Deities and Enlightened Teachers
This page offers descriptions of some of the enlightened figures that play a prominent role in Tibetan Bön Buddhism.
Tonpa Shenrap (the Supreme Teacher), also known as Shenrap Miwo, is the founder of the Bön tradition. Calm in appearance, he is adorned with the 13 ornaments of a peaceful deity. His right hand is extended across his knee and holds the yungdrung (yung – unchanging, drung – unceasing), which represents the eternal truth. His left hand is placed in his lap with the palm upturned in the gesture of meditation. He sits in meditation posture upon sun and moon disks, on a lotus throne.
According to Bön history, Tonpa Shenrap was born approximately 18,000 years ago into a royal family in the ancient kingdom of Tazik, to the west of Tibet. After he became king, he spread the teachings of Bön by traveling throughout the land and performing various rituals. On one occasion while traveling, his horses were stolen by the Prince of Demons. In the process of retrieving the horses he entered the kingdom of Zhang Zhung in western Tibet. There, Tönpa Shenrap disseminated the first Bon teachings in that region. His many wives and children also played significant roles in the history of Bon. The written biography for Tonpa Shenrap comprises 15 large volumes.
Shenlha Okar (Shen Deity of White Light) has one face and two arms. His hands are placed in his lap in the gesture of meditation. He is luminous white in color and is adorned with the 13 beautiful ornaments of a peaceful deity: a crown, earrings, three necklaces (short, medium, and long), bracelets, anklets, arm bands, a scarf, a skirt, a throne, a golden decoration behind the throne, and a halo. Seated on sun and moon disks on a snow lion throne, he abides in a pure land. Practitioners following the A-Tri lineage visualize their root guru in the form of Shenlha Ökar. He is also known as Lhachik (Great God), and he appears in the center of the Refuge Tree (Tsok Shing). As depicted in this thangka, Shenlha Ökar manifests for the benefit of beings as the Six Subduing Shen, or Six Guide Buddhas, whose function is to guide all the suffering beings of the six realms to their ultimate liberation.
Sherap Chamma, Wisdom Loving Mother, yellow in color and youthful in appearance, is beautifully adorned with the 13 ornaments of a peaceful deity. She sits atop sun and moon disks on a lotus throne. In her right hand, at the level of the heart, she holds a vase filled with the nectar of compassion. Her left hand holds the stem of a lotus whose blossom supports the mirror of wisdom, which reveals all passing phenomena as empty of inherent existence. Sherap Chamma, also known as Gyalyum (Mother of all Conquerors), is an important emanation of Satrik Ersang from the group of the Four Transcendent Ones. Included among Sherap Chamma’s many manifestations are the wrathful protector Sipé Gyalmo (Queen of Existence) and Yeshé Walmo (Magic Wisdom Goddess).
The natural elements play a fundamental role in many ancient healing and spiritual traditions. The Tibetan traditions recognize five elements: space, air, fire, water and earth. These five are understood as the underlying energies from which all experience—the physical world, our bodies, our emotions and our minds—arises. Each element is associated with a khandro (Skt. dakini ), or goddess. The khandros represent the pure, enlightened aspect of the elements. The image here depicts the khandros of a practice called “Retrieval of the Elements” from the Bön Buddhist tradition of Tibet. The central figure is the white khandro of space, the great mother from which all the other elements arise. In her right hand she holds ornaments and jewels, and in her left hand she holds a skull cup filled with essential nectar. The khandros of air (green), fire (red), water (blue) and earth (yellow) surround the central figure. To connect with the khandro of space is to connect with the quality of spaciousness; the khandro of air, flexibility; the khandro of fire, joy and creativity; the khandro of water, calm and comfort; and the khandro of earth, stability and groundedness.
Drenpa Namkha is the principal long-life deity of the Bön tradition. He is said to have the power to overcome any obstacle, whether personal or communal. Drenpa Namkha was born in the eighth century in southwestern Tibet, near the sacred Mt. Kailash. He is known as the father of both Tsewang Rigdzin and the revered Indian adept Padmasambhava. Drenpa Namkha is depicted as bright blue in color with one face and two arms, richly attired with a crown, jewels and loincloth. In his right hand he holds a yungdrung (Skt. swastika) to indicate the indestructibility and unchanging nature of the Bön teachings. In his left hand he holds a skull cup. He has both peaceful and wrathful energies, signified by his slightly extended right leg and his left leg drawn closer to his body.
Gyerpung Nangzher Lopo belonged to the illustrious Gurib family of Zhang Zhung, a clan that boasted several previous Bön lineage holders. He received teachings from the esteemed master Dawa Gyaltsen and became a renowned eighth-century scholar and practitioner. Through the practice of the yidam Meri he obtained great power and became royal priest to King Ligmincha of Zhang Zhung. Nangzher Lopo was the first to set in writing the Zhang Zhung Nyen Gyü (Oral Transmission of Zhang Zhung), one of the most revered series of Bön dzogchen teachings, which he himself received from his master Tapihritsa. Nangzher Lopo developed pride due to his great power and fame, and it was to help him overcome this pride that Tapihritsa, having attained the rainbow body, appeared to him in the form of a young boy. The esoteric discussions and debate that ensued between Nangzher Lopo and the young boy humbled the great master and released him from his subtle obscurations.
This thangka illustrates the moment when Nangzher Lopo achieved supreme realization and spontaneously composed a devotional prayer of invocation to his compassionate master, Tapihritsa, who manifested in the sky above him as a radiant buddha of white light.
King Ligmincha was the last Bön monarch of the ancient land of Zhang Zhung, the cradle of Tibetan civilization. As king, Ligmincha served as both spiritual and secular head of his country. In the Zhang Zhung language ligmi (lig mi) means “existence” and cha (rkya) means “honorable” or “Lord.” When Geshe Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche founded Ligmincha Institute in 1992, he named it after King Ligmincha in order to reflect the institute's mission to preserve for future generations the qualities, values and spiritual depth of the ancient Bön teachings. Until the seventh century, Zhang Zhung was a separate state that encompassed all of western Tibet around Mount Kailash and Lake Manasarovar. A dynasty of kings ruled over its people until the eighth century, when Zhang Zhung was annexed to Tibet after the assassination of King Ligmincha (or Ligmirya) by King Trisong Detsen of Tibet.