Oral Tradition from Zhang-Zhung

Excerpt from: The Cult and Practice of the Bönpo Deity Walchen Gekhöd, also known as Zhang-zhung Meri

The Zhang-zhung Nyän-gyüd is one the four principal transmissions of Dzogchen in the Bönpo tradition of Tibet. The precepts of these teachings are said to derive ultimately from the Primordial Buddha himself, Kuntu Zangpo. These precepts were transmitted in a higher dimension of existence to eight enlightened beings known as Sugatas, this being an alternative title for a Buddha.

This process is known as the Direct Mind-to-Mind Transmission of the Sugatas (bder-gshegs dgongs brgyud), where the precepts were communicated directly by way of telepathy with few or no words. From the last of these illustrious figures, Sangwa Düpa (gsang-ba ‘dus-pa), it was transmitted through a line of Twenty-Four Masters in Tazik (Central Asia) and Zhang-zhung (Northern Tibet) in what is known as the Oral Transmission of the Siddhas (grub-thob snyan-brgyud), using only a few words. All of these masters are said to have attained the Rainbow Body of Light (’ja’-lus) at the end of their lives. [1]
Then, in the 7th centrury of our era, these Dzogchen precepts were transmitted to the youth Tapihritsa by his master Tsepung Dawa Gyaltsän (tshe-spungs zla-ba rgyal-mtshan), the last in the above line of Twenty-Four Masters. Tapihritsa practiced these Dzogchen instructions for nine years in a rock cave to the east of Mount Kailas in Northern Tibet, then known as Zhang-zhung, whereupon he realized liberation and enlightenment and also attained the Rainbow Body of Light. [2] In the next century, he re-appeared to the yogi practitioner Gyerpung Nangzher Lödpo (gyer-spungs snang-bzher lod-po), who was engaged in a solitary retreat in a cave near the Darok Lake. The latter was a Tantric adept and Mahasiddha, who had previously served as the personal priest to Ligmincha, the last native king of Zhang-zhung. Appearing to Gyerpung in the guise of a wise child, Tapihritsa conferred upon him these Dzogchen precepts by way of a direct introduction to the Nature of Mind. Previously these precepts had always been transmitted orally and only committed to memory, but perceiving how conditions would change in the future, Tapihritsa now gave permission to set down these precepts in writing in the Zhang-zhung language (smar-yig). He also gave permission to transmit the precepts to more than a single disciple (gcig brgyud), as had not been the custom previously. Gyerpung was followed by a line of masters known as the Six Mahasiddhas of Zhang-zhung, the last of whom, Pön-gyal Tsänpo (dpon-rgyal btsan-po), translated the precepts into the Tibetan language for his two Tibetan disciples, Lhundrub Muthur and Shen-gyal Lhatse, in the 10th century. Due to the activities of Gyerpung, the Zhang-zhung Nyän-gyüd was never persecuted or suppressed, thus it never became a Terma, or hidden treasure text, and remained as a continuous transmission until the present day. [3]
The Meditation Deity Zhang-zhung Meri

Because the Zhang-zhung Nyän-gyüd is a Dzogchen transmission, unlike Tantric practices, there is no empowerment ceremony for entering into it. Rather, in terms of Dzogchen, the individual enters into the practice by way of receiving a direct introduction (rig-pa ngo-sprod) from a qualified master of the tradition. However, there is a Tantric practice of transformation that is associated with it and the transmission of this latter lineage more or less exactly parallels that of the Zhang-zhung Nyän-gyüd. This is the practice for the meditation deity known as Zhang-zhung Meri,

In fact, Zhang-zhung Meri was the first empowerment bestowed by Yongdzin Lopon Tenzing Namdak Rinpoche on his second visit to the West and his first visit to the United States. This occured in Coos Bay, Oregon, in 1989. It was at this time that I personally first received this empowerment. Although previously in 1978, Yongdzin Rinpoche bestowed it for the first time at Menri monastery at Dolanji in India upon a group of Western students from Italy at the requrest of their master Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche.

Although the principal function of Zhang-zhung Meri for the Dzogchen practitioner is that of protection, according Yongdzin Rinpoche, nevertheless, Zhang-zhung Meri is not a protective Guardian (srung-ma) spirit, but a Yidam Lha, or meditation deity. Moreover, his sadhana may also be practiced independently as a purely Tantric method, apart from any connection with Dzogchen. A Yidam is a visible manifestation of the compassion and enlightened awareness of the Buddha, particularly in wrathful form in order transform negative energies and subdue evil spirits. Every Tantra cycle has such a principal deity known as a Yidam, and by practicing the sadhana, or process of transformation and realization of that deity, the practitioner establishes a special bond or connection with it which is known as samaya (dam-tshig). Through visualization and meditation upon the archetypal form of the Yidam, the practitioner is able to invoke and realize within oneself the powers, capacities, and wisdoms traditionally associated with that particular Yidam. This overwhelming numinous presence, both benign and protective, is transcendent; it is not a worldly god or deity which is still part of conditioned existence, the cycle of death and rebirth known as Samsara. It is an emanation of enlightened awareness and compassion from a higher spiritual dimension beyond Samsara. The visualization of the Yidam serves to invoke and call down into oneself the blessings, or spiritual energies of this deity, and serves to focus and cencentrate this energy like a lens focusing sunlight..

According to the Lower Tantras (phyi rgyud), the source of these spiritual energies that are invoked is a higher spiritual dimension of being, which is the collective enlightened awareness of all the Buddhas of the past, present, and future. However, according to the Higher Tantras (nang rgyud), these energies are invoked out of the potential for Buddha enlightenment of one’s own Nature of Mind. By meditating on the Yidam, one takes the goal, the visible manifestion of enlightenment, and transforms that into the actual path of practice in terms of deification or visualizing oneself as the Yidam. This process vastly accelerates the process of realizing liberation and enlightenment when compared to the methods of the Sutra system. The initial visualization of the Yidam emerges out the the state of pure potentiality, Shunyata,, which is paradoxically beyond the dualism of existence and non-existence. At the conclusion of sadhana practice, the visualization is again dissolved back into this state of emptiness. Although the ultimate aim of meditating upon the Yidam is to realize those enlightened qualities associated with it, that is to say, to realize Buddha enlightenment and liberation from suffering in Samsara, by invoking the Yidam and engaging in the ritual activities associated with it, one may also realize various desirable worldly benefits. These two goals, the spiritual and the worldly, do not exclude or contradict each other. One must have at hand the actual means, including long life, in order to practice sufficiently in this present life.

On the other hand, Guardians (srung-ma) were in origin usually worldly gods and spirits who were in the past subdued by enlightened beings such as Tönpa Shenrab and placed under oaths to henceforth protect the teachings of Bön and its practitioners. Such was also the case when Gyerpung Nangzher Lödpo who subdued the Deva king Nyipangse and his consort Mänmo, placing them under oaths to henceforth protect the teachings of Zhang-zhung Nyän-gyüd. In meditation practice, one may transform oneself into a Yidam, identiying oneself totally with it, whereas Guardians are evoked into visible appearance in front of oneself. They are then presented with puja offerings and charged to remember their vows made previously to protect Bön and its practitioners. Therefore, this is a process of reciprocity or exchange of energies between our human dimension of existence and some other realm of being. These spirits are given energy in the form of puja offerings and then the practitioners can expect something in return in terms of the activites of these spirits.

Four Classes of Bönpo Tantras

Within the Bönpo tradition, there are four classes of Tantras. The two lower or Outer Tantras (phyi rgyud), namely, Kriya Tantra (bya-ba’i rgyud) and Charya Tantra (spyod-pa’i rgyud), are more ritualistic in their emphasis, with mandalas, invocations, elaborate puja offerings, and so on. The higher or Inner Tantra (nang rgyud) also consist of two classes of Tantras. The first, Yeshen Tantra (ye-gshen rgyud) emphasizes the meditation practice of sadhana, the process of transformation, usually entailing the practice visualizing oneself as a wrathful deity. The second, Yeshen Chenpo Tantra (ye-gshen chen-po’i rgyud), mainly focuses on Guru Sadhanas for Siddhas such as Dränpa Namkha, Lishu Tag-ring, and Tsewang Rigdzin, as well as the Dakini Kalpa Zangmo. [4]

In terms of Yeshen Tantra, the Bönpos possess collections of Father Tantras (pha rgyud) and Mother Tantras (ma rgyud). Among the wrathful deities belonging to this Father Tantra class, there are found five principal meditation deities known as the Saykhar Chog-nga (gsas-mkhar mchog lnga), “the five supreme ones of the divine citadel.” A divine citadel (gsas-mkhar), or castle, is actually a celestial palace, corresponding to the idea of the mandala (dkyil-‘khor). A mandala is in fact a three-dimensional architectonic structure, whereas the mandala depicted on a scroll painting, or thangka, is two-dimensional, and more or less represents the floor plan of the mandala palace. The term gsas (pronounced “say”) is an old word having the same meaning as lha or “god.” These five principal deities are as follows:

  1. Walse Ngampa (dbal-gsas rngam-pa),
  2. Lhagöd Thogpa (lha-rgod thog-pa),
  3. Trowo Tsochok Khagying ( khro-bo gtso-mchog mkha’-‘ gying),
  4. Walchen Gekhöd (dbal-chen ge-khod), and
  5. Walphur Nagpo ( dbal-phur nag-po), or simply Phurpa.

They respectively represent the enlightened functions of the Body, Speech, Mind, Quality, and Activity. Zhang-zhung Meri is regarded as a special form of Walchen Gekhöd, who embodies the Quality Aspect of the enlightened awareness of the Buddha..

However, nowadays, Gekhöd-Meri is not a popular meditation deity practice among contemporary Bönpos. The Bönpos mostly practice Walse (dbal-gsas), with whom many magical practices are associated, and also the Zhitro (zhi-khro), “the Peaceful and Wrathful Deities practice,” of whom Trowo Tsochok (khro-bo gtso-mchog) is the principal deity according to the Bönpo Book of the Dead cycle. The rites of Phurpa is also quite popular as a Yidam practice. [5]

Gekhöd and Meri

Although Gekhöd is traditionally grouped among these Five Divine Citadels, the cycle of Gekhöd deities has a distinctly different origin. It is said that this cycle was first taught by the sage Atimuwer, who, presumably integrated the earlier pagan cult of the mountain god Gekhöd with the higher spiritual teachings of Yungdrung Bön. This, however, is the view of some modern scholars. According to Yongdzin Lopon Tenzin Namdak, Atimuwer, called in the text “the Tutelary Wisdom Deity” (ye-shes yi-dam lha), was not a human sage in the past, but is the peaceful form (zhi-ba) of Gekhöd and represents his higher Dharmakaya aspect. Therefore, this deity is not just some worldly mountain god to be classed with other worldly mountain gods (yul-lha). Nevertheless, according to Bönpo tradition, Gekhöd was in general the patron deity of the ancient kingdom of Zhang-zhung, but in particular, then and now, he is still the god associated with Mount Kailash, or Gang-chen Ti-se. Similarly,Thang-lha and Pomrache (spom-ra-che) are the names of mountains and of their respective patron deities who dwell in or upon them. The cult of local mountain gods, or Yul-lh, is still popular and widespread in terms of Tibetan folk religion. [6] Thus, Gekhöd also bears the title Ku-lha (sku-lha), literally “divine body,” or more anciently Ku-bla (sku-bla), “body soul,” an epithet often given to mountain gods in the old Tibetan tradition. However, Yongdzin Lopon Tenzin Namdak asserts that in this context the epithet merely indicates that Gekhöd is a Nirmanakaya manifestation. The other deities of the Gekhöd cycle, a total of three hunded and sixty who form his retinue, are also said to reside on this holy mountain. Kailash is thus the bla-ri or “soul mountain” for the entire land of Zhang¬-zhung. Elsewhere, it is said that the consort of Gekhöd is Logbar Tsamed (glog ‘bar tsa-med), “the Lady of Flashing Lightning.” She is also known as Drabla Gyalmo (sgra-bla rgyal-mo), “the Queen of the Warrior Gods,” which is another mountain opposite Kailash.

Moreover, at the Nirmanakaya level, that is, in terms of appearance of the secred in time and history on the earth plane, there exist three forms for the manifestation of Gekhöd:

  1. Yeshe kyi Gekhöd (ye-shes kyi ge-khod), “the Wisdom Gekhöd.” This is the principal Yidam, or meditation deity.
  2. Dzutrul gyi Gekhöd (rdzu-‘phrul gyi ge-khod), “the magical apparitions of Gekhöd.” These are the deities in his mandala and retinue that are his direct emanations.
  3. Lay kyi Gekhöd (las kyi ge-khod), “the magical actions of Gekhöd.” ¬These are the three hundred and sixty families of gods of Zhang-zhung who dwell with him on Mount Kailas. They are said to have descended on to different mountains in the region and therefore they have become like mountain gods in popular imagination.

According to the myth (smrang) found in the Ge-khod sgrub skor, the Wisdom Gekhöd in prehistoric times emanated as a flaming, giant wild yak (khong-mo-‘brong), and descended from heaven to the country of Zhang-zhung on the earth’s surface. He was absorbed into the massive body of Mount Kailas where he now resides, thus blessing this mountain and consecrating it with holiness (byin brlabs). Where he first landed on the earth, there remains a footprint in the rock beside the slopes of Kailas. It now resembles a cave. In later times the site was taken over by the Drikhung Kagyüdpas, who claimed that it was Milarepa’s cave, and they have erected a small Kagyüdpa monastery there. But this site represents a sacred place of pilgrimage for all Bönpo practitioners. Gekhöd’s descending as a flaming yak to this spot constitutes the outer support of his activity and his creating gold and precious jewels in the earth constitutes the inner support of his activity.

Another myth of origin tells of the time when the demons conquered the earth and caused untold suffering in a distant pre¬historic age. Gekhöd became enraged at this course of events and hurled a gigantic boulder of flaming gold into the sea and thus the ocean began to boil– so much so that this terrified the demons and they submitted to Gekhöd as their lord and master. Thus, Gekhöd was able to protect nascent humanity, and even the gods on heigh, from the onslaught of the demons and the forces of chaos. This myth is narrated in relation to the Rites of Wal-chu (dbal-chu), “flaming water,” which is used in healing practices in Tibet and in other Bönpo rites.

In the tradition of Yungdrung Bön, this tempestuous mountain deity is found in the role of a Yidam, or tutelary meditation deity, in the extensive Bönpo pantheon. He received the name Walchen Gekhöd Duddul Sangwa Dragchen (dbal-chen ge-khod bdud-‘dul gsang-ba drag-chen) “the great flaming Gehköd, the subduer of demons, the great secret ferocious one.” The native Zhang-zhung name Gekhöd translates into Tibetan as ge for bdud, “demon,” and khod for ‘dul, “subduing,” thus he is the subduer of demons. As said, his immediate retinue consists of three hundred and sixty subordinate deities called the families of the gods of Zhang-zhung. Some scholars would see astrological significance in this– three hundred and sixty degrees in a circle, approximately three hundred and sixty days in a lunar year, and so on– but more certainly Gekhöd is connected with the divination gods of Zhang-zhung ‘ju-thig (thread divination). These deities represent the three hundred and sixty knots in thirty-six strings, and therefore they are known as the three hundred and sixty knot deities (mdud lha). The god Phuwer Karpo (phu-wer dkar-po) is the patron god of this divination system and there is also a deity called Phuwer listed in the retinue of Gekhöd. [8]

Zhang-zhung Meri is a special form of Gekhöd, exceedingly wrathful in aspect having nine heads, eighteen arms, and six legs. Unlike the usual iconic image of Gekhöd, he is depicted as adorned in golden armor and as wearing helmets made of various metals on his several heads. The name me-ri literally means “fire mountain,” or volcano. In this form of Zhang-zhung Meri, he is the special tutelary deity or Yidam associated with the Dzogchen teachings from Zhang-zhung, known as the Zhang-zhung Nyän-gyud, “the oral transmission (snyan-rgyud) from the country of Zhang-zhung.” Moreover, Meri was the Yidam, or personal meditation deity, of Gyerpung Nangzher Lödpo, who flourished in the 8th century of our era and was a contemporary and antagonist of the great Buddhist king of Tibet, Trisong Detsän. It is said that Meri was also the tutelary deity of the Twenty-Four August Personages, or Masters, who transmitted these Dzogchen teachings from the time of Sangwa Düpa down to Tapihritsa.

Among the many practices connected with Meri, there is the preparation of Tso (btswo), or magical missiles made with gold dust. According to tradition, Gyerpung Nangzher Lödpo once found it necessary to employ Tso against Trisong Detsän, the kingof Tibet, because of his responsibility for the assassination of Ligmincha, the last native king of Zhang-zhung, and his persecution of the practi¬tioners of the Bönpo teachings. As the result of Gyerpung’s inter-vention, the king exempted the Zhang-zhung Nyän-gyüd from destruction by his agents and thus these texts are extent today in a continuous uninterrupted lineage from earlier times. Gyerpung Nangzher Lödpo was an expert practitioner and an adept at this method for dispatching magical missiles. This art was lost with Lhundrub Muthur in the 11th century because the latter had kept the small practice text secured in a hollow tube tied up on his head in his long hair. He did not attain the Rainbow Body because he emphasized Tantric practices and neglected the practice of Dzogchen. When his corpse was cremated by his disciples, the text was consummed in the flames. Nevertheless, the transmission of the empowerment and the sadhana practice for Zhang-zhung Meri was not lost and has continued down to the present day.

Iconography of Zhang-zhung Meri

The generating of the visualization of the meditation deity Zhang¬-zhung Meri by the mind of the practitioner of sadhana, or what is generally known as the Generation Process, or Kyerim (bskyed-rim), is found in both brief and expanded forms in the texts. The extant thangkas of Meri do not necessarily agree in every detail with the descriptions found in these texts. According to the text of the intermediate length sadhana, Meri originated thus: “From the yellow fires of the golden mountain which signifies gnosis or wisdom (ye-shes) and from the emanations of billowing bluish smoke, turquoise in color, which signify compassion (thugs-rje), there arises a terrifying gigantic form, huge of body and limb.” Thus, the manifesta¬tion of Gekhöd Meri originates from the unification of ye-shes (primal awareness, gnosis, or wisdom), symbolized by the raging fires of the golden volcano, and of thugs-rje (compassion, or energy), symbolized by the turquoise smoke issuing from this volcano. Accordingly, in the Bönpo tradition, Discriminating Wisdom and Universal Compassion are the two coefficients of the enlightenment of a Buddha. In the sadhana text, the colossal image of Meri appears suddenly appesars in space consequent upon the sounding the invocative syllable BSWO (pronounced “swo…”). In old ritual texts this syllable was employed to summon the presence of the deities. Nevertheless, the proper bija mantra, or reddsih-golden seed syllable of Meri, is HRI, which is sounded when transforming oneself into Meri. Moreover, one particularity in the Bönpo Higher Tantras, in terms of the self-generation process of visualization (bdag-bskyed), is that that the practitioner first transforms oneself into the peaceful form associated with the meditation deity, in this case, the Shen Sangwa Düpa (gshen gsang-ba ‘dus-pa), before transforming oneself into the wrathful aspect of the deity. This peaceful figure then melts into light and becomes the golden seed-syllable HRI, which in turn instantly transforms into the awe-inspiring form of Walchen Gekhöd Meri. Therefore, the peaceful and the wrathful forms of the meditation deity are inseparable.

The colour of Meri’s body, as well as his armour, is golden. Meri is closely connected with that metal, as well as with the element fire. In ancient times Zhang-zhung, or Western Tibet, was well known as a rich source of gold. This is cited in the Geography of the Greek writer Ptolemy, for example. Gigantic in body, Meri has nine heads, eighteen arms, and six legs. His right face is white in colour and he wears a helmet of molten bronze on this head, while his left face is red and on this head he wears a copper helmet. The middle face is dark azure blue like the storm clouds and on this head he wears an iron helmet. These three faces are all wrathful in aspect, like that of a terrifying, cannibalistic Rakshasa demons (srin-po). In Tantric symbolism, the colours of these three faces represent the colours of the three principal psychic channels in the middle of the body of the practitioner, namely, white on the right, red on the left, and blue for the central channel. Then, above these three principal heads, there are stacked six auxilliary heads in the aspect of animals and birds. On the right there are the reddish-yellow garuda (khyung), the blue raven (khwa), and the yellow owl (‘ug-pa), and on the left there are the striped tiger (stag), the ash-grey elephant (glang-chen), and the dark yellow bear (dred-mo). The usual form of Gekhöd in terms of his iconography is also multi-headed and multi-limbed, but he does not wear armour or helmets. Above Meri’s several heads, there soars a great golden Garuda bird (bya khyung) with turquoise eyes and with talons and beak of iron. Gekhöd, as well as the country of Zhang-zhung itself, has always been closely associated with the Garuda, which signifies the element fire, as wello as the lightning flashing across the heavens. According to the myth, one of’ the first emanations of Gekhöd in our world was that of the Garuda. In addition, his throat, hands, joints, and so on, are decorated with white striped snakes because Gekhöd-Meri, like the Garuda, has power over the Nagas (klu), or serpentine water spirits, which are chthonic in nature.

The first two of his eighteen arms are held before his chest. In his right hands, he holds the hook of compassion to attract and rescue beings, a lasso of snakes to guide beings, a copper staff or walking stick, an axe with a garuda head, a spear with a banner attached, a bow and arrow made of meteorite iron, a golden flaming tso (btswo), or magical missile (resembling a golden pyramid surrounded by flames), a crystal hammer, and flayed human skins belonging to evil doers, both male and female (these actually being the flayed skins of Theurong spirits). In his left hands, Meri holds a golden battle-axe with an enlarged blade, a noose of water, a noose of a mass of fire, a noose of wind, a miniature image of Mount Meru (ri-rab), a container of boiling poisonous wine, a white conch shell, a hammer made of meteorite iron, and a white antelope horn made of crystal. As arm ornaments and wrist ornaments, he also wears yellow striped snakes

As said already, he wears armour of gold, but his upper body is partly wrapped in the flayed skin of a Düd (bdud) demon, and also the flayed back¬skins of Gyalpo (rgyal-po), Gongpo (‘gong-po), and Damsi (dam-sri) evil spirits. About his lower body he wears a skirt made of the flayed skin of a Chüd demoness and also the flayed skin of a northern nomad herdsman who was an evil-doer. All of these are tied together with a belt of one thousand black snakes. He wears an apron of lion and tiger skins, as well as a bandelier of eighty-one dried skulls and a rosary of lightning bolts across his chest. His six legs are stiding forward aggressively like a champion warrior (gyad) and his feet are adorned with red striped snakes. [9]

While in the heavens, he rides upon the swiftly soaring Garuda bird which moves like light¬ning, in the lower atmosphere he rides upon a nine-headed camel which is a king of the winds, and on the surface of the earth he rides upon a reddish-brown curly-haired billy goat. These creatures are also visualized as above his throne and as forming part of his seat. When he resides among his retinue, amidst the thunderous waves of a vast sea of blood, his immense form striding majestically about on top of a throne made of nine gigantic human skulls, supported by nine tiger skulls. Before him there are arrayed the five races of the worldly Mamo goddesses. These Mamos (Skt. matrika), all of them being female witches who are black in colour, are among the fiercest of all spirit entities inhabiting the wilds of nature. These Mamo goddesses have promised to obey and to do his bidding, both in their nocturnal gatherings and in general, having taken these vows before the sage Sangwa Düpa in a previous age.

In the center of a typical thangka, there will be found the majestic figure of Zhang-zhung Meri striding forward with the great golden Garuda soaring over his many heads. Moreover, in most thangkas the three principal spiritual aspects of Gekhod Meri are depicted, which are known as the Three Lord Protectors, or Gönpo Namsum (mgon-po rnam gsum). They are as follows:

  1. The tutelary wisdom deity Atimuwer (a-ti mu-wer ye-shes yi-dam lha) is depicted as sitting in the sky above the various heads of the mountainous figure of Gekhöd-Meri and the soaring Garuda. He is peaceful in aspect, white in color, sitting in meditation posture, and attired as a great prince in rich silks and costly jewels. Even though he has all the symbolic ornaments of the Sambhogakaya, nevertheless, he is said to represent the Dharmakaya manifestation of Gekhöd-Meri. His visualization is generated from sounding the white seed-syllable A.
  2. Kuji Mangke (ku-byi mang-ke rdzu-‘phrul rdzogs-pa’i sku) is said to represent the Sambhogakaya (rdzogs-sku) manifestation of Gekhöd-Meri. According to Yongdzin Rinpoche, there exist two figures with this name who should not be confused. Dzutrul Kuji Mangke, “the magical apparition Kuji Mangke,” is the Sambhogakaya manifesta¬tion, whereas Lha-bu Kuji Mangke, “the son of the gods,” according to the Srid-pa mdzod-phug, was a Rishi or sage that lived in Trayatrimsha, the realm of the Thirty-¬three Gods on the summit of Mount Meru. In Bönpo thangkas, this magical apparition Kuji Mangke, also attired as a great prince in rich silks and jewels, being turquoise or bluish-green in colour, is shown sitting in union with his consort inside the heart center of Meri. His visualization is generated with the bluish-green seed-syllable OM.
  3. Walchen Gekhöd Meri (dbal-chen ge-khod me-ri), who represents the Nirmanakaya (sprul-sku) aspect of the Deity, the exceedingly wrathful principal figure (gtso-bo) in the center of the thangka. He is generated from the reddish-golden seed-syllable HRI.

Meri may be visualized as a solitary, heroic, warrior figure, without embracing a consort (yum). However, in many thangkas of Meri, he is shown with two consorts standing below him on either side. On his right is his Liberation Consort, Drol-yum Namkhai Ödlayma (sgrol-yum nam-mkha’i ‘od-slas-ma), whose body color is dark red. She is naked, holding a phurpa, or three-bladed dagger, in her right hand and she rides majestically upon a white tortoise. On his left is his Sexual Union Consort, Jyor-yum Nelay Sidpai Gyalmo (sbyor-yum ne-slas srid-pa’i rgyal-mo), whose body color is dark yellow. She also is naked and holds a kapala filled with blood, offering it up to her lord’s mouth, while at times she may actually engage in sexual intercourse with him. She rides upon a black bear. These two goddesses are sometimes depicted in dance position, indicationg they represent active manifestatioins of female energy pertaining to liberation (or slaying) and sexual union respectively.

Although the retinue of Gekhöd Meri is not indicated in the short sadhana texts, the detailed accounts are found elsewhere in various texts providing the descriptions of the visualizations (mngon-rtogs) for the Kyerim, or generation process.. Most immediately, this retinue consists of the Ten Krodhas, or wrathful deities (khro-bo bcu). In many thangkas, five of these Krodhas are shown to the right of Meri and five to his left. Each Krodha has his consort in sexual union with him (yab-yum) and two acolytes positioned on either side accompanying them. These latter are known as summoners, being animal-headed males, and and slayers, who are usually bird-headed females. These wrathful deities are listed below, together with their direction in the mandala and their color:

(1) In the east direction, there is Walgyi Gyalpo Me-lha-gyung, white in colour, with his consort Satänma, and together with a lion-headed summoner and a vulture-headed slayer.

(2) In the southeast direction, there is Kyelchen Muwer, light blue in colour, with his consort Gyerting Tsamed, and together with a bear-headed summoner and an owl-headed slayer.

(3) In the south direction, there is Sumphüd Gyalpo, dark turquoise in colour, with his consort Kyedjyedma, and together with a tiger-headed summoner and a hoopoe-headed slayer.

(4) In the southwest direction, there is Ligchen Muwer, bluish-red in colour, with his consort Gyernyän Tsamed, and together with a bear-headed summoner and a hoopoe-headed slayer.

(5) In the west direction, there is Kulha Yojya, red in colour, with his consort Minjyedma, and together with a leopard-headed summoner and a crow-headed slayer.

(6) In the northwest direction, there is Pungchen Muwer, reddish-green in colour, with his consort Ting-gyung Tsamed, and together with an elephant-headed summoner and a raven-headed slayer.

(7) In the north direction, there is Kulha Muwer, yellowish-green in colour, with his consort Degjyedma, and together with a wild yak-headed summoner and an eagle-headed slayer.

(8) In the northeast direction, there is Sidpa Muwer, whitish-green in colour, with his consort Ringnyän Tsamed, and together with a cat-headed summoner and an owl-headed slayer.

(9) In the direction above, there is Pühay Dung-gyung, blue in colour, with his consort Shugdrolma, and together with a dragon-headed summoner and a garuda-headed slayer.

(10) In the direction below, there is Kulha Traphüd, dark yellow in colour, with his consort Södjyedma, and together with a wild boar-headed summoner and a she wolf-headed slayer.[10]

Each of these wrathful deities has three heads, six arms, and four legs.

Outside of this there is a circle of Twelve Female Messengers (pho-nya-ma bcu-gnyis), who carry out the commands of the principal deity Zhang-zhung Meri. Then there are Four Female Generals (dmag-dpon-ma bzhi), attired in armour and riding upon various animals. Next there may be the Female Guardians of the Four Lakes (mtsho bzhi srung-ma), also attired in armour and helmets. Finally there are the Female Guardians of the Four Rivers (chu bzhi srung-ma), variously attired, guarding the Brahmaputra river in the east, the Sita river in the north, the Indus river in the west, and the Ganges river in the south respectively.

Beyond their circle in the mandala, there are the Four Great Champion Gate-keepers (sgo-ba gyad-chen bzhi) in the four directions, listed as follows:

(1) In the east, there is a lion-headed man, white in colour, riding on a lion and holding a three-pointed crystal staff,

(2) In the south, there is a makara-headed man, blue in colour, riding on a makara sea-monster and holding a flaming sword,

(3) In the west, there is a wild boar-headed man, red in colour, riding on a red wild boar and brandishing a battle-axe of meteorite iron in the sky, and

(4) In the north, there is a wild yak-headed man, black in colour, riding on a yellowish-white wild yak and holding a bow and arrow.

In some thangkas, below the row of Twelve Female Messengers, there is a row of Guardians (srung-ma), or Bön Protectors (bon skyong). Among their number are Nyipangse (nyi-pang-sad) and Mänmo (sman-mo), the two special Guardians of the Zhang-zhung Nyän-gyud teachings and its lineage. It is said that at one time Gyerpungpa ascended through the air to the Deva realm of Wewa Dargub (dbe-ba dar-gub) at the southwest corner of the cosmic mountain of Sumeru (Mt. Meru), lying at the center of the world, and there subdued the Deva king Nyipangse (nyi-pang-sad) and the female deity, Mänmo (sman-mo). In Bönpo thangkas, the guardian Nyipangse is depicted as a warrior prince, white in color, mounted on a white horse, wearing white robes and a white turbin, and carrying a staff of crystal. Mänmo is shown as a great queen dressed in white, riding on a mule. In the Buddhist tradition, Nyipangse became known as Tsangpo Karpo (tshangs-po dkar-po), “the White Brahma,” and is regarded as a Guardian and Dharma Protector in the various schools of Tibetan Buddhism and even of the Tibetan Government. Elsewhere, Mänmo is regarded as an emanation of the Queen of Heaven, Namchyi Gung-gyal (gnam-phyi gung-rgyal). The great master of the Zhang-zhung tradition, Nyammed Sherab Gyaltsän, who re-established the foundation of Menri monastery in the 15th centrury, composed a practice text for the invoking of their aid on behalf of practitioners. [11]

The Mantra Recitation for Meri

The bija-mantra, or seed syllable, for Gekhöd Meri is the reddish-yellow, or golden coloured syllable HRI, from which the visualization of the deity is generated after the peaceful aspect of Sangwa Düpa dissolves into light. The mantra given below revolves around this bija syllable in his heart center as a mantramala, or rosary of mantras (sngags-phreng). The recitation of the mantra is indicated in the text as being the daily practice for accumulating the proper enumerations of the mantra recitation for Meri practice. This mantra is not in Sanskrit, but in the Zhang-zhung language, and is as follows in pronunciation:





And in terms of the transliteration, it reads as follows:

Lig-min tshar gyi hor cha ram/

Khyim ‘dur phogs-se spungs-se ram/

Ge-khod spongs-se ram/

U-ram ku-ram ye-ram hri ram ram! //

The last line contains the root mantra of Gekhöd-Meri, where the syllable HRI is his bija-mantra and RAM is the mantra of the element fire. U-RAM represents the Wisdom Aspect of Meri (ye-shes kyi me-ri), this signifying the Dharma¬kaya which is Atimuwer. The power of this mantra consumes in flames the poisonous passion of confusion. KU-RAM represents the Magical Apparition Aspect of Meri (rdzu-‘phrul gyi me-ri), this signifying his Sambhogakaya which is Kuji Mangke. This mantric power consumes in flames the poisonous passion of greed. YE-RAM represents the Compassion Aspect of Meri (thugs-rje’i me-ri), this signifying his Nirmanakaya which is Walchen Gekhöd himself. By this mantric power the poisonous passion of anger is consumed in flames. These three aspects of Meri are also known as the Me-ri rnam gsum, “the three aspects of Meri,” and their power destroys the three principal poisons, or negative emotions, or kleshas, that afflict and defile the mind of the individual practitioner, namely, confusion, desire, and anger Although the liturgy for the intermediate length sadhana does not provide the meaning of the full form of the mantra, this is found in another text entitled Ge-khod sngags sgrub, “the Mantra Sadhana of Gekhod”. [12] Here the Zhang-zhung terms are translated into Tibetan, and in turn, we can render them into English below, as follows:

LIG-MIN -in the past, present, and future times,

TSHAR GYI -all of them (that is, the kleshas, or negative defiling emotions, or passions),

HOR CHA RAM -are burnt up by the light rays of his Body, Speech, Mind,

KHYIM ‘ DUR -thereby the three worlds,

PHOGS-SE -become purified of all suffering,

SPUNGS-SE (RAM) -and by his power and blessings,

GE-KHOD -all demons (bdud) are subdued.

SPONGS-SE (RAM) -They are purified (and burnt up) by his power and blessings,

U-RAM -by way of the Wisdom Meri aspect, the Dharmakaya,

KU-RAM -the Apparitional Meri aspect, the Sambhogakaya,

YE-RAM -and the Compassion Meri aspect, the Nirmanakaya,

HRI RAM RAM -(bija-mantras for Meri).

As said, the seed-syllable RAM represents the fire element and its powers and qualities, including purification.

According to the instructions describing the visualzation practice texts (mngon-rtogs) found elsewhere, the bija-mantra, or seed syllable, for his peaceful aspect Atimuwer is the white letter A and for Kuji Mangke it is the greenish-blue syllable OM. For the two consorts of Meri, the bija-mantras are MUM for the red Drol-yum Ödlayma and SRUM for the yellow Jyor-yum Nelay Sidpai Gyalmo. The bija-mantras for the Ten Wrathful Deities in sexual union forming his retinue in the ten directions are HRI for the males and RAM for the females. Each of these ten couples has two attendents, male on their right side and female on their left side. The bija-mantra for the ten male Summoners is DZA and the that for the ten female Slayers is RAM. The bija-mantra for the Four Great Champion Gate-keepers is BHYO (pronounced jhyo).

Lineage for the Practice of Meri

As said, the lineage for the practice of Zhang-zhung Meri is practically identical with that of the Zhang-zhung Nyän-gyud, beginning with the Primordial Buddha:

  1. The Primordial Teacher, the Dharmakaya Ye-nyid Tönpa Kuntu Zangpo

(ye-nyid ston-pa kun tu bzang-po),

  1. The Teacher who is Compassion, the Sambhogakaya aspect Shenlha Ödkar

(thugs-rje’i ston-pa gshen-lha ‘od-dkar),

  1. The Teacher who is an Emanation, the Nirmanakaya aspect Shenrab Miwoche

(sprul-pa’i ston-pa gshen-rab mi-wo-che),

  1. Atimuwer (a-ti-mu-wer),
  2. Kuji Mangke (ku-byi mang-ke),
  3. Walchen Gekhöd (dbal-chen ge-khod), and
  4. Sangwa Düpa (gsang-ba ‘dus-pa).

And then it passed through the line of Twenty-Four Masters, divine and human, who are known as august persons (gang-zag nyer-bzhi), eventually coming down to Tapihritsa and Gyerpung Nangzher Lödpo in the 8th century CE..

The Texts for Zhang-zhung Meri

The Gekhöd cycle of practice is based on five Tantras dealing with this deity. They are known as the bDud-‘dul ge-khod kyi rgyud lnga. [13] It is said that these Tantras are among the eighty-six great Tantras and the three hundred minor Tantras brought from the nine-storeyed Swastika Mountain (g.yung-drung dgu brtsegs) in Tazig or Central Asia to Zhang-zhung. These Tantras are not at present available in the West and, in any event, according to Yongdzin Lopon Tenzin Namdak, those that are found in the Bönpo Canon recently published in China are not complete. Neverthelss, from them the ritual text entitled Ge-khod gsang-ba drag-chen was compiled in the 15th century by Je Rinpoche Sherab Gyaltsän (1356-1415), the founder of Trashi Menri monastery. [14]

The three Tantras of Meri (me-ri rgyud gsum) are also included under the rubric of Gekhöd in this classification of the five gSas-mkhar, or divine citadels. According to Shardza Rinpoche’s Legs-bshad mdzod, the Me-ri rgyud gsum were transmitted from Tönpa Shenrab to his contemporary, Tride Chagkyi Jyaruchän (khri-lde lcags kyi bya-ru-can), who was the first monarch in the earlier dynasty of the kings of Zhang-zhung. [15] Eventually from him this came down to Tsepung Dawa Gyaltsän in the 7th century, so that this transmissioin lineage became the same as for the Zhang-zhung Nyän Gyud. These latter were included among the most important texts of the three hundred and sixty texts of Zhang-zhung Bön, which the Tibetan king Trisong Detsän promised not to suppress when he was subdued by Gyerpung Nangzher Lödpo. Thus, the transmission lineage for Meri Bön came down to Pön-gyal Tsänpo, whereafter it divided into the Upper Transmission and the Lower Transmission and then united once more in the 11th century through the efforts of Yangtön Sherab Gyaltsän and his master Orgom Kundrol. [16]

In Tibet there exist two traditions of teaching relating to Gekhöd and Meri:

  1. Kama (bka’-ma)—the continuous oral tradition (later written down) and descending into our own time in company with the Zhang-zhung Nyän-gyud; and
  2. Terma (gter-ma)—the hidden treasure texts or Terma concealed at Paro (spa-gro) in Bhutan and rediscovered at by Khutsa Da-öd (khu-tsha zla-‘od, b. 1024) and by Pönse Khyung-göd-tsal (dpon-gsas khyung-rgod-rtsal, b. 1175).

Both of these traditions are found represented in the collections entitled the Me-ri sgrub skor and the Ge-khod sgrub skor, that is to say, in the sadhana cycles of Meri and Gekhöd respectively. These two collections have been published in India byYongdzin Lopon Tenzin

Namdak for the Tibetan Bonpo Monastic Centre. [17]

Outline of the Sadhana Text

The intermediate length sadhana (sgrub-pa), or practice text, known as “The Sadhana Practice for the Single Mighty Phurpa of Gekhöd Meri” (ge-khod me-ri gyad phur gcig sgrub bzhugs-so)” is found in the collection of the propitiatory rites cited above. [18] It consists of a short sadhana for daily recitation and includes the invocations of, meditation upon, and propitiation of the meditation deity Zhang-zhung Meri. The text also states that this practice was followed by Ligmincha, the king of Zhang-zhung. The sadhana text is divided into the following sections:

  1. Preface,
  2. Securing the Boundaries (mtshams bcad-pa),
  3. Invocation of the Wisdom Deities (ye-shes spyan-‘dren),
  4. Doing Homage (phyag-‘tshal),
  5. Request to be Seated (bzhugs su gsol),
  6. Confession (bshags-pa),
  7. Offering the Symbolic Form (phyag-rgya’i mchod-pa),
  8. Five-fold Puja Offering (mchod-pa rnam lnga ‘bul-ba),
  9. Offering of Medicine (sman mchod),
  10. Receiving of Siddhis (dngos-grub blang-ba),
  11. Offering of Meat, Blood, and Bones (sha khrag rus-pa’i mchod-pa),
  12. Offering the Ganapuja (tshogs ‘bul),
  13. Aspiration Prayer (smon-lam),
  14. Recitation Aloud of the Mantra (dzab grags),
  15. Hymn of Praise (bstod-pa), and
  16. Dispatching the Torma Offering (gtor-ma btang-ba).

The Practice of Sadhana

Each Tantra cycle has a chief Yidam meditation deity and each Yidam has its own system of practice. Moreover, each Yidam has a root sadhana (rtsa sgrub) that is necessary for the entering into the cycle of practice. It is said that to realize the fruit of the tree, it is first necessary to sow the proper seed. According to the instructions of Yongdzin Rinpoche, [19] before beginning, it is also necessary to examine and cultivate our motivation for the practice by way of the four meditations that change one’s attitude (blo-ldog rnam-bzhi), and to do so without error or mistake. Then we may engage in realizing the Natural State and compassion. The basic text here is “The Essence of the Mind of Zhang-zhung Meri” (zhang-zhung me-ri snying-thig), which represents the shortest form of the sadhana for Meri. All of the Twenty-Four Masters did the practice of Gekhöd-Meri, but they practiced Tantra largely as a supplement to Dzogchen practice, and did so mainly for the benefit of others. In addition to the root text and the extended texts of the sadhana, there are auxilliary texts for fire puja (me-mchod), protection rites (srung-ba), rites to avert negative influences (zlog-pa), long life practices (tshe grub), propitiation rites (bskang-ba), confession (bshag-pa), empowerments (dbang-bskur), and so on. Detailed instructions describing the procedure for the visualization are given in texts known as Ngöntok (mngon-rtogs), literally “clear understanding.” At the beginning one does homage with one’s body, speech, and mind to the Gönpo Namsum, or Three Lord Protectors, namely, Atimuwer, Kuji Mangke, and Zhang-zhung Meri, and to all the lineage masters. Then we may engage the visualization process, or Kyerim (bskyed-rim). Here, as pointed out previously, the peaceful form in relation to Meri, the sage Sangwa Düpa, is explained first. Then after this peaceful form dissolves into light, the seed syllable HRI in one’s heart center transforms into the wrathful aspect of Zhang-zhung Meri.

First we must purify ourselves and everything else into the Basic Nature in terms of the three samadhis, or contemplations. The Natural State has no beginning and no end; it is not born and it does not die. It is in no way distracted. All visions come from this Nature and, therefore, all phenomena are primordially pure (ka-dag). This Nature represents emptiness, clarity, and their unification. This realization of the state of Shunyata is the first samadhi and we practice until we have become familar with it. Otherwise, if we go on to the second samadhi, which is compassion, there will be no proper result. We do this in terms of cultivating the four immeasurable states (tshad-med bzhi) and reciting the text for this. Thus, we must integrate the Natural State with compassion and these four immeasurable states. We practice them individually at first until we can think compassion without this thought disturbing our Natural State. Thus we integrate them. Then we are ready for beginning the transformation.

When the unification of the Natural State and compassion are clear and stable and do not disturb each other, then we visualize their unification as the seed syllable. Now all phenomena appear from the Nature to be like reflections on the water. Even the mandala and the deities we visualize will be like reflections on the water; they are only empty forms and illusions, having no inherent existence. Therefore in sequence, we practice being in the Natural State, we meditate upon compassion, we integrate them without disturbances, and finally all phenomenal existence appears as empty forms. These all represent preliminaries and the beginning of visualization, according to Yongdzin Rinpoche’s instructions. The details for the visualization process are then found in the various texts of the Ngöntok section.

In terms of Dzogchen, finding oneself in the Natural State represents the principal practice and that is sufficient in itself to attain liberation and enlightenment. However, we also find ourselves in this relative condition in this present life and Tantra provides many practical methods which may prove useful in dealing with our circumstances. From the stand point of Dzogchen, all of these represent secondary practices. But since Dzogchen is without any limitations in itself, it may utilize any of the methods of Sutra and Tantra that would prove useful to the practitioner, such as the invocation of and the meditation upon Zhang-zhung Meri.

[Extracted from The Cult and Practice of the Bönpo Deity Walchen Gekhöd, also known as Zhang-zhung Meri, by John Myrdhin Reynolds, forthcoming.]


  1. See John Myrdhin Reynolds, The Oral Tradition from Zhang-zhung, Vajra Publications, Kathmandu 2005, pp. 29-78.
  2. See Reynolds, The Oral Tradition from Zhang-zhung (2005), pp. 79-106.
  3. See Reynolds, The Oral Tradition from Zhang-zhung (2005), pp. 137-150.
  4. According to the gSang-ba sngags kyi rnam-par bshad-pa’i mchan bka’ ‘grel gsal-byed (The Clear Elucidation of the Annotations and Commentaries on the Precepts, which Represent a Complete Explanation of the Secret Mantra System) by Yongdzin Rinpoche, Lopon Tenzin Namdak. A translation of this text is being prepared.
  5. Oral communication from Yongdzin Rinpoche.
  6. On the mountain god (yul-lha) cult in Tibetan folk religion, see Samten G. Karmay, “Local Deities and the Juniper Tree: A Ritual of Purification,” and “The Cult of Mountain Deities and its Political Significance,” in The Arrow and the Spindle, Mandala Book Point, Kathmandu 1998, pp. 380-412 and 432-450.
  7. Phyi rten dbal gyi g.yag la babs and nang rten rin-chen gser la byas.
  8. See Namkhai Norbu, “The Bon of Juthig: The Science of Divination,” in Drung, Deu, and Bon: Narratives, Symbolic Languages, and the Bon Tradition in Ancient Tibet, LTWA, Dharamsala1995, pp. 189-198.
  9. For more detailed descriptions of Zhang-zhung Meri, see Per Kvaerne, The Bon Religion of Tibet, Serindia Publications, London 1995 and also John Myrdhin Reynolds, The Cult and Practice of the Bönpo Deity Walchen Gekhöd, also Known as Zhang-zhung Meri, forcoming from Vajra Publications, Kathmandu.
  10. In transliteration: 1. dbal gyi rgyal-po me lha rgyung and sra-brtan-ma, 2. skyel-chen mu-wer and gyer-ting tsa-med, 3. sum-phud rgyal-po and skyed-byed-ma, 4. lig-chen mu-wer and gyer-snyan tsa-med, 5. sku-lha yo-phya and smin-byed-ma, 6. spungs-chen mu-wer and ting-rgyung tsa-med, 7. sku-lha mu-thur and ’degs-byed-ma, 8. srid-pa mu-wer and ring-snyan tsa-med, 9. pus-has dung-rgyung and shugs-sgrol-ma, 10. sku-lha pra-phud and gsod-byed-ma.
  11. For a translation of the practices of Nyipangse and Mänmo, see Reynolds, The Oral Tradition from Zhang-zhung (2005), “Appendix Three: The Invocations to the Guardian Deity Nyipangse and to the Goddess Menmo,” pp. 345-365.
  12. Me-ri sgrub skor, pp.397-406.
  13. See Per Kvaerne, “The Canon of the Bonpos,” in Indo-Iranian Journal 1974, pp. 96-144.
  14. rJe rin-po-che mnyam-med shes-rab rgyal-mtshan.
  15. See Samten G. Karmay, The Treasury of Good Sayings: A Tibetan History of Bon, Oxford University Press, London 1972, p. 50. The list of the eighteen Jyaruchän (bya-ru-can) kings is found in the mTsho ma-pham dkar-chags and quoted in Namkhai Norbu, The Necklace of gZi, LTWA, Dharamsala 1981.
  16. See Reynolds, The Oral Tradition from Zhang-zhung (2005), pp. 155-157, 163-167.
  17. (1) Zhang-zhung me-ri bka’ gter gnyis kyi sgrub-pa las tshogs bcas-pa’i gsung pod: A Collection of Texts from the Zhang-zhung snyan-rgyud and the re-discoveries of the gTer-ston Khu-tsha zla-‘od concerned with the Propitiation of the Bonpo Deity Meri. Reproduced from the lithograph edition prepared in Delhi c. 1950 by the late Khyung-sprul ‘jigs-med nam-mkha’ rdo-rje. Tibetan Bonpo Monastic Centre, 1973.

(2) gTsang-ma zhang-zhung gi bon ge-khod gsang-ba drag-chen gyi sgrub-pa las tshogs bcas kyi gsung pod: A Collection of Texts from the Termas of dPon-gsas Khyung-rgod-rtsal. Tibetan Bonpo Monastic Centre, 1973.

  1. Me-ri sgrub skor, pp. 383-396.
  2. Oral communication from Yongdzin Rinpoche.