Bön Doctrine


The Yungdrung Bön doctrine as taught by Buddha Tonpa Shenrab Miwoche presents a view of this life that is very much in accord with what is found in the other schools of Tibetan Buddhism. As beings living in confused cyclic existence, samsara’s wheel of birth, death and rebirth within the three or six realms, we need a way to free ourselves from suffering. Bön provides a path to do just that, to liberate us and to awaken us to our true nature of mind as enlightened buddhas ourselves, as loving embodiments of wisdom and compassion.

One of the many unique features of the Bön religion is that in addition to its transcendent spiritual practices and ways for attaining enlightenment, Bön also has many levels of rites that offer benefit to us for improving our worldly lives as well. These rites include such things as astrology and other forms of divination, exorcism, soul retrieval and ransom rites, prosperity rituals, protection from malicious spirits, and funerary rites to guide the deceased’s consciousness on its journey through the bardo or in between state after death.

There are three versions of Buddha Tonpa Shenrab Miwoche’s life story, collectively known as the Do Düs, or “his own words. They are called this because they are said to be autobiographical. The long version is entitled the Zi Ji, and has 12 volumes containing 61 chapters.  The medium length version is the Zermig, in 2 volumes.  The short version is contained in only one volume.


Tonpa Shenrab Miwoche revealed his system of Bön in two different systems of classification. It is within the longer version of his life story, the Zi Ji, that the teachings of Yungdrung Bön are explained by Tonpa Shenrab within the context of the Nine Ways of Bön, or nine different vehicles.  The first four are classified as The Causal Ways, or the Bön of Causes.  The second four are classified as the Resultant Ways, or the Bön of the Fruit.   The ninth Way contains the teachings of Dzogchen, the Great Perfection. 

The view and depth of the teachings and practices becomes progressively higher from the first to the ninth Ways.  Nonetheless, even though one is a practitioner of a higher stage, this does not preclude practicing any of the lower Ways as needed.   Although the approaches and methods differ, all of the Nine Ways have compassion as their foundation; they were all created to help sentient beings according to their situations and needs.

Over the millennia, there were several periods where the Bönpo were subject to suppression and persecution from various political factions. During these times, the Bönpo would have to hide their texts rather than have them destroyed.  Later, after the time of persecution had passed, these “terma” or hidden treasure texts, would be sought for and revealed from where they were hidden.  Thus, there came to be three different versions of the Nine Ways of Bön according to the region in which the texts were discovered.  These three are referred to as The Southern Treasures, The Northern Treasures, and The Central Treasures.

Under the direction of Lopon Yongdzin Tenzin Namdak, in 1967 Professor David Snellgrove translated selected excerpts from the Southern Treasure classification. This translation was published as The Nine Ways of Bön. In those days, little was known of the Yungdrung Bön within the world of Western scholars, and so the commentaries reflect the limited understanding of the times. Still, this remains the only translation of this work, and remains a seminal reference.[1]

The Nine Ways
The Four Bön of Cause
1. The Way of the Shen of Prediction: This Way describes four different methods of prediction, including divination, astrology, various rituals, and examination of causes/medical diagnosis.

2. The Way of the Shen of the Phenomenal World of Visible Manifestation: This Way expounds the origin and nature of gods and demons living in this world who come to help humans, and various rites of exorcism and ransom, includes rituals dealing with communication with external forces such as protection rituals, invocation, ransom of the soul and life-force, and of repelling harmful energies and bad luck.

3. The Way of the Shen of Manifesting Magical Powers: This Way features the supplication of a deity or master and then using fierce mantras and mudras to request help from natural energies to eliminate adverse influences and fierce rites of destruction and liberation of the consciousness of evil doers.

4. The Way of the Shen of Existence: This Way is primarily focused upon funerary rites for the dead to guide them toward liberation in the bardo. It also includes practices to promote longevity.

The Five Bön of the Fruit

5. The Way of the Virtuous Lay Practitioners: This Way specifies the rules of conduct for lay person taking vows to practice the ten virtues and follow the path of the ten perfections.

6.  The Way of the Fully Ordained Ascetic Sages: This Way delineates the proper conduct for following the vows of monastic discipline.

7. The Way of the White AH: This Way delineates the practices and rituals of both Lower and Higher Tantra, the meditation practice of transforming oneself into the yidam or meditation deity.

8. The Way of the Primordial Shen: This Way presents further tantric teachings, with an emphasis on secret Tantric practices, the correct relationship with one’s teacher and Tantric consort, and the place and time for tantric practice. It also elaborates on the mandala and on deity meditation containing both the Generation stage (kye-rim) and the Completion stage (dzog-rim).

9. The Unsurpassed Way: This Way is primarily focused upon the practice of Dzogchen, or The Great Perfection, awakening to the true nature of mind without elaboration.


There is also a second popular system of classifying the Bön teachings called ‘The Four Portals and the Treasury, the Fifth’. This method is described in the Zermig, the medium length biography of Tonpa Shenrab Miwoche:

“Even though Everlasting Bön (g.yung drung Bön) is vast and manifold, it has been classified and committed to writing in the ‘Four Series and the Fifth, the Treasury’. The Bön of the ‘Essential Oral Instructions (man ngag lung gi Bön), called ‘of the essential instructions’ (lung) because it contains concise teachings, has been written in the Pönse series and enclosed in a golden volume. The Bön of the ‘Original Lineage of Existence’ (srid pa rgyud kyi Bön) is called ‘of the lineage’ (or ‘of continuation’, rgyud) because it contains detailed explanations and references, has been written in the Chabnag series and enclosed in an iron volume. The Bön of the ‘Hundred Thousand Vast Teaching’ (rgyas pa ‘bum gyi Bön), is called ‘of the hundred thousand’ (bum) because it contains extensive explanations and concise conclusions, and has been written in the Phenyul series and enclosed in a copper volume. The Bön of the ‘Black Mantra’ (nag po snagskyi Bön), is called ‘of the mantra’ in praise of its fundamental importance, has been written in the Chabkar series and enclosed in a silver volume. The Bön that treats of all four series and embraces them comprehensively is the ‘Treasury of the All Embracing Pure Summit’ (gtsang mtho thog spyi rgyug mdzod kyi Bön), is called ‘of the pure summit’ (gtsang mtho thog) because it leads to a single view of the teaching. It was put in writing in the Dzod (Treasury) series and enclosed in a turquoise volume. In this way the Master collected Bön into the ‘Four Series and the Fifth, The Treasury.’[2]

The Four Portals and The Treasury, the Fifth

  1. Chabkar, the ‘White Waters’, contains spells and higher esoteric Tantric practices;
  2. Chabnag, the ‘Black Waters’, consists of various rituals (healing, purificatory, magical, prognosticatory, divinatory, funerary, and ransom rituals).
  3. Phanyul, the ‘Land of Phan’, explains rules for monks, nuns and lay-people, and expounds philosophical doctrines.
  4. Pönse, the ‘Masters’ Guide’, instructs on psycho-spiritual exercises and meditation practices of the Great Perfection, Dzogchen.
  5. Thothog, the ‘Treasury’, subsumes the essential aspects of all four portals.[3]


Perhaps the oldest way of classifying the different Bön practices is what is called The Twelve Lores or Sciences.[4] These are:

  1. The Bön of the Deities, Lore of Protection.
  2. The Bön of the Cha, Lore of Prosperity
  3. The Ransom Rites, Lore of Destination
  4. The Shen of Existence, Lore of the Funerary Rites
  5. The Exorcism Rites, Lore of Purification
  6. The Lore that Releases from Curses
  7. The Therapeutic Methods, Lore of Healing
  8. Astrology, the Lore that Controls the Order of Existence
  9. The To Rites, Lore of the Proclamation of the Origin
  10. The Rites of the Deer, Lore of Knowing how to Fly
  11. The Juthig, Lore of Divination
  12. The Bön of Magic Power, Lore of Ritual Destruction[5]

Shardza Trashi Gyaltshen commented on these traditions:

“Worshipping the deities above, they afforded protection. Summoning prosperity, they increased wealth and livestock. Sending ransoms, they appeased the spirits. Performing the rites for the dead, they brought them happiness. Separating the pure from the impure, they satisfied the protective deities. Destroying the enemies that caused hindrances, they eliminated disturbances. Healing illnesses, they eliminated interruptions to life. Performing astrological calculations, they interpreted the signs regarding the past and the future. Addressing the clay ransom effigies, they knew how to deal with spirits. Sending the deer effigies made of dough, they knew how to fly in the land of the Tsen. Invoking the divination deities, they obtained clairvoyance of the positive and negative aspects. Offering diverse kinds of aromatic plants, they made them reach the abodes of the deities and spirits and assuaged the disturbances caused by them.”[6]

Elsewhere, these twelve are also translated as follows:

  1. The divine Bön which is the knowledge of protection.
  2. The Bön of Phyva which is the knowledge of prosperity.
  3. The dispensation of ransoms which is the knowledge of ostracizing demons.
  4. The Shen of the visual world, which is the knowledge of evoking the spirits of the dead.
  5. The requirements of removal which are the knowledge of purification.
  6. The Bön of attitude which is the knowledge of elimination.
  7. Medical diagnosis which is the knowledge of beneficence.
  8. Astrological calculation which is the knowledge of destiny.
  9. The nine rituals which are the knowledge of incantation.
  10. The deer which procures the knowledge of soaring.
  11. The sortilege of Juthig which is the knowledge of foresight.
  12. The Bön of magic which is the knowledge of travelling.[7]

Thus it can be seen that the Bönpos have an ancient and highly sophisticated religion that provides for beings both spiritually and temporally, a system that is still very much alive today in Tibet, its surrounding regions of Dolpo, Nepal and Bhutan, and India, and is rapidly taking hold in Europe, North and South America, Russia and Asia. Thanks to the tireless efforts of only a small handful of Bönpo lamas, and particularly Lopon Yongdzin Tenzin Namdak, Lopon Sangye Tenzin and Geshe Tenzin Wangyal, Bön went from hovering on the brink of extinction to becoming a powerful and relevant spiritual path for people of all the world’s races and continents.

[1] For an outline of the Nine Ways of Bön according to the Central Treasures, see Lopon Tendzin Namdak, Bönpo Dzogchen Teachings, pp. 17-20. According to Lopon, not much is known today of the Northern Treasures.

[2] Norbu, ibid, pp. 37-38

[3]  This description courtesy of Shenten Dargye Ling. Chogyal Namkhai Norbu presents these in a different order in his book, Drung, Deu and Bön, p. 37.

[4]3. These are also referred to as the twelve kinds of knowledge of the Bön of Cause. See Samten G. Karmay, A Treasury of Good Sayings: A Tibetan History of Bön, pp. 31-32.

[5]4. Namkhai Norbu, Drung, Deu and Bön, pp. 48-50.

[6] Namkhai Norbu, Drung, Deu and Bön, p. 50. In this book, Professor Norbu devotes an entire chapter to each one of the twelve lores, with detailed explanations of the rites for each of the lores.

[7] Samten G. Karmay, translator, The Treasury of Good Sayings: A Tibetan History of Bön, by Shardza Trashi Gyaltshen pp. 31-32.

(ABOVE TEXT Courtesty of Shenten Dargye Ling)