Spiritual Path


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 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.

Followers of Bön receive oral teachings and transmissions from teachers in a lineage unbroken from ancient times until the present day. In addition, most of the scriptural texts have also been preserved. While much in modern Bön is similar to Tibetan Buddhism, Bön retains the richness and flavor of its pre-Buddhist roots.

Until very recently, the ancient teachings of Bön were offered to very few students of any generation. Now, its lamas are reaching out to teach fortunate Western students about the rich Bön spiritual traditions and practices.

Through the ceaseless efforts of His Holiness Lungtok Tenpai Nyima Rinpoche, the 33rd abbot of Menri; and Yongdzin Tenzin Namdak Rinpoche, senior teacher of the Bön tradition, two new monasteries have been built outside of Tibet. Tashi Menri Ling Monastery, first built in Tibet in 1405, has been reestablished in Dolanji, India. Triten Norbutse Monastery, first built in Tibet in the 14th century, has been reestablished in Kathmandu, Nepal.

Both monasteries have schools that are qualified to give geshe (doctoral) degrees. Menri Monastery also has a grammar school through eighth grade and an orphanage for more than 150 boys and girls. Both monasteries provide a modern-day source of Bön culture, scholarship and compassion in action.

According to Bön it is by meditation practice, good actions and a virtuous life that a being achieves spiritual perfection and the spheres of the Perfect Buddhas. The methods for reaching the highest goal were taught by Tonpa Shenrab and by successive Bönpo sages down through the ages.

Among the Bönpos, it is said that the noblest way to practice religion is to take religious vows; a layperson may strive for perfection, but it is the monastic life that offers the best opportunity of attaining the highest levels. In fact over the centuries the monastic life has formed an essential part of the Bön religion. There are four grades of religious vows, two lower and two higher. The lower ones, called nyene and genyen, are normally taken by lay-people who want to practice religion in a more perfect way; when taken by monks they are considered to form an initial stage in their religious life.

These vows can be taken for any period of time. The higher grades are called tsangsug, and refer to taking monastic initiation consisting of twenty-five vows, and drangsong, that applies to full ordination and consists of two hundred and fifty vows. Nuns take three hundred and sixty vows.[1]

Not everyone is suited for or desires to follow the monastic way of life. Many lay followers of Bön effectively practice as householders, with spouses, children and jobs, and still progress along the path. This is particularly true in the West, where the monastic tradition is neither vast nor well supported as it has been in Tibet and its surrounding regions, and where the business and demands of daily life are often overwhelming. Nevertheless, more and more Westerners are adapting their lives to be able to apply and integrate the Bön practices in their daily routines with excellent results.

Establishing a daily meditation practice and devoting however much time one has to it within one’s other responsibilities is a very effective way of progressing on the path. In addition, one may bring the practice into each breath, each action, each moment by living in awareness and integrating that into every thought, word and deed. Attending weekend, weeklong, or month long retreats, they can enhance and deepen their insight, dedication and enthusiasm.

Some laypeople are able to become full time practitioners as yogis and yoginis. Without taking monastic vows, they may embrace the path fully through long term retreats and extensive daily practice. The lay yogic tradition goes back thousands of years, and is particularly suited to many Western students.

In a similar way to the Nyingma or Ancient Ones school of Tibetan Buddhism, Bön’s spiritual path to liberation is subdivided into three main vehicles or levels:  Sutra, Tantra, and the Great Perfection or Dzogchen. These vehicles present a progressive path to enlightenment, although it is not required that one must start with Sutra or Tantra before practicing the Great Perfection. Each progressive level presents a deeper explanation, vaster understanding and subtler methods of practice.

The Sutra teachings and methods are sometimes called “The Path of Renunciation.” It includes the vows for monks and nuns as well as for laypeople, and teaches the foundations of Bön.

The Tantra teachings and methods, called “The Path of Transformation,” include many skillful meditation practices and yoga exercises for taming the body, speech and mind. These methods include visualization of a yidam or personal tutelary deity, mantra recitation, hand mudras, tsalung and trulkhor exercises, breath control and energy or internal wind circulation. These practices are exceptionally powerful, and are the basis of both the ordinary siddhis and the supreme siddhis or attainments. The ordinary siddhis are such supernormal powers such as flying, clairvoyance, creating multiple forms of oneself and the like. The supreme siddhis are the perfection of wisdom and compassion, complete and perfect enlightenment or buddhahood.

The Dzogchen or Great Perfection teachings and methods, also called “the Path of Self-Liberation,” are mainly found in the Bön tradition and in the Nyingma Buddhist lineage. They begin with special preliminary exercises and practices for purifying of body, speech and mind. These are known as rushan. Then, one may continue on with the pinnacle practices of kadag trekchod, or “cutting through to primordial purity”; and togal, or “surpassing the pinnacle, leaping over to spontaneous presence.”  

In Dzogchen, one receives direct introduction to the nature of mind from one’s master. This transmission or pointing out is indispensable. After receiving this pointing out transmission, the principal meditation is simply resting in awareness (rigpa), or in the union of awareness and emptiness. It is not necessary to visualize anything, nor to recite mantras or perform mudras. Resting in the nature of mind is the quintessence of Dzogchen.

Nonetheless, it is often the case that a practitioner may need some additional support to be able to maintain the view of the nature of mind. If so, then the practitioner may be instructed to apply one or more of the Tantric practices to assist his or her practice, methods such as tsalung, trulkhor or deity yoga.  However, for the highest level or practitioner, these are to be abandoned.

There are four main cycles of Dzogchen teachings in Bön. These are:

  1. A-tri (A-khrid), the teachings that guide one to the primordial state of awareness, symbolized by the white AH syllable.
  2. Dzogchen, referring to a specific lineage rom the root text of the Dzogchen Yangtse Longchen, “the Great Vast Expanse of the Highest Peak which is the Great Perfection. This text is attributed to the 8th century Bönpo master Lishu Tagring.
  3. Yetri Thasel, a cycle of Dzogchen teachings attributed to the 8th century Bönpo master Dranpa Namkha and passed on through Lungton Lhayen and Tselwang Rigdzin. This system is taught as part of the four year training program at Triten Norbutse Monastery in Kathmandu.
  4. Zhang Zhung Nyengyud, the only one of the four Dzogchen cycles within Bön to come down as an uninterrupted lineage of the oral transmission from Zhang Zhung. All the other three were rediscovered hidden treasures (terma). This lineage was passed on through Tapihritsa.

There are three classes of Dzogchen teachings:

  1. Semde, or Mind Class;
  2. Longde, or Space Class; and,
  3. Menngagde, or Oral Instruction (Upadesha) Class

It is in the third, the Oral Instruction Class, that the innermost teachings and practices are thoroughly presented without anything held back. Many practitioners over the millennia, even lay householders, have attained the rainbow body through these teachings and practices.

A new practitioner will choose or be assigned by one’s master to start at any one of these three levels according to their karma, aptitude, predilection and capacities.

Geshe Tezin Wangyal Rinpoche, Founder of Ligmincha International, offers a complete training in the Bön Spiritual Path for Westerners:
http://www.ligmincha.org/en/programs/overviews-of-teaching-topics.html as well Shenten.org

[1] Much of the above section is excerpted courtesy of yungdrungBön.net.