at this a little more deeply, as we have seen above, light and dark were both born out of the same empty space. Therefore, at their base, light and dark are the same thing. However, as humans practicing in samsara, we are generally ignorant of this fact. This leads us to become attached to positive feelings, experiences, etc., and to have aversion to or anger towards negative feelings, experiences and so forth. Attachment and aversion lead to negative emotions, which cause suffering and lead us to identify as an individual separate from other sentient beings, from the planet, and from the empty base from which everything in the universe arose. In order to escape the cycle of samsara, we must somehow purify ourselves of these negative emotions and reconnect with the empty, vast space of existence from which we all arose and into which we will all dissolve in the end.
According to Yungdrung Bon, there are several paths that one may take. According to the Sutra Path, commonly seen in schools of Tibetan, Indian, Chinese, and Japanese Buddhism, the passions must be renounced. Therefore, one must not participate in any activity which might cause negative emotions to arise, just as a normal man must not eat poisonous plants, as they will surely kill him. Thus, activities such as sex should be avoided and physical and mental austerities are practiced.
One may take the Tantric Path, in which the practitioner does not reject the passions, but rather tries to transform them into tools for practice, much like a doctor mixes poisonous plants with complementary plants in order to create medicine.
Finally, according to the Dzogchen Path, passions may be liberated effortlessly as they arise, just as the peacock happily eats poisonous plants, becoming more and more beautiful as a result. In the Dzogchen path, the practitioner strives to recognize that all phenomenon, both positive and negative, arise from and dissolve into the non-dual state of emptiness. Therefore, neither positive or negative experiences are problematic (Wangyal 2000, 49).
The path of Dzogchen is essentially one of mind training. First, the practitioner must learn to control the moving mind through the practice of concentration on an object. This can take the form of a yantra, a mantra or other sacred sound, or both. The practitioner must learn to focus on this external stimulus in a state of relaxed, sustained concentration.
Then it is possible to begin the practice of contemplation, in which the practitioner trains in resting in the empty state of non-duality. As the Bon teacher Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche says, “In concentration practice there is still dualism between the subject that is concentrating…and the object of concentration…and there still also remains dualism between inside (the consciousness inside the mind-body of the meditator) and outside (the object of meditation). But in contemplation there is no subject or object…there is no longer relative existence, and perception is by yogic, direct perception…this level of experience is immediately attainable by the practitioner…simply remaining in the state of contemplation where there is no inner or outer, where there is the recognition that all ‘outer’ reality is a projection of the ‘inner’ state, is sufficient” (Wangyal 2000, 91).
Essentially, one learns to connect awareness (rig pa) with the ground of being from which all things come (kunzhi). The ground of being is always present, like the vast blue sky. However, sometimes it is obstructed by clouds. Similarly, kunzhi is always present, but is sometimes obstructed by our thoughts and the movements of the mind. When we start to become aware of the ever-present all-encompassing nature of the ground of being, we enter the non-dual state and truly begin the practice of Dzogchen.
Death in Bon
The culmination of the Dzogchen path is the attainment of the ‘rainbow body’, in which the practitioner dissolves each elemental force that makes up the physical body back into the base of non-dual consciousness, leaving no physical remains behind. It is said that there have been Bon teachers as recently as the beginning of the twentieth century who were able to manifest this experience.
Even for less advanced practitioners, however, death is still a very important time for any Bon practitioner. This is because it is said that at the time of death, one returns, at least for a time, to the natural state of non-dual consciousness. If one is sufficiently familiar with this state, it is possible to become liberated from samsara at this time and to fully integrate with the non-dual state. However, if one is still attached to the physical body and the ego and negative emotions of the previous lifetime, one will be swept here and there in a period known as the Bardo, the intermediate state.
Essentially, it said that in the Bardo state many sounds, lights, and rays arise, which may manifest as visions. If the practitioner can recognize she is not separate from these visions, that these are simply manifestations of consciousness, she may be liberated. If not, she will be attracted to or repulsed by these visions, confusing them for reality and remaining attached to the ego of the previous lifetime. The deceased will then often wander in confusion until she eventually reincarnates into another state of existence, the nature of which will be based on the negative emotions that were the most prevalent in her last lifetime.
The time of death is a great opportunity for the practitioner, because all of the negative emotions that exist in the gross and subtle body are dissolved and one becomes extremely clear and connected with the state of non-dual awareness. If one is able to remain unattached to the negative emotions and the ego at this time, one will escape the cycle of Samsara and become a Buddha.
The Bon-po say that the dream state is a sort of mini-death or Bardo state which we enter each night. Therefore, the practices of dream and sleep yoga are very important in preparing for the death process. There are many practices of dream and sleep yoga in different traditions, but the key is to try to remain as aware and clear as possible during the process of going to sleep and dreaming. This is actually similar in many ways to the practices of vivid and lucid dream induction that have become popular in the West.
As a side note, I highly recommend Timothy Leary’s “The Psychedelic Experience” as a simple, accurate (though very Westernized) discussion of both the Bardo state and the psychedelic state as induced by plant medicines. Perhaps it is possible to prepare for the Bardo experience when working with various plant medicines!
Dzogchen and Quantum Physics
Of great recent interest is the fact that science, particularly quantum physics, seems to be rapidly reaching the same conclusions that Bon scholars and teachers reached thousands of years ago. For example, according to the Bon, our universe is a projection of the sentient beings that inhabit it, and is a miniscule segment in the Three Thousandfold Universe, which is filled with endless universes similar to our own. Each universe has sentient beings like us, and Buddhas who manifest to teach there.
From a description of the Bon universe: “Our universe is in the centre with twelve universes above and twelve universes below. Forty strings of twenty-five universes are arranged around it like pillars thus making one thousand universes. Around them is a fence, and that is counted as the first thousands. This thousand is counted as one unit and there are again one thousand of them arranged in the same manner, surrounded by a fence. That is the second thousand” (Ermakov 2008, 201). This exponential nature of universes continues into eternity, to point that even the Buddhas cannot count them all. There is said to be no limit to the number of universes.
Similarly, in quantum physics we have the idea of the multiverse, which suggest that the universe is part of a collection of hospitable and inhospitable universes with slightly different physical constants. Similarly, String Theory “holds that all matter is composed of energy vibrating in 10 dimensions of space-time…it describes 10 (to the) 500 universes, each with different physical properties” (Chawn 2006).
It also seems that many quantum physicists are coming to understand, through the power of science, that we are all composed of the same energy, that we all come from the same consciousness and return to the same consciousness. Some scholars, such as Dr. Amit Goswami, even describe these concepts using very similar words to those used in translated Dzogchen texts – all phenomenon come from the Ground of Being (Kunzhi in Tibetan), and all phenomenon are inseparable from the ground of being. Any duality or separation that we believe exists is only the manifestation of the moving mind. The observer is one with all that she observes. In other words, science is beginning to comprehend and prove this ancient wisdom within its own rules and self-mandated boundaries!
Since science is beginning to recognize that there is no duality or separation between, well, anything, may we not then conclude that we are all one? That humanity is one with the planet, one with the universe, and beyond? If we can understand and embody this concept, there will be no need for conflict or struggle, because these events arise from the competition of dual forces. And if there are no dual forces to be found, then it follows that there will be no conflict.
There is little doubt that the only way for us to move forward as a race is to put aside our illusions of reality as merely material and to come to understand the connectedness and inseparability of all beings and all things. It is not enough to intellectually comprehend this, however. We must experience it and come to know it even more deeply than we know ourselves. The Dzogchen teachings of the Yungdrung Bon are just one path towards fully comprehending non-duality – more are coming to light and being discovered each day. Whatever your path, though, know that the best thing that you can do for the world is to create this understanding of non-duality within the self. If enough of us can do this, then, as Dr. Goswami suggests in his film “Quantum Activist”, we will create paradise on earth.
The concept of non-duality and the ancient shamanic practices that underlie the Bon tradition can be found at the roots of every essential wisdom tradition the world over. Therefore, the path of Yungdrung Bon is not the only path. If you feel attracted to this method of practice, by all means learn more about it and perhaps to connect with a community in your area. If this tradition does not speak to you, however, rest assured that there are hundreds of others just as rich and effective. You get to search for the wisdom that speaks to you the most and select the path that holds the most meaning for you. As an ancient Japanese proverb says:
There are many paths to the top of the mountain, but the view is always the same.
The important thing to remember when working within any tradition is that intellectual understanding is not sufficient – one must have direct experience of non-duality through spiritual practice in order to experience beneficial effects.
Ermakov, D. Bo & Bon: Ancient Shamanic Traditions of Siberia and Tibet in Their Relation to the Teachings of A Central Asian Buddha. Kathmandu, Nepal: Vajra Publications, 2008.
Goswami, A. The Quantum Activist, 2009.
Wangyal, T. Wonders of the Natural Mind. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion Publications, 2000.