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Bon or Bön (Tibetan: བོན་, Wylie: bon, Lhasa dialect IPA: [pʰø̃̀]) is the term for the Tibetan religious tradition or sect, being distinct from Buddhist ones in its peculiar teachings and myths, although its terminology and rituals are largely (or partly) borrowed from Tibetan Buddhism. It arose in the eleventh century upward and established its scriptures mainly from termas and visions by tertöns such as Loden Nyingpo. Though Bon terma contain myths of Bon existing before the introduction of Buddhism in Tibet, "in truth the 'old religion' was a new religion."
- 1 Definitions of Bon
- 2 History
- 3 Purpose
- 4 Geography
- 5 Gods
- 6 Present situation
- 7 Recognition
- 8 Elements
- 9 Reality and chakras
- 10 See also
- 11 Footnotes
- 12 References
- 13 Further reading
- 14 External links
Definitions of Bon
The scholarly history of Bon is difficult to clearly ascertain because the earliest surviving documents referring to the religion come from the 9th and 10th centuries, well after Buddhists began the suppression of indigenous beliefs and practices. Moreover, historian Per Kværne notes that "Bon" is used to describe three distinct traditions:
- the pre-Buddhist religious practices of Tibetans and Tibetic peoples of Nepal that are "imperfectly reconstructed [yet] essentially different from Buddhism" and were focused on the personage of a divine king;
- a syncretic religion that arose in Tibet and Nepal during the 10th and 11th centuries, with strong shamanistic and animistic traditions. This shamanic indigenous religion is not Buddhism, but is sometimes regarded by scholars as a substrate form of Buddhism.
- a set of popular beliefs in which local shamans try to heal people using ideas sometimes ascribed to Bon. Shamans may divine deities' wishes, have supernatural fights with deities, or be possessed by deities. These shamanic practices are common among Tibeto-Burman-speaking ethnic groups such as the Magar, Tamang, Tibetan, etc.
However, other scholars do not accept the tradition that separates Bon from Buddhism. Christopher I. Beckwith calls Bon "one of the two types of Tibetan Buddhism" and writes that "despite continuing popular belief in the existence of a non-Buddhist religion known as Bon during the Tibetan Empire period, there is not a shred of evidence to support the idea... Although different in some respects from the other sects, it was already very definitely a form of Buddhism."
Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, recognizes the Bon tradition as the sixth principal spiritual school of Tibet, along with the Nyingma, Sakya, Kagyu, Gelug and Jonang schools of Buddhism, despite the long historical competition between the Bon tradition and Buddhism in Tibet. In 1978 the Dalai Lama acknowledged the Bon religion as a school with its own practices after visiting the newly built Bon monastery in Dolanji.
The syllable -po or -pa is appended to a noun in Tibetan to designate a person who is from that place or performs that action; "Bonpo" thus means a follower of the Bon tradition, "Nyingmapa" a follower of the Nyingma tradition, and so on. (The feminine parallels are -mo and -ma, but these are not generally appended to the names of the Tibetan religious traditions.)
Three Bon scriptures, mdo 'dus, gzer mig, and gzi brjid relate the life story of Tonpa Shenrab Miwoche, the founder of Bon. The Bonpos regard the first two as gter ma rediscovered around the eleventh century, and the latter one as snyan brgyud (oral transmission) dictated by Loden Nyingpo who lived in the fourteenth century. In the fourteenth century, Loden Nyingpo revealed a terma known as The Brilliance (gzi brjid), contained the story of Tonpa Shenrab. He was not the first Bonpo terton, but his terma became one of the definitive scriptures of Bon religion. It states that Shenrab established the Bon religion while searching for a horse stolen by a demon. Tradition also tells that he was born in the land of Tagzig Olmo Lung Ring (considered[by whom?] an axis mundi) which is traditionally identified as Mount Yung-drung Gu-tzeg ("Edifice of Nine Sauvastikas"), possibly Mount Kailash, in western Tibet. Due to the sacredness of Tagzig Olmo Lung Ring and the Mount Kailash, the Bonpo as well as Hindus regard both the swastika and the number nine as auspicious and as of great significance.
Tonpa Shenrab Miwoche visited Kong-po and found people whose practice involved spiritual appeasement with animal sacrifice. He taught them to substitute offerings with symbolic animal forms made from barley flour. He only taught according to the student's capability with lower shamanic vehicles to prepare; until with prayer, diligence, devotion and application they could incarnate to achieve sutra, tantra and Dzogchen.
Bon teachings feature "Nine Vehicles", which are pathway-teaching categories with distinct characteristic, view, practice and result. Medicine, astrology, divination are in the lower vehicles. Then sutra and tantra, with Dzogchen great perfection being the highest. Traditionally, the Nine Vehicles are taught in three versions; as Central, Northern and Southern treasures. The Central treasure is closest to Nyingma Nine Yānas teaching and the Northern treasure is lost. Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche elaborated the Southern treasure with shamanism.
"A Cavern of Treasures" (mdzod phug)
"A Cavern of Treasures" (Tibetan: མཛོད་ཕུག, Wylie: mdzod phug) is a Bonpo terma uncovered by 'Shenchen Luga' (Tibetan: གཤེན་ཆེན་ཀླུ་དགའ, Wylie: gshen chen klu dga') in the early 11th century. Martin identifies the importance of this scripture for studies of the Zhang-Zhung language:
For students of Tibetan culture in general, the mDzod phug is one of the most intriguing of all Bon scriptures, since it is the only lengthy bilingual work in Zhang-zhung and Tibetan. (Some of the shorter but still significant sources for Zhang-zhung are signalled in Orofino 1990.)
The Dzungars invaded Tibet in 1717 and deposed and killed a pretender to the position of Dalai Lama who had been promoted by Lhabzang, the titular King of Tibet. This met with widespread approval. However, they soon began to loot the holy places of Lhasa which brought a swift response from Emperor Kangxi in 1718, but his military expedition was annihilated by the Dzungars not far from Lhasa.
Many Nyingmapas and Bonpos were executed and Tibetans visiting Dzungar officials were forced to stick their tongues out so the Dzungars could tell if the person recited constant mantras, which was said to make the tongue black or brown. This allowed them to pick the Nyingmapas and Bonpos, who recited many magic-mantras. A habit of sticking one's tongue out as a mark of respect on greeting someone has remained a Tibetan custom into modern times.
In the 19th century, Sharza Tashi Gyeltsen, a Bon master whose collected writings comprise eighteen volumes significantly rejuvenated the tradition. His disciple Kagya Khyungtrul Jigmey Namkha trained many practitioners to be learned in not only the Bon religion, but in all Tibetan schools. In modern times, Bon has encountered significant cultural loss.[clarification needed] Lately, it has been rejuvenated by the terma tradition.
According to the Bonpo, eighteen enlightened entities will manifest in this æon and Tönpa Shenrab Miwoche, the founder of Bon, is considered the enlightened Buddha of this age (compare yuga and kalpa). The 33rd lineage holder of Menri Monastery, HH the Menri Trizin Lungtog Tenpei Nyima Rinpoche, and Lopön Tenzin Namdak are important current lineage holders of Bon.
More than three hundred Bon monasteries had been established in Tibet prior to Chinese annexation. Of these, Menri Monastery and Shurishing Yungdrung Dungdrakling Monastery were the two principal monastic universities for the study and practice of the Bon knowledge and science-arts.
A complex appreciation of Bon is emerging by scholars. Bon, prior to the Tibetan diaspora, existed within a web of ancient indigenous animism, Hinduism, sympathetic magic, Buddhism, folk religion, shamanism, Vajrayana, asceticism and mysticism; complexes prevalent throughout the Himalaya and intermingling throughout the Inner Asian region. Pegg (2006) relates that these
"[c]omplexes include mosaics of performing practices and discourses rather than discrete or fixed sets of practices or beliefs. They are syncretic and overlapping. The power of sound to communicate with spirits is recognized…" and a recurrent motif throughout the region.
Leading Bon scholar Per Kværne writes:
Both Buddhists and Bonpos agree that when Buddhism succeeded in gaining royal patronage in Tibet in the eighth and ninth centuries, Bon suffered a serious setback. By the 11th century, however, an organized religious tradition, styling itself Bon and claiming continuity with the earlier, pre-Buddhist religion, appeared in central Tibet. It is this religion of Bon that has persisted to our own times, absorbing doctrines from the dominant Buddhist religion but always adapting what it learned to its own needs and perspectives. This is ...not just plagiarism, but a dynamic and flexible strategy that has ensured the survival, indeed the vitality, of a religious minority.
Among the important aims of Bon are cultivating heartmind with compassionate activity to benefits others. This is to purify and silence the noise of the mindstream within the bodymind, and so reveal rigpa — a transcendent natural bodymind.
Ethnic Tibet is not confined culturally to modern political Tibet. The broader area of ethnic Tibet also includes, to the east, parts of the Chinese provinces of Sichuan, Gansu and Yunnan; to the west, the Indian regions of Ladakh, Lahul and Spiti and the Baltistan region of Pakistan; the extreme north-west of Assam; and to the south, Bhutan, Sikkim, and parts of northern Nepal, such as Mustang and Dolpo and the regions in northeastern Nepal inhabited by Sherpa and Tamang people.
Bonpos cultivate household gods in addition to other deities:
Traditionally in Tibet divine presences or deities would be incorporated into the very construction of the house making it in effect a castle (dzongka) against the malevolent forces outside it. The average Tibetan house would have a number of houses or seats (poe-khang) for the male god (pho-lha) that protects the house. Everyday [sic] the man of the house would invoke this god and burn juniper wood and leaves to placate him. In addition the woman of the house would also have a protecting deity (phuk-lha) whose seat could be found within the kitchen usually at the top of the pole that supported the roof.
Another set of deities are the White Old Man, a sky god, and his consort. They are known by a few different names, such as "Pe-Har" and "bDud-gza’-smin-dkar." Pe-har is featured as a protecting deity of Zhanzhung, the center of the Bon religion. Reportedly, Pe-har is related to celestial heavens and the sky in general. In early Lamaist times, Pe-Har transmogrified into a shamanic bird to adapt to the bird motifs of shamanism. Pe-har’s consort is a female deity known by one of her names as bDud-gza’-smin-dkar (Stein1954 in Hummel 1962).
According to a recent Chinese census[when?], an estimated 10 percent of Tibetans follow Bon. At the time of the Tibet was formally recognized as part of the PRC, there were approximately 300 Bon monasteries in Tibet and the rest of western China. According to a recent[when?] survey, there are 264 active Bon monasteries, convents, and hermitages.
The present spiritual head of the Bon is Lungtok Tenpa'i Nyima (b. 1929), the thirty-third Abbot of Menri Monastery (destroyed in the Cultural Revolution, but now 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 Bon establishments also exist in Nepal; Triten Norbutse Bonpo Monastery is one on the western outskirts of Kathmandu. Bon's leading monastery is the Menri Monastery in Dolanji, India (Himachal Pradesh).
Lobsang Yeshe, recognised as the fifth Panchen Lama by the fifth Dalai Lama Lozang Gyatso, was a member of the Dru family, an important family of the Bon religion. Under Lozang Gyatso Bon became respected both philosophically and politically. However, the Bonpo remained stigmatised and marginalised until 1977, when they sent representatives to Dharamsala and Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, who advised the Tibetan parliament-in-exile, the Assembly of Tibetan People’s Deputies, to accept Bon members.
Since then, Bon has had official recognition of its status as a religious group, with the same rights as the Buddhist schools. This was re-stated in 1987 by the Dalai Lama, who also forbade discrimination against the Bonpos, stating that it was both undemocratic and self-defeating. He even donned Bon ritual paraphernalia, emphasizing "the religious equality of the Bon faith."
However, Tibetans still differentiate between Bon and Buddhism, referring to members of the Nyingma, Shakya, Kagyu and Gelug schools as nangpa, meaning "insiders," but to practitioners of Bon as "Bonpo," or even chipa ("outsiders").
Tattva – Mahābhūta
Wŭ Xíng (五行)
In Bon, the five elemental processes of earth, water, fire, air and space are the essential elements of all existent phenomena or skandhas (aggregates) the most subtle enumeration of which are known as the five pure lights. Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche states:
[P]hysical properties are assigned to the elements: earth is solidity; water is cohesion; fire is temperature; air is motion; and space is the spatial dimension that accommodates the other four active elements. In addition, the elements are correlated to different emotions, temperaments, directions, colors, tastes, body types, illnesses, thinking styles, and character. From the five elements arise the five senses and the five fields of sensual experience; the five negative emotions and the five wisdoms; and the five extensions of the body. They are the five primary pranas or vital energies. They are the constituents of every physical, sensual, mental, and spiritual phenomenon.
The names of the elements are analogous to categorised experiential sensations of the natural world. The names are symbolic and key to their inherent qualities and/or modes of action by analogy. In Bon, the elemental processes are fundamental metaphors for working with external, internal and secret energetic forces. All five elemental processes in their essential purity are inherent in the mindstream and link the trikaya and are aspects of primordial energy.
Reality and chakras
Chakras, as pranic centers of the body, according to the Tibetan Bon tradition, influence the quality of experience, because movement of prana can not be separated from experience. Each of the six major chakras is 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 such as those embodied in Trul Khor lineages open channels so that lung (prana or qi) may move without obstruction. A yogi opens chakras and evokes positive qualities associated with a particular chakra. In the computer analogy, the screen is cleared and a file is called up that contains positive, supportive qualities. A seed syllable (Sanskrit: bija) is used both as a password that evokes the positive quality and the armor that sustains the quality.
The goals of tantric practice include the eventual transformation of all experience into bliss, and the liberation from negative conditioning, leading to control over perception and cognition.
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- Rossi, D. (1999). The philosophical view of the great perfection in the Tibetan Bon religion. Ithaca, New York: Snow Lion. The book gives translations of Bon scriptures "The Twelve Little Tantras" and "The View Which is Like the Lion's Roar".
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Bon religion.|
- Bon Foundation
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- PBS Secrets of Shangri-La: Quest for Sacred Caves (premiered November 18, 2009)
- Siberian Bo and Tibetan Bon, studies by Dmitry Ermakov
- Picture of Bon inscription
- John Reynolds' web site, including his Bonpo translation project
- Na-xi and other Hos / Bon religious texts
- History of Buddhism and Bon in Tibet (by Dr. Alexander Berzin)
- Tibetan Bon Tradition