Station Hill Press: Barrytown, New York, 1993.
220 pp., $14.95 (paper).
Shardza Tashi Gyaltsen
Commentary by Lopon Tenzin Namdak
Snow Lion Publications: Ithaca, New York: 1993.
197 pp., $15.95 (paper).
For most readers, these two books will serve as the first “insider” introductions to Bon, the indigenous spiritual tradition of Tibet that predates Buddhism in the Land of the Snows. Bon has been depicted by many Tibetan Buddhist teachers and their Western converts as the most primitive of religions, a sect of devilish animists who, failing to defeat Buddhism with black magic, sought instead to plagiarize and embellish its canon, grafting Buddhist ideas onto its own rituals. Most venal and unforgivable to many Buddhists is the Bonpos’ (those who practice Bon) claim that their tradition predates the lineages of Shakyamuni Buddha by several thousand years and represents the teachings of the enlightened Persian prince Shenrab Miwoche. Quite a story to swallow from “primitive local animists.” Yet the Tibetan Buddhist depiction of Bon is consistent with the pattern of most histories written by conquerors through the ages, those who felt compelled to “civilize” the aboriginal traditions they displaced. Now, with renewed respect for indigenous traditions everywhere, groups like the Bonpos are getting the chance to have their voices heard.
In these challenging years for Tibetan people, perhaps self-preservation motivates a wider sense of tolerance for non-Buddhist teachings than has otherwise historically been the case. His Holiness the Dalai Lama, discovering in Bon both an authentic lineage of spiritual transmission and some key aspects of Tibetan cultural history, has persuaded his government-in-exile to recognize the order as the country’s fifth traditional religious school, on equal footing with the Nyingma, Kagyu, Sakya, and Gelug lines. Not surprisingly, His Holiness has met with some resistance, especially from within the ranks of his own Gelug school, whose founder, Je Tsongkhapa, once cautioned, “No refuge to the Three Jewels as Bonpos.” Breaking that very tradition, His Holiness has lent an enthusiastic foreword to Wonders of the Natural Mind.
While this area of scholarship is pretty much terra incognita at this time, it has become clear to a number of contemporary writers and scholars, such as John Myrdhin Reynolds and Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche, that the time has come to redress previous misconceptions about Bon.
Taken together, Wonders of the Natural Mind and Heart Drops of Dharmakaya do much to whet our appetites for further archaeological and textual research into Bon. The latter book points to recent textual evidence that the ancient language of Zhang Zhung (in which certain surviving Bonpo texts are composed) may predate Tibetan Buddhist written scriptural language and that the design of Bonpo stu pas (funerary monuments) may date from as early as the first century C.E., several hundred years earlier than the first Tibetan Buddhist stu pas. All of this serves to prepare us for the unique perspective of a tradition that closely resembles the more familiar Tibetan lineages, perhaps only because it is their ancestor and, in some ways, their prototype, rather than merely the “bad copy” it has often been supposed to be.
These volumes present the perspective of the “Yungdrung,” “Eternal” or “Old” Bon, as opposed to “New” Bon (which incorporates Padmasambhava, the founder of Tibetan Buddhism, into its cycle of teachings). What distinguishes Old Bon from Tibetan Buddhist schools is its incorporation of instructions on harmonizing with the local environment and its deities, as well as related teachings on healing, into the progressive stages of its system. Old Bon does not consider these “earth teachings” irrelevant to enlightenment, but refers to them as outer gateways to the inner teaching of sutra and tantra that culminate in the innermost teachings of Dzogchen, the Great Perfection.
Both Wonders and Heart Drops focus on Dzogchen, the basis of which is the view that resting the mind in the nakedness of its own natural condition is the key to permanent freedom. Literally translated “Great Perfection,” Dzogchen is the gestalt and grounding perspective that informs and resolves all the elements of the Bon tradition. In emphasizing that enlightenment can actually unfold through continually recognizing the nuances of our already existent “natural state,” Dzogchen stands in contrast to the sutras and tantras, which stress applying fervent effort and striving toward actual transformation. Moreover, Bon tradition understands the development of bare awareness as its most significant method, toward which all other practices serve as preparation.
Geshe Tenzin Wangyal was born in India in the early 1960s and studied closely with Lopon Tenzin Namdak, the noted Bonpo lineage holder who visited the U.S. in 1991. He makes it clear early on inWonders of the Natural Mind that understanding the “View,” the direct experience of the mind in the nakedness of its natural condition, is the heart of his tradition and the most important aspect for the practitioner to develop. This, he insists, must entail stabilizing preliminary practices under the guidance of a good teacher but can nonetheless be communicated through dedicated study of a text such as the one he presents, which is based on the Zhang Zhung Nyan Gyud, the key Bon treasury of Dzogchen teachings.
Engaging stories from Tenzin Wangyal’s life provide a reassuring foundation for his progrcssively structured chapters on motivation, tranquility practice, nondual contemplation, and the integration of contemplation with daily activities. The book concludes with several chapters on the specific qualities of the natural, or already enlightened, state, culminating with a grounded discussion of thc advanced practices known astrekcho, cutting through dualism with continual awareness, and thogal, which involves working with the self-emanated energies that comprise reality and which appear in perfected contemplation, as well as following physical death. Controversy will most certainly accompany the release of these teachings, and the concerns that some practitioners will raise should not be dismissed. Contemplative practice is a grad ual process, and a novice’s attempts to experiment with the teachings on the relationship between mind and energy are perhaps destined to create trying or troubling passages for the practitioner. But Geshe Wangyal is faithful to his teacher’s view that these practices must not be allowed to die out in these difficult times and should no longer be kept secret as in the past.
Heart Drops is a teaching by the distinguished Bon master Shardza Tashi Gyaltsen (1859-1935), presented as a direct transmission of advice to students. Shardza is one of a number of Bon and Nyingma lamas reported to have attained the “body of light” (the dissolution of bodily elements into light at the time of death). Lopon Tenzin Namdak rendered the Tibetan book into English for his students in 1991, adding spontaneous oral commentary to the root text.
While Heart Drops opens with a section on preliminary practices, the remaining pages cover the advanced contemplative and energy practices of trekcho and thogal, and related teachings on death and dying. There is no precedent for public disclosure of these teachings among the Nyingmapas, the school of Tibetan Buddhism generally associated with the Dzogchen teachings, or even among the Bonpos. Because so much of Heart Drops is concerned with this material, the book is perhaps most appropriate for the serious student.
The editor calls Heart Drops an “exegetical commentary rather than a strict translation,” and we might classify it most precisely as excellent notes on a recent oral presentation—in other words, something of a diamond in the rough. Keeping these points in mind, however, we have in Heart Drops an inspiring text that no doubt will help to vindicate Bon as an indispensable source of Dzogchen teachings.