The first Bön scriptures were translated from the language of Zhang-zhung into Tibetan. The works contained in the Bonpo canon as we know it today are written in Tibetan, but a number of them, especially the older ones, retain the titles and at times whole passages in the language of Zhang-zhung.
Until the 8th century Zhang-zhung existed as a separate kingdom, comprising the land to the west of the central Tibetan provinces of (dBus) and Tsang (gTsang) and generally known as Western Tibet, extending over a vast area from Gilgit in the west to the lake of Namtsho (gNam-mtsho) in the east and from Khotan in the north to Mustang in the south. The capital was called Khyunglung Ngulkhar (Khyung-lung dngul-mkhar), the ‘Silver Palace of Garuda Valley’, the ruins of which lie in the upper Sutlej valley south-west of Mount Kailash. Its people spoke a language classified among the Tibeto-Burmese group of Sino-Tibetan languages.
The country was ruled by a dynasty of kings which ended in the 9th century A.D. when the last king, Ligmincha (Lig-min-skya) was assassinated by order of the king of Tibet and Zhang-zhung militarily annexed by Tibet. Since that time Zhang-zhung has become gradually Tibetanized and its language, culture and many of its beliefs have been integrated into the general frame of Tibetan culture. Due to its geographical proximity to the great cultural centres of central Asia such as Gilgit and Khotan, it was through Zhang-zhung that many religious concepts and ideas reached Tibet.
Bon is Tibet’s oldest spiritual tradition. It includes teachings and practices applicable to all parts of life, including our relationship with the elemental qualities of nature; our ethical and moral behavior; the development of love, compassion, joy and equanimity; and Bon’s highest teachings of the Great Perfection, dzogchen.
According to the traditional Bon account of its origins, many thousands of years before the birth of the Buddha Shakyamuni, the Buddha Tonpa Shenrab Miwoche came to this world and expounded his teachings in the land of Olmo Lungring. Ol symbolizes the unborn, mo the undiminishing, lung the prophetic words of Tonpa Shenrab, and ring his everlasting compassion. Some modern scholars have identified Olmo Lungring with Zhang Zhung, the country surrounding Mount Kailash in western Tibet and the cradle of Tibetan civilization.
Tonpa Shenrab is said to have taught Bon in three successive cycles of teachings. First he taught the “Nine Ways of Bon”; then he taught the “Four Bon 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 sutric 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 Bon 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 also have been preserved. While much in modern Bon is similar to Tibetan Buddhism, Bon retains the richness and flavor of its pre-Buddhist roots.
Until very recently, the ancient teachings of Bon were offered to very few students of any generation. Now, its lamas are reaching out to teach fortunate Western students about the rich Bon spiritual traditions and practices.
H.H. Lungtok Tenpai Nyima Rinpoche,
H.E. Yongzin Tenzin Namdak Rinpoche
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 Bon culture, scholarship and compassion in action.
The Bön religion has undergone two persecutions in Tibet during its long history. The first occurred during the reign of King Drigum Tsenpo (Gri-gum btsan-po’) in the 7th century B.C.E. All but the ‘Bön of Cause’ (rgyu’i bon: the first four of the Nine Ways) was abolished, and most of its practitioners banished. They were, however, able to conceal many texts as terma (gTer-ma, ‘treasure’) that were rediscovered at a later date by tertons (gTer-ston, ‘treasure discoverers’). With the increasing interest in Buddhism and its establishment as the state religion and the founding of Samye (bSam-yas) monastery in 779 A.D. Bön was generally discouraged and a further serious attempt was made to eradicate it. This was the second persecution of Bön, by King Trisong Detsen (Khri-srong lde-btsan). However, adherents of Bön among the nobility and especially among the common people, who had followed the Bön beliefs for generations, retained their religious convictions and Bön survived. Again during this period many Bön priests were banished or forced to flee from Central Tibet, having first concealed their scriptures for fear of their destruction and in order to preserve them for future generations.
One of the foremost Bonpos of the time, Drenpa Namkha (Dran-pa Nam-mkha’), (4) played an important role during the second persecution of Bön. He headed the Bonpo side in a contest against the Buddhists organized by the king to discover which side had the greatest miraculous power.
The Bonpos lost the contest and had to disperse in fear of their lives or be converted to Buddhism. While ostensibly embracing the Buddhist religion out of fear of being killed, in fact Drenpa Namkha did it for the sake of preserving in secret the Bonpo teachings, thereby saving Bön from complete eradication.
Resurgence of Bön
From the 8th to 11th centuries the practice of Bön went mainly underground. The year 1017 C.E. (5) marks the resurgence of Bön, which began with the discovery by Shenchen Luga (gShen-chen klu-dga’, 996-1035) of a number of important concealed texts. With his discoveries Bön re-emerged as a fully systematized religion. Shenchen Luga was born in the Shen clan, descended from Kontsha Wangden (Kong-tsha dbang-ldan), one of Tonpa Shenrab’s sons. The descendants of this important family still live in Tibet.
Shenchen Luga had a large following. To three of his disciples he entrusted the task of continuing three different traditions. To the first, Druchen Namkha Yungdrung (Bru-chen nam-mkha’ g.yung-drung) born in the clan of Dru which migrated to Tibet from Druzha (‘Bru-zha, i.e., Gilgit), he entrusted the studies of cosmology and metaphysics (mDzod-phug and Gab-pa). It was to this end that one of his disciples and relations, Bru-rje g.Yung-drung bla-ma founded the monastery of Yeru Wensakha (gYas-ru dben-sa-kha) in Tsang province in 1072.
This monastery remained a great centre of learning until 1386, when it was badly damaged by floods. Despite the decline of Yeru Wensakha the Dru family continued to sponsor the Bön religion, but the family came to extinction in the 19th century when, for the second time, a reincarnation of the Panchen lama was found in the family.
The second disciple, Zhuye Legpo (Zhu-yas legs-po), was assigned to maintain the Dzogchen teachings and practices. He founded the monastery of Kyikhar Rizhing (sKyid-mkhar ri-zhing). The descendants of the Zhu family now live in India.
The third disciple, Paton Palchog (sPa-ston dpal-mchog), took responsibility for upholding the Tantric teachings. The Pa family too still exists.
Another important master of that time was Meukhepa Palchen (rMe’u-mkhas-pa Tsul-khrims dpal-chen, b. 1052), of the Meu clan, who founded Zangri (sNye-mo bZang-ri) monastery, which also became a centre for philosophical studies. Thus during this period the Bonpos founded four important monasteries and study centres, all in Tsang province (central Tibet).
According to Bön it is by good actions and a virtuous life that a being achieves spiritual perfection and the spheres of the Perfect Buddhas (Sangs-rgyas). The methods for reaching the highest goal were taught by Tonpa Shenrab and by successive Bonpo sages.
The noblest way to practise 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 (bsNyen-gnas) and genyen (dge-bsnyen), are normally taken by lay-people who want to practise 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 (gtsang-gtsug), that applies on taking monastic initiation (rab-byung) and consists of twenty-five vows, and drangsong (drang-srong), that applies on full ordination and consists of two hundred and fifty vows. Nuns take three hundred and sixty vows.