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Ancient Tibetan Bonpo Shamanism
Bonpo The roots of Tibetan culture lie deep in the archaic soil of Northern and Central Asian shamanism. This is also true today when most Tibetans are practicing Buddhists-- their Buddhism being a religious culture deriving from ancient and medieval India.
Buddhism has been amalgamated with the ancient indigenous shamanism and pagan animism of that country, thus giving Tibetan Buddhism its unique and especially colorful character. The principal function of the shaman is the healing of the illnesses that afflict the members of his or her tribe, and so one can rightly say that ancient Tibetan religious culture centered around the practices of healing.
The therapeutic expert or professional in this regard was the Bonpo shaman-healer who treated and cured not only the diseases of the physical body, but more especially the illnesses of the soul, in order to bring the psyche of the afflicted individual back from fragmentation and alienation into wholeness and well-being. Furthermore, the shaman served the clan or tribe not only as a healer, but equally as a guide for the human soul on its journey beyond the present life through the perilous Bardo into its next rebirth.
The shaman was able to function as a healer and a guide of souls pre-eminently because of his or her mastery of alternate states of consciousness, "the archaic states of ecstasy", so that one could voluntarily enter the Otherworld of the spirits, a non-ordinary reality parallel to our familiar world of the senses and its conventional reality. The shaman could thus enter into and explore the landscapes of the mind, the collective unconscious psyche, and return thence with treasures of knowledge and power in order to benefit humanity.
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Bonpo and Nyingmapa Traditions of Dzogchen
In general, the Dzogchen teachings are found only in the old unreformed Tibetan schools of the Buddhist Nyingmapas and the non-Buddhist Bonpos. In both cases, these teachings are substantially the same in meaning and terminology, and both traditions claim to have an unbroken lineage coming down to the present time from the eighth century and even before. Both of these schools assert that Dzo gchen did not originate in Tibet itself, but had a Central Asian origin and was subsequently brought to Central Tibet by certain masters known as Mahasiddhas or great adepts.
There thus would appear to exist two ancient and authentic lineages for the Dzogchen teachings, the Buddhist and the Bonpo. As I have previously discussed the Nyingmapa Buddhist tradition of the origin of Dzogchen in my book The Golden Letters, here I shall present a preliminary survey of the Bonpo tradition of Dzogchen known as the Zhang-zhung Nyan-gyud. This Bonpo tradition is especially important for research into the historical origins of Dzogchen because it claims to represent a continuous oral tradition (snyan-rgyud) from the earliest times coming from Zhang-zhung in Western Tibet. [1]
Read more: Bonpo and Nyingmapa Traditions of Dzogchen
The Fountainhead of the Ngakpa Tradition
Fountainhead of the Ngagkpa Tradition
The text of the bSam-gtan mig-sgron, attributed to Nubchen Sangye Yeshe (gNubs-chen Sangs-rgyas ye-shes, 9th cen. CE), contains an exposition of the four kinds of Buddhist teaching prevalent in Tibet in the eighth and ninth centuries.
Even in these early times, Lama scholars clearly distinguished the view of Ch'an or Zen Buddhism from that of Dzogchen. These four types of Buddhist teaching were the gradualist path of the Mahayana Sutras, otherwise known as Madhyamaka, the non-gradualist path of the Sutras, that is to say, Ch'an or Zen, the gradualist path of the Mahayoga Tantras, and the non-gradualist path of Dzogchen Upadesha. In chapter seven, Nubchen provides a detailed exposition of Dzogchen and clearly indicates the close connections between Dzogchen with the Mahayoga Tantras.
The emphasis in this presentation of Dzogchen here is placed on the viewpoint of the Primordial Base (ye gzhi) which is characterized as being primordially pure (ka-dag). By way of exposition, Nubchen cites nine different views (lta-ba dgu) regarding Dzogchen held by leading masters of Dzogchen from Uddiyana, India, and Tibet. Nubchen associates his own view of the Natural Base of all phenomena which exists just as it is (chos thams-cad gzhi ji-bzhin-pa'i lta-ba) with that held by Garab Dorje and king Dahenatalo of Uddiyana.
Read more: The Fountainhead of the Ngakpa Tradition
The Mahasiddha Tradition in Tibet
Most people in the West assume that all Lamas are necessarily monks. This is not actually the case since the Tibetan word Lama (bla-ma), used to translate the Sanskrit term "guru", means a spiritual teacher, and that may be either a monk or a layman. Nevertheless, monasticism and the life-style of the monk has always been the principal form of Buddhism institution and social organization wherever Buddhism has spread in Asia.
This Buddhist monastic culture was introduced into Tibet from India in the seventh and eighth centuries of our era, and revived again in the eleventh century after a temporary eclipse. The Indian Buddhist scholars brought with them to Tibet and exceptionally rich and profound thousand year old spiritual culture, and whereas this culture largely disappeared from India itself in the thirteenth century due to the total destruction of the great Buddhist monastic universities of Northern India by rampaging invading hordes from Afghanistan and Central Asia bent on pillage, loot, rape, and the forcible conversion of conquered native populations to the ascendant religion of Islam, much of the intellectual heritage of these universities, lost in India, was preserved in Tibet.
During these early centuries the Tibetan government sponsored one of the greatest translations projects ever undertaken in history-- translating the bulk of texts of Mahayana Buddhism from the Sanskrit language into Tibetan. But although this monastic culture of monks and monasteries has been throughout the past 2500 years the principal social institution for the preservation and the transmission of the Buddhist heritage, that there have existed other forms of Buddhist teaching and practice.
Read more: The Mahasiddha Tradition in Tibet