The “Shen Yantra”, or “Shen Mandala”, was a figure that entranced Kurt.  He spent hours, alone and with others, constructing, printing and reproducing the figure.  He used it as the primary image on the poster for his Mandala Show.

A “yantra”, in the Hindu and Tibetan traditions, is a diagram used to represent a divinity, or the abode of a divinity.  It is ordinarily a two-dimensional image formed of circles, squares, and lines in a concentric configuration.  A “mandala”, in the same traditions, is an expanded expression of the same concept.  The Tibetan word for mandala, “kyil-khor”, literally means “center (and) periphery”, and implies the unity of the perceiving subject, the center, and the perceived object, the periphery. A mandala may be a simple line diagram, or an elaborated image including symbolic representations of deities, their entourages, their seats or supports, their implements, and structural features of their abode or their larger environment.  A two dimensional mandala is ordinarily a bird’s eye, or “sky’s eye”, view of the structure of a palace. A mandala may also be constructed in three dimensions made of metal, clay, painted wood, colored thread or other materials.

Most importantly, the mandala is a representation.  A physical mandala, whether a simple or elaborate diagram or painting, or a three dimensional model, is a guide to visualization.  The mandala is ultimately constructed in the mind.  The meditator creates a precise mental image of a site, a palatial structure, and its inhabitants according to transmitted instructions.  The physical mandala is an aid, a support for that mental exercise.  The visualized mandala in the mind of the meditator — the underlying ground, mountains, oceans, forests and charnel grounds, rings of fire, rings of vajras, walls and doors of the palace, canopies and decorations, the deities, their faces, their crowns, jewelery, clothing, implements, their consorts, attendants, thrones and mounts — are all a support for the contemplation of what are essentially formless, inexpressible, and nonconceptual psychic states.


The Shen Yantra is neither Hindu nor traditional Buddhist, but derives from the Bon tradition.  “Bon” in one sense is the term applied to the complex of beliefs and ritual practices prevalent in the Tibetan region prior to the traditionally dated arrival of Buddhist teachings in the eighth century. Bon in this sense was not organized or institutionalized, but was highly particularized to the local territories where it was practiced.  The primary focus of Bon practice was interaction with the spirits dwelling in the immediate environment, in the mountains, valleys, lakes, rivers, rocks and trees.  Bon practice was a means of interacting with these spirits, propitiating and placating them, avoiding their anger and harm, and obtaining their assistance and protection. Bon practitioners used their ability to communicate with the spirits for a variety of purposes — divination, protection against accident or disease, healing, weather control, and after death experiences.  Bon practitioners played an important role in the royal courts of the early Tibetan kings, where they were entrusted to conduct all these functions, and most especially funeral rites. 

When Buddhist teachers arrived in Tibet from India, Nepal, and Kashmir in the eighth century at the invitation and with the protections of the Tibetan kings, there was unavoidable friction with the Bon priests.  Hostility and conflict resulted in Bon being supplanted by Buddhism, especially in the royal courts, and Bon being devalued and disgraced as superstition, black magic, and unwholesome practices, not unlike the treatment of “pagan” (meaning “rural”) beliefs and practices in Christian Europe.  In fact, however, Bon was not by any means eradicated in Tibet.  Virtually all the elements that make “Tibetan Buddhism” Tibetan are the surviving legacy of the Bon tradition.  The Tibetan Buddhist emphasis on the bardo experiences has very little precedence in the Indian Buddhist tradition.  The practices of torma (sacrificial cake) offerings, “sang” juniper incense, thread crosses (“namka”), divination rituals, oracles, prayer flags, the wind horse, the khyung (“garuda”), the rainbow body, pilgrimage to sacred mountains are a few of these enduring traditions. Bon priests continued to conduct marriage rites, birth rites, naming rites, and funeral rites for the royal court long after the establishment of Buddhism as the official royal religious system.

The advent of Buddhism to Tibet concurrently transformed the legacy of Bon. By the tenth century, Bon temples and monasteries had begun to be established, Bon texts were both rediscovered in the same manner as Nyingma Buddhist treasure texts, and were compiled and promulgated by Bon priests.  Bon was understood to be a teaching of a path to enlightenment comparable if not essentially identical to Buddhism, and to have been introduced into Tibet centuries earlier than Indian Buddhism. In this context, the word “Bon” was used to mean “Truth” or the “Law” or “Reality” or the “Doctrine”, analogous to the Tibetan word “Chos”, which translated the Sanskrit word “Dharma” in Buddhist texts.  Bon was believed to have been the dominant spiritual tradition of the empire of Zhang Zhung, a polity that existed for several centuries in what is now western Tibet, centered around Tise (Mount Kailas), until it was conquered and absorbed into the Tibetan kingdom in the seventh century.  The Zhang Zhung kingdom at its greatest expanse was thought to extend from its base in the  Mount Kailas region to Gilgit in the west, Khotan in the north, and Mustang in the south, and to have exercised some degree of domination over central and eastern Tibet. No Bon texts are known to have survived in the Zhang Zhung language, but it was said that Zhang Zhung texts were among those translated in the great Buddhist translation project carried out at the first Buddhist monastery, Samye, in the eighth century. Bon texts in Tibetan employ many specific words that are not originally Tibetan but are derived from the Zhang Zhung language. The names of all the Tibetan kings were derived from Zhang Zhung, not Tibetan, vocabulary.

The Bon doctrine is said to have originated in the land of “Olmo Lungring”, which was part of a larger kingdom known as “Tazig” located somewhere west of Tibet. Tazig is not historically identified, but it is known that Buddhist teachings by the second century if not earlier had spread to the northwest of what is now India, into what is now Afghanistan and westward into Persia, where it was institutionally established for several centuries although it ultimately did not survive there. It is not unlikely that in those early centuries Iranian influenced Buddhism spread eastward into Tibet through Gandhara (in today’s Afghanistan), Oddiyana (in today’s Pakistan), Kashmir and Khotan. The culture of the Zhang Zhung civilization was Iranian influenced in many respects, as was that of Khotan.

Bon texts emerged in Tibet beginning in the eleventh century, at the same time as the spread of the Nyingma Buddhist treasure text tradition. Bon texts as well as Buddhist texts were discovered first at Samye, and later at specific sites throughout Tibet. The first Bon treasure texts were discovered by a Bon master named Shenchen Luga, a member of the Shen clan, descended from the original teacher of Bon, Tonpa Shenrab, who lived and attained enlightenment in Olmo Lungring prior to the lifetime of Shakyamuni Buddha. The name “Tonpa Shenrab” translates as “The Teacher, the Best Shen”.  He is also known as “Shenrab Miwo” — “The Best Shen, The Great Man”. “Shen” in Tibetan (gShen), like the word “Bon po”, meant “priest” or “adept” or “spiritual practitioner” — one who had mastered the teachings and the related rituals. “Bon” originally meant “recitation”, and the “Bonpo’s” were “reciters of spells”. Although “Shen” kept its meaning as “adept" in Bon texts, it also evolved into a clan name, from which Shenchen Luga’s family name derived.

Among the most important Bon texts revealed were the biographies of Tonpa Shenrab.  There were three versions: the short, the medium, and the long.  The long text is entitled “The Precious Compendium the Blazing Sutra Immaculate and Glorious”, referred to in Tibetan as gZi-brjid (“Ziji”) meaning “The Glorious”.  The Ziji is an enormous work of 2,791 folios — twelve volumes arranged in sixty-one chapters.  It was transmitted in a vision to Loden Nyingpo in the fourteenth century. David L. Snellgrove translated nine of the Ziji’s chapters into English in a book published by the Oxford University Press in 1967 entitled The Nine Ways of Bon.  The “nine ways of Bon” correspond to  the Nyingma tradition’s nine-fold exposition of Buddhist teachings — the three fundamental vehicles, the three basic tantras, and the three higher tantras, the ninth or highest being Dzog-chen.  The Bon exposition of its nine “ways” also led to the ninth or highest, being Dzog-chen.  The word Snellgrove translates as “Way” is theg-pa, the Tibetan word used in Buddhist texts to translate the Sanskrit word “yana”, translated into English as “vehicle”.  The meaning is of course “the method” or “the process” of achieving the goal of enlightenment. The “ways” translated by Snellgrove from nine chapters of the Ziji include presentations such as “The Way of the Shen of the Visual World”, “The Way of the Shen of Illusion”, “The Way of Pure Sound”. The ninth way is “The Supreme Way”, which is Dzog-chen.

The penultimate way, the eighth, is entitled  “Ye Shen Thegpa”, translated as “The Way of the Primeval Shen”. The word “ye” is commonly translated in Dzog-chen literature as “primordial”, meaning originally present and unbounded by any temporal dimension. The Way of the Primeval Shen chapter of the Ziji presents the instructions for a meditative practice to be carried out by a Shen. It is spoken by Tonpa Shenrab to his disciple Ye Shen Tsukpu. The practice entails two stages, the Process of Emanation and the Process of Realization, corresponding to the Buddhist meditative stages of “Creation” (kyed-rim) and “Completion” (dzog-rim), and the fundamental principles of method and wisdom.  The Process of Emanation deals with form and constructs the external support, both physical and mentally imagined, for the meditative exercise.  The Process of Realization deals with emptiness without support structures.  The two Processes are understood not to exist in duality, but rather to be identical and considered separately only for purposes of teaching. The preliminaries of the Process of Emanation focus on three essential requirements — the teacher, the consort and the site. The qualities of the authentic teacher and authentic consort are described in some detail. The qualities of suitable sites are described and the practitioner is instructed to bring there a number of ritual objects, such as silk cloths, an arrow, a mirror, a sword, a skull cup among many other items. The preparation of the site, wherever it is, requires propitiation of local spirits. All local spirits are generally understood to be primitive, unevolved, and naturally brutal in character, despite having been subdued by prior masters and sworn to support the doctrine. In order to keep them propitiated, the practitioner must provide them with offerings and accompany the offerings with teachings to remind them of their vows:

“Whichever bon way of the Nine Vehicles you practise,
if you fail to give milk offerings and pure sacrificial cakes to the powerful lords of this world,
if you do not ask them for a site for your palace of the Blessed Ones,
these powerful lords, the lords of the soil, the serpents and the furies are irascible, however much they may still protect the doctrine.
However gentle their disposition, their lineage is still that of the titans.
So this white offering to the lords of the soil, the serpents and the furies,
the ritual items of aromatic wood, sacrificial fire, and sacred libations,
must be offered to the accompaniment of an exposition of the buddhas’ truth.
You must give pleasure to the powerful ones of the phenomenal world,
and having made them happy, you can hold them to their former vows.
Ask them for a site for your worship and a place for you to stay,
and hold them before witnesses to their oath to protect the doctrine.”

When these preliminaries have been completed, one can commence to construct the physical mandala, “the palace of the Blessed Ones”. The instructions given are not for a mandala to be drawn or painted, but to be laid out on the ground with colored sands. As translated by Snellgrove, the instructions are given as follows:

“Take light-colored soil which is viscous, pliable and soft,
and suit the size to the occasion, either one fathom which is four cubits, or half a fathom (which is two cubits) square, or just one cubit (square)
and fit the height-measurements to these three sizes, large, medium, and small, namely a full cubit, a short cubit, or a span, whichever you may do to suit the occasion,
(It should have) the form of an up-turned mirror. well formed and smooth.
Sprinkle it and make it completely smooth with pure consecrated water and sweet smelling medicinal incense,
Smear cotton threads with white and red colouring and consecrate them as Method and Wisdom possessed of no duality.

Cover the sphere of the void (viz. the space for the mandala) with rays (viz. lines) of white and red,
(the four) bordering lines (of the square),
(the four) crossing lines (two diagonal and two straight across)
the encircling line (inside the square),
(the four inner) diagonal lines and on the diagonal lines the lines which form the palace,
the four lines for doors and lintels, (drawn as double lines, viz.) eight lines (inside the palace).

You should place these lines quite evenly, level and unconfused.”

The diagram is thus constructed not with compass and rule, but with string.  Cords are covered in white or red powder and the straight lines constructed by extending them as directed and then snapping them to lay down the line.  The circles are constructed by fixing an inscribing point at one end of the string at the appropriate length, fixing the other end at the center of the diagram, and rotating the string as a radius to create a circle. The result is the “Shen yantra”.

H.H. the Dalai Lama lays a mandala chalk line, evenly, level and unconfused

H.H. the Dalai Lama lays a mandala chalk line, evenly, level and unconfused

This yantra is not yet the mandala, it is the base diagram on which the full physical mandala will be constructed.  Nearly all Bon mandalas are constructed on this basic design.  Of the 131 painted Bon mandalas in the Tritan Norbutse collection in the National Museum of Ethnology, Osaka, Japan, all reproduced in full color plates in the book entitled Mandalas of the Bon Religion, only five do not directly reflect this pattern, and it can be seen as implicit even in those five. The base figure is a square, which signifies totality, limitless space, the void. The three inscribed circles ordinarily define two concentric peripheries, which in various mandalas may be oceans, mountains, circles of fire, circular walls of mantras, or other constructs which serve to surround the palace.  The palace itself is built upon the the square structure within the circles. It of course itself is square, with gates, or doors, or lintels, or all of them in each of the four directions.  The central area of the palace is invariably a square formed of nine squares in a three-by-three pattern, a central square surrounded by eight other squares in the cardinal and intermedial directions.  The nine-fold pattern naturally reflects the Nine Ways of Bon, dzog-chen being the central essence.

Bon mandalas from the Tritan Norbutse collection

Bon mandalas from the Tritan Norbutse collection

After the Shen yantra diagram is constructed on the mandala surface, the practitioner and his assistants suspend their activities for that day.  They go to sleep maintaining full concentration on the ritual process, and are encouraged to remember and examine their dreams:

“With unwavering contemplation they must go to sleep, unforgetful of the matter, and not forgetting their dreams, they must examine the prognostics.”

H.H. the Dalai Lama  lays the first sand line in the construction of the mandala.

H.H. the Dalai Lama  lays the first sand line in the construction of the mandala.

The construction of the physical mandala begins on the next day.  After washing and donning clean clothing, the pratitioner creates the full mandala on top of the yantra diagram using sand of five colors — white, green, red, blue, and yellow — laid in intricate designs with speciallly crafted tools.  The palace, its surroundings, its walls, canopies, gates, and thrones are drawn in sand and visualized in detail in the mind. Implements such as the vase, the arrow, the sword, the mirror are placed on their respective spots around and throughout the palace. Then “like lightning” the Bon deities, the “gods of knowledge”, are visualized in their proper locations. They are indicated in the sand mandala by representative implements or by seed syllables.  In the mind they are visualized in complete detail, their features, their clothing, their jewelery.  Then,

The Lama Master-Sage sits on the throne,
The brethren, brothers and sisters, come forth from their ablutions,
and the ‘deacon’ must have all his accoutrements.
They are beautiful, glorious and gay like gods and goddesses.
Having sung joyous chants, pronounced with a happy tone,
they must ask and receive the sacramental vow which mingles (giver and receiver) as one.
The door of the mandala is opened and the face of the tutelary divinity is seen.
The spell, the gesture, the meditation and the heart-syllable are given.
The vow is made (for the period) a year, a month, a day, that one should apply oneself, whatever (period) is suitable.

This completes the preparations.  The text is an aid to memory, it is not a completely detailed and comprehensive description of the visualized mandala.  The transmission of every teaching entails three processes — an empowerment, a reading/hearing of the words of the text, and the instructions given verbally by the master.  It is in the instructions that the details are transmitted, the text is a summary outline.  When the mandala of the Way of the Primeval Shen with the palace and the divinities have been drawn in sand and mentally visualized, one contemplates “the order of the real basis”:

The outer vessel and the inner essence, which comprise all phenomenal existence
are void from all beginning and selfless by nature,
being free of discursive thought, infinite as space.
This whole outer vessel is the mandala of the buddhas.
The whole inner essence (corresponds with) the forms of gods and goddesses.

One neutralizes and dispels the power of inherent psychic obstacles by viewing them as demons and transforming them with “compassionate wrath”. One then commences the main meditation:

First seat yourself where you are comfortable and assuming the five postures with bodily gestures at ease,
you experience the unaffected state of non-activity, the boundless light of universal brilliance, and feel love for all living beings.
From this light of contemplation the seed-syllables stream forth, cleansing the various realms, both ‘vessel’ and ‘essence’, from the influences of material forms,
cleansing one’s own body from the impure influences of material forms
and turning the pure (influences) into divine manifestations.
The psychic centres are transformed into (buddha-)realms with their divine manifestations.
The (five) elements, (five) poisons, (five) elements of personality are changed into the forms of the (five) wisdoms.
In that very moment unaffected buddhahood is achieved.
From space, knowledge (descends and) singles and adds itself and is inseparable, and one becomes the divine being of the Wisdom of Sameness.
This is the Process of Emanation of Selfhood.

In this condition of “divine thought”, the mandala produces itself in the mind of the practitioner, in ever greater clarity and detail.  When the mental images of the divinities are radiantly and stably present, “each main divinity surrounded by his entourage, all with their proper colours, gestures and adornments”, the divinities themselves are invited down from the celestial sphere to enter into the mental formations. In their presence the practitioner performs further prescribed visualizations, prayers, and mantras, and from “the lotus-seat of the sun and moon” in one’s own heart:

Light streams forth in space, and grace descends into the mental sphere.
That which is already free of duality is realized as one.
One possesses the reality of bliss where knowledge and celestial sphere are indistinguishable.
Through outgoing and inward flowing transformations the divinities, oneself and all others are united in one.
This is the way of practising the real matter of the Vehicle of the Primal Shen.

The text goes on to describe further visualizations and rituals of the Process of Emanation, and then instructions on the Process of Realization.

This is the context of the Shen yantra that so entranced Kurt. Kurt was never empowered or instructed in the Way of the Primeval Shen or any other Bon meditation or teaching. But as one with a highly developed sensitivity to visual imagery and design, and as one with a highly developed sensitivity to dimensions of spirituality and awareness, Kurt had an instinctive attraction to and appreciation of the power of the Shen yantra, as the distilled essence of Bon pictoral expression of the enlightened mind.


Kurt spent hours reproducing the yantra, primarily in ink on paper, but also exploring all other available means of production.  As recounted by Clifford Barney, a close and longtime friend of Kurt’s

“We spent a lot of afternoons drawing the mandala on big sheets of newsprint, using straightedge and compass.  Part of the discipline was figuring out what the instructions meant, and then there was the final kicker: about drawing the lines 'quite evenly, level and unconfused.' That was hard. I must have made a hundred copies of the thing. Great fun.  Later, Kurt gave me a beautiful copy as a wedding  present, and naturally it has disappeared.  Much, much later when pcs appeared, I made some versions in mac draw which were as even, level and unconfused as technology could make them; perfect, to the naked eye at least.  I made some copies in fanciful colors and then skewed them into bent and curved shapes that still obeyed the construction rules. Bean might have some of these in the von Meier collection."

“Bean”, Larry Barnett, alas has not so far been able to locate any examples in the “half vast” collection of the von Meier archives.  Anyone who is fortunate enough to have access to any of these works is kindly encouraged to share them by forwarding copies to Larry.


The essential point is that the mandala is a support, a vessel to express in material or mental form energies and states of awareness that are intrinsically formless, and ultimately manifestations of the essential emptiness of primordial awareness.  The Shen yantra is a simplified diagram, the Bon mandalas, whether painted or made of sand, are more elaborate representations.  The physical mandala is itself only a guide to the mentally constructed visualized mandala, which in turn is a vessel for aspects of awareness called “Wisdoms”, which are beyond materiality and non-materiality, beyond “real” and “illusion”.  The mandala is a support for a spiritual exercise intended to actualize Wisdom.

Without the benefit of the appropriate verbal instructions, it is unlikely that Kurt’s visualized mandala accorded with the specific Bon tradition of the Way of the Primeval Shen.  But there is no doubt that it was elaborate and energetic, as Clifford Barney recounts:

“Back at the Mac he meditated on the instructions taped to the wall in front of him in the form of the Bon Po mandala:  Cover the sphere of the void (viz. the space for the mandala) with rays (viz. lines) of white and red., which they had done, yes, and the other colors too;  around him everything glowed in bright Huichol colors, frequent mirrors reflected the light from windows and white walls onto Turkish and Chinese rugs,  and images and icons were everywhere:  beaded bowls, masks, and yarn paintings, Carolina’s magnificent pair of jaguars, magic jungle birds and snakes in brilliant reds, greens, yellows and blues, plus snapshots, shells, decorative bowls, dried flowers, trinkets, and all the other comfortable junk of daily life.  They had covered their sphere with lines.  It’s true that as always, the concluding injunction, “You should place these lines quite evenly, level and unconfused.” had been difficult to follow.  Weavings hid the scars on ancient furniture, chairs and tables tilted, books lurched left and right on shelves, the carpet was stained, cobwebs hung in corners.  There weren’t two parallel lines in the place, though many were almost parallel.”


From “The Way of Pure Sound” (A Kar Theg Pa), the Seventh Chapter of the Ziji:

“The vehicles of Pure Sound and of Primeval Shen follow the way of Transformation.
Without avoiding, they seek to accept.
Taking (all) into companionship, they turn (all) into companions.
By turning (all) into companions, there is no duality left.
Celestial expanse and wisdom, sky and space, method and wisdom, and such pairs
by losing their duality, attain to perfection.
They shine in the realm of Perfect Enjoyment.”

Bon presents three paths:  Avoidance, Transformation, and Release. Avoidance is basically analogous to the Foundational path in Buddhism — the recognition of unwholesome conduct and its karmic consequences, and a path of behavior to avoid those pitfalls.  Transformation is analogous to Vajrayana — pure view, seeing into the essence of the (3, or 5, or 84,000) poisons as empty, and transforming them by Method into Wisdom.  Release is Dzog-chen, primordial purity beyond any categorization.  Of the Nine Ways in the Ziji, the first six are basically Avoidance, the seventh and eighth are Transformation, and the ninth Release.

Psychologically speaking, the emphasis on dealing with the “lords of the soil” as well as the “demons” could be interpreted as dealing with deep inherent impulses within the psyche of any living being, those drives that are necessary to survival of the entity.  Of course they are “egoistic”, although they are actually “pre-ego”, the “ego” being a more complex psychological construction built on the platform, the “soil”, of these impulses.  In the path of Avoidance, one identifies them, rejects them, and keeps one’s distance from them.  In the path of Transformation, one recognizes that they have in the past been “tamed” by masters such as Tonpa Shenrab, Padmasambhava, and others, and rather than simply reject them, one acknowledges and accepts them, pacifies and makes friends with them, but always maintaining an awareness of their inherent dangerous natures, and therefore embedding dharma teaching into their propitiation, “reminding them of their vows” — keeping them in line as support for dharma practice.

Kurt was not one for the path of Avoidance, but was one to acknowledge, accept and embrace the natural construct of the psyche in all its dimensions in pursuit of the light.  

Written by Joseph Duane
July 15, 2018