June 5, 2019

Origins of the Five Tibetan Rites: Part 2

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[The following article is written by my friend and colleague, Jerry Watt (RIP), an antiquarian bookseller and collector with whom I share a special interest in researching and preserving the history of The Five Tibetan Rites of Rejuvenation. It is published here with his permission. Jerry owns a rare copy of the 1939 Eye of Revelation book and also one of the equally rare 1946 updates that includes a new chapter and further information. Using scans from Jerry's books (which are out-of-copyright) I have combined the information from both books which you can download for Free here. Jerry and I don't agree on everything, but we both share a genuine desire to provide interesting and accurate information. Carolinda Witt.]

In Part 1 we learned that the Five Tibetan Rites almost certainly have come down to us through a system of Kum Nye dating back 2,500 years.  We learned that this tradition was probably preserved in a Bon monastery hidden in the high Himalayas. 1  The clues we followed were scant and were unusually restrictive.  We had to find (1) a Tibetan health tradition that was (2) at least 2,500 years old that was taught (3) in the Himalayas in a (4) monastery and could still have been taught there as recently as (5) the 1930's.  A very tall order.  It was unlikely that we could ever have found anything to satisfy these requirements -- unless the “back story” of the Five Rites was true.  That we made any progress at all is telling.  Peter Kelder didn’t just make this stuff up.

It is in our best interests to learn more about the Five Rites and the ancient traditions that developed them. Where do we turn to learn more? Students of Hatha yoga assure us that we should turn to Hatha Yoga, and have even give us advice on finding instructors.  Students of Tibetan yoga assure us that we should turn to Tibetan yoga.  However, if the Five Rites did not descend from any form of yoga, then yoga probably would be a poor choice for further studies.  

My main concern is to preserve the Five Rites as they were handed to us.  If they get inappropriately “absorbed” into some form of yoga, then the original teachings could become obscured or even lost within a generation or two.  That very scenario has almost happened already.


Even a casual glance at the Five Rites convinces most people that the Rites must be a form of yoga.  And there is no lack of “experts” out there reinforcing that idea. The interesting thing about experts is that they are so often wrong.  Experts often have a “hardened” point of view which blinds them to the obvious; they often become less objective than laymen. Also, I believe “experts” sometimes see a way to profit from Five Rites current popularity.  By linking their area of expertise to the Rites, they can make themselves instant authorities. No need to actually research the Five Rites; what they already know about something else is really quite enough.

Now, the term “yoga” can be confusing.  In truth, it covers many aspects of spiritual study and practice, not just physical exercises as we often use the term today.  It is possible to claim that yoga dates back 3,000 years and be correct.  However, when people claim that the Five Rites come from yoga, they are using the word “yoga” to mean physical exercises and postures that originated on the Indian subcontinent. This includes Tibetan yoga which is basically Hatha yoga with a Buddhist influence.  When someone says that the Five Rites are a form of yoga, they are generally referring to Hatha yoga or, by extension, Tibetan yoga.  And that is how we use the term here.

[Most yoga practitioners today understand 'yoga' means 'union.' Yoga is far more than postures, which are just one of the eight limbs of yoga, according to the yoga Sutras (classic texts). Yoga is an ancient Indian philosophy espousing an eight-limbed approach to conscious living. "Practices in the other limbs of yoga, include purification of body, mind, and speech; controlling human impulses; the practice of breathing to control the life force within; supporting collective humanity; and mental exercises through meditation." Yoga Journal]

How can we be sure that the Five Rites are not descended from yoga, either Tibetan or Indian? Very simply: the Five Rites are older by at least 700 years and probably more than a thousand years.  At the time that the Five Rites were developed, yoga as we know it today (and as we use the term today) did not exist.

[Pre-Classical Yoga -The beginnings of Yoga were developed by the Indus-Sarasvati civilization in Northern India over 5,000 years ago. The word yoga was first mentioned in the oldest sacred texts, the Rig Veda. The Vedas were a collection of texts containing songs, mantras and rituals to be used by Brahmans, the Vedic priests. Yoga was slowly refined and developed by the Brahmans and Rishis (mystic seers) who documented their practices and beliefs in the Upanishads, a huge work containing over 200 scriptures. The most renowned of the Yogic scriptures is the Bhagavad-Gîtâ, composed around 500 B.C.E. History of Yoga]

Scholars do not agree as to exactly when yoga was first developed. However, Patanjali is commonly considered the founder of “modern” yoga thought.  He founded the Raja school of yoga from which Hatha yoga developed much later. Patanjali lived in the 2nd Century A.D. and this would mark the earliest we can date any yoga postures or movements with any degree of certainty. Subsequently, yoga was carried into Tibet from India, along with Buddhist teachings, beginning in the 7th Century.  However, Hatha yoga (the yoga to which the Five Rites are often compared) was not fully developed until the 15th Century A.D.

If the Five Rites date back to the Sixth Century B.C., and if yoga as we know it only dates back to (at the very earliest) the Second Century A.D., then guess which one predates the other.  As it is somewhat awkward for a child to be older than his or her parents, this pretty much closes the case: the Five Rites predate yoga.  They simply cannot be an offshoot of either Hatha yoga or Tibetan yoga (trul khor) as is sometimes argued today.

The question of lineage becomes even more certain when you consider that the forms of yoga practiced today (Indian or Tibetan) are not the forms of yoga practiced a thousand or more years ago.  They have been continually revised and adapted to suit the theories and personalities of those who taught them. You see, it is not just a matter of when yoga may or may not have been introduced into India or Tibet.  The forms of yoga practiced today are modern by comparison and may date back only a few hundred years, at most.  

As Christopher S. Kilham wrote in his book, the Five Tibetans: “Like any other practice, yoga is not static.  It evolves and changes over time according to who is practicing and teaching it.  Everyone who goes beyond a cursory exploration of yoga will put their own spin on it.” 2  And, along this same vein, Lama Norbu wrote in Yantra Yoga: “In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition there are several Yantra systems, each connected with a particular tantric cycle . . . [o]riginally, these systems consisted of a few exercises, which were subsequently expanded and developed on the basis of these masters' experiences.” 3 [Emphasis added.]

To claim kinship between a practice 2,500 years old and yogic practices which may be no older than 500 years is not terribly compelling.  My point is, however, that even if you grant the greatest possible leeway for the age of yogic practices today, it is impossible for the Five Rites to have descended from them.

Internal Evidence

Not only is it impossible for the Rites to be any form of yoga, there is compelling evidence from the Eye of Revelation and the Five Rites themselves that strongly decry any yoga connection:

  • The word “yoga” is not used in the Eye of Revelation.  Neither Colonel Bradford nor Peter Kelder made the claim that the Five Rites are in anyway related to yoga.   Yoga is neither mentioned nor alluded to.   This would be a surprising omission if in fact the Five Rites are part of a system of yoga, especially when Colonel Bradford demonstrated more than a little knowledge of Indian culture in referring to the “Whirling Dervishes” by their correct name of “Maulawiyah.” [However, Kelder made a mistake about the spin direction of the Dervishes - read my article here]
  • Breath control, an important facet of both Indian and Tibetan yoga, is not mentioned at all.  Yoga emphasizes breath control.   This appears to be virtually universal, even during meditation.  Christopher S. Kilham in his book, The Five Tibetans, wrote: “In my extensive study of yoga methods, I have never encountered any techniques involving movement that did not also involve regulated breathing.”   Yet, neither Kelder nor Colonel Bradford mention breath control at all.   There may be any number of valid reasons for this omission (more about this at a later date); however, at the very least this omission does not support claims that the Five Rites descended from either Indian or Tibetan yoga. [The exception is the 6th Rite, which is a breathing exercise.] 
  • The vortices mentioned in the Five Rites do not correspond at all well with the Indian or Tibetan chakras.  For example, two of the Five Rites vortices are located in the knees.  Indeed, Colonel Bradford apparently chose not to even use the word “chakras” to describe the vortices, even though he almost certainly was well familiar with the term.
  • The Five Rites are vastly more simple than any system of yoga known.  As with anything else, practices handed down over generations evolve according to the predilections of the various teachers.  They become more complex.  See the above quotes from Christopher S. Kilham and Lama Norbu, especially the Norbu quote in which he describes early forms of trul khor as consisting “of a few exercises, which were subsequently expanded and developed. . . .”  The very simplicity of the Rites argues for their antiquity.
In Conclusion

Historical evidence, along with internal evidence from the Eye of Revelation and the Five Rites themselves shows fairly conclusively that the Rites come to us, not from yoga, but from a Kum Nye/Bon tradition from ancient Tibet.  By following up on the Kum Nye/Bon evidence, further research may bring us additional knowledge to complement the Five Rites.  It is unlikely that further study of yoga can do the same.

1. It is also possible that the “Five Rites Monastery” might be a Buddhist monastery of the Nyingma tradition.  This is the oldest Buddhist tradition in Tibet and its adherents helped preserve the Kum Nye/Bon teachings.  We are presently surveying Bon monasteries in the Himalayas to see if we can locate Colonel Bradford’s monastery.  If this proves fruitless, we will expand our search to Nyingma monasteries.

2. Christopher S. Kilham, The Five Tibetans: Five Dynamic Exercises for Health, Energy, and Personal Power; Healing Arts Press, Rochester, Vermont (1994), p. 7.

3. Chogyal Namkhai Norbu, Yantra Yoga: The Tibetan Yoga of Movement; Snow Lion Publications, Ithaca, New York (2008), p. 9.

[Added by Carolinda Witt.  Comment by Jerry Watt author of this article on his website in point No 2.]

.."I support Carolinda Witt's T5T program even though it may not fully comport with my own theories: she introduces breath control to the Five Rites.  This needs to be explained.  I republished the 1946 edition of the Eye of Revelation to not only preserve this very important monograph, but also to help others research the Rites for themselves and offer their theories.  I want to subject the Five Rites to the "gauntlet of  truth."  I want more people to research the Rites and offer their own theories.  I just hope they demonstrate Ms. Witt's intellectual integrity when she clearly acknowledges the changes she has made to the Rites and explains why she made the changes.  Time may prove her correct, and only time will tell."...

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© This work is the intellectual property of its author and is fully copyrighted. It may not be copied or republished in any medium (including but not limited to electronic and print media) without the express permission of the author. All rights are reserved.

Jerry Watt

Jerry is an antiquarian bookseller and collector with a special interest in researching and preserving the history of the Five Tibetan Rites of Rejuvenation. He is the owner of a very rare copy of the 1939 version of 'The Eye of Revelation' and the equally rare 1946 update of the same book, which contains additional information.

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