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Ancient Tibetan Bonpo Shamanism - Page 3
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Ancient Tibetan Bonpo Shamanism
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Furthermore, shamanism continues to be practiced in Tibet in its archaic form and such a practitioner is generally known as a Pawo (dpa'-bo) or Lhapa. This social function is clearly distinguished from that of the Lama or priest. A Lama is usually, although not always, a monk, whether he is nowadays a Buddhist or a Bonpo. In general, a Lama relates to the higher divine reality as a supplicant, communicating with that dimension through the medium of prayer, meditation, and the performing of offering rituals called pujas. In addition, there exists another kind of practitioner, the Ngakpa (sngags-pa) or Tantric magician and exorcist. Whereas the Lama or priest prays and petitions the higher spiritual order, the Tantrika or magician, by virtue of his magical power and his mastery of mantras, or spells and invocations, commands the spirits to obey his will and to do his bidding. The Pawo or shaman, on the other hand, is characterized by ecstasy, the entering into an altered state of consciousness, in order to have direct personal contact with the spirit world. But in Tibet, the methods of these three types of practitioners of healing-- the Pawo or shaman, the Ngakpa or magician, and Lama or priest-- are not necessarily exclusive. Many Ngakpas, although usually married men and not monks, are called Lamas because they also perform pujas or offering ceremonies, as well as shamanic exorcisms and other magical rituals. In addition, they may be accomplished scholars and teachers, having large followings among both monks and lay-people alike, and are not just simple village sorcerers. They may be either Buddhist or Bonpo in terms of their religion, although nowadays the majority of Ngakpas belong to the Nyingmapa school. Moreover, the most Pawo shamans in Tibet, although their shamanic techniques are of a different origin, now identify themselves as Buddhists in terms of their religious affiliation.

In general, the Pawo is characterized by spirit possession. After entering into an altered state of consciousness or trance induced through drumming and chanting, his or her consciousness principle known as the Namshe (rnam-shes) is projected out of the physical body through the aperture at the top of the skull into one of the three symbolic mirrors arranged on the shamanic altar. These three mirrors represent the gateways to the other worlds of the Lha (the celestial spirits), of the Tsen (the earth and mountain spirits), and of the Lu (the subterranean water spirits), respectively. These three types of spirit correspond to the three zones -- sky, earth, and underworld-- into which the world was divided in the ancient Bonpo shamanic cosmology. The shaman has direct access to these three worlds and their inhabitants by means of an altered state of consciousness. At the moment when one's Namshe leaves the physical body, one's guardian spirit or spirit-guide, also called a Pawo, enters one's now vacated inert body and thereupon speaks through the shaman as a medium. This spirit-guide responds to questions and can diagnose the cause of the illness in question, usually that being some offended spirit. Then he recommends a procedure for effecting a cure and this usually includes the performance of a healing ritual (gto) in order to restore a harmonious balance of energies between the afflicted individual and his natural environment. In this way, a healing or a reharmonization is realized.

With the establishment of Buddhism, together with its monastic system, as the official religion of Tibet in the eleventh century and thereafter, certain among these Pawo shamans came to be employed by the larger monasteries, and even later by the Tibetan government, as oracles. Such an oracle is known as a Lhapa or Sungma (srung-ma). The most famous among these oracles is the State Oracle attached to Nechung monastery, and he is usually possessed by the spirit Pehar, who is said to have been originally a deity of Turkish origin. The State Oracle continues to function in exile at Dharamsala in India, the seat of HH the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan Government in exile.

The Ngakpa, on the other hand, as a Tantrika and an exorcist, is rarely possessed by the spirits. Rather, the Ngakpa is able, by way of certain meditations and other psychic techniques, to enter into an altered state where one's consciousness or Namshe leaves the physical body in a subtle mind-made body (yid-lus) and enters into the dimensions of the Otherworld, where one searches for fragments of the soul of the afflicted person which has been stolen by deceitful spirits or imprisoned there by a black magician. A patient suffering from soul-sickness or loss of soul is characterized by inertia, weakness, depression, and loss of interest in one's surroundings and everyday affairs. If the La (bla) or the soul, this being a subtle energy field that serves as the vehicle for the individual's emotional life, is not recovered and restored to wholeness in the patient within a sufficient period of months, there exists the possibility of physical death. The Ngagpa may also perform a ritual procedure for this purpose known as La-guk (bla 'gug), "recalling the soul". The Ngakpa, by virtue of his power to enter the Otherworld and return with treasures of knowledge and power, is able to diagnose the causes of diseases and prescribe a variety of methods for effecting cures.

These same practitioners among both the Buddhists and the Bonpos have also been responsible for the rediscovery of Termas or "hidden treasure texts" which have contributed so much to the spiritual heritage of Tibet. Because the Tibetan people were thought not yet ready to receive these teachings, or else there was an actual danger of persecution, these Terma texts were concealed in ancient times at various remote places in Tibet by certain illuminated masters of the past, principally Padmasambhava. Then they were rediscovered many centuries later by Tertons (gter-ston) who were the reincarnations of the original disciples of those ancient masters. Some of these Termas were found as actual physical objects and texts (sa-gter), others came through visions (dag-snang) and auditions (snyan-rgyud), and yet others were channelled directly through divine inspiration and automatic writing and therefore constitute "mind treasures" (dgongs-gter). Not the least among these Terma texts is the famous Bardo Thodol (bar-do thos-grol), now widely known in the West as the Tibetan Book of the Dead.