The Founder of Bön and His Teachings

by John Myrdhin Reynolds

Tonpa Shenrab Miwoche

Tonpa Shenrab Miwoche

Three brothers

It is said that in a past age there were three brothers, Dagpa (Dag-pa), Salba (gSal-ba) and Shepa (Shes-pa), who studied the Bön doctrines in the heaven named Sridpa Yesang (Srid-pa Ye-sangs), under the Bön sage Bumtri Logi Chechan (‘Bum-khri glog-gi-lce-can).

When they had completed their studies they visited the God of Compassion Shenlha Odkar (gShen-lha ‘Od-dkar) and asked him how they could help living beings who are submerged in the misery and sorrow of suffering. Shenlha Odkar advised them to act as guides to mankind in three successive ages of the world.

To follow his advice, the eldest brother Dagpa completed his work in the past world age, while the second brother Salba took the name Shenrab and became the teacher and guide of the present world age. It will be the youngest brother, Shepa, who will come to teach in the next world age.

Tonpa Shenrab Miwoche

According to the Bön religion of Tibet, about 18,000 years ago Lord Tonpa Shenrab Miwoche (sTon-pa gShen-rab Mi-bo-che: Teacher and Great Man of the Shen) was born in the land of Olmo Lungring (Ol-mo lung-ring), a part of a larger country called Tazig (sTag-gzigs: Central Asia).

Ol symbolizes the unborn, mo the undiminishing; Lung denotes the prophetic words of Tonpa Shenrab, the founder of Bön, and ring, his everlasting compassion. Olmo Lungring constitutes one-third of the existing world, and is situated to the west of Tibet.
It is described as an eight-petalled lotus under a sky which appears like an eight-spoked wheel. In the centre rises Mount Yungdrung Gutseg (gYung-drung dgu-brtsegs), the ‘Pyramid of Nine Swastikas.’

The nine swastikas represent the Nine Ways of Bön, which will be described below. The swastika or yundrung is a symbol of permanence and indestructibility of the wisdom of Bön. At the base of Mount Yungdrung Gutseg spring four rivers, flowing towards the four cardinal directions. The mountain is surrounded by temples, cities and parks. To the south is Barpo Sogye (Bar-po so-brgyad) palace, where Tonpa Shenrab was born.

To the west and north are the palaces where Tonpa Shenrab’s wives and children lived. To the east is Shampo Lhatse (Sham-po lha-rtse) temple. The complex of palaces, rivers and parks with Mount Yungdrung Gutseg in the centre constitutes the inner region (Nang-gling) of Olmo Lungring. The intermediate region (Bar-gling) consists of twelve cities, four of which lie in the four cardinal directions. The third region includes the outer land (mTha’-gling). These three regions are encircled by an ocean and a range of snowy mountains.

Tonpa Shenrab was born a prince, married while young and had children. At the age of thirty-one he renounced the world and lived in austerity, teaching the doctrine. During his whole life his efforts to propagate the Bön religion were obstructed by the demon Khyabpa Lagring (Khyab-pa Lag-ring), that fought to destroy or impede Tonpa Shenrab’s work until eventually the demon was converted and became his disciple.

Once while pursuing the demon to recover his stolen horses Tonpa Shenrab arrived in present-day western Tibet. This was his only visit to Tibet. On this occasion he imparted some instructions on the performance of rituals, but on the whole he found the people unprepared to receive more teachings. Before leaving Tibet he prophesied that all his teachings would flourish in Tibet when the time was ripe. Tonpa Shenrab passed away at the age of eighty-two.

There are three biographies of Tonpa Shenrab. The earliest and shortest one is known as Dodu (mDo-‘dus: ‘Epitome of Aphorisms’); the second is in two volumes and is called Zermig (gZer-mig: ‘Piercing Eye’).

These two accounts were rediscovered as terma (see below) in the 10th and 11th centuries respectively. The third and largest is the twelve volume work entitled Zhiji (gZi-brjid: ‘The Glorious’). This last book belongs to the category of scriptures known as Nyan gyud (bsNyan-rgyud: oral transmission), and was dictated to Londen Nyingpo (bLo-ldan snying-po) who lived in the 14th century. (1)

The doctrine taught by Tonpa Shenrab and recorded in these three accounts was spread by his disciples to adjacent countries such as Zhang-zhung, India, Kashmir, China, and finally reached Tibet. Its transmission was secured by siddhas and scholars who translated texts from the language of Zhang-zhung into Tibetan.

Of Tonpa Shenrab’s many disciples, the foremost was Mucho Demdrug (Mu-cho lDem-drug), who in his turn taught many students, the most important of whom were the ‘Six Great Translators’: Mutsha Trahe (dMu-tsha Tra-he) of Tazig, Trithog Pasha (Khri-thog sPa-tsha) of Zhang-zhung, Hulu Paleg (Hu-lu sPa-legs) of Sum-pa (east of Zhang-zhung), Lhadag Nagdro (Lha-bdags sNgags-grol) of India, Legtang Mangpo (Legs-tang rMang-po) of China and Sertog Chejam (gSer-thog lCe-byams) of Phrom (Mongolia).

They are regarded as especially important in the dissemination of Bön because they translated the teachings into their own languages before returning to their countries to teach.

Tonpa Shenrab taught his doctrines in two systems

  • The first classification is called Thegpa Rimgu’i Bön (2) (Theg-pa rim-dgi’i bon), the ‘Bön of Nine Successive Stages’ or, as it is more commonly known, the ‘Nine Ways of Bön,’ of which there are three versions: the Loter (lho-gter) or ‘Southern Treasure,’ the Jangter (byang-gter) or ‘Northern Treasure’ and the Uter (dBu-gter) or ‘Central Treasure. (3)
  • The second classification is called Gozhi dzonga (sGo-bzhi mdzod-lnga), ‘The Four Portals and the Treasury, the Fifth’:

According to the system of the lho-gter (Southern Treasure)

the Nine Ways are:

  1. Chashen thegpa (Phywa-gshen theg-pa), the Way of the Shen of Prediction, describes four different ways of prediction, by divination (mo), astrology (rtsis), ritual (gto) and examination of causes (dphyad).
  2. Nangshen thegpa (sNang-gshen theg-pa), the Way of the Shen of Visible Manifestation, expounds the origin and nature of gods and demons living in this world and various methods of exorcism and ransom.
  3. Trulshen thegpa (‘Phrul-gshen theg-pa), the Way of the Shen of Magical Power, explains rites for disposing of adverse powers.
  4. Sishen thegpa (Srid-gshen theg-pa), the Way of the Shen of Existence, deals with the after-death state (bar-do) and with methods for guiding sentient beings towards liberation or at least towards a better rebirth.
  5. Genyen thegpa (dGe-snyen theg-pa), the Way of Virtuous Lay Practitioners, guides those who apply the ten virtues and ten perfections.
  6. Drangsong thegpa (Drang-srong theg-pa), the Way of the Sages, contains the rules of monastic discipline.
  7. Akar thegpa (A-dkar theg-pa), the Way of the White A, explains the practices and rituals of the higher Tantras.
  8. Yeshen thegpa (Ye-gshen theg-pa), the Way of the Primordial Shen, stresses the need for a suitable teacher, place and occasion for Tantric practices, explains the mandala in greater detail as well as instructions for deity meditation.
  9. Lame thegpa (bLa-med theg-pa), the Unsurpassed Way, is concerned with the highest attainment through the path of Great Perfection (i.e., rDzogs-chen).

The second classification is called Gozhi dzonga (sGo-bzhi mdzod-lnga), ‘The Four Portals and the Treasury, the Fifth’:

  1. Chab-kar (Chab-dkar), the ‘White Waters’, contains spells and higher esoteric Tantric practices;
  2. Chab-nag (Chab-nag), the ‘Black Waters’, consists of various rituals (healing, purificatory, magical, prognosticatory, divinatory, funerary, and ransom rituals).
  3. Phanyul (‘Phan-yul), the ‘Land of Phan’, explains rules for monks and nuns and lay-people and expounds philosophical doctrines.
  4. Ponse (dPon-gsas), the ‘Masters’ Guide’, instructs on psycho-spiritual exercises and meditation practices of Great Perfection (rDzogs-chen).
  5. Thothog (mTho-thog), the ‘Treasury’, subsumes the essential aspects of all four portals.  (ABOVE TEXT Courtesty of Shenten Dargye Ling)