The tradition of Yungdrung Bön represents the oldest known form of what we in the West presently think of as Tibetan Buddhism. This ancient, unbroken lineage extends back thousands of years, and may be considered the philosophical and cultural basis for all present forms of Tibetan Buddhism. Bön is often labelled “Tibetan Shamanism” in the West, although this is something of a misconception, as you will see below.
Many people are vaguely aware of Bön, but are not aware of the true meaning of the term, or the traditions that it refers to. I was fortunate enough to be able to sit down with Geshe Chaphur Rinpoche, founder of the Gyalshen Institute, an organization dedicated to preserving the wisdom and culture of Yungdrung Bön. He received his Geshe degree (equivalent to a Ph.D) from Menri Monastery, the principle monastery of the Bön tradition, in 2008. He comes from the Chaphur lineage, one of the oldest and most important of the lama lineages of Amdo (eastern Tibet).
We hope that this article will help to clear some misconceptions regarding ‘Tibetan Shamanism’, and that it will provide insight into the traditional Bön ways of interacting with the natural world and use of plant medicines.
Is Bön Really “Tibetan Shamanism?”
The first topic of discussion was the concept of “Tibetan Shamanism”. Many people in the West think of Bön as a form of Shamanism, as opposed to other Tibetan spiritual traditions that are considered “Buddhism”. As Geshe Chaphur explained, however, this is somewhat inaccurate.
“In Tibetan, we don’t have a word that translates as ‘Shaman’. That word actually comes from Siberia – specifically, from the Evenk language. So, it’s not appropriate to refer to a Tibetan tradition as ‘Shamanism’. Nevertheless, there are many similarities between Siberian Shamanism and ancient forms of Tibetan spirituality. There are similarities in the worldviews and rituals, and even in the traditional garb and feather headdresses that are worn in ceremony. For instance the ancient Zhang Zhung Kings wore some feathers on the tips of their crowns. Like Siberian shamanism, both ancient and modern, Tibetan Bön practitioners believe in the existence of formless deities who lived in the land, water, plants, rocks, storms, and so forth. Ancient practitioners made offerings to these local nature spirits, often by sacrificing animals. This is very similar to Siberian Shamanism. These ancient Tibetans called themselves Bön-po (or Bön practitioners), as well.
“However, the present day Yungdrung Bön tradition was established by the Buddha Tonpa Shenrab about 18,000 years ago. Tonpa Shenrab taught the Bön-po that it was not good to kill animals, as this created negative karma. Rather, Tonpa Shenrab taught the Bön-po to make representations – red and white cakes, tormas (figures made of flour and butter) and so forth as offerings. Due to this, we cannot refer to the Yungdrung Bön as Shamans in the traditional sense.
“If you ask Tibetan people who they think of when they hear the word “Shaman”, they will not talk about the Bön. They will, instead, refer to indigenous North and South American, and Siberian peoples.
“Unfortunately, these days there are people on the border of India and Nepal who claim to be Bön-po but who are still sacrificing animals. These people should not be confused with the followers of Yungdrung Bön, who do not believe in taking the lives of other beings as sacrifices.
How do the Bön view the natural world?
Although there are some similarities between the Bön view of the natural world and the Shamanic worldview, there are also differences. Geshe Chaphur explained the Bön view of the natural world as follows:
“According to the Bön, plants (trees, flowers, and so forth), do not have consciousnesses. They are not considered sentient beings. In other traditions I know that plants are considered sentient, but in general, the Bön do not believe that they are, although it is a much debated topic. However, the Bön do believe that spirits live within natural reflections of the five elements – the earth, the water, the wind, fire, and space. And these spirits are considered conscious sentient beings. A stone, for example, is not a sentient being, but there are spirits living within the stone that are sentient. The Buddha Tonpa Shenrab has said that ‘If all the sentient beings in the universe had form, there wouldn’t be enough space in the world for them to fit.’
“Since all elements of nature have sentient beings living within them, we must always take care of nature. When we damage a tree or a rock, we create suffering both for beings with physical bodies, and for the formless spirits that live within the tree or rock. It is the same when we pollute a river – the river itself is not sentient, but the formless beings that live within that river suffer. Therefore, in the Bön tradition, it is important to make offerings to these spirits, particularly the Sabda (Land Owners or local spirits), Lu (Nagas or water spirits), Nyen (Plant/Tree spirits), and Toed/Ton (Spirits that live within rocks, in stones, and so forth).”
How do the Bön use plant medicines?
“According to Bön history, Tibetan medicinal texts originated in the Himalayan region. Many of these texts date back to time of Tonpa Shenrab (18,000 years ago). For example, there is a big Tibetan medicine text, Bumzhi, narrated by Chepu Trishe, which is made up of four chapters and which is all about special Tibetan medicine and plants, particularly roots, leaves, yalka (tree branches), tree fruits, and so forth. Bumzhi is the foremost Tibetan text on medicine. Of course, the plants that are featured in these texts and used as medicines are the Himalayan plants that grow in these mountain regions.
“Plants are used as part of ritual, as well. First, the plants are transformed into medicine. Making the medicine itself is a very important ritual, and the plants are blessed repeatedly as they are prepared. Once the plant is made into medicine, rituals such as the Medicine Buddha are performed, and the plants and herbs are blessed once more. The Medicine Buddha is the compassionate manifestation of Tonpa Shenrab, the great Enlightened One of Bön.
“We do not make teas or creams – this is a modern adaptation to Western tastes. Traditionally, plants are pounded and dried and made into powders and round pills. Most contain a number of different plants.
“Incense is another form of plant medicine which is widely used in Tibet. Incense is primarily burned for purification, especially incense composed of many herbs. Up to hundreds of blessed herbs are mashed, shaped, and dried to form incense. Along with water, incense is considered a special purification object by the Bön.”
What can we do to heal the planet?
“Think of the planet and the universe in this way. We human beings are one big family living in one house together. Around the house, on the left and the right sides, are the sun and the moon and many ornaments – the stars and planets and galaxies. We have many decorations in our house – mountains, lakes, continents, rivers, forests – we live in the center of a very beautiful mandala. Of course, we all want to live beautifully and comfortably, we all want to live in a nice house and take good care of our living space, while still enjoying all of the beautiful mountains, stars, plants, lakes, rivers, and so forth that decorate it. Therefore, we must be responsible and take good care of the whole house. We must be sure to keep it clean, and not damage or destroy any of the decorations.
“If we want to live, if we want very strongly to stay alive in this world, we must care for the plants, communicate with the trees and the flowers. We all depend on each other. All of these phenomena depend on us, and we depend on them just as much. There are many sentient beings in our home – animals, insects, spirits, and so forth – but the strongest and most intelligent being is the human. Therefore, we are the head of the household, and it is our responsibility to take care of everything.
“These times are very dangerous, and we are facing a lot of destruction from the elements – earth, water, wind, fire, and so on. As we have already seen, there is an increase in hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, and other natural disasters. In my opinion, this is because the formless spirits who inhabit the natural world are having their homes destroyed. Rocks and mountains are being destroyed and moved with dynamite, we are mining many elements out of the earth to make electronics, nuclear power plants, and so on. The oceans, rivers, and lakes are being polluted and used to dump trash. So, the spirits who live in these spaces become angry and uncomfortable, just as you would if someone destroyed your home or stole your possessions. And they are sending disasters – the water spirits are sending hurricanes, the earth spirits are sending earthquakes, and so on. In my opinion, it is important that those who are doing rituals and making offerings to the natural world, be they Bön-po, Buddhists, Shamans, or any other spiritual practitioner, do these rituals as much as possible. Please, let us all be peaceful and be good stewards of our environment. These days, very few Shamans are making animal sacrifices. Rather, Shamans are doing something very, very good, and very important. So please keep doing these practices as much as possible.”
More information on the Bön tradition
The Hidden Treasures of Bön