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Bön has typically been described as the shamanistic religion in Tibet before the arrival of Buddhism in the 7th century C.E. With the recent exile of many Bönpo lamas to India, however, a more complex description of Bön is emerging and is now being considered by Western scholars. ("-po" is a part of a word in Tibetan that forms an adjective or shows the relativity, can also indicate a person, thus, "Bönpo" means a person, or people, who follow(s) the path of Bön. The transcription of the Tibetan spelling is actually just "Bon", but the diaresis is sometimes added above the "o" to prompt the reader to a more nearly Tibetan pronunciation of the vowel.)

The Meaning of BönEdit

A pure mind (a mind which recognizes Existence and understands it fully in an objective and factual way) behaving accordingly, being used in utmost justice or balance, looking beyond, meditating on it, etc. comes to the point when the blindness of the mind and its attitudes, proven by verbal guidance, intellectual minds and perfect examples, clears out ignorance from the very root and can save anybody from the three stages of sadness and will come to an eternal well defined understanding. This wisdom or religion is called Bön.

Historical phases of BönEdit

According to the Bönpo themselves, the Bön religion has actually gone through three distinct phases: Animistic Bön, Yungdrung or Eternal Bön, and New Bön.

Animistic BönEdit

The first phase of Bön was indeed rooted in animistic and shamanistic practices, and corresponds to the characterization of Bön as previously described in the West. Initiation and rituals strongly resembled those found also in native Siberian shamanism. Individuals who could become shamans were traditionally members of a special clan from which all shamans came. Shamans could be male or female, but few modern shamans are women. One who would become a shaman was visited, and possessed by, either an ancestral shaman or one or more gods, deamons or spirits of other sorts (in contrast to non-Eastern shamans, who went seeking visions) and driven into incoherent babbling and subsequently running wildly into the forest. After the individual in question returns, they are taught how to control the spirits that visit them, as well as recitation of mantras. Article on Anamistic Bön

Yungdrung BönEdit

The second phase is the controversial phase, which rests on the claims of the Bönpo texts and traditions (which are extensive and only now being analyzed in the West). These texts assert that Yungdrung Bön can be traced back to a Buddha-like founder named Tönpa Shenrab Miwoche. He discovered the methods of attaining enlightenment and is considered to be a figure analogous to Gautama Buddha. He was said to have lived 18,000 years ago, in the land of Olmo Lungring, or Shambhala, which was a part of the so-called land of Tazig to the west of present day Tibet (which some scholars identify with the Persian Tajik). According to Buddhist legends, before Shakyamuni Buddha came there were many other Buddhas in the past. Tönpa Shenrab transmitted the faith (similar in many regards to Buddhism) to the people of the Shangshung culture of western Tibet who had previously been practicing animistic Bön, thus establishing Yungdrung ("eternal") Bön.

Tenzin Lopön Namdak

Abott of a Bön Monastery in Nepal - Lopön Tenzin Namdak

The most tantalizing claim (which, on balance, is not endorsed by most scholars) is that Buddhism may have arrived in Tibet by some other path than directly from northwest India. A transmission through Persia prior to the 7th century is not impossible. Alexander the Great had connected Greece with India almost a millennium earlier, resulting in a flourishing Greco-Buddhist art style in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The 6th century Khosrau I of Persia is known to have ordered the translation of the Buddhist jataka tales into the Persian language. The Silk Road, the path by which Buddhism traveled to China in 67 C.E., lies entirely to the west of Tibet and passed through the Persian city of Hamadan. Recently, Buddhist structures have been discovered in far western Tibet that have been dated to the third century C.E. Bönpo stupas have also been discovered as far west as Afghanistan. Nonetheless, no scholars have yet identified a major center of Buddhist learning in Persia which corresponds to the Bönpos' land of Tazig. Alternative proposed sites have included the ancient cities of Merv, Khotan, or Balkh, all of which had thriving Buddhist communities active in the correct timeframe and are located to the west of Tibet.

Leaving aside the speculation on Tazig, what can we say about the other Bön claims? The existence of the Shangshung culture is supported by many lines of evidence, including the existence of a remnant of living Shangshung speakers still found in Himachal Pradesh. The claim that Lord Shenrab was born 180 centuries ago is generally not taken literally, but understood as an allusion to a master born in the very distant past. One interesting question relating to the history of Bön is: when did Bön really enter the Yungdrung phase, that is, when did elements strongly resembling Buddhism become important? These elements became apparent with the codification of the Yungdrung Bön canon by the first abbot of Menri, Nyame Sherab Gyaltsen, in the 14th century, but this trend probably began earlier. At the same time, the Nyingma, Kagyu, and Sakya orders of Buddhism were also reorganizing themselves in order to be able to compete effectively with the dominant, Gelug order.

Even if we do not accept the Bön claim that Bön's Buddhist elements are older than the (Indian, historical) Buddha, we may consider some other milestones in Tibetan history which may mark points at which Buddhist ideas became integrated into Bön.

  • In the first half of the 7th century, the Tibetan King Songtsen Gampo assassinates King Ligmicha of the Shangshung and annexes the Shangshung kingdom. The same Songtsen Gampo is also the first Tibetan king to marry a Buddhist (or, in his case, two): in 632, Nepalese princess Bhrikuti, and in 641, Princess Wencheng, daughter of Emperor Tang Taizong of Tang Dynasty China (where Buddhism is approaching its zenith). Both Tibetan and Bön history agree that King Songtsen Gampo decides to follow Bön, despite his marriages. The nature of the Bön practiced by him and his court is not very clear.
  • Approximately 130 years later, King Trisong Detsen (742-797) holds a debate contest between Bön priests and Buddhists, and decides to convert to Buddhism; in 779, he invites the great Indian saint Padmasambhava to bring Tantric Buddhism to Tibet. According to Tibetan Buddhist tradition, the arrival of Padmasambhava represents the First Transmission of the faith. Tantric Buddhism becomes important in Tibet, at this point.
  • As Tantric Buddhism becomes the state religion of Tibet, Bön faces persecution, forcing Bönpo masters such as Drenpa Namkha underground. It is, however, possible that several decades later, with the collapse of the Tibetan Empire into civil war in 842, Bön may have experienced a partial revival in some districts, especially in western Tibet.
  • In the 11th century, approximately coincident with the Second Transmission of Tantric Buddhism into Tibet associated with Indian saints such as Atisha and Naropa, we start to find more Bönpo texts, discovered as terma.

New BönEdit

The "New Bön" phase emerges in the 14th century, when some Bön teachers discovered termas related to Padmasambhava. New Bön is primarily practiced in the eastern regions of Amdo and Kham. Although the practices of New Bön vary to some extent from Yungdrung Bön, the practitioners of New Bön still honor the Abbot of Menri Monastery as the leader of their tradition.

According to a recent Chinese census, presently about 10 percent of Tibetans are estimated to follow Bön. At the time of the communist takeover in Tibet, there were approximately 300 Bön monasteries in Tibet and western China. According to a recent survey, there are 264 active Bön monasteries, convents, and hermitages.

The present spiritual head of the Bön is Lungtok Tenpa'i Nyima (b. 1929), the thirty-third Abbot of Menri Monastery (destroyed in the Cultural Revolution, but now being rebuilt), who now presides over Pal Shen-ten Menri Ling in Dolanji in Himachal Pradesh, India, for the abbacy of which monastery he was selected in 1969.

A number of Bön establishments also exist in Nepal; the most accessible is probably Triten Norbutse Bönpo Monastery, on the Western outskirts of Kathmandu. In Kathmandu, go to the bus stop on the Ring Road nearest Swayambhu (downhill just behind the great stupa.) Follow the Ring Road about 500 meters northeast in the direction of Balaju. Turn left at the small village called Baraing, and follow the dirt road through the rice fields to the red colored monastery, situated on the side of the mountain, a little lower than the Swayambhu Stupa. (It is not the monastery on the top of the mountain.) The Monastery is clearly visible from the Ring Road. Visitors are welcome.

Bön spiritual practicesEdit

Bön, while now very similar to schools of Tibetan Buddhism, may be distinguished by certain characteristics:

  1. The origin of the Bönpo lineage is traced to Buddha Tönpa Shenrab (sTon pa gShen rab), rather than to Buddha Shakyamuni.
  2. Bönpo circumambulate chortens or other venerated structures counter-clockwise (i.e., with the left shoulder toward the object), rather than clockwise (as Buddhists do).
  3. Bönpos use the yungdrung (g.yung drung, swastika) instead of the dorje (rdo rje, vajra) as a symbol
  4. Instead of a bell, Bönpos use the shang, a cymbal-like instrument with a "clapper" usually made of animal horn, in their rituals.
  5. A nine-way path is described in Bön, which is distinct from the nine-yana (-vehicle) system of the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism. Bönpo consider Bön to be a superset of Buddhist paths. (The Bönpo divide their teachings in a mostly familiar way: Causal Vehicle, Sutra, Tantra and Dzogchen).
  6. The Bönpo textual canon includes rites to pacify spirits, influence the weather, heal people through spiritual means, and other "shamanic" practices. While many of these practices are also common in some form in Tibetan Buddhism (and mark a distinction between Tibetan and other forms of Buddhism), they are actually included within the recognized Bön canon (under the causal vehicle), rather than in Buddhist texts.
  7. Bönpo have some sacred texts, of neither Sanskrit nor Tibetan origin, which include some sections written in the ancient Shangshung language.
  8. The Bönpo mythic universe includes the Mountain of Nine Swastikas and the Olmo Lungring paradise.

The Bönpo school is said to resemble most closely the Nyingma school, the oldest school of Tibetan Buddhism, which traces its lineage to the First Transmission of Buddhism into Tibet.

Reality and chakras in BönEdit

Chakras, as pranic centers of the body, according the Tibetan Bön tradition, influence the quality of experience, because movement of prana can not be separated from experience. Each of six major chakras are linked to experiential qualities of one of the six realms of existence.

A modern teacher, Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche uses a computer analogy: main chakras are like hard drives. Each hard drive has many files. One of the files is always open in each of the chakras, no matter how "closed" that particular chakra may be. What is displayed by the file shapes experience.

The tsa lung practices open channels so prana could move without obstruction. Yogi opens chakras and evokes positive qualities associated with a particular chakra. In the hard drive analogy, the screen is cleared and a file is called up that contains positive, supportive qualities. A seed syllable (Sanskr. bija) is used both as a password that evokes the positive quality and the armor that sustains the quality.[1]

Tantric practice eventually transforms all experience into bliss. The practice liberates from negative conditioning and leads to control over perception and cognition.[2]

See also: Reality in Buddhism

See alsoEdit


  1. Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche, Healing with Form, Energy, and Light. Ithaca, New York: Snow Lion Publications, 2002. ISBN 1559391766, p. 84
  2. Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche, Healing with Form, Energy, and Light. Ithaca, New York: Snow Lion Publications, 2002. ISBN 1559391766, p. 85


  • Norbu, Namkhai. 1995. Drung, Deu and Bön: Narrations, Symbolic languages and the Bön tradition in ancient Tibet. Translated from Tibetan into Italian edited and annotated by Adriano Clemente. Translated fom Italian into English by Andrew Lukianowicz. Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, Dharamsala, H.P., India. ISBN 81-85102-93-7.

External linksEdit

de:Bön fr:Bön nl:Bönru:Бон (религия) fi:Bön zh:苯教 sv:Bön (religion)

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