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bön

︎Artist, Painting, Tantric, Philosophy, Article  
︎ Ventral Is Golden


If an explorer, finding himself in a remote region, but lacking this pure vision and the discriminating eye of wisdom, were inadvertently to stumble upon this fabled land, he would only see a dusty windswept arid plane surrounded by desolate mountains. The concealment and invisibility of Olmo Lungring to ordinary sight is no proof that it does not exist.
Bön is an ancient Tibetan form of autochthonous Shamanism, related to the Nyingma (ancient) traditions. It pre-dates Buddhist thought and religious culture, some say by upto one thousand years. Flourishing in the high altitudes of the Himalayas amongst nomadic communities, during the 8th - 10th centuries, during an era of persecution as Buddhist orthodoxy spread across Tibet, Bön had to absorb many Buddhist ideas in order to keep its own traditions alive.
Many scholars believe Bön to have been a mixture of Himalayan Shamanism and Buddhist Tantra, along with elements of Indo-Iranian Mithraism that arrived along the Silk Route from Persia around the 5th Century. These influences circulated within communal groups without any real external pressures of politically formalising into any kind of orthodox religious identity.
Many initial Bön teachings, however, were beleived to have been secretly written into foundational Buddhist texts, often referred to as the Bön Terma (Hidden Treasures of Bön).
One example is a major text of Tibetan Buddhism, the Bardo Thödol, being strongly influenced by Bön and may actually be of Bön origin with Buddhist overlays. Often mistakenly translated in the West as The Tibetan Book of The Dead, the ‘Bardo Thödol’ is more accurately translated as ‘Liberation In The Intermediate States Through Hearing’. The majority of Bön‘s fierce nature deities, for example, also became the eight Dharmapala (such as the tantric traditions of Dakini spirits and goddesses) who protect the central tennets of Buddhism.

A practitioner of Bön is known as a Bön-po, the rough translation of which is 'invocation', in the sense of invoking the natural world through forms of ecstasy and outer body experience. But over the centuries, with the formalisation of Buddhism, the ecstatic shamanas were replaced by the priestly Lama or ritual expert, and so later Bön-pos in Central Tibet came to fulfill a role more ritualistic than ecstatic. There exists a parallel here to what some think occurried in ancient India, where the Rishis of the early Vedic period, who communed directly with the celestial gods during outer body experiences, were later replaced by Brahman priests, who were ‘private experts’ in the performing of such rituals (J. Reynolds, 1989). The same can be said of Christianity’s relationship to Paganism and earlier forms of Christianity that derrived their teachings from Egypt and the Middle East.


Tonpa Shenrab Miwo is credited as being the distributor of Bön knowledge by most sources. As a wondering sage, he arrived in Tibet some say around 18,000 years ago from a land in the west named Olmo Lungring - a part geographical, part non-dual, spirit realm of unborn everlasting compassion. Some scholars relate this historically to the more recent time of the Persian empire, as it was understood that Olmo Lungring covered one third of the known world at the time Iranian culture and Scythian nomads were cross-pollinating ideas of early Buddhism, Daoism and later Zoroastrianism along the Silk Road. In Shenrab’s native language, Tagzig, the religion of Bön was known as Drungmu Gyer, in Tibetan as Yundrung Bön and in Sanskrit as Swastika Dharma. The swastika can also be found on some early Indo-Iranian artworks and carvings.
Yungdrung Bön is the official name of the Bön tradition. 'Yung' meaning “the unborn, the absolute, free of any inherent nature,” and 'drung' meaning “constantly arising”. The symbol of the Yungdrung itself is a left facing swastika (Sanskrit; Sva Asti, meaning 'well-being').





A fascinating aspect of Bön Shamanic tradition is the incorporation of the Bön Terma. It translates to ‘hidden treasure’, and was used as a method of protecting knowledge. In an abstract sense it is reminiscent of what quantum physicists would call Non-locality or the Principle of Uncertainty. Without delving too deeply into the world of quantum mechanics, the concept of Non-locality is when two particles become entangled so that they can affect each other even over great distances, instantaneously (running counter to our understanding of causality). Uncertainty is the idea that no matter how accurately the device of measuring, both the position and the the velocity of a particle cannot be known at the same time. As one measurement increases in accuracy, the other decreases.

In Bön traditions this phenomena manifests as the Terma, whereby various teachings, deemed either too advanced for the time they were developed or beyond the level of social understanding, would leave their fundamental truths open to manipulation. The Terma enabled the concepts to exist in a kind of quantum, social super-position. They were written and placed across the Himalayas, sometimes literally buried underground, inside trees or under stones, or metaphorically within the mind's of the adepts, to be retrieved at later dates by individuals referred to as Tertöns, when the time of learning was necessary for the redemption of humanity. Some of these hidden treasures were even written in a secret Dakini Script, only accessable to those initiated in the arts of communication with the powerful, female nature deities.
The idea of the Terma has in someways helped the Bön, Dzogchen and Nyingma traditions remain animated, albeit under the surface of more politically centred religious institutions. It is in this sense that the scientific concepts of entanglement and non-locality were implanted inside spiritual concepts as they moved between nomads and merchants, as a way of preserving and communicating unchanging spiritual truths over great distances of time and space.

With the majority of our communications now emanating from the seemingly obscure, electro-telekinetic spirit realms that theosophists such that HP Blavatsky described, connectivity and impressions of communal space are becoming more aligned with the metaphor of the Terma, the Lapis Philosophorum, or Philosopher's Stone of alchemical traditions, as well as the esoteric teachings of the East that were all catalysed by the intercultural exchanges happening amongst nomadic pastorialists, merchants, musicians and magicians.
Terence McKenna often talked about Shamanism as a kind of proto nanotechnology, a natural approach to experiencing unseen environments. But instead of using high-tech, electrical machines constructed of matter, the machines were made of low-tech, electrical impulses, induced through the consumption of plant-based materials. What was interesting for McKenna, from around 1994 up until his death, was that the high tech world of modern science and the low tech world of the psychedelic shaman were becoming increasingly intertwined.



To mediate connections between worlds of modern science and the plant kingdom, we rely heavily upon certain technologies such as language, to articulate their significance to a ‘general public’. McKenna saw one of the key differences of these two worlds being that the psychedelic experience of the low technological world, as regulated by the body's metabolism (physical limitations as a kind of internalised biological censorship against overconsumption) gradually guides us through a cascade of vegetable psychedelia and back towards equilibrium. In contrast, the experience of the high technological world, as in Virtual Reality or print for example, their effects could last indefinitely, effectively using the psyche as a kind of real estate, where the reality being experienced is regulated externally by whoever wrote the permissions for the experience, which could theoretically last for 200 or 6,000 years.
In simpler terms, what this means is that the technology of the printed word or virtual reality can be more persistent than that of the naturally occuring reality of a psychadelic experience, and arguably more dangerous, as it sets the cognitive digestion processes in motion and grinds down the significance of an experience into socially regulated categories. This is why the tradition of the Terma has been so important to the preservation of the Bön tradition and their connection to psychic spaces within nature.

McKenna once stated that our commonly shared psychedelic experience of digital communication will enable us “to show each other what we mean, we are going to be able to build hallucinations, and walk through them, discuss them, edit them, and re-edit them."
He was talking about this being a necessary tool for broadening historical narratives and engaging in the process of learning from the traumas of industrial history. The obvious drawback to this is that without a comprehension of common philosophical truths that exist outside of the current socio-technological paradigm, we will recreate unseen historical predjudice inside the reimagining of psychic hyperspace. 

The technology first needs to unravel itself and reveal its Terma. Only then can it reflect the current level of receptiveness required of a society that can incorporate its teachings.


In terms of depth psychology and archetypal healing, C.G Jung described that the technique of curing a recurring sickness was that the sickness itself had to be evoked by the Shaman who then himself becomes the sickness. In order to extricate this from the subject or the space, the shaman (who also represents the Trickster, Healer, Medicine-Man, Artist, Poet, Musician, Dancer and Doctor) purifies the subject in much the same way as a temple, a piece of music or a scent would purify a space. The process is a transient one, as a sound or trail of smoke is transient and so defines the constantly arising aspect of the Yungdrung, to reveal itself as on ongoing, active process.
As an extenion of this process, the Bön used initiation cards (called Tsakali) placing them in mandalic formation to arouse a geometric temple alluding to a transient psychic space. Through incantations or use of mantra and incense, they were able to evoke the unborn, eternally arising nature of well-being, namely to protect and liberate the minds of those who chose to enter.





Tsakali cards (below) were used individually to align a disciple with a deity from the vast pantheon. First, the disciple sought permission from the deity, either through a dream or under the guidance of a teacher. The associated ritual involved visualizing the deity as described in recited mantras (incantations) and with an image—in this case, the deity represented on the tsakali.

The cards form a mandala if the first one is placed in the middle and the following cards are arranged clockwise, as is auspicious. The bodhisattvas Samantabhadra (male) and Sambantabhadri (female), appearing in the upper corners, have as their esoteric counterpart the central and most important figure, Vajrasattva. While there is no text explaining this mandala, the Maha Vairochana sutra tells us that Vajrasattva should be venerated in order to purify the mind prior to undertaking advanced tantric techniques. This accords with the inscriptions on the back of each card, which associate mental states with each deity and delusions, such as pride, jealousy, and hatred, with each of the possible rebirths. It is remarkable that these cards, perhaps the earliest set of tsakali that survives intact, together form a mandala suitable for the ritual of initiation.
“ - Met Museum.






Beginning to notice that the worlds we inhabit are more like echoes of dynamic forces who’s apparations are mediated by sounds and symbols, the case of the intellectual and spiritual potential of mandalas and the Yundrung (swastika) for example, bring into question the Western cultural cognition that renders this a symbol of oppression and nothing more.
This kind of symbolic resonance is not to say that the accumulation of cultural sensitivities are unjustified, but rather that a negative aspect of either a deity or a symbol requires further attention in order to recognise its potential value for healing or to placate its potential for destruction. These symbols if anything are prompts for the collective mind to move deeper into the 'sickness' of reactionary thought and towards an engagement with ancient spiritual perspectives, if only to recognise them at the source of their origins.
As a species with the capacity to create and reflect, it is our responsibility to acknowledge the relatedness of disparate traditions, symbols, sciences and technologies in order to enrich our cultural heritage with the same fascinating contradictions that emerged upon the Silk Road, whilst at the same time being able to discriminate against their misuse.



Further Reading ︎

Dakini, Bon Religion
Bon, the Primitive Religion of Tibet, article
Tsakalis, Met museum
Dongba Rebus Language
Bonpo Mandalas
Layout and function of the initiation cards, pdf
The Essence of Dzogchen, article
Terence McKenna Interview, Appreciating Imagination
Ancient Tibetan Bonpo Shamanism, J. Reynolds
Bon background research paper
Non-locality and Entanglement



Mark