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This ancient Tibetan shamanism and animism, the pre-Buddhist spiritual and religious culture of Tibet, was known as Bon, and a practitioner of these shamanic techniques of ecstasy and ritual magic, the methods of working with energy, was known as a Bonpo. Bonpo is still the designation for a shaman in many tribal regions of the Himalayas. But increasingly, over the centuries, the ecstatic shaman has been replaced by the priestly Lama or ritual expert, and so later Bonpos in Central Tibet also came to fill a role more ritualistic than ecstatic. There exists a parallel here to what occurried in ancient India where the Rishis or ecstatics of the early Vedic period, who communed directly with the celestial gods during ecstatic flights into the heavens, were later replaced by Brahman priests, experts in the performing of rituals and sacrifices in order to invoke the powers of the gods and ensure their cooperation for human benefit and prosperity.
Originally the word Bonpo meant someone who invoked the gods and summoned the spirits. Thus a Bonpo was an expert in the use of mantra and magical evocation. Mantra or ngak (sngags) is sound and sound is energy. Mantra is the primordial sound that calls the forms of all things into being out of the infinite potentiality of empty space which is the basis of everything. Sound or word has a creative power. But this term Bonpo in ancient times appeared to cover a number of different types of practitioner, whether shaman, magician, or priest. Here there seems to be a strong parallel of the role of the Bonpo in ancient Tibet with that of the Druid in ancient pre-Christian Europe. Just as the Druidic order was divided into the three functions of the Bards, the Vates, and the Druids, who were singers, soothsayers, and magicians respectively, so the ancient pre-Buddhist kingdom of Tibet was said to be protected by the Drung (sgrung) who were bards and singers of epics, the Deu (lde'u) who were soothsayers and diviners, and the Bonpo (bon-po) who were priests and magicians. Another archaic term closely related to Bonpo was Shen or Shenpo (gshen-po), and this term may have originally designated the shaman practitioner in particular. The Shen system of practice was transmitted through family lineages, especially in Western and Northern Tibet, then known as the country of Zhang-zhung, so that Shen also came to designate a particular ancient clan or tribe.
The first shaman, the archetypal shaman, so to speak, who brought the knowledge of shamanizing from the heaven worlds above to a nascent humanity living on the surface of the earth, appears to have been originally known in the Tibetan tradition as Shenrab Miwoche (gShen-rab mi-bo-che), a title meaning "the great supreme human shaman". Of course, in the traditions of the later monastically organized Yungdrung Bon and in the extant Bonpo texts from at least the eighth century of our era, Shenrab Miwoche is represented as being much more than an archetypal shaman; he is a fully enlightened Buddha, comparable in every way to Shakyamuni Buddha who appeared in Northern India in the sixth century before our era. Tonpa Shenrab descended from the heavens, specifically, from the heaven-world of Sidpa Yesang (srid-pa ye-sangs), in the form of an azure colored cuckoo bird, the herald of spring. This occurred some 18,000 years ago, according to the traditional Bonpo reckoning. He thereupon incarnated as a human being in the country of Olmo Lung-ring which surrounded the holy nine-storeyed cosmic mountain of Yungdrung Gutsek (g.yung-drung dgu-brtseg) in Tazik or Central Asia. In this mysterious land at the center of the world, which was in later Indo-Iranian tradition identified with Shambhala, he combatted and overcame the evil schemes and machinations of the black magician and incarnate demon-prince Khyabpa Lag-ring. Then he instructed humanity, not only in the spiritual path to enlightenment and liberation from Samsara, but in the various techniques of ecstasy in order to communicate with other worlds and invoke the positive energies of the gods (lha gsol-ba), and also in the rites of exorcism (sel-ba) whereby human beings might free themselves from demonic influences (gdon) and the various diseases caused by demons and other hostile spirits.
The history of the development of Bon may be divided into three phases:
1. Primitive Bon more or less corresponds to the archaic shamanism and paganism of ancient Northern and Central Asia. This shamanism is still practiced in its original and unreformed version is remote areas of the Himalayas, as well as on the borders of Tibet and China.,br> 2. Yungdrung Bon or Old Bon (bon rnying-ma) was the high religious culture of the ancient kingdom of Zhang-zhung which centered around Gangchen Tise or Mount Kailas in Western Tibet. This kingdom, which possessed its own culture and language and writing, maintained an independent existence long before the rise of civilization in Central Tibet in the seventh century with the coming of Indian Buddhism to that country. In the next century, the Zhang-zhung kingdom was incorporated into the newly expanding Tibetan empire established by the Yarlung dynasty of Central Tibet, and the Zhang-zhung culture ceased to have an independent existence. However, the teachings of Yungdrung Bon did not solely originate in Zhang-zhung, but were said to have been brought from Tazik, that is, Iranian speaking Central Asia, to Zhang-zhung in Western and Northern Tibet by a number of mysterious white-robbed sages long before the political events of the seventh and eighth centuries. Besides shamanism, healing, magical rites of exorcism, astrology, and divination (these practices belong to the four lower or Causal Ways among the Nine Ways of Bon), Yungdrung Bon contained the higher spiritual teachings and practices of Sutra, Tantra, and Dzogchen. Moreover, due to the spiritual influence of Yungdrung Bon and later Indian Buddhism, many animistic practices have been reformed and the practice of blood sacrifice more or less eliminated in Tibet, although it is still practiced on occasion by the Jhangkri shamans of Nepal. In Yungdrung Bon, Shenrab Miwoche is portrayed as a perfectly enlightened Buddha who is the source of the philosophical, psychological, and ethical teachings of Sutra, the profound methods of psychological transformation and psychic development of Tantra, and the ultimate mystical and gnostic enlightenment of Dzogchen. Yungdrung Bon continues to flourish even today in many parts of Tibet and among Tibetan refugees in exile in India and Nepal.
3. New Bon (bon gsar-ma) was a deliberate and conscious amalgamation of the Bon of Zhang-zhung with the Buddhism of Indian origin, especially as this spiritual tradition was represented by the Nyingmapa school in Tibet. New Bon greatly revered the luminous figure of Guru Padmasambhava, the Tantric master from the Indo-Iranian country of Uddiyana, who first established the Nyingmapa tradition in Tibet in the eighth century of our era. And like the Nyingmapas, the the New Bon greatly relied upon Termas (gter-ma) or rediscovered "hidden treasure texts", recovered over the centuries by various Buddhist and Bonpo masters and visionaries. These Termas had been concealed in the distant past by illuminated masters of the esoteric tradition, such as Padmasambhava and Dranpa Namkha, because the times were not yet ripe for their revelation and dissemination among the Tibetans, and they were rediscovered in later centuries. In the reformed Bon, one finds a monastic system, philosophy colleges, and a scholastic tradition and curriculum fully comparable to that found in the other schools of Tibetan Buddhism, especially the Nyingmapas. On the other side of the matter, many ancient Bonpo rituals and practices have been accepted into the Buddhist schools of Indian origin in Tibet and, in particular, as the cult of the Guardian spirits, the old pagan pre-Buddhist deities of Tibet who are now the protectors of the Dharma.