Yungdrung Bön in the West: reception and transformations by Ieva Rute
Choosing the methodological framework
Reconstruction of the origins and tracing back the history of a certain religious teaching or doctrine could be very complicated when we can build our research only on the scarce ancient texts or on the oral tradition. Today we have an opportunity to observe the diffusion of Yungdrung Bön in the West. This gives us a chance to study the very process of reception and acculturation of this ancient Tibetan tradition as it is actually occurring. Interdisciplinary studies offer us a wide spectrum of scholarly techniques helping to understand and trace cultural developments that are going on when ancient Tibetan tradition meets our consumer based secular Western society. The process of cultural exchange and adaptation reshapes not only the diffusing religious tradition, but invokes transformations in the host community as well. The acculturation of Buddhism in the West is being explored for almost twenty years, and thanks to the scholars, we can already see the fuzzy outlines of emerging Western Buddhisms, shaped by the specific background of the certain receiver country or culture. Scholars, such Nattier (1998), Prebish (1998; 2002), Tanaka (1998; 1999), Queen (1999), Coleman (2001), all speak about the general processes happening in different Buddhist traditions active in the West. Coleman states, that there are “too many interconnections (…), and too many similarities in the adaptations they were making to their new environment to treat any single stream in isolation from the others.”(Coleman 2001: 10). I accept this position and claim that the scholarly techniques used researching the diffusion and reception of different Buddhist schools in the West, and some findings, are fully applicable to draw the boundaries of the academic framework aiming to define the reception and transformations of Yungdrung Bön, as it comes to the same cultural milieu.
As far as I was able to find out, no academic research on the diffusion and reception of Yungdrung Bön in the West has been done yet. I have already mentioned that the scholarship of this ancient Tibetan tradition is mostly based on the translations and interpretations of ancient Bön and related texts, when the recent developments are ignored. Yungdrung Bön is also ignored by the scholars researching the acculturation of Buddhism in the West, as being not Buddhist, but we must agree that Yungdrung Bön is undergoing the similar process of acculturation and transformations as Buddhist schools active in the West. Bön came to the West on the basis and with the invitation of already existing Tibetan Buddhist schools and on demands of western Dzogchen practitioners. That is why doing research on Yungdrung Bön reception in the West and the upcoming transformations, I find important to use the methodological framework already successfully used by western scholars researching the process of acculturation of Buddhism in the West and shaping the outlines of emerging New Buddhism.
My research structure is based on the main problems defined by the studies collected by Prebish & Tanaka (1998), Queen & Williams (1999), Prebish & Bauman (2002) and on monographs by Seager (1999) and Coleman (2001). The main questions nicely subsumed by Gregory (2001) in his article overlooking the studies of American Buddhism are: “Who is Buddhist?”; “The problem of the two Buddhisms”; and “The problem of “Americanization” or we could say “Westernization” of Buddhism”. I will redirect those questions to reveal the processes taking place during the reception and acculturation of Yungdrung Bön in the West.
I will start by defining the subject matter, that is who can be called a Western Bönpo, or who comes to the Bön teachings. Then I will use the framework dividing two Buddhisms to define two trends of Yungdrung Bön emerging in the West. Finally I will take the main aspect of transformations taking place in the Western Buddhism: Democratization and will analyze it in the context of Yungdrung Bön. Several aspects emerging in Western Buddhism can be sheltered under the name Democratization. These aspects are: an erosion of the distinction between professional and lay practitioners; a diminished role for monastic tradition; an increasing spirit of egalitarianism, especially evident in Master and student relations.
The current research based on material gathered during my visits to Congregation Shenten Dargye Ling in France. I had limited time and funds to visit other Bön centers active in the West. Shenten Dargye Ling was chosen because it was founded as the first congregation of Yungdrung Bon practitioners in the West and as European centre for preserving and researching the Yungdrung Bön tradition. Main methods to gather anthropological archive were: interview-based fieldwork and participant observation. I have tried to conduct a survey-based research of worldwide Yungdrung Bön community, but my attempts to reach wider Yungdrung Bön audience were unsuccessful. I have made an online questionnaire which I have sent by email to people who have attended Yungdrung Bön teachings in Shenten Dargye Ling and whom I knew personally, asking to spread it around. I have pasted a link to it on a Ring-A-Ling Yungdrung Bön discussion board, and sent letters to the contact persons from other Bön communities, asking to distribute it through the mailing lists of several Yungdrung Bön communities. As a result, I have only 6 answers, which are not enough to generate any conclusions. I have noticed, that people, who are quite open during the informal conversations, tend to be very passive to fill up any survey, especially if it is given in a form of an internet based open questionnaire.
The material gathered through the informal conversations and interviews with people who came to the teachings of Yundrung Bön, and material, gathered by the participant observation practice during my two visits to the Congregation Shenten Dargye Ling in France in summer of 2008 and 2009. I have conducted few deep interviews with John Reynolds, who is one of few western scholars actively working on Bön scholarship since Yungdrung Bön Lamas came to the West. He has been intensively working with Yongdzin Tenzin Namdak Rinpoche on translation of numerous Tibetan Bönpo texts. The latest interview with John Reynolds, conducted in Vilnius on April 2010, resulted with more than six hours of audio records. I will also use materials and interviews available in other recourses, such as previously published interviews, books and the information found on the websites of Yungdrung Bön centers in the West. Internet now becomes one of the primarily means for sharing the information about the upcoming Yungdrung Bön teachings and detailed analysis of the information published there can reveal us many important facts about the ongoing processes of reception and transformations of this ancient Tibetan tradition in the West.
Westerners in search of Dharma
First, we must define the subject matter, that is who can be considered as object of this research. There is always a problem when we have to identify who can be called a Buddhist or Bönpo in our Western society. Our task is to solve the issue of religious identity, which we will use in our study. We have to be cautious not to see religious conversion as a “binary process in which the old identity is switched off as the new one is activated” (Queen 1999: xxiv). We have to keep in mind a wide variety of different levels of religious involvement, very often resulting in multilayered or ambivalent religious identities. This brings us to rejection of idea, still very popular among Western religious scholars, “that religious identity is singular and fixed, and the subjects of our studies fall into two categories: adherents and non-adherents” (Tweed 1999: 71-72). I accept the position of Thomas A. Tweed, who is insistently emphasizing, that religious identity is hybrid (1999: 84), and I agree, that “as we study converts, we should attend carefully to the evidence in language, artifact, and gesture that their religious life reveals influence from multiple sources, including the tradition they rejected when they joined the Buddhist sangha” (1999: 73). Understanding and tracing the processes that formed this hybrid religious identity is very important, as this could help us to see that the process of reception of any religious tradition coming to the West, such as Buddhism or Yungdrung Bön is not uniform, and that it is greatly influenced by the cultural and even historical background of the converts. That is why we have to be cautious not to draw too wide generalizations, as something what is very typical for American Bönpos, could be non applicable for French. This aspect needs not to be forgotten when we analyze any religious formation, not only Buddhism or Yungdrung Bön, especially if we want to trace the processes taking place in the Western community, which now has an access to enormous blocks of information and wide selection of different religious traditions.
The object of this research is the person, who comes to Yungdrung Bön teachings. Here we can find the full variety of characters identified by Tweed (1999: 83-84). Some people clearly identify themselves as Bönpos – they regularly do the ritual practices and attend the teachings. We can also meet western Buddhists from Ningmapa, Rimepa or other Buddhist traditions, the ones who come to listen to Dzogchen teachings hoping to improve and clarify the experiences of their own practice. We can meet western scholars, who work on translations of ancient Tibetan Bönpo texts, such as John Reynolds. We can also meet the “sympathizers”, and especially the “Dharma shoppers” and “Dharma hoppers” (Tweed 1999: 84), who come to the teachings attracted by the antiquity of the Yungdrung Bön tradition and often come to learn some “cool shamanic Tibetan stuff” or Tibetan inner heat practices that could be consumed, and resold as one more exotic “healing technique”, together with other “spiritual gymnastics”, such as commercialized yoga or tai chi. All these people are the objects of the study, and they are equally important, as they construct the receiving audience – the soil for Yungdrung Bön teachings in the West. On the demands of that audience Tibetan Bön Masters give certain teachings, perform certain rituals, and chose the most appropriate way of teaching. If we could identify this audience and their demands, we could trace the level and nature of adaptations used by certain Tibetan masters to reach that audience, we would be able to see and understand the reasons of the transformations taking place in Yungdrung Bön tradition, when it is diffusing in the West.
So let’s spread some light on that audience. Nattier (1998: 189), Coleman (2001: 191-194), Queen (1999: xiv) all agree, that most members of those “imported Buddhism” groups in the United States of America are: of middle class background or above; extremely well educated; their religious interests are focused on meditation. Most of them became interested in this tradition after reading some books on Buddhism. At least 25 percent of American Buddhologists are practicing Buddhists. Prebish calls them a Silent Sangha (1999: 208). Queen even names the “typical convert to Buddhism” who could be identified as: “46-year-old white female from a mainstream religious background, with a master degree and personal income of $50,000. She spends between thirty and sixty minutes a day in meditation or chanting and holds liberal views of life and politics. At the same time, she is turned of by a good deal that passes for modern culture and is inclined to try new beliefs and practices. She is likely to be single or divorced, living away from her parents and siblings and ‘at a turning point in life’” (1999: xiv-xv). Bauman finds similarities in Europe, stating that “among the convert Buddhist strand, the vast majority are well educated, urban, and economically well-off” (Bauman 2002: 100). My observation shows that these findings could also be roughly applicable to those who come to the Yungdrung Bön teachings in Shenten Dargye Ling, at least before any separate research in western Yungdrung Bön community will be done.
The most of the people I have met during the Yungdrung Bön teachings in France were of middle age or above, well educated, and showing great interest in Dzogchen meditation. Most of them came to Yungdrung Bön from other Buddhist schools; some of them practice multiple practices belonging to different traditions, including Buddhism, Hinduism or New Age. It must be mentioned, that despite the fact that teachings are taking place in France, the audience in Shenten Dargye Ling is very much international. Here we can meet people from France, America, Mexico, Argentina, Holland, Germany, Italy, Malta, Poland, Hungary, Romania, Russia, Lithuania, Latvia and other countries. The teaching is done in English with the following translation to French. Increasing number of practitioners from East Europe could be noticed. Most people who come to Shenten Dargye Ling try to come regularly, at least once a year to the teachings of Yongdzin Tenzin Namdak Rinpoche and Khempo Tempa Yungdrung, who come from Triten Norbutse monastery in Nepal.
We must notice, that despite a big number of Ligmincha institute (the biggest Yungdrung Bön organization in the West) branch centers in Europe (they have centers in 14 European countries), very few people from these centers could be met in Shenten Dargye Ling. It is quite strange as it is told by the founder and the head of the institute Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche (Wangyal 2000: 40), that the Ligmincha institute program was planned together with Yongdzin Tenzin Rinpoche, and he is still listed in Ligmincha’s Board of Directors.
We have already seen that Yungdrung Bön started it’s diffusion to the West through the teachings brought by Tenzin Wangyal and Yongdzin Tenzin Namdak Rinpoches, and both Rinpoches were teaching in the Dzogchen community centers. So initially they both have started from the same point, so it would be easier to put their efforts together and collaborate in spreading the Yungdrung Bön, and that’s how it was until recently. But even if all the centers of Yungdrung Bön in the West declare their relation with Menri monastery in India, revering to it as the place where most of the younger generation lamas got their knowledge of Yungdrung Bön, a tension and lack of collaboration between different Bön Dharma centers could be felt. During informal conversations in Shenten Dargye Ling some kind of skepticism towards modernized notions, such as simplifying the Yungdrung Bön teachings and using psychotherapy in teaching Yungdrung Bön, could be felt. So let us find out where those tensions come from, if the teachings come from the same Yungdrung Bön tradition and the same monasteries.
The problem of two Yungdrung Böns
One of the key questions raised by the scholars of Western, and especially American Buddhism is the problem of two Buddhisms. We can find a clear division drawn between the Buddhism practiced by the western converts and Asian immigrants. Number of scholars has addressed this issue. Prebish (1998: 1) in the introduction of the collection of studies on American Buddhism, clearly distinguishes Buddhism practiced by Asian American and Euro-American ethnic groups; Fields (1998: 196-206) offers terms “white Buddhism” and “ethnic Buddhism”; Nattier depicts three groups of American Buddhists defined by the modes of transmission: “imported”, “exported” or brought as a ‘baggage” (1998: 189-190).
At the first glance Yungdrung Bön would exactly suit the definition of “imported” or “convert” what according to Nattier means “demand-driven” transmission when the teachings are actively sought out by the recipient, as initially Bön was introduced within the demand of Western Dzogchen practitioners, and started spreading through the Dzogchen community centers. Nattier names this group “elite Buddhism” as the members of this group are “of the middle-class background or above” (Nattier 1998: 189). But as the object of this research is reception and transformations of Yungdrung Bön in the West, the use of “immigrant” and “convert” division to illustrate those transformations would not be very useful, as Tibetan immigrants living in the West, the ones who have brought Yungdrung Bön as their “baggage” religion, are too scattered to form any tangible community with specifically Tibetan demands. Even if general descriptions of the audience in Shenten Dargye Ling are quite similar with the descriptions of community labeled with “imported” or “convert” Buddhism, we cannot find substantial group of “immigrant” Yungdrung Bön to explain the tensions that could be found in between some Bön centers and could be felt in Shenten Dargye Ling. Probably it could be useful to get back to the question of two Buddhisms and see is there any other way of dealing with this problem.
Bauman is not satisfied with the classification offered. He reconsiders the “immigrant” and “convert” labels, using the example of Theravada tradition, and offers to turn back to the history of Buddhism in South Asia how it was seen by some scholars, dividing it into three periods: “(1) canonical or early Buddhism, (2) traditional or historical Buddhism, and (3) reformist, protestant, or modern Buddhism.” (2002: 55). He states, that last two forms of Buddhism coexisted, and the tension between them was felt even before the diffusion of Buddhism to the West. He stresses that these “two strands have been and are internally multifold and diverse” and offers to call them “traditionalist” and “modernist” Buddhism (2002: 56). Bauman applies the suggested analytical perspective to other Buddhist traditions, and states: “that convert Buddhists primarily take up modernized interpretations of Buddhism.” (2002: 59). Bauman criticizes “the immigrant and convert labels as being too transitory” and he does not support the threefold model of American Buddhism proposed by Jan Nattier. Instead he emphasizes the contrast between tradition and innovation (2002: 54), and suggests “that differentiation is not primarily a question of transmission (or how a particular strand arrived in the West), but of what religious concepts and practices are favored.”(Bauman 2002: 59). I find the differentiation of modernist and traditionalist trends very helpful in analyzing two different trends of Tibetan Yungdrung Bön emerging in the West, and tracing the adaptations applied by different Bön lamas teaching in the West, because “analysis which begins from this perspective could more viably explain the differences between the congregations and give reasons for their mutual distance and non-interaction.” (Bauman 2002: 60). As the manner in which teachings are passed to the western audience, the way Yungdrung Bön centers function and are organized, the audience they are addressing, and the purposes they are raising, could be very different, this can create tensions not only between the audiences, but also between the Bön Masters themselves.
Let us take a closer look to the groups of Tibetan Buddhism active in the West. We have to agree with Seager (1999: 114), who notices that “Tibetan Buddhism arrived largely untouched by the kind of wholesale modernization process” the same process that transformed Theravada and Japanese Buddhism named by Bauman as an example of modernized Buddhism already active in Asia. Bauman goes further claiming, that “Chōgyam Trungpa's Shambhala training, designed as a secular path for the cultivation of a contemplative life, might be described as a jump from traditionalist to post-modernist Buddhism”(2002: 60), later explaining, that “post-modernist Buddhist practitioners secularize and psychologize modernist Buddhism.”(2002: 60).
Let us apply this scheme to Yungdrung Bön and take a closer look to the processes taking place in this tradition from the very reconstruction of Yungdrung Bön monastic and scholarly institutions.
Yongdzin Tenzin Namdak Rinpoche, who for many years was the main teaching lama in Shenten Dargye Ling was one of those lamas whose first intention was to protect and keep Yungdrung Bön teachings for the future generations. He, together with his teacher Lopon Sangye Tenzin Rinpoche, His Holiness Lungtok Tenpai Nyima, the 33rd Menri Trizin, who now is the worldwide spiritual leader of the Bon tradition and abbot of Menri Monastery, together with other Bön lamas who managed to escape from Tibet, put enormous efforts to establish Yungdrung Bön monasteries and schools primarily dedicated for Tibetan refugees. In the interview given to Woznicky the intensions of Yongdzin Tenzin Namdak Rinpoche to preserve the Yungdrung Bön tradition are more than evident. Rinpoche tells that in 1961 he was invited by His Holiness the Dalai Lama and was asked to preserve the culture of Bön, and not to stay in London more then 3 years. After he came back, he took care about the Bön refuges, and established the education center for young people in 1972. Rinpoche tells “I was just working for the tradition all the time, but I did not add anything to it, except one thing: during the midday time or lunch time a young monk would stand up everyday and read for the whole group some history of siddhas or enlightened beings, from the past” (Woznicki 2006: 61-62). That was copied from Catholic Benedictine monastery he visited on his first trip to the West. Rinpoche tells: “I thought it could be very helpful for concentration, study and listening. Since it was really useful, I copied it from there and put here.” (Woznicki 2006: 62). Another modernization seems much more radical. I am talking about teaching openly the most elaborate and esoteric Bönpo Dzogchen teachings.
John Reynolds remembers being told by Yongdzin Tenzin Namdak Rinpoche, that traditionally in the Menri monastery in Tibet Dzogchen has been taught privately and it was not in the main curriculum of the monastery. Then Lopon Sangye Tenzin Rinpoche, the head teacher, of Menri Monastery in India and teacher of Yongdzin Rinpoche, saw the visions of Sidpa Gyalmo, the proctector of Yungdrung Bön, who told that in order to protect Bönpo Dzogchen teachings from dying out, they must start teaching it openly (Reynolds 2006b: xix). Only after that Dzogchen has been started to teach academically in the New Menri Monastery in Dolanji as part of their regular curriculum. Yongdzin Rinpoche established debating of the view of Dzogchen in relation to Madhyamaka and other Buddhis philosophies. That is unique not only to the Bönpo monastic tradition, but also to the Nyingmapa tradition, “which generally transmitted Dzogchen in the context of secret meditation instructions conferred in private between master and disciple” (Reynolds 2006a: 219). The fact that Yongdzin Rinpoche used debate and logic as a method of studying Dzogchen, was criticized by other schools of Tibetan Buddhism, but was appreciated by H.H. the Dalai Lama when he visited the Dialectic school in 1988 (Reynolds 2006a: 219). When in 1978 Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche, together with his students came to Dolanji Yongdzin Tenzin Namdak Rinpoche and his students saw the rising interest for Dzogchen in the West. Few years later, after the invitation of the Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche, they have started teaching in his Dzogchen centers in Europe and the United States. That was the moment when this slightly modernized Yungdrung Bön started its diffusion to the West.
This shift from teaching one of the most secret and esoteric doctrine – Dzogchen privately, to the inclusion of Dzogchen in to the Monastery curriculum, putting it to the debates, and bringing it out into the “philosophical market place of discussions and ideas” (Reynolds 2006a: 219), in the analytical perspective used by Bauman could be seen as a significant modernization. We must also note that the main aim of Yongdzin Tenzin Namdak Rinpoche to make Dzogchen so easily accessible was to protect Yungdrung Bön tradition and the Dzogchen teachings and to bring them back to the Tibet. He does not look for any modernizations unless they could be useful for his initial purpose. All the changes made intended to improve the level of education in Bön monastic schools, but the principal mode of teaching remains very much traditional.
Let us trace the further diffusion of Yungdrung Bön in the West. As we have already seen one of the first Yungdrung Bön lamas teaching in the West was a young student of Yongdzin Rinpoche, Geshe and scholar Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche. John Reynolds writes that he have met Tenzin Rinpoche In 1988, when he was invited by the Dzogchen master Chögyal Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche to teach in his Dzogchen community center, named Merigar in Italy (Reynolds 2005: xxiii). In 1989 with the invitation of the same centers Yongdzin Rinpoche presented Bönpo Dzogchen teachings in England, America and Italy (Reynolds 2006: 219). I have already mentioned that at that time Dzogchen was something mysterious, something that people have heard about, but had no opportunity to learn. When Tenzin Wangyal and Yongdzin Rinpoche came to the West, they found an audience waiting. Since then Yongdzin Rinpoche kept on coming to the West together with other Bönpo lamas and was giving Dzogchen teachings in different western communities, but he was residing and spending most of his time in his monastery in Kathmandu (Reynolds 2006: 219-220).
Young Geshe was obviously not interested in spending his years in the monastery, he wanted to continue his studies in the West (Wangyal 2000: 34), to “learn more about Western culture and psychology, and to work with the Dzogchen Community” (Wangyal 2000: 36). Of cause, the “Dharma Empire” built by Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche inspired him. In 1991, Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche managed to get a Rockefeller Fellowship at Rice University in Houston, Texas. Moreover, in 1992, with the example of Norbu Rinpoches Shang Shung Institute, he established Ligmincha Institute in USA.
Since his very first days in the West, young Geshe observing Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche, his teachings and Dzogchen community, started adapting Yungdrung Bön to suit the western audience. John Reynolds came to the very first Dzogchen teachings given by Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche. He remembers that at that time Tenzin Ripoche was teaching in a very traditional way, very much as Yongdzin Tenzin Namdak Rinpoche is still doing today. He read a passage from Tibetan text, translated it and then gave an explanation or commentary on that text. When Tenzin Rinpoche saw Namkhai Norbu Reinpoche teaching without reading and translating a Tibetan text, and saw, that this way of teaching is very much welcomed by westerners, he copied this style and started teaching without reading from a Tibetan text. This was the beginning of adaptation to the western audience, which appeared to be successful to attract western Dzogchen practitioners, and lead to the bigger adaptations, which included mixing Yungdrung Bön teachings with the Western psychotherapy. Let us look more in detail how the process of psychologization was taking place.
When we were looking for the answer, who are the Westerners who come to the Bönpo teachings, we got an idea about the typical American, searching for a spiritual teaching, now we could try to look more clearly to the demands of Americans coming to the Dzogchen teachings. Why Americans? It was America where Tenzin Rinpoche was heading and where the Ligmincha institute was founded. Ryo Imamura has noticed: “[Euro-American Buddhists] seem to share a burning interest in how the Buddhist teaching and meditation can be utilized to cure the disease and dysfunction that appear to them to be legacies of modern Western life. They show little interest in and patience for the traditional topics that the Japanese American Jōdo Shin Buddhists want to hear from me as a priest. Instead it is clear that they regard the temple to be a kind of therapy center and the Buddhist priest to be a type of psychotherapist” (1998: 228-229). He states: “Educated white middle-class Americans are certainly psychologically minded. (…) It seems that Euro-American Buddhists who have a shallow understanding of Buddhism would tend to see Buddhism as being just another form of psychotherapy.” (1998: 229). I find his work very useful to name what Americans look for in Buddhism and other spiritual teachings such as Yungdrung Bön, as it may help us to raise the same questions to American Bönpos.
The problem, that westerners like to treat Tibetan Lamas as psychotherapists, was many times mentioned in the conversations that took place in Shenten Dargye Ling in July 2009. John Reynolds noted, that Tibetan lamas often complained that westerners, especially Americans, when had interview with a Lama, usually asked what to do with their emotion problems, usually linked with girlfriends/boyfriends, instead of talking about their spiritual practice. This can give us an answer why Tibetan Bön Lama Tenzin Wangyal became very popular in the United States and abroad, after he combined Yungdrung Bön teachings with the Western psychotherapy. We can trace from his book that he intentionally have chosen this attitude: “I have two other future projects. The first involves investigating the relationship between psychotherapy and spiritual practice, and especially cooperating with therapists who also have experience of practice, in order to develop new therapeutic techniques for working with practitioners on the specific problems that can arise from practice” (Wangyal 2000: 40).
Combining Yungdrung Bön with the western psychotherapy could be treated as major innovation, directed to the demands of westerners. An innovation, aimed to attract a wider audience, and make the complicated Dzogchen teachings more understandable and attractive to psychologically oriented middle-class Americans. When I have asked another Yungdrung Bön Lama, Geshe Gelek, who is also teaching in the West, especially in Europe, ‘Does mixing Bon Teachings and other western sciences like psychology creates any problems in teaching Bon and why?” he answered: “If people don’t follow the authentic teaching or tradition then that is simply a person’s concept or idea. And that can cause problems. People just choose parts they like”. Tanaka has also noticed this problem: “(…) the strong emphasis on interpretation found among American Buddhists may be unprecedented. Its danger lies in the high demand for the teaching to serve the individual rather than the individual being transformed by the teachings” (1998: 294). In addition, we once again must remember that the present level of our research this should be applicable solely to American community, as Europeans and Mexicans could have different demands and expectations, still to be discovered.
Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche exactly knew what he was doing, as it was his intention from the very beginning of his teachings in the West, and that is why he wanted to ”learn more about Western culture and psychology” (2000: 36). In the book, first published in 1993, talking about his reflections to the West he writes: “Any teaching taught in the West by a Tibetan master will undergo change by the very fact of being taught in a new and different cultural context, and the more successful a master is in communicating with the Western mind, the more he will have to change the teachings.” (2000: 37). I would put his words vice versa: the more Tibetan master will change the teachings, the more successful he will be in communicating with the Western mind. And even if Tenzin Rinpoce further writes that “a good master will only change aspects that facilitate communication and will not change anything essential, as this would impair the purity of the teachings.” (2000: 37-39), it is obvious that the transformations Tenzin Wangyal Rinopoche himself is introducing to the Yungdrung Bön teachings are not at all welcomed by his teachers, who belong to the older and more traditional generation of Yungdrung Bön, to those masters, who have been working all their lives to protect and expand the Yungdrung Bön tradition after their original monasteries in Tibet have been destroyed. Moreover, even if Tibetans will never tell anything wrong directly about the other Tibetan masters if they are not satisfied with the way the Yungdrung Bön teachings are transformed, those people who come to the teachings in Shenten Dargye Ling, and, probably in other more traditional Bön centers also could feel the tension.
Here we have two different ways how Tibetan Lamas teach Yungdrung Bön in the West: some of them, such as Tenzin Wangyal, are looking for new approaches and try to make the teachings more attractive by mixing them with western psychotherapy, when others, such as Geshe Gelek, Khempo Tempa Yungdrung and Lopon Tenzin Namdak, still keep more orthodox Tibetan way of teaching: during the teachings they are reading, translating and commenting the original Tibetan text. From the analytical perspective offered by Bauman, the Yungdrung Bön masters from the older generation, such as Yongdzin Tenzin Namdak Rinpoche and His Holiness Lungtok Tenpai Nyima, the 33rd Menri Trizin stand for the traditionalist Yungdrung Bön, when some of younger Geshes, such as Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche or Chongtul Rinpoche are adapting Yungdrung Bön teachings to the cultural background and needs of westerners, stand for the modernist Yungdrung Bön. This analytical perspective successfully reveals that the tensions are rising from “the simultaneous endeavor (1) to keep the integrity of Buddhist practice and teachings and (2) to indigenize the thus-far “foreign” religion of Buddhism.” (2002: 62).
Those two Yungdrung Bön strands that are developing in the West apply different strategies of adaptation to the Western cultural background, and we can be in the center of the process foreseen by Bauman when the traditionalist strand is moving towards modernist, and modernist is moving to the post-modernist Bön (2002: 62). So let’s take a closer look to the transformations taking place in those two different strands of Yungdrung Bön emerging in the West.
Democratization of Yungdrung Bön community
Bönpo Dzogchen teachings for lay audience
Most evident tendency of the Western Buddhism, named by Tanaka is the shift away from hierarchical monastic Buddhism to lay community (1998: 289). In Tibetan tradition being layman usually was not treated as an obstacle to practice the higher teachings and we can find plenty of examples which inspire westerners to practice, and may be some day to reach such level of realization as famous yogi Milarepa or the late head of the Nyingmapa order Dudjom Rinpoche, but a clear distinction between monastic and lay communities was evident in Tibetan culture since introduction of Buddhist monasticism. But we must admit, that the tradition of Tibetan yogis and lay practitioners renowned for the high level of realization never supposed an idea that the highest tantric teachings and Dzogchen can be given openly to all interested. The initial aura of secrecy and esoteric nature of Dzogchen inspired the imagination of western practitioners. The more Tibetan Lamas were silent about it, the more they wanted to learn and practice it. When Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche created the Dzogchen community and declared that their main practice will be Dzogchen, this worked as a magnet. Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche was severely criticized for opening to all interested westerners the most sacred Tibetan teachings and practices that traditionally have been given only to few most advances practitioners.
When first Bönpos came to teach in already very well organized system of Dzogchen Communities, which attracted big audiences, they have found the West already overfilled with different Buddhist organizations and Dharma centers, which were demanding the very essence of the most highest teachings. Western system of Dharma centers, where people come together to get some teachings, learn and conduct group practices, participate in various weekend or month long retreats and activities, and finally pay for the teachings given, was not known in Tibet. All the highest teachings in Tibet usually were given either in the monasteries, either through the personal communication with some Lama or Yogi. Therefore, Bön lamas who came to teach in Dzogchen Community centers have already arrived to the environment, where the distinction between monk and layperson was almost eroded. Moreover, even coming from the modernized Bön Monastery where Dzogchen is taught to all the monks despite their personal capabilities to practice these highest teachings, Bön lamas could not realize they will be teaching Dzogchen to the crowds of lay people, some of whom will only come once or twice, simply adding the Bönpo Dzogchen teachings to their Dharma collection. The situation was new to Bönpos and Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche shares his feelings when he started teaching in the West:
“At first I felt uncomfortable teaching Dzogchen in the West, for a number of reasons: because the people were new and I did not know them, and because for me Dzogchen teachings are the most important thing in my life. I didn’t find the same respectful attitude at all in the West as when I received Dzogchen from my masters. Here in the West people seemed to consider it correct to talk about the teachings anywhere, and even sat in bars discussing teachings as in an ordinary conversation or in the idle gossip. Also I immediately noticed that what people were saying about the integration of Dzogchen with everyday life did not correspond with their normal behavior, which was lacking in compassion, mindfulness, skillfulness and awareness. (…) People were often very superficial rather than concrete and seemed to prefer to wait with blind faith for something mysterious to happen rather than to work in order to obtain direct experience. (…) However, with the intention of helping others and mindful of what my master Lopon Sangye Tenzin had once said about the danger of the Dzogchen teachings dying out in the kaliyuga, I did my best to transmit the teachings.” (Wangyal 2000: 34-35).
According to Reynolds, Yongdzin Tenzin Namdak Rinpoche was very much exited when saw westerners so much interested in meditation and Dzogchen teachings, as when he came to the West previous times, there was only the scholarly interest in Bön, but no one asked to give any Dzogchen teachings. Since 1989 Yongdzin Rinpoche was teaching a lot and has already transmitted all the 4 Bönpo Dzogchen cycles. He is also introducing Yungdrung Bön Mother Tantra teachings to western audience. So we can see that western practitioners who almost exclusively are lay people, without any restriction can receive and practice the Yungdrung Bön teachings, including the most esoteric ones, earlier available only to the monks and yogis. More and more Yungdrung Bön texts become available to westerners without any limitation through the libraries, the only obstacle still remnant is the Tibetan language the texts are written. But more and more translations appear here and there, so the texts once stored in the sanctuary of a remote monastery in Himalaya, now can be bought in a printed or e-book form on amazon.com.
Within such a simple possibility to access the highest teachings why any westerner would like to become a Bönpo monk or nun. Most westerners are not celibate, they are engaged in various social and personal activities, have families and this means that they have to adapt their practice to the life they are living. Even Christian monastic tradition is not popular any more, so why would anyone want to engage into some foreign monastic community. As far as I was able to find out, today there are at least 5 westerners who have joined the Yungdrung Bön monastic community. There are now 2 French and one Czech monks, one Mexican nun, and one German, who has dropped his robes after he have returned back to Europe as he saw no possibility to go on his life as a Bönpo monk here.
Let’s look how the laicization of western community could bee seen in the broader context of the Yungdrung Bön emerging in the West. Let’s get back to the scholars researching Westen Budhism. Prebish notes, that conversion of the educational model when lay students get all the practices and teachings traditionally taught in the monasteries differs from the traditional “Asian Buddhist archetype”. He claims, that “there is a leadership gap in the American Buddhist community, one largely not filled by an American Sangha of so-called scholar-monks.” (2002: 79). He further notes that traditionally monks played a great role in the religious education of Sangha, and states:
“In the absence of the traditional scholar-monks so prevalent in Asia, it may well be that the scholar-practitioners of today's American Buddhism will fulfill the role of quasi-monastics, or at least treasure-troves of Buddhist literacy and information, functioning as guides through whom one's understanding of the Dharma may be sharpened. In this way, individual practice might once again be balanced with individual study so that Buddhist study deepens one's practice, while Buddhist practice informs one's study. Obviously, such a suggestion spawns two further questions: (1) are there sufficient scholar-practitioners currently active in American Buddhism to make such an impact? and (2) are they actually making that impact? (Prebish 2002, 79)
We must agree that within growing Yungdrung Bön western community the need and influence of these “scholar-practitioners” will increase. First, they are needed to stimulate the process of translation of Tibetan Bönpo texts, especially those needed for daily practices and Dzogchen meditation. It is obvious today there are very few scholars who directly work with the translations of the practice texts and teachings. We can start naming with John Reynolds, who is very intensively working with Yongdzin Tenzin Rinpoche since his very first teachings in the West, and who have already published some really important and valuable translations, like “The Oral Tradition from Zhang-Zhung” (2006a) to name at least one. The daily practice, offering texts, prayers translated by Reynolds are circulating inside the Western Bön community. Philippe Cornu and Stéphane Arguillère do many French translations. In the States we can find Anne Carolyn Klein, who has been working with Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche and has published “Unbounded Wholeness: Dzogchen, Bon and the Logic of the Nonconceptual” (Wangyal 2000). We must agree that these scholars are mainly academic ones, and they are not directly involved in the religious education of Western Bön community. Who is involved then?
We have to admit, that even if Yongdzin Rinpoche gladly is teaching Dzogchen to westerners since 1989, he has not yet approved any westerner to be capable of teaching the Bönpo Dzogchen. Reynolds tells, that Yongdzin Rinpoche even was against letting westerners to join the Yungdrung Bön monastic community. If we will check the information in the websites of western Bön centers, we will find no center where a westerner would be approved as a teacher, except Ligmincha, which I will analyze later. Moreover all the Tibetans who have established Dharma centers and teach Bön in the West, strictly come from the monastic background, even if they have disrobed, and most of them, with the exception of Lama Khemsar Rinpoche, have the Geshe degrees from Bön Dialectics schools. Another important thing is that, despite the centers nicely named as Yungdrung Bön institutes no Tibetan style academic Bön study center in the West has not yet been established.
Congregation Shenten Dargye Ling in 2009 has started the 4 years meditation school following the curriculum of the meditation school in Triten Norbutse Monastery. If this will evolve and will not die out as the 7 years Yundrung Bön study program planned by Ligmincha institute, this could be the first Yungdrung Bön meditation school in the West. Congregation Shenten Darlye Ling is also trying to build the academic study center of Yungdrung Bön. It has already provided the base for the International Conference on Yungdrung Bön in 2008.
Ligmincha Institute has also not given up its initial idea to organize the Yungdrung Bön studies for westerners. Now they are working on the Lishu Institute in India, which should provide the meeting ground for Western scholars interested in studying and translating Bönpo texts, Bönpo Geshes and lay scholars. Beside Bön Sutra, Tantra and Dzochen studies the Lishu Institute “will also support research into the application of ancient Bön wisdom within the field of 21st century science and scientific methods”. It is planned to offer 3 and 5 year study program, based on the Three Cycles of Teachings: The NineWays of Bön, The Mother Tantra and The Zhang Zhung Nyen Gyud. It must also be mentioned, that Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche has already started introducing his senior students as instructors, who travel to multiple Ligmincha branch centers in West and teach meditation, Tibetan yoga, and Tibetan Sound Healing. Ligmincha website informs that these western instructors have been practicing Tibetan Buddhism for many years and have been studying under such Bön masters as H.H. 33rd Menri Trizin and H.E. Yonzin Tenzin Rinpoche. But there is one detail that must not be overlooked: all of these western instructors are working in the system of health care or psychotherapy.
I see those attempts to create two separate Yungdrung Bön scholastic centers for westerners as the evidence of the increasing separation between the two trends of Yungdrung Bön emerging in the West, the ones we have named with the terms offered by Bauman as traditionalist and modernist. (1) Congregation Shenten Dargye Ling is trying to create the Yungdrung Bön scholastic center in the most traditional way as it is possible. The adaptations are also being done, to make the teachings more conveniently accepted and understood by westerners, but there is no attempt to mix Yungdrung Bön teachings with any Western sciences be it psychotherapy or anything else. Shetnen Dargye Ling is not aimed to attract as more students as possible, they are offering the traditional Yungdrung Bön teachings and either you take it as it is, either you go on looking for something else. They definitely stand for traditionalist trend, which is adapting to the West is slowly and carefully moving towards the modernist Yungdrung Bön (2) Ligmincha Institute with the western psychotherapists as instructors and the heads of the local branch centers, and it’s project Lishu Institute, is obviously modernist trend, which is rushing to become an example of the post-modernist Yungdrung Bön. All other Yungdrung Bön centers are somewhere in between and their chosen path will soon become evident.
Dehierarchization Lama and student
One of the main differences between Tibet and western countries is the relationship between Lama and his student. Tibetans are faith motivated, they are born into Buddhism or Bön, what generally means faith in the Lamas, that is formalized by taking the refuge with the Lama as forth refuge object together with Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. Tibetans listen to their Lama and Guru and do not question or criticize him, as Westerners do, who can also be very selective. Here we can have some reflections from Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoches first years in the West. He is complaining that he was not feeling any personal connection between the master and student, which is very special in the a traditional context of Tibet or India, where master gives the method, and student goes on practice and then comes back to his master and tells about his experience. “I didn’t like this lack of continuous contact between master and student: here it seemed that going to hear the teachings was just like attending an ordinary talk in hall, so that sometimes it felt impersonal, and I felt almost like I was speaking on the radio”(Wangyal 2000: 35).
In Tibetan traditional culture, and this was always stressed in the Bön teachings given in the Shenten Dargye Ling, the Lama, the one who gives the teachings must be seen as pure as Buddha, because for a student, he is the Enlightened Buddha, and if the student has no devotion to his Lama, to his Guru, no teaching is possible. Lama here is like mediator between the ancient teachings, brought by the unbroken lineage of the masters and in the context of the teachings transmitted by master to student, he is Buddha. According to Yongdzin Rinpoche, Guru Yoga is considered to be the single most important preliminary practice in the Dzogchen tradition, where the “luminous figure of the Guru as the archetypal wise child or eternal youth in the space above and in front of oneself in the sky is imagined to embody and encompass within his radiant form the essences of all the masters of the Dzogchen teachings” (Reynolds 2006b: 219). Rinpoche says that your Lama is what you see, and if you question or criticize your Lama you cut yourself from the lineage of the teachings. “If you see your Lama as a dog, you are getting the teachings from a dog”.
I see this traditional Lama – student relationship, as one of the possible answers why Lamas of the traditionalist trend of Yungdrung Bön do not criticize the Lamas of modernist trend of Yungdrung Bön: they do not want to affect the lineage of the teachings. Moreover, probably this can further lead to the increasing separation between those two trends of Yungdrung Bön emerging in the West, which will be clearly seen, but never clearly spoken.
After applying the methodological framework used by the scholars researching the Western Buddhism to identify and trace the transformations and adaptations taking shape when Yungdrung Bön comes to the West, we can clearly see that:
- Yungdrung Bön Dzogchen teachings – the main bridge connecting Bön and Buddhism – played the key role in spread of Yungdrung Bön in the West. It was the mysterious nature and limited availability of Dzogchen teachings already taught in the West, and the vast network of Dzogchen communities created by Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche that gave Yungdrung Bön the possibility to start its diffusion and reach such a wide western audience in such a short time.
- By accepting the hybrid religious identity concept offered by Tweed, we are able to see the importance of the every single person who comes to the Yungdrung Bön teachings transmitted to the Western audience. By recognizing the importance of the audience as constituting the receiving soil, we can clearly see that it was the American demand for psychotherapy effect of Dharma that inspired major adaptations applied by Tenzin Wangyal and his Ligmincha institute, which lead to the mixture of psychotherapy and Bönpo Dzogchen teachings, so much disliked by the older generation of Bönpo masters.
- The analytical perspective offered by Bauman helped us to identify two trends of Yungdrung Bön emerging in the West: modernist, represented by Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche and his Ligmincha Institute; and traditionalist, represented by Yongdzin Tenzin Namdak Rinpoche and the Congregation Shenten Dargye Ling. The further use of that analytical perspective helped us to discover that the source of the tension arising between the different trends of Yungdrung Bön spreading in the West lies in the level of adaptation, applied transmitting the Bönpo teachings in the West.
This research is only the humble introduction to the complicated and vast field of cultural interaction between Western and Bönpo cultures. As reception of Yungdrung Bön in the West encompasses too many aspects, omitted because of limited time and space, I hope that the scholars will analyze them in the future. These could be Social engagement, feminization, pragmatism and role of modern media to name only a few. The deeper analysis of the psychologization of Yungdrung Bön in America and the reception of such pos-modernist trend of Yungdrung Bön in Europe could provide us with additional understanding of the complicated process of acculturation of the foreign religious ideas in the Western soil. For that, the deeper anthropological research of the audience attending the Yungdrung Bön teachings needed. There is an extremely good possibility to gather more anthropological material and do more interviews during the upcoming teachings in Shenten Dargyeling in July and August of 2010. This would also be an exceptional possibility for participant observation and oral interviews with members of the international Yungdrung Bön community and people who will come to the teachings.
It is just the starting point, for a major study still to be done. It would be very useful to make a deeper research of the Tibetan and Western cultures, to analyze how the differences in the worldview, values, social rules, spiritual approach and other key elements constructing certain cultural background are interacting, and what is being born through this cross-cultural interaction. We could trace how on the basis of ancient teachings like Yungdrung Bön new social formations are born, and how do they function in the contemporary world.
- Bauman, Martin. “Buddhism in Europe Past, Present, Prospects”, in Westward Dharma: Buddhism Beyond Asia. eds. Martin Baumann & Charles S. Prebish, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002, 85-105.
- Bauman, Martin. “Protective Amulets and Awareness Techniques, or How to Make Sense of Buddhism in the West”, in Westward Dharma: Buddhism Beyond Asia. eds. Martin Baumann & Charles S. Prebish, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002, 51-65.
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Footnotes<references / >
- I will not discuss feminization, pragmatism and engagement, which are stressed by scholars working on the emerging of Western Buddhism not because they are not actual for Yungdrung Bön in the West, but because I am limited by time and space, and I need additional anthropological material to gather.
- During a private conversation in Shenten Dorgyeling (2009 July) with some woman who have just came from the retreat on Tibetan inner heat practice – thumo, I have been told about some people from Russia, who plan to include thumo into list of practices tought in their aerobics school.
- I have found websites of Ligmincha institute branches in 14 European countries. Most of them are named Bon Garuda centers, they are based in Austria, Belgium, Holland, Spain, Germany, Ireland, Switzerland, Italy, Hungary, Poland, Russia, Denmark, Finland, Czech.
- This information could be found in the wesite of Ligmincha Institute: https://www.ligmincha.org/ligmincha-institute/ligmincha-board-of-directors.html.
- More about this see in the 1.4.3 chaprer of the current work.
- Detailed explanation of these groups could be found in Nattier (1998: 189-190).
- In 1961-1964 he received Rockefeller Foundation Grant and worked in England with David Snellgrove (Reynolds 2006a: 212).
- When I have asked Bön lama Geshe Gelek how so esoteric Dzogchen teachings have been stated to give so publicly, he named the same reason. From a conversation in Shenten Dargye Ling, July 2009.
- Interview with John Reynolds, Vilnius, Lithuania, April, 2010.
- The detailed curriculum of philosophical studies held at Dialectics school at Triten Norbutse Monastery can be found in an appendix of Bonpo Dzogchen Teachings according to Lopon Tenzin Namdak, collected by John Myrdhin Reynolds (2006a: 224-230).
- Interview with John Reynolds, Vilnius, Lithuania, April, 2010.
- Ryo Imamura is a professor of psychology and a psychoterapist as well as a Buddhist priest (1998: 228).
- Oral conversations in Shenten Dogyeling, France, 2009 July, and in Vilnius, Lithuania, April 2010.
- From email conversation 2009 10 31.
- Interview with John Reynolds, Vilnius, Lithuania, April, 2010.
- The texts translated and available in the West can be found in the Bön bibliography compiled by Dan Martin.
- From oral communication with John Reynolds on April 2010 in Vilnius, Lithuania.
- About the importance and the detailed practice of Guru Yoga in Bönpo Dzogchen teachings see Reynolds 2006b: 217-251.