Bön History

HISTORY OF BÖN

Bön is Tibet’s indigenous and oldest spiritual tradition. It includes teachings and practices applicable to all parts of life, including our relationship with the elemental qualities of nature; our ethical and moral behavior; the development of love, compassion, joy and equanimity; and Bön’s highest teachings of the Great Perfection, Dzogchen, leading to full enlightenment or buddhahood.

According to the traditional Bön accounts of its origins, many thousands of years before the birth of the Buddha Shakyamuni, the earlier Buddha Tonpa Shenrab Miwoche came to this world and first expounded his teachings in the land of Olmo Lung Ring. Ol means “the unborn,” mo “the undiminishing,” lung “the prophetic words” of Tonpa Shenrab, and ring “his everlasting compassion.” Some modern scholars have identified Olmo Lung Ring as located within Zhang Zhung, the country surrounding Mount Kailash in western Tibet and the cradle of Tibetan civilization,[1] a kingdom where Bön thrived and that was later conquered in the 8th century and made part of Tibet,

According to oral and scriptural tradition, the Bön religion as we know it today is said to have begun over 18,000 years ago.[2] Its oral history goes back even further in time to the Stone Age, about 33,000 BC, “when our ancestors hunted the hairy elephants with the long curved tusks[3],” the time when wooly mammoths inhabited the earth! This timeline dates its origins to the Mesolithic Era, and its oral history to the Upper Paleolithic Era, making Bön the oldest existing religion on Earth.

THE MEANING OF THE WORD BÖN
The word Bön has been translated as “to recite.” This is because in ancient times the recitation of sacred formulas and the rituals and ceremonies that accompanied them were called Bön, and those who performed these rituals were called Bönpo. In the ancient language of Zhang Zhung, the equivalent term for Bön is Gyer, “to chant.”

YUNGDRUNG BÖN AND OLMO LUNG RING
Yungdrung Bön or the Everlasting Bön, the prevalent form of Bön practiced today, began with the teachings of Tonpa Shenrab Miwoche, in the region of Tagzig. The term
yungdrung is the Tibetan word for the swastika, a symbol that means “everlasting, eternal,” or “indestructible”; it corresponds in almost every respect to the term vajra, or diamond-like.[4] In Bön, the yungdrung swastika faces and rotates counter-clockwise to the left, unlike the swastika of the Nazi Germans which rotates clockwise to the right.

Tagzig Olmo Lung Ring, hereafter simply referred to as Olmo Lung Ring,  is said to have been a kingdom located in the ancient land of Tagzig to the west of Mt. Kailash in northwestern Tibet, in the center of Zhang Zhung, a kingdom or loose confederation of tribes in the area corresponding to modern day Gu-ge.[5] However, the Yungdrung Bön do not support this view; they say that Olmo Lung Ring is not a physical place that can be visited by ordinary humans, but is instead a hidden realm in a different dimension, said by Lopon Tenzin Namdak to be synonymous with the Shambhala kingdom of Buddhism. It is said by many Bönpos that it can only be accessed through deep meditation practice and the accomplishment of enlightenment.[6] 

However, there are some views linking Olmo Lung Ring to our physical dimension. For one, it is said that in the center of Olmo Lung Ring is Yungdrung Gutseg, a glacier-covered pyramid shaped mountain with four sides facing the four directions.[7] Its levels and tiers resemble nine swastikas. From the four corners at the base, near the sacred turquoise Lake Manasarovar, flow four great rivers, gushing forth from formations resembling four different animals. From the eastern corner resembling an elephant,[8] the river Ganges begins. From the southern corner, the Indus River flows forth from a formation resembling an eagle. From the west, the Brahmaputra River springs forth from a formation resembling a horse’s mouth. From the north, the river Sita gushes forth from the mouth of a snow lion formation.  

EARLIER BÖN BEFORE TONPA SHENRAB
There were earlier forms of Bön that the people in the surrounding areas of Western Asia and the Middle East practiced at that time, forms that preceded Tonpa Shenrab Miwoche, known as the Prehistoric Domai Bön.
[9] Ancient texts such as the Zermig[10] describe how these Bönpos joined in the celebrations at his birth. In particular, they mention the Thirteen Mighty Primordial Shen, and the Nine Inflexible Ones of the Intermediate Sphere.

Although they had some religious beliefs, the Bön of that time were mainly animistic and shamanic. Their primary role was healing, and their focus was on improving the conditions of this life and guiding the soul at death. Their rituals and ceremonies improved the conditions of this life largely by rites for invoking the blessings and positive energy of the gods and spirits and for exorcizing and subduing the demons and obstacle-making evil spirits (geg and don). These rites required the shaman to enter into an ecstatic state, facilitated by dancing, drumming and chanting. This state could involve out of body travel or soul travel, and in some cases it included spirit possession acting as a medium.

Among the different types of Bönpos of that early period, they had the knowledge and power to control thirty-three classes of non-human beings, known as Yenpos. These non-human Yenpos governed different dimensions, and could cause various types of harm to sentient beings, and particularly to humans.[11]

The different classes of Bönpos were named after the various types of Yenpos that they controlled. For example, the Bönpos who controlled the Dal spirits were known as Dal Bön; those who had the means to control the Yog spirits were called Yog Bön; those who could control the Khrin spirits were known as Khrin Bön.  

Among their varied specialized activities were:
• the arts inducing favorable circumstances for creating offspring and removing obstacles to fertility;
• performing rituals for increasing good fortune;
• summoning good influences and clearing bad ones associated with the lunar phases; • performing rituals and ceremonies for promoting good influences and clearing bad ones connected with the solar cycles;
• doing rituals and ceremonies for promoting good influences and clearing bad ones related to the constellations;
• summoning rain clouds in times of droughts caused by the locals offending the Inflexible Ones of the Intermediate Sphere;
• causing rainbows to appear in the sky as an omen of good relations with the Inflexible Ones;
• performing rituals and ceremonies to eliminate epidemics;
• performing methods for ensuring a good harvest and eliminating unfavorable influences such as insects or low crop yield brought on by the Inflexible Ones of the Intermediate Sphere;
• performing rites to eliminate obstacles posed by spirits in the preparation of dairy products such as milk, butter and yogurt;
• performing rituals and ceremonies to prevent loss of livestock;
• performing rituals to gain the blessings of the higher spirit realm beings.
[12]

WHITE BÖN AND BLACK BÖN
At the time of the birth of Tonpa Shenrab Miwoche, some of the Bönpos performed animal sacrifice of yaks, sheep or horses to propitiate Yenpos, such as the Tsan class in particular. Tonpa Shenrab Miwoche was thoroughly against such killing, and converted most of the Bönpos to his view of substituting effigies made of grain and flour
tormas moistened with beer instead to satisfy the Yenpos as a form of ransom.

Since that time, none of the Yungdrung Bön practice animal sacrifice, but there are some other branches of Bön shamans in Nepal who do follow the ancient ways and continue such practices even to this day. The Bön who did not practice animal sacrifice (“white offerings”) came to be known as “White Bön,” while those that practiced blood sacrifices (“red offerings”) were known as “Black Bön.”[13] Keith Dowman, translator of many Tibetan works, including Sky Dancer: The Secret Life and Songs of Lady Yeshe Tsogyal, suggests that the shamans of Nepal and Mongolia are the descendants of the shamans who were exiled from Tibet over this issue of animal sacrifice.

PRIMITIVE BÖN, OLD BÖN AND NEW OLD BÖN
One way of classifying the history and development of Bön, according to Bön master and scholar Lopon Tenzin Namdak Rinpoche, is by subsuming them under three categories.
[14]
1.
Primitive Bön was the shamanistic Bön traditions that predated Tonpa Shenrab Miwoche, as already described above.
2.
Old Bön or Yungdrung Bön is the name of the school of the teaching and practices ascribed to Tonpa Shenrab Miwoche, which are still practiced today.
3.
New Bön is a tradition that began in the 14th century, according to Shardza Tashi Gyaltsen Rinpoche. New Bön is based on a terma or hidden treasure system that is different from the termas of Old Bön. This system is quite similar to the Nyingmapa tradition. In fact, Padmasambhava plays a major role in this school[15]. They purport that Padmasambhava went to the kingdom of Uddiyana and received the Dzogchen teachings directly from Shenla Okar, the Sambhogakaya form of Tonpa Shenrab Miwoche. Years later, when he went to Tibet, he concealed these teachings as terma to be discovered in the future by later generations of Bönpo tertön or treasure finders, including Dorje Lingpa, Dechen Lingpa and Sangye Lingpa.[16] The New Bön Movement thrived mainly in Eastern Tibet, and is still practiced there to this day.[17]

Sarit Chandra Das, a Gelugpa scholar, put forth another classification of Bön in his book, Contributions on the Religions and History of Tibet. Although this classification is not accepted by contemporary Bönpo and is rather derogatory of Bön, it does present a view of how Bön was depicted by other Buddhist sects.

In Das’s construct, the three classifications are:
1.
Revealed Bön
2.
Derived or Deviant Bön
3. Transformed Bön[18] 

THE TRANSMISSION AND SPREAD OF YUNGDRUNG BÖN
Tonpa Shenrab Miwoche first revealed his teachings of Yungdrung Bön to his disciples in Olmo Lung Ring. The teachings were recorded in writing during his lifetime or in the subsequent period, and brought to Zhang Zhung in what is now northwestern Tibet, and translated into the Zhang Zhung language. Zhang Zhung had its own language, both spoken and written with its own alphabet, distinct from Tibetan, and related to the Western Himalayan Tibeto-Burmese dialect of Kinnauri.

Tonpa Shenrab Miwoche had six wives, by whom he had eight sons and two daughters. He also had five close disciples who were his spiritual sons. All of these sons helped to preserve and pass on his teachings. Of these sons, his son Mucho Demdug was his main successor.

Eighteen hundred after the passing of Tonpa Shenrab Miwoche, it is said that a rebirth of Mucho Demdug came from the heavens to Olmo Lung Ring as the speech emanation of Tonpa Shenrab and turned the wheel of Bön. He classified all the teachings of Tonpa Shenrab Miwoche, and taught many disciples. Foremost among these were the Six Great Scholars, also known as the “Six Ornaments of the World.”[19] These six translated the Bön teachings into various languages so that the teachings spread out from Zhang Zhung to India, China, Persia and Tibet. They were:

  1. Mutsa Trahe of Tagzik
  2. Tritok Partsa of Zhang Zhung
  3. Huli Parya of Sumpa
  4. Lhadak Ngagdrol of India
  5. Legtang Mangpo of China, and
  6. Serthok Chejyam of Phrom.

Starting with the reign of Tibet’s second king, Mutri Tsenpo[20], the first Bön texts were brought from Zhang Zhung to Central Tibet and then translated into the Tibetan language.[21] The works contained in the Bönpo canon as we know it today are written in Tibetan, but a number of them, especially the older ones, retain the titles and at times whole passages in the language of Zhang Zhung.

Over the centuries and even down until 1959 when the People’s Republic of China forcefully annexed Tibet, the Bön priests served as advisors and protectors to the ruling kings and governments

PERSECUTIONS
The Bön religion has undergone three persecutions in Tibet during its long history. The first occurred during the reign of King Drigum Tsenpo (Gri-gum btsan-po’) in the 7th century B.C.E. All but the ‘Bön of Cause’ (rgyu’i Bön: the first four of the Nine Ways) was abolished, and most of its practitioners banished. They were, however, able to conceal many texts as terma (gTer-ma, ‘treasure’) that were rediscovered at a later date by tertöns (gTer-ston, ‘treasure discoverers’).

With the increasing interest in Buddhism and its establishment as the state religion and the founding of Samye Monastery, Tibet’s first Buddhist monastery, in 779 A.D. Bön was generally discouraged and a further serious attempt was made to eradicate it. This was the second persecution of Bön, by Tibet’s 33rd King Trisong Detsen.

One of the foremost Bönpos of the time, Drenpa Namkha, played an important role in preserving Bön during this second persecution. He headed the Bönpo side in a debate and contest against the Buddhists organized by the king to discover which side had the greatest knowledge and miraculous powers.

The Bönpos are generally said to have lost the contest and had to disperse in fear of their lives or be converted to Buddhism. While ostensibly embracing the Buddhist religion out of fear of being killed, in fact Drenpa Namkha did it for the sake of preserving in secret the Bönpo teachings, thereby saving Bön from complete eradication.

However, adherents of Bön among the nobility and especially among the common people, who had followed the Bön beliefs for generations, retained their religious convictions and Bön survived. Again during this period, many Bön priests were banished or forced to flee from Central Tibet, having first concealed their scriptures for fear of their destruction and in order to preserve them for future generations.

The third persecution occurred when the Dzungar people invaded Tibet in 1717. They deposed and killed a pretender to the position of Dalai Lama who had been promoted by Lhabzang, the titular King of Tibet. This met with widespread approval by the Tibetan people. However, when the Dzungars began to loot the holy places of Lhasa in 1718, this brought a quick military response from the Kangxi Emperor of China. Unfortunately for the Tibetans, his military expedition was attacked and wiped out by the Dzungars as they approached Lhasa.

Following this, many Bönpo as well as Nyingmapas were executed. Tibetans visiting Dzungar officials were forced to stick out their tongues so the Dzungars could tell if the person recited constant mantras, which was said to make the tongue turn black or brown. This allowed them to identify the Bönpo and Nyingmapa practitioners, who recited many mantras. This habit of sticking one’s tongue out as a mark of respect when greeting an important personage has remained a Tibetan custom

The fourth persecution began in 1959, with the invasion and annexation of Tibet by the People’s Republic of China. Most, if not all, of the 300 Bön monasteries that had been established throughout the country were destroyed, and the many monks were killed, imprisoned, or had to flee the country. However, according to Wikipedia, about 264 Bön monasteries exist in Tibet today, and Bön has now spread to many countries around the world.

THE RESURGENCE OF BÖN

From the 8th to 11th centuries the practice of Bön went mainly underground. The year 1017 marks the resurgence of Bön, which began with the discovery by Shenchen Luga (996-1035) of a number of important concealed texts. With his discoveries Bön re-emerged as a fully systematized religion.

Shenchen Luga was born in the Shen clan, descended from Kontsha, one of Tonpa Shenrab’s sons. The descendants of this important family still live in Tibet. Shenchen Luga had a large following. To three of his disciples he entrusted the task of continuing three different traditions. To the first, Druchen Namkha Yungdrung (Bru-chen nam-mkha’ g.yung-drung) born in the clan of Dru which migrated to Tibet from Druzha (Gilgit), he entrusted the studies of cosmology and. It was to this end that one of his disciples and relations, Bru-rje Yung-drung Lama founded the monastery of Yeru Wensakha in Tsang province in 1072.

This monastery remained a great center of learning until 1386, when it was badly damaged by floods. Despite the decline of Yeru Wensakha, the Dru family continued to sponsor the Bön religion, but the family came to extinction in the 19th century when, for the second time, a reincarnation of the Panchen Lama was found in the family.

The second disciple, Zhuye Legpo, was assigned to maintain the Dzogchen teachings and practices. He founded the monastery of Kyikhar Rizhing, where he primarily spread the Dzogchen teachings.. The descendants of the Zhu family now live in India.

The third disciple, Paton Palchog, took responsibility for upholding and spreading the Tantric teachings. Its monasteries were reestablished in the Kham region of Eastern Tibet. The Pa family too still exists and continues to uphold this lineage.

Another important master of that time was Meu Khepa Palchen, of the Meu clan, who founded Zangri Monastery. Zangri became a major center for philosophical studies and systematized Bön education. Thus during this period the Bönpos founded four important monasteries and study centers, all in the province of Tsang.

When Yeru Wensakha, the main Bön monastery of its time, was destroyed by floods and landslides, in 1405 Nyamed Sherab Gyaltsen (1356-1415) received oral transmissions of guidance from Sidpai Gyalmo, the chief Bön protector, to build a new monastery on higher ground, Tashi Menri Ling, at the village of Tobgyal in Tsang Province. Along with the human helpers, Menri was said to have received the aid of the protectors in its construction while Nyamed Sherab Gyaltsen sat in meditation.

At Menri, Nyamed Sherab Gyaltsen reestablished the Dru lineage of Wensakha and became its first abbot. He drew many students from all parts of Tibet, and Menri has become known as the mother monastery for all of Bön ever since. Generations later, Yongdzin Tenzin Namdak served as its principal teacher for a period of time.

Around the time of Nyamed Sherab Gyaltsen and the establishment of Menri, other major Bön monasteries were also founded throughout Tibet. Later, in 1834, Nang Ton Dawa Gyaltsen established Yungdrung Ling, which became the second most important Bön monastery in Tibet.

Another significant Bön center at the time was Triten Norbutse Monastery, which was established in the fourteenth century in central Tibet by the great Bönpo Master Shen Nyima Gyaltsen (born 1360), a descendant of the Shen lineage of Buddha Tonpa Shenrab. For many centuries Triten Norbutse was one of the four main Bönpo monasteries in Tibet.

Up until 1959, the three most important Bön monasteries in Tibet that served as monastic training schools were Menri, Yungdrung Ling, Triten Norbutse and Kharna. During that year, the People’s Republic of China staged a military invasion of Tibet and many Bön monks, nuns and laypeople had to flee into exile in India, Nepal and Bhutan. Of those who remained, many monks and nuns were killed, imprisoned or forced to give up their monastic robes, and most of the Bön monasteries and temples were completely destroyed. However, since then, many of them have purportedly been partially or fully restored.

The 32nd abbot of Menri and spiritual leader of the Bön, Sherab Lodro, passed away in exile in 1963. To preserve the Bön community, Lopon Yongdzin Tenzin Namdak, who had been traveling in England and India, undertook the task of fundraising and finding land to build a Bön settlement in northern India. He worked desperately from 1964 to 1967, when with the help of donations from the Catholic Relief Service, he was able to purchase a piece of undeveloped forest land in Dolanji, Himachal Pradesh, India, where the foundations were laid for the rebuilding of Menri Monastery. The construction of the main temple was completed in 1978.  The complex was named the Bönpo Monastic Center, as part of the Tibetan Bönpo Foundation.[22]

In 1968, Lungtok Tenpai Nyima was selected to be the 33rd abbot of Menri, or Menri Trizen, the position he holds to this day. He is considered to be the spiritual leader of Bön today.

In 1969, Lopon Sangye Tendzin was selected to serve as the main teacher at the new Menri, the position he had held at Menri Monastery in Tibet. In 1977, when Lopon Sangye Tendzin passed away after a long illness, Lopon Tenzin Namdak took over the responsibilities as the primary teacher of the young monks at the Shedra.  

By 1978, a sufficient number of Bön texts had been published, borrowed and reprinted  from the library of Samling Monastery in Dolpo, Nepal, to establish a complete and comprehensive nine year curriculum of study, leading toward the post-graduate degree of Geshe. This laid the foundation for the new Shedra or Dialectics School at Menri under Lopon Tenzin Namdak. Under Lopon’s close mentorship, Geshe Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche, noted master and prolific author, and one of the most prominent Bön teachers in the world today, was one of the school’s earliest graduates.

Over the past forty-seven years, Menri Monastery’s Shedra or Dialectics School has educated nearly two hundred geshes, tulkus and rinpoches, preserving the Bön culture and tradition for this and future generation of the world.

The current Menri Monastery, now relocated in Dolanji, continues to be the main seat of Bön. Here they still follow the monastic rules set down by Nyamed Sherab Gyaltsen in the 15th century. These include a fair system of monastic hierarchy based on seniority, not on wealth, social prominence or political influence.

In 1987, Lopon Yongdzin Tenzin Namdak established the new Triten Norbutse Monastery in Kathmandu, Nepal, facing the great stupa of Swayambhabvu, to provide a Bön traditional educational center for the new generation of Bönpo living in the Himalayan borderlands of Dolpo and Mustang, and also to Tibetan refugees. Up until 1994, there were only twenty monks in residence there. However, with the establishment of the Shedra, within months those numbers increased dramatically. Although there had been other Bönpo monasteries in the region for many centuries, none of them have been able to provide the full Bönpo Shedra study program leading to a Geshe degree, the highest degree of Bön studies. Now Triten Norbutse offers another opportunity for students, practitioners and scholars from all parts of the world to fully engage in the study and practice of the Bön tradition, and to preserve and uphold Bön’s cultural and religious traditions.

Outside of the Himalayan region, Yongdzin Tenzin Namdak established Shenten Dargye Ling in France in 2005.


[1] Excerpted from yungdrungBön.net.

[2] Since these events are cited as taking place in the Stone Age, most of the details from that time were transmitted as oral tradition. Written accounts came later, and varied widely. Much of what has come down to us may be called, “wild history,” in that there is scanty to none historical evidence for many dates, places and events. Many dates are at odds. Some sources say that Tonpa Shenrab Miwoche may have actually lived 22,000 years ago. Other scholars say that Tonpa Shenrab was born about 3,910 years ago (See Namkhai Norbu, A History of Zhang Zhung and Tibet, p. 91.)

[3] Oral communication with Lar Short.

[4] In Yungdrung

[5] Chogyal Namkhai Norbu, A History of Zhang Zhung and Tibet, p.

[6] Nyima Dakpa, Opening the Door to Bön, p. 6

[7] Nyima Dakpa, ibid, pp. 5-6

[8] Namkhai Norbu draws the association of the elephant formation from a Bön text, the Blon po bka’I thang yig, and attributes the snow lion formation to the northern corner. However, other texts have different directional and animal associations for the four corners.

[9] See Carol Ermakova and Dmitry Ermakov, Masters of the Zhang Zhung Nyengyud, p. 17.

[10] A Bön treasure text, said to have been discovered in the 11th century by Drangje Tsunpa Sermik.

[11] Namkhai Norbu, ibid, p. 83

[12] Namkhai Norbu, ibid pp. 78-82

[13] There were some exceptions to this rule. Some White Bön did practice animal sacrifice on some occasions.

[15] Padmasambhava, also known as Pema Jungne, Padmakara, or simply Guru Rinpoche, was known by Tibetans as the second Buddha. He came to Tibet in the 8th century at the invitation of King Trisong Detsen, and was the one most responsible for the establishment of Indian Buddhism, Tantra and Dzogchen in Tibet. He is regarded as the founder of the Nyingma (“Ancient Ones”) lineage.

[16] Three well known Nyingmapa tertöns.

[17] Reynolds, John, The Oral Tradition from Zhang Zhung, pp. 6-10.

[18] For a detailed explanation of these three, see John Myrdhin Reynolds, ibid, Note 13, pp. 383-385. See also Namkhai Norbu, Drung, Deu and Bön, p. 38-45.

[19] The Six Ornaments of the World in Bön should not be confused with the Six Ornaments of Buddhism, who were the six great commentators on the teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha. These were: Nagarjuna, Aryadeva, Asanga, Vasubandhu, Dignaga and Dharmakirti.

[20] This would have been around the beginning of the 1st century BC.

[21] Tibetan Buddhist history attributes Tibet’s first alphabet to Thonmi Sambhota, who was sent to India in the middle of the 7th century to acquire an alphabet for Tibetan language. However, the Bönpos assert that Tibet acquired a system of writing based on the sMar-yig script of Zhang Zhung at this time, enabling the translation into Tibetan. This would predate Thonmi Sambhota’s Sanskrit based script by almost 750 years. This script would be related to Eastern Persian, today a part  of Iran.

[22] See Lopon Tenzin Namdak, Bönpo Dzogchen Teachings, pp. 214-216