Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Shamanism in Tibetan Buddhism and Bon

I have studied and practiced eclectic spiritual healing and Tibetan Bon and Buddhism since 1990. I don't really mix those things with shamanism, but I find them to be complementary.

Bon, the indigenous Tibetan religion, actually has a shamanic component. Although it has become more and more like Buddhism, Bon was originally an animist belief system that included shamanism. There are still shamans and sorcerers in Nepal and possibly (despite persecution under Chinese rule) in Tibet.

When Buddhism was adopted in Tibet, so many shamanic practices were incorporated in it that Tibetan Buddhism is, to this day, very different from other forms of Buddhism. When you receive an empowerment or initiation from a reborn lama, a rimpoche (precious jewel), you can sometimes really feel the shamanic energy.

(Most lamas are not consciously reborn with memories of other lives as lamas. The ordinary lamas generally have a geshe (doctorate) degree in Tibetan religious studies, so their ceremonies are word perfect, but the energy is quite different.)

One of the most important practices in Tibetan Buddhism, Chod, came from one of the female founders of Tibetan Buddhism. It is a classic shamanic initiation of dismemberment by the spirits. Interestingly, Tibetan Buddhism coexists very well with shamanism in Siberia, Mongolia, and the countries of Greater Tibet, such as Nepal and Bhutan.

I haven't studied the shamanic practices of Bon yet. I have some books and CDs by Tenzin Wangyal Rimpoche, though, and I recommend (and will eventually review) them on my website on classic shamanism, http://www.shamanista.com.

Rimpoche is a wonderful teacher, who lived in Houston and taught at Rice University in the early 1990s. He gave teachings in Houston even before he moved here, and I studied with him and later with his teacher, Tenzin Namdak Rimpoche, the Lopon (highest teacher) of Bon.

While living here, Tenzin Wangyal Rimpoche started a Houston branch of his Ligmincha Institute, and he returns at least once year to teach. His lectures are wonderful.

Like the Dalai Lama, the consciously reborn lamas (and perhaps the others, too) can transmit knowledge directly (psychically) while teaching. It's hard to describe, but it is real. (I've experienced it with Tibetan lamas and with a Mayan daykeeper, Hunbatz Men, who spoke only Spanish but was understood by listeners who knew no Spanish at all.)

Although Bon has grown closer and closer to Buddhism, its shamanic roots are much closer to the surface. Bon also has more female deities, making it more appealing to women than Buddhism.

Both Tibetan religions are almost the opposite (to me) of the emptiness of Zen. They are filled with sensory imagery (vision, sound, taste and touch), which is their legacy from Tibetan animism. Like shamanism they often deal directly with spirits.

Before Tibetan lamas do a ceremony, they check on the land spirits at that place. Then, if need be, they heal the land spirits before conducting their Bon or Buddhist ceremony.

[By the way, not all monks are lamas, only the senior teachers are called that. And not all lamas are monks, even in Buddhism; some of them are married and have families.]

Both the intricate, colorful imagery and the animistic practices of Tibetan Bon and Buddhism appeal to me. The energy feels familiar, attractive, and powerful.

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