Tönpa Shenrap ( Shenrap Miwoche, the founder of Bön)
Tönpa Shenrap ( Shenrap Miwoche, the founder of Bön)


The Yungdrung Bön religion, which was and is the foundation of Tibetan culture and religion, began with the revealed teachings of the Buddha Tonpa Shenrab Miwoche in the region of Tagzig Olmo Lung Ring over 18,000 years ago.[1] Much like the life of Shakyamuni Buddha of our historic times, Siddhartha Gautama, Tonpa Shenrab’s hagiography comes down to us as a mix of facts, legend and supernatural myth.

His story begins many millennia ago, in a part of the heavenly realms known as Sidpa Yesang, where there lived three brothers whose names were Dakpa, Salwa and Shepa. Their father was named Sidpa Triod, and their mother was named Kunshe. These three brothers were all students of the great master Tobumtri Log Gi Che Chen.

After they had completed their studies, they all went to the Sambhogakaya Buddha Shenla Okar, the Enlightened One of Great Compassion, and asked him how they could be of the greatest help in liberating sentient beings from the suffering and confusion of the cycles of death and rebirth in samsara. In reply, Shenla Okar advised them to take human rebirth in three different eras so that among them, the three brothers could guide the beings of that age to freedom.

In accord with Buddha Shenla Okar’s advice, the eldest brother Dakpa was reborn not long thereafter as a teacher named Tonpa (teacher) Togyal Ye Khyen. The second son, Salwa, was reborn as the great teacher Tonpa Shenrab in this present age. The youngest brother, Shepa, will be reborn in a future age as the teacher Thangma Medon.

The middle son, Salwa, was first born in our world as a blue cuckoo bird. He flew to the top of Mount Meru along with his two disciples, Malo and Yulo, and contemplated where and to what parents he should be reborn. Through his meditative vision, he saw that he should be reborn in Olmo Lung Ring, on the south side of Mount Yungdrung Gutsek, in the imperial palace of Barpo Sogyed. His father was to be King Gyalbon Thökar, and his mother Queen Yochi Gyalzhed Ma.

Thus it came to pass that the great Bön teacher Tonpa Shenrab Miwoche was born into the royal Mu family in the country of Tagzig Olmo Lung Ring.[2] The timing of his birth was most auspicious. He was born at dawn in the Male Wood Mouse Year in the first month on the full moon day.

Tonpa Shenrab began turning the wheel of Bön at a young age.  First, from the age of eight up to the age of twelve he gave the teachings on relative truth. Secondly, from age thirteen to thirty-one, he mainly gave teachings on absolute truth. Thirdly, from age thirty-two to age eighty-two, he gave teachings on the ultimate stages of liberation.

Tonpa Shenrab also married at a young age. He came to have six wives, eight sons and two daughters. His sons, along with his spiritual sons and disciples carried on his teachings.

Tonpa Shenrab is said to have taught Bön in three successive cycles of teachings. First he taught the “Nine Ways of Bön”; then he taught the “Four Bön Portals[3] and the Fifth, the Treasury”; and finally he revealed the “Outer, Inner and Secret Precepts.” In the final cycle of teachings, the outer cycle is the path of renunciation, or Sutra teachings; the inner cycle is the path of transformation, or Tantric teachings; and the secret cycle is “the path of self-liberation,” or Dzogchen teachings. This division into Sutra, Tantra and Dzogchen is also found in the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism.

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,[4] such as the Tsan class in particular. Tonpa Shenrab Miwoche was thoroughly against such killing, and was successful in converting most of the Bönpos to accept his way of substituting effigies made of grain and flour tormas moistened with beer instead to satisfy the Yenpos as a form of ransom.

Tonpa Shenrab made one trip to Tibet during his lifetime.  Legend has it that there was a demon named Khyab-Pa Lag-Ring who dwelt in the Kongpo Valley of Tibet. After failing to deceive Tonpa Shenrab, he enticed and carried off one of Shenrab’s two daughters, Shenza Neuchung, who later bears him two sons. However, Tonpa Shenrab cleverly retrieves his daughter and his two grandsons and takes them back to Olmo Lung Ring.

Because of this, Khyab-Pa Lag-Ring was quite angry. In retaliation, he sent his followers to steal Tonpa Shenrab’s seven horses and bring them to the Kongpo Valley in Tibet, where they hid them. When he discovered their theft, Tonpa Shenrab shot an arrow to clear a path through the mountains.[5] Then he set out for Tibet with four of his attendants to recover his horses.

Khyab-Pa tried successfully to block his way at the frontier with a snowstorm. It was here that Tonpa Shenrab taught the Bön of Spells to the Bönpos of Zahor, Kashmir and Gilgit. Then Tonpa Shenrab passed through Zhang Zhung. Once again Khyab-Pa tried to block his way at the border of Tagzig and Zhang Zhung with fire. It was here that Tonpa Shenrab taught the Bön of Bombs and Spells.

Then Tonpa Shenrab went to the source of the four rivers of Tibet.  Yet again, Khyab-Pa tried to block his way, this time with sand. Tonpa Shenrab triumphed once again, and imparted to the Bönpos of Tibet the Bön of prayers to the gods, the expelling of demons, and also shows them various Bön ritual objects.

Finally, Tonpa Sherab reaches Kongpo, where he has further skirmishes with Khyab-Pa. As usual, Tonpa Shenrab emerged the victor. Once he reached the Kongpo Valley, he pacified the evil spirits and demons that inhabited Tibet. He blessed a mountain in that area, known today as Kongpo Bön Ri, or “Bön Mountain of Kongpo.”[6]

While there, Tonpa Shenrab gave many teachings and blessings to the Tibetan people. He purified the environment through prayers and ceremonies, taught the practice of making smoke offerings[7] to the local spirits, putting up prayer flags, and imparted authority for invoking the gods and for exorcizing evil spirits from people and places. He got the people to stop their local custom of making animal sacrifices, and taught them the offering of red tormas and ransom instead. In this way they were able to placate the evil spirits who had been causing illness and bad fortune.

Thus, Tonpa Shenrab taught many kinds of ritual performances, ceremonies and sacred dances that became very popular throughout the country. These later became absorbed into Buddhism, and are not found in any other form of Buddhism outside Tibet. They are still practiced today in Tibet and Bhutan and among the Tibetan refugee communities.

During his stay in Tibet, Tonpa Shenrab mainly taught the causal teachings of Bön, because he felt the Tibetan people were not yet ready to receive the higher teaching. However, he prophesied that in the future the Nine Ways of Bön would flourish throughout Tibet.

After Tibet, he returned to Olmo Lung Ring, with Khyab-Pa, who outwardly agreed to be his student. However, Shenrab was not deceived, and knew that Khyab-Pa was up to no good. Later, one day when Tonpa Shenrab was out, Khyab-Pa set fire to a box containing all of Shenrab’s books. However, Tonpa Shenrab paid him no mind.

At the age of thirty-two, Tonpa Shenrab renounced his princely life of comfort and ease and became a monk. He left the royal palace, cut off his beautiful long hair and gave away his princely robes, offering them to benefit all sentient beings in the ten directions. He then gave away all his regal possessions to those in need, and set out to devote his life to meditation, to reach enlightenment for the benefit of both himself and all beings.

The enlightened ones of the ten directions were pleased, and in honor of this offering, his detachment from the worldly life and other great deeds, they blessed him with the six robes and the five possessions of a monk, which descended to him from the sky. Thus began the Bön rules on monk’s robes and objects, which have continued to the present day.[8]

One day as Tonpa Shenrab was meditating in solitude, Khyab-Pa came to check up on him. On seeing the hardships that Tonpa Shenrab was enduring in his practice, Khyab-Pa was deeply moved; he at last broke down and repented, and sincerely confessed all of his misdeed. Shenrab then returned from his solitude with Khyab-Pa, who became one of his leading disciples.

Tonpa Shenrab then began to make arrangements for the monastic ordination of all his disciples who were not yet ordained. After that, he spent most of his time in solitude until at the age of eighty-two, when, in order to demonstrate impermanence, he passed away.[9]

Throughout his life, Tonpa Shenrab performed many great deeds for which he became quite famous and revered. He is most renowned for what are called “The Twelve Great Deeds of Tonpa Shenrab:”

1. The Deed of His Birth:  The birth of Shenrab as the royal son of King Thökar of the Mu Dynasty.

2. The Deed of Dissemination:  He spread the teachings of Bön to his numerous disciples.

3. The Deed of Pacifying:  He manifested millions of emanation bodies to millions of worlds to liberate sentient beings.

4. The Deed of Leading:  He guided Trishi Wangyal, who was overwhelmed by aversion, Dragje Halaratsa, who was overwhelmed by jealousy, Guber Gyalpo, who was overwhelmed by pride, Guling Mati, who was overwhelmed by desire, and innumerable other beings to the state of Buddhahood.

5. The Deed of Increasing Wisdom by Marriage: He married and engaged in youthful play with many consorts.

6. The Deed of Emanation: He benefited beings by generating eight sons to carry forth the teachings of Bön.

7. The Deed of Subduing: He subdued the Pervasive Long-Handed Mara demon Khyab-Pa and his army.

8. The Deed of Victory: He definitively defeated Mara Khyab-Pa’s soldiers ,and lead his followers to the blissful path with elaborate instructions on The Four Portals and the Fifth, The Treasury.

 9. The Deed of Knowledge: He renounced worldly life and became a monk, leaving all his followers and property behind. Following an ascetic lifestyle for nine years, he attained perfect and full enlightenment.

10. The Deed of Solitude:  He taught the two groups of disciples who gathered around him in solitude the gradual path and the definitive path according to their capacities.

11. The Deed of Liberation: He revealed the foundations, path and fruition of Bön in all its fullness to his outer, inner and secret disciples to benefit beings then and in the future.

12. The Deed of Accomplishment: He passed into Bliss Beyond Sorrow, to display the true impermanent nature of things to beings.[10]

[1] The Yungdrung Bönpos believe that Tonpa Shenrab was born over 18,000 years ago. Other Bönpo accounts, as noted in The Twelve Deeds, p. iii, say that he was born 16,036 years ago. However, the present day Tibetan history scholar and Dzogchen master Chogyal Namkhai Norbu calculates the probable actual date of his birth as 1917 BC. See Chogyal Namkhai Norbu, A History of Zhang Zhung and Tibet, Volume One., pp. 113-123.  

[2] There are two famous texts that contain biographies of Tonpa Shenrab, the Dho Zermig and the Dho Due, from which most of this material was drawn.

[3] Also called, “the Four Doors.”

[4] The local gods, demons and spirits.

[5] This is called, “the pathway of the arrow of light.”

[6] Both Bönpos and Buddhists still make pilgrimages to this mountain. The Bönpos circumambulate the mountain counter-clockwise; the Buddhists circle it in a clockwise direction. Many spontaneously appearing images and mantras and prayers appear on the rock walls there. It is one of the most sacred and blessed pilgrimage spots in Tibet today.

[7] Called Sang Cho in Tibetan. This rite is still practiced daily at most Bön centers.

[8] Other sources say that the monastic tradition of Bön began much later in Tibet after its contact with Nyingma Buddhism.

[9] Most of the section dealing with Khyab-Pa is drawn from Samten G. Karmay, a Treasury of Good Sayings: A Tibetan History of Bon.According to Nyima Dakpa, in his book, Opening the Door to Bön, in the time of the mythical dimension of Olmo Lung Ring, one Shen year equals a thousand human years.

[10] For a more detailed description and life story, see, The Twelve Deeds: A Brief Life Story of Tonpa Shenrab, The Founder of the Bon Religion, by Menri Lopon Sangye Tenzin, translated by Sangye Tandar, edited by Richard Guard. 1995, LTWA