Ligmincha International—Serenity Ridge Retreat Center
Ligminchi International was founded by Geshe Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche in 1992 to preserve the ancient Tibetan spiritual tradition of Bön-Buddhism as well as to introduce the religion to the western world. In 1998, Rinpoche established Serenity Ridge Retreat Center in Shipman, amid the mountains of Nelson County in Virginia. “Serenity Ridge” was originally a residential property on top of a ridge named by its previous owners who lived and loved it as a place of peace. Today, as a center of Bön-Buddhist practice, Serenity Ridge Retreat Center (SRRC) strives to bring the peace it was named after to the practitioners around its area. The Center provides retreats for people from all around the country and various religious backgrounds to meditate and learn about Bön.
Bön-Buddhism describes itself as being Tibet’s oldest spiritual tradition. Unlike other branches of Buddhism that believe the founder of the religion to be the Buddha Shakyamuni, ancient Bön records accredit the establishment of this spiritual tradition to the Buddha Tonpa Shenrab Miwoche who had come to this world many thousands of years before the birth of the Buddha Shakyamuni. The original place where Tonpa Shenrab evangelized Bön was believed to be Zhang Zhung, an ancient dynasty surrounding Mount Kailash in western Tibet, the cradle of Tibetan civilization. Buddha Tonpa Shenrab taught the “Nine Ways of Bön”, the “Four Bön Portals and the Fifth, the Treasury”, and the “Outer, Inner and Secret Precepts”. Sutras, the traditional path of renunciation, represent the outer precept; tantras, the path of transformation, represent the inner precept; and the path of self-liberation, or Dzogchen teachings is the secret precept. Such division into sutra, tantra and Dzogchen assembles the teaching found in the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism.
Bön-Buddhism includes traditional Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhist teachings such as loving-compassion and equanimity. In addition, it cherishes its highest form of teachings—Dzogchen, or the “Great Perfection”. Author of “Union of Dzogchen and Bodhichitta”, Anyen Rinpoche describes Dzogchen to be perfect because it is an all-inclusive totality that leads to middle way realization, in avoiding the two extremes of nihilism and eternalism. It classifies outer, inner and secret teachings, which are only separated by the cognitive construct of words and completely encompasses Tibetan Buddhist wisdom.1 Apart from the eightfold path of achieving enlightenment, Bön followers believe that Dzogchen is the ninth path. The importance of Dzogchen is reflected upon the logo of Ligmincha International, the Ligmincha Seal. The Tibetan letter “ཨ” at the center of the seal represents the ninth path—Dzogchen.
Figure 1. The Ligmincha Seal
About the Founder
Geshe Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche was born in Amritsar, India, not long after his parents escaped their Tibetan homeland in 1959 during the Chinese Cultural Revolution. At age 10 Tenzin Rinpoche was ordained as a monk at Menri Monastery near Dolanji, India. He was recognized by the head teacher Lopon Sangye Tenzin Rinpoche as a reincarnation of the famous master Khyung Tul Rinpoche, a renowned meditation master, teacher, scholar and healer who died in the mid-20th century. Upon graduating his geshe degree, he was appointed to be the Bön tradition’s representative in 1981 to the Assembly of Tibetan People’s Deputies of the Tibetan-Government-in-Exile by the 14th Dalai Lama. Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche was one of the first to bring the Bön teachings to the West. He received two Rockfeller Fellowships at Rice University, one in 1991 and the other in 1993, for his research contribution of Bön in early Buddhist Tibet and his teaching effort. He established Ligmincha International in 1992, and SRRC in 1998.
Figure 2. Portrait of Geshe Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche (pc: Ligmincha International website)
Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche married Tsering Wangmo in spring 2004, and currently resides in the San Francisco Bay Area. He has numerous publications in English that have been translated into different languages. Most of them seem to focus considerably more on the Yoga of personal experiences such as sound healing and sleeping. The importance of meditations in dreams to him are reflected in some of his quotes. “Ultimately we want to use dreams to liberate ourselves from all relative conditions, not simply to improve them” is one of the examples.
Besides being outstandingly productive on book publications, Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche is also up-to-date with technology. Most of his current teaching sessions are carried out on the Internet as Rinpoche live broadcasts lessons to people all around the world.
Figure 3. Serenity Ridge Retreat Center
SRRC hosts retreats lasting up to two weeks for people locally and all over the country to learn about Bön. Spring and fall are usually the busiest seasons for the center, since most of the center’s meditation sessions are held outdoors. A small paid staff oversees the day-to-day operations of SRRC. The majority of the people who come to SRRC to meditate are middle aged, middle-upper class; nevertheless, there are a few young people who are interested in Bön and spend time at SRRC. The center now has a resident lama, Geshe Tenzin Yangton, who lives in the county and supports the local sangha. He plans to conduct regular meditation and practice sessions, rituals, retreats and workshops at SRRC.
The practice on mindfulness is common to all Buddhist traditions. Bön’s version of mindfulness practice is called “zhiné”, the calm abiding meditation. To practice zhiné, a person is to concentrate on the silent stillness and spaciousness of his surroundings. Zhiné practice is a formless repetition of mantras. The practice of zhiné develops the strong, stable attention and stillness necessary to overcome the continual movements of the mind. It is the foundation for all the other Dzogchen practices. An experienced practitioner uses zhiné to deepen and enhance the result of their daily practice and brings glimpses of profound open awareness. In addition, zhiné strengthens a practitioner’s concentration during his tantric meditation by helping him to concentrate during his visualization. Zhiné is the necessary skillful means to enhance Bön meditation.
Tantric oriented practices are common to Tibetan traditions, including Bön. For practitioners at SRRC, tantric meditations include visualizing buddhas, lamas, and yetams (one of the Bön deities), then bowing to them, and practicing with them. The goal is to realize that one is equal to those deities. In order to do so, a practitioner will start with breath practices, and focus on his interior chakras and channels. He then connects these aspects with the nature elements around him to visualize special energies and to create a tranquil mind. The ultimate goal is to experience the nature of the mind, which is the enlightened nature of the Buddha’s mind. This process is also called Bodhicitta—generating the mind of enlightenment.
Guru yoga is another form of meditation. A practitioner is to connect with a guru, an enlightened teacher, and attempt to recognize himself as an equal to the guru. The key is to collapse everything down to a simple nature without transforming any thoughts, and realize that one’s mind is and always has been at the same level as that of the guru, just like the guru’s mind is at the same level as that of a Buddha.
Dream yoga is taught at Ligmincha affiliations by Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche. The practice of dream yoga deepens the awareness during all experiences: dreams at night, day dreaming, and most importantly, the bardo experiences after death. Practitioners at SRRC deem dream yoga as a preparation for death.
All of the practices done at SRRC ultimately lead to self-healing. This is symbolic as it is not the healing of the physical body, but the healing of the current blindfolded state of not realizing the existence of the nature of a Buddha’s mind. Frequent connections of Bön practices to the surroundings such as sound, air, wind, and temperature demonstrates that Bön retains shamanic elements as an ancient religion.
Bön Buddhism at SRRC is categorized to be Vajrayana Buddhism. Many religious views are similar to those of traditional Tibetan Buddhism. Among the nine ways to achieve enlightenment Bön shares with Tibetan Buddhism, Bön venerates sutra, tantra, and Dzogchen, naming these three the “Upper Three Ways”. While sutra is the slow path, tantra helps a person to achieve enlightenment in only a few lifetimes. Dzogchen surpasses both sutra and tantra, and is able to help one achieve enlightenment in as short as one lifetime. To naturally recognize oneself as equal to the enlightened beings, and to dedicate one’s effort toward meditations are extremely important, for one goes into practice full-hearted to gain merit, and then reflects the merit upon all sentient beings. One of the members at the community Dr. Stella Richards describes Bön Buddhism to be considerably more embodied in the human experience. Feelings, habits, longings, and the body itself are embraced with enormous compassion and understanding—and are not simply things to be transcended. The intimate connection with the surroundings is what the members ultimately strive for.
When asked about favoring Bön over other kinds of Buddhism, Dylan, one of the people who worked at SRRC said: “A lot of things taught here are true because they are actually true. They show how the world actually works in an objective sense. Studying Dzogchen doesn’t offer which physical plane on which these theories can be tested, but it makes you feel like it’s true.”
Connections with Other Communities
Although how SRRC is connected with institutes of other Buddhist traditions is unknown, interestingly, some members at SRRC also frequent Buddhist communities that are not of Bön tradition.
Future Expansion Plan of SRRC
SRRC plans to construct a large indoor yoga area for members to use during severe weather. Before, most of the yogas were done outside.
It was mentioned previously that the founder Geshe Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche frequently uses the Internet as a means of teaching. SRRC, adapting to this new way of spreading Bön Buddhism via the Internet, plans to build a new multimedia room for online teachings and live broadcasting.
- “Union of Dzogchen and Bodhichitta”. Rinpoche, Anyen. Snow Lion Publication. Print. 2006, pg.12-13.
- “Shipman-based Tibetan Buddhism center plans building for meditation”. Smith, Rachael. Web. Sep 17, 2015.
- Ligminchi International official website. http://www.ligmincha.org/index.php/en/