Geshé Dawa Namgyal Kharnatsang was born in 1977 in the region of Eastern Amdo in Tibet. At age 11 he entered into monastic life of the Yungdrung Bön tradition in Gamal monastery in the town of Songpan, in the region of Amdo. There he started his training of the rituals, chants, and the sacred dances of Yungdrung Bön.
In 1996 he left his home town and moved from Amdo to India, to the village of Dolanji, in order to get ordination as a monk and to enter the Bön dialectic school of Menri monastery, the main monastery of the Bön tradition.
In 2012 he graduated with the highest degree of monastic education, a Geshé degree.
Being a monk at Menri monastery he became a close disciple of Lungtok Tenpa’i Nyima Rinpoche, the abbot of Menri monastery and head of the Bön tradition, who past away in September 2017. Through him he received a thorough training in all aspects of ritual, specially ritual music and dance. He eventually became one of the main thsog-chen umdzes (~ritual leaders) of Menri Monastery.
Being a Geshé
In respect to the duration and intensity of academic training, the Tibetan monastic degree of a Geshé is somewhat comparable to the Western degree of a Ph.D.
However, a Tibetan Geshé has some responsibilities within his or her tradition which are quite unique.
Thus Kharnatsang took over the responsibilities for the Bön tradition:
A huge amount of the spiritual teachings and cultural knowledge of the Bön tradition is codified in a collection of scriptures. Copies of these scriptures are archived in the libraries of the many Bön Monasteries around the world.
A lot of these scriptures are several centuries old. Some can even be traced back to the pre-Tibetan time of Zhang-Zhung.
To keep the knowledge of the Bön tradition alive, it is not enough to keep the scriptures themselves available. There must also exist people who are trained in the reading and understanding of their content. These men and women are the thoroughly trained Geshés and Geshémas of the Bön tradition.
It is the first responsibility of a Geshé to pass their skills on to the next generation. Second, it is their responsibility to provide ways of insight into the content of the heritage of Bön for people from all over the world who are interested.
Third, it is the responsibility of a Geshé to contribute to the preservation of this heritage in whatever approriate ways possible. This includes the usage of modern multimedia facilities as well as the collaboration with scholars from all over the world.
Being an Umdze
Just as there is a written heritage of Bön there is a heritage of ritual music and dance. During their education some of the nuns and monks specialize on the performance and preservation of the ritual music and/or sacred dance of the Bön tradition. These are the Umdzes. Their performative, contextual, and theoretical knowledge in respect to the ritual canon of the Bön tradition is comparable to the knowledge of a Western church musician.
In addition to this, it is their responsibility to keep this knowledge alive, pass it to the next generation, and contribute to its preservation.
For Kharnatsang the latter goes along with searching for new ways to put the very essence of the ritual content into a new artistic form, without letting any of the original depth of the music get lost. The recordings of the Heart Mantras of Bön are one example of this work.