THE YUNGDRUNG BÖN SYMBOL
Some students unfamiliar with the Bön tradition, are very surprised and confused about the YungDrung symbol we use. Many western people only know the symbol as evil or negative because of World War II. Recently, one of our Sangha members brought her young son to meditation practice at Sherab Chamma Ling. When he saw the YungDrung symbol he was quite upset and told his mother that the symbol was very bad. At the request of his Mother, I talked to him and explained about the Bön YungDrung and why we use this symbol.
I know there are many translations and ideas of how the YungDrung came into being and many different meanings depending on which religion or organization or person you listen to. Some say it came from Greece, others that it began in India at the time of Buddha Shakamuni, and still many others believe it is the symbol of the Nazi Party from World War II. I would like to share with you a little of what the Tibetan YungDrung Bön tradition teaches and why the symbol is so important to us.
The YungDrung symbol is over 18 thousand years old from the time of Tonpa (Buddha) Shenrab. Tonpa Shenrab was born in the ancient Zhang Zhung kingdom to the west of Tibet, called Olmo-lungring, in 16017 BCE. In the center of Zhang Zhung there is a great mountain which Tonpa Shenrab, using the Zhang Zhung language, named Ribo YungDrung Gutseg. In English it means, the Nine Stacked YungDrung Mountain. It was called “Nine Stacked” because the mountain has what appears like nine stacks or “step-like” formations with a flat or level top to each stack or step.
The English meaning of the Zhang Zhung word YungDrung, is“eternal”, or “everlasting”, or “original”. It means without conception, without judgment. It is the pure, primordial, original mind, body, speech and spirit, which is the origin of the universe, which in turn, is the neutral state. There are two syllables – Yung: means no beginning and Drung: which means no end. That is the literal meaning of the word YungDrung according to the commentary of the textbooks about Bön. It is also the original and pure teachings of Tonpa Shenrab.
In Tibetan culture, various types of energies or Feng Shui, are consulted and used to help determine where and how to build houses, temples, stupas, monasteries, meditation or retreat centers. Tonpa Shenrab, used the energies of the mountain Ribo YungDrung Gutseg, as an inspiration to plan and design all of his teachings around the idea that they would be “eternal” or “everlasting”. In the Bön teachings of Tonpa Shenrab, the numbers of three, five and nine are very important as you will see as I explain further.
So, the YungDrung is a very ancient and important symbol in the Bön tradition. It is the symbol of Tonpa Shenrab, his energy and his teachings. All Bön images, both ancient and present day, use the YungDrung symbol. In Tibetan thankas, paintings and statues of Tonpa Shenrab, he is shown with his right hand touching the ground, and in his hand is the Bön sceptre which depicts two YungDrungs joined by a short column. In the Zhang Zhung language, the sceptre is known as a “chagshing” and represents the three methods of teachings. One YungDrung symbolized the Sutra or outer teachings, the other symbolizes the Tantra or inner teachings, and the middle bar represents the Dzogchen or secret teachings. The YungDrung sceptre is held in the right hand of teachers and Masters. Bön Yidams (meditational deities) use the symbol of the YungDrung sceptre as a protection against all negative energies. Many Bön teachers and Masters may hold the YungDrung sceptre when teaching or in rituals, to liberate the negativities and misconceptions of others.
In Indian Buddhism and the Sanskrit language, Bodhisattva is the name for an elightened Buddha figure who serves all beings, or one who is committed to the path of awakening, or a buddha-to-be. In the Bön language of Zhang Zhung, the word YungDrungsemba is used to describe the same kind of being. The actual translation is “courage of the mind”.YungDrungsachu means the “path of enlightenment”.
YungDrung is also used in the names of monasteries such as:YungDrung Ling and Tashi YungDrung Ling. YungDrung is used as a person’s name. My name is YungDrung! Very often the translation and spelling of Tibetan words and names is done incorrectly and that is why we see so many variations of Tibetan words. Everyone spells a little differently. My name has been translated and spelled in several different ways: YongDong, YungDrung, Yongzhong, and so on. But in fact, my name is YungDrung, my lineage is YungDrung Bön, and I was given my name by a YungDrung Bön Master.
In the Bön tradition there are two types of meditation concentrations; one is called the YungDrung or eternal concentration, and the other is called the Namkha or sky concentration. YungDrung is also used in names of Bön deities. YungDrung can also mean the state or realm of enlightenment.
The word is used to mean good luck or good fortune. Tibetans often talk about “auspicious” days to do certain things, or “auspicious” acts to create positive karma or merit. Auspicious just means a favorable time or date. And the word YungDrung also means auspicious. When Tibetans build a new house, they draw a YungDrung symbol for good luck and protection from fires, floods or destruction by any negative spirits. Also, when a Master or high Lama visits a new home or temple, Tibetans draw the YungDrung symbol using rice on the cushion where the Master sat or in front of his table. We believe this again is an auspicious symbol and protects the energy between the teacher and the student. Before the Master or teacher arrives, we draw on the ground in front of the entrace door with rice, or paint the YungDrung – which means welcome.
In a wedding ceremony if the wife is riding a horse, there is a special chair or saddle for her to sit on. On the chair, a YungDrung is drawn which means good luck for the wife. So again, the YungDrung is very auspicious and means very good luck or good intentions and protection from all negative energies. Simply, all positive and good things are represented by the YungDrung.
The YungDrung symbolizes the five directions of the universe. The corners of the symbol are the four directions and the middle or center indicates the structure of the universe (all the energies of the universe).
Many spiritual traditions are based on an understanding of the five elements. In the Tibetan Bön tradition, these are known as space, air, fire, water and earth, and are understood as the underlying energies from which the physical world, our bodies, our emotions and our minds arise. The elements are used in all nine levels of teachings of Bön including Shamanism, Tantra and Dzogchen. The YungDrung also represents the five energies and the five seed symbols and is also a symbol of the antidote to the five emotions.
Buddha Shenrab presented Bön in three successive cycles of teachings:
Nine ways (stages or steps) of practice
Four Bon Portals & Fifth, the Treasury
Outer, Inner & Secret Precepts
The YungDrung symbol represents the second cycle of teachings: the Four Bön Portals (doors), and Fifth, the Treasury. The four corners signify the four portals, and the center stands for the fifth – the Treasury.
The first portal deals with esoteric Tantric practices, the second portal consists of various rituals for purification, the third relates rules for monastic discipline and lay people, the fourth portal instructs on psycho-spiritual exercises such as Dzogchen meditation; and the fifth teaching is called the Treasure and comprises the essential aspects of all four portals.
FIVE DIRECTIONS & ENERGIES OF THE UNIVERSE
East | North | West | South | Centre
Space | Air | Fire | Water | Earth
Outer, Inner & Secret Precepts
Yang | Ram | Kang | Srum | Om
Kalsai tsenpo | Godsai Khampa | SaijeMangpo | Namsai Yangrum | Shenlha Odkar
Ignorance | Greed | Hatred | Jealousy | Pride
Mirror-like | Discrimination | Emptiness | Accomplishment | Equality
White | Green | Red | Blue | Yellow
Heart | Lung | Liver | Kidney | Spleen
Eyes | Nose | Tongue | Ears | Lips
Right Leg | Left Leg | Right Arm | Left Arm | Head
Types of Births
miraculous birth | birth from an egg | birth from heat | birth from moisture | birth from womb
Hell | Demi-Gods | Hungry Ghosts | Animals | Human Beings
Form | Feeling | Perception | Mental Formation | Consciousness
So, as you can begin to see, the Bön YungDrung symbol represents the teachings of Tonpa Shenrab and the energy of the universe. It is as important to the YungDrung Bon as the symbol of the Wheel of Dharma is to the Buddhist traditions from India.
The Bön tradition of the YungDrung symbol is left turning or anti-clockwise. This left turning symbol was designed to turn the same way that all the planets turn, which is left or anti-clockwise. The Bon tradition of circumambulating and turning of prayer wheels also coincides with the turning of the moon, earth and other planets – anti-clockwise. It was only after the teachings and the symbol travelled from Zhang Zhung and Tibet into West India and East China, that it was adopted by various religions and organizations and altered to change the arms to turn right or clockwise.
Right Turning YungDrung
Slowly over the centuries the YungDrung teachings and symbol spread throughout the world. Today in India and China, you can still see the YungDrung symbol on many Buddha statues, and stupas. On the Buddha statues, the YungDrung is in the heart area. Many of these symbols are the clockwise or right turning, the older ones have the Bön YungDrung left turning symbol. But whether it is right turning or left turning, the meaning and origin is always the same – YungDrung!
As the teachings and symbol moved in India and then into the western world, the meaning, method and use of The Bön YungDrung symbol was adapted and changed to suit other cultures and religions. One Master has said that the turning to the right indicates compassion and the turning to the left represents wisdom.
Then in the 19th century, Adolf Hitler found the symbol, and I believe so liked the idea of the meaning of “eternal” and “pure”, that he took the symbol for his political party. Since then, the symbol has become known in the west as the swastika, a symbol of hate and fear. I believe the word swastika, was originally a Greek word. You can see the symbol in many ancient Green designs or drawings but the original design of the symbol was Tonpa Shenrab in 16017 BCE.
There has been so much confusion and misunderstanding of Buddhism, and especially the Tibetan Bön religion, by many westerners when they see a picture or statue or thangka with the YungDrung on it. I recently heard on a news program that some western mothers were so upset when they discovered a picture of the YungDrung symbol on a child’s toy that was made in China. The whole community were angry and shocked by what they thought was an evil symbol. The company who made the toy was notified and all the toys were recalled and sent back. I am positive that the symbol was put on the toy as a sign of good luck or good fortune. This is another sad example of misunderstanding and suspicion between different cultures.
I am certain that many new students coming into our centre and in other Bön centres around the world are shocked when they see the YungDrung symbol. It is so unfortunate that many of the younger generation only know the symbol as one of racism or hatred.
And that is why, I am trying in a very small way, to help students understand the history and meaning of the YungDrung Bön symbol.