Origin and History of Bon
Olmo Lung Ring
Yungdrung Bon, the root culture and religion of Tibet, originated from the teachings of Tonpa Shenrab, who was born in a completely pure and spiritual land named Tagzig Olmo Lung Ring (hereafter Olmo Lung Ring), which is beyond the impure nature of this existing world. The birthplace of all the enlightened ones, it is a perfected realm where peace and true joy last forever, and it is free from any danger of destruction by any of the elements of nature.
The land of Olmo Lung Ring lies to the west of Mount Kailash and is in the shape of an eight-petaled lotus divided into four parts: the inner, middle, and outer parts, and the boundary. Its sky is like an eight-spoked wheel. Olmo Lung Ring is filled with beautiful gardens, stupas, parks, and snow-covered mountains. Yungdrung Gutsek, a pyramid-shaped mountain with nine Yungdrungs ascending like a staircase to the top, is in the center of Olmo Lung Ring. While a single Yungdrung symbolizes the everlasting and indestructible essence of mind, the nine Yungdrungs symbolize the nine ways or stages of Bon. On each step of the mountain are temples of both male and female deities, and beautiful stupas that symbolize the mind of enlightenment.
Four rivers flow from Yungdrung Gutsek. The mountain has four sides that face in the four directions, and these rivers flow from the corners at the mountain’s base, from formations that resemble the heads of four different animals. From the east, the snow lion is the source of the river Narazara; from the north, the horse is the source of the river Pakshi; from west, the peacock is the source of the river Gyim Shang; and from the south, the elephant is the source of the river Sindhu.
Some scholars identify Mount Kailash in northwestern Tibet as Olmo Lung Ring, due to the lakes and snow-covered mountains that surround the area and the four rivers that flow from it. The followers of Bon do not accept this explanation. This is because Olmo Lung Ring is not a physical place that can be visited by ordinary human beings. In order to reach Olmo Lung Ring, one must practice, become purified of all negativities, and achieve enlightenment. Bonpos pray to be born in Olmo Lung Ring because this can occur only after achieving enlightenment. Visiting Mount Kailash is possible before enlightenment is reached, as long as one is determined to accept the physical challenges. This is proof to Bonpos that Mount Kailash is not Olmo Lung Ring.
Historical Bon texts state very clearly that the holy mountain Mount Kailash was in the center of the kingdom of Zhang Zhung, which was the closest neighboring kingdom to Tibet and existed until the end of the eighth century, Zhang Zhung was integrated into Tibet after the death of Emperor Ligmincha, its last ruler. In early times, the kingdom of Zhang Zhung extended from what is today the upper part of western Tibet through parts of Nepal, northern India (Kashmir, Ladalkh, Zanskar, Kinnaur, Spiti, etc.), to Pakistan (Kashmir) and to China (the Karakoramarea).Most of the Bon teachings have been translated from the Zhang Zhung language into Tibetan.
Mount Kailash is a holy place for Bonpos and is blessed by the Zhang Zhung deity Me Ri. The Me Ri teachings were among the main practices of the Zhang Zhungpa (people of Zhang Zhung) and were later introduced into Tibet. The lineage of this practice has been preserved, and it continues to the present time.
Tonpa Shenrab Miwo Che, Founder of the Bon Religion
Long ago in a part of heaven called Sidpa Yesang, there were three brothers named Dakpa, Salwa, and Shepa. Their father was Sidpa Triod and their mother was Kunshe. These brothers studied under a great teacher named Tobumtri Log Gi Che Chen. After completing their studies, they went to Shen Lha Okar, the Enlightened One of Compassion, and asked how they could be of the greatest assistance in liberating sentient beings from the suffering of the cyclic world. He advised them to take human birth in three different ages so that each brother could help the sentient beings of that age achieve liberation. Following Shen Lha Okar’s advice, Dakpa, the elder brother, was born as a teacher of the past age, and took the name Tonpa Togyal Ye Khyen. The second son, Salwa, was born in this present age as Tonpa Shenrab. Shepa will be born in a future age as Thangma Medon.
Salwa manifested as a blue cuckoo and along with his two disciples, Malo and Yulo, went to the top of Mount Meru, where he deliberated as to where and to what parents he should be born. Through his wisdom, he foresaw that he would be born in the heart of Olmo Lung Ring in a palace called Barpo Sogyed, located on the south side of Mount Yungdrung Gutsek. His father would be Gyalbon Thokar, and his mother, Yochi Gyalzhed Ma.
Two Texts, Dho Zermig and Dho Due, contain biographies of Tonpa Shenrab, who was born in Olmo Lung Ring at dawn on the day of the full moon in the first month of the Tibetan calendar. This was the year of the male wood mouse. More than 18,000 years have passed since that time. He married at a young age and had eight sons, who became his most important successors and spread his teachings, and two daughters. At the age of thirty-one, he renounced the cyclic world and became a monk. He cut his hair himself and took off his princely robes, offering them in the ten directions for the benefit of all sentient beings. He then distributed all his princely belongings to people in need.
The Enlightened Ones of the Ten Directions (Chok Chu Dewar Shekpa) were pleased with his offering and in appreciation of this and other great deeds (such as detaching himself from the material world) they blessed him. The six robes (naza go drug) and the five objects (rinchen ze nga) of a monk descended to him from the sky. This initiated the Bon rules regarding monks’ robes and material possessions. Since then, the tradition of these rules has been preserved without interruption.
Tonpa Shenrab made one trip to Tibet during his lifetime. A demon called Khyap Pa Lag Ring stole Tonpa Shenrab’s horses and took them to the Kongpo Valley in Tibet. Tonpa Shenrab shot an arrow to make a path through the mountains. This is referred to as the “pathway of the arrow of light” or Oser Da Lam. When Tonpa Shenrab visited the Kongpo Valley, he pacified the demons and evil spirits that inhabited Tibet. He blessed a mountain in the Kongpo Valley now known as the “Bon Mountain of Kongpo” or Kongpo Bon Ri. Bonpos and Buddhists still make pilgrimages to Kongpo Bon Ri, circumambulating the mountain counterclockwise in the Bon manner. Self-appearing recitation prayers and images of deities can be seen on the racks, from which pilgrims can receive blessings. In the center of the mountain is a special rock known as “The Heart of Kuntu Zangpo.” One can see three essential recitations and a statue of the Enlightened One of the Six Realms on this rock. There are also five caves, blessed by Tonpa Shenrab, where people still practice. One cave is found at each of the four directions, while the last is in the center of these four. By practicing even one or two hours here, one can achieve more blessings than in any other place.
During his only visit to Tibet, Tonpa Shenrab gave blessings and teachings: purifying the environment, making smoke offerings to local spirits, erecting prayer flags, exorcising evil spirits, etc. He stopped the local tradition of offering animal sacrifices, and taught the offering of ransom and red torma instead. This satisfied the evil spirits, who had been causing illness and misfortune.
Tonpa Shenrab brought many kinds of ceremonies, ritual performances, and religious dances that spread rapidly throughout Tibet. No form of Buddhism outside Tibet shares these traditions. The only reasonable explanation for this is that these ceremonies became rooted and preserved in the Bon culture after Tonpa Shenrab’s visit. Tibetan Bonpos have practiced these rites from generation to generation, and do so even to this day.
Determining that the Tibetans were not yet ready to receive the full teachings of Bon, Tonpa Shenrab prophesied that in the future his teachings would flourish in Tibet. Then he returned to Olmo Lung Ring. In order to demonstrate impermanence, Tonpa Shenrab passed away at the age of eighty-two. Measured in Olmo Lung Ring time, eighty-two years equates to 8,200 human years.
Tonpa Shenrab performed many great deeds in his whole life, but among the most well-known are “The Twelve Great Deeds” (Zedpa Chunyi). More details about these deeds are given in the three sources of his biography: the short one (Dho Dhe or The Epitome of Aphorism), rediscovered in the tenth century, in one volume; the medium one (Dho Zermig or The Piercing Eye), rediscovered in the eleventh century, in two volumes; and the long one (Zi Jid or Glorious), given through oral transmission by Tulku Lodhen Nyingpo in the fourteenth century, in twelve volumes.
Bon Teachings and Their History
Tonpa Shenrab turned the wheel of Bon in three gradual periods: firstly, up to age twelve, he specifically gave teachings on relative truth (kunzob denpa); secondly, from age thirteen to thirty-one, he mainly gave teachings on absolute truth (dondam denpa); thirdly, from age thirty-two to eighty-two, he gave teachings on the ultimate state of liberation (dol lam). Thus, Tonpa Shenrab turned the final wheel of Bon by teaching jointly on both relative and absolute truth.
The Bon teachings are often categorized as four doors, with the fifth door as the treasure (Go Zhi Zod Dang Nga). However, all the Bon teachings are inclusively taught in nine gradual stages, known as the nine ways of Bon (Bon Tekpa Rim Gu). These are further divided into four causal ways and five result or fruition ways as follows:
- Cha Shen Tekpa,
- Nang Shen Tekpa,
- Trul Shen Tekpa, and
- Sid Shen Tekpa
are known as the causal ways (Gyui Tekpa Zhi). These practices engender inspiration and trust. One becomes well grounded in one’s daily life through these practices.
- Ghenyen Tekpa,
- Drangsong Tekpa,
- Ahkar Tekpa,
- Yeshen Tekpa, and
- Dzogchen Yang Tsei Lamed Kyi Tekpa
are known as the ways of fruition or result (Drewu Tekpa Nga). These are higher-level teachings based on the faith and trust developed through the first four ways. The ninth is the highest and most secret, esoteric way of fruition.
These nine ways contain all levels of teachings from the simplest to the highest view, and are well-known in all regions of Tibet.
Examples of Bon practices include putting up prayer flags, making purification smoke offerings to the protectors and deities, making medicine, and performing divinations and astrological readings. Also included are many ritual ceremonies such as those for healing, long life, weddings, and harmonizing the environment and the universe. Esoteric practices include death-ritual ceremonies to liberate dead persons from suffering as well as exorcism, consecration, and empowerment. But Bon practices are not limited to ceremonies and rituals only. There are higher-level teachings of a very esoteric nature, in both Tantra (Sang Ngag) and the Great Perfection (Dzogchen), Sang Ngag includes visualization and generation (kyerim) and perfection (zogrim) stages, and the practices of channels (tsa), wind (lung), and physical exercise (trulkhor) as gradual practices on the wheels or chakras (khorlo), energy points in the body. The most secret Bon practice is Dzogchen, the great perfection. All of these traditions are still preserved and practiced today.
Eighteen-hundred years after the passing of Tonpa Shenrab, Mucho Demdug came from heaven to Olmo Lung Ring as the speech emanation of Tonpa Shenrab. Mucho Demdug turned the wheel of Bon so that all the teachings of Tonpa Shenrab would be organized and classified. He taught many students, the best known of which are referred to as the Six Great Scholars or the “Six Ornaments of the World” (Zamling Khepi Gyendug). They translated the Bon teachings into their own languages and spread them throughout their native lands. These six great masters are Mutsa Tahe, Tritok Partsa, and Huli Paryag from Tagzig; Lhadag Ngagdo from India; Legtang Mangpo from China; and Sertok Chejam from Trom.
The Bon teachings were by now well established in Zhang Zhung, where the northwestern part of modem Tibet is today. As noted above, Zhang Zhung was an independent state with its own language, literature, and culture. It was divided into three sections, referred to as the “three doors”: inner (phugpa), outer (gopa), and middle (barpa). The inner door is Olmo Lung Ring, the middle door is Tagzig, and the outer door is Zhang Zhung itself. In the eighth century, the assassination of Emperor Ligmincha by the Tibetan king Trisong Dewutsen ended Zhang Zhung’s independence. Thereafter, Zhang Zhung’s land and culture were assimilated into Tibet, and they eventually disappeared. However, many Zhang Zhung words from ancient Bon texts still exist in the modern languages of Kinnaur, Lahul, Spiti, Ladakh, Zanskar, and some Himalayan regions of Nepal.
The Zhang Zhung language had three different scripts, referred to as the wild (dag yig), small (mar yig chungwa), and big (mar yig chewa) scripts. Tibetan script was derived from the Zhang Zhung mar yig scripts. Many Tibetan and western scholars believe that there was no written language before the time of Songtsen Gampo, the king of Tibet in the seventh century A.D. Bon scholars do not accept this view, holding that its proponents have not adequately researched the early origins of the Tibetan language and the history of Tibet.
During his original trip to Tibet, Tonpa Shenrab mainly taught the causal teachings of Bon, because he found that the Tibetans were not ready to receive the higher teachings, At that time, Tonpa Shenrab prophesied that there would come a time when the nine levels of the Bon teachings would be given throughout Tibet.
In the tenth century B.C., many Bon teachings were translated from the Zhang Zhung language into Tibetan by the Four Great Scholars” (Khepa Mi Zhi): Tong Gyung Thu Chen of Zhang Zhung, Shari Wuchen of Tibet, Gyim Tsa Ma Chung of De, and Chetsa Kharwu of Menyak. Their translations of these teachings, which spread throughout Tibet, are still practiced today. In approximately 1075 B.C., the secret or fruition Teachings began to spread more widely, especially during the reign of Mutri Tsenpo, the second king of Tibet, who received these teaching from Namkha Nangwa Dhok Cen of Tagzig.
King Mutri Tsenpo was a great practitioner and master of Bon, and most Bon lineages of the esoteric teachings passed through him. This demonstrates that there was already a rich and developed Tibetan literature at that time. For this reason, Bonpos believe that Tibetan culture did not begin in the seventh century A.D., because teaching and translation from the Zhang Zhung language could not have taken place without first having a language to translate into.
Buddhists first came to Tibet from India at the middle of the seventh century A.D. The spread of Buddhism resulted in the decline of the native Tibetan culture and religion, Bon. The first persecutions of Bonpos began in approximately A.D. 684, during the reign of Drigum Tsenpo, the seventh king of Tibet. The second persecution of Bonpos was during the eighth century, during the reign of Trisong Dewutsen, the thirty-seventh king of Tibet. Many Bon texts and spiritual places were damaged or destroyed during these two periods, and many Bonpos faced great adversity, Bon practitioners were typically given the choice of converting from Bon to Buddhism, leaving Tibet, or being put to death.
The Hidden Treasures of Bon
As these persecutions began, Bon masters (Bon Shen Rigzin) had great concern for the Bon teachings and for the suffering of all sentient beings. Therefore, they hid many of the Bon texts in order to preserve them. They entrusted these texts with prayers and invoked an oath from particular protectors that the texts would be protected until the time was right for them to be rediscovered. These texts are referred to as “hidden treasures” (Bon ter). Later, in the eleventh century, the great treasure revealer Terton Chenpo, also known as Shen Chen Luga (A.D, 969—1035), and others recovered many of these hidden treasures of Bon. These rediscovered texts are referred to as “terma,” Shen Chen Luga systemized these Bon teachings and spread them to his disciples. Once again, the sun of the Bon teachings shone over Tibet.
Shen Chen Luga had many disciples, but three of them are considered his main successors. The first is Dru Je Yungdrung Lama, who established the Yeru Wensa Kha monastery in A.D. L012 in the Tsang Province of Tibet. Yeru Wensa Kha became a center of Bon education. Druchen Namkha Yungdrung also systemized the methods of philosophical training known as Gap Pa (teaching of Dzogchen), Dzo (teaching of cosmology), and Sa Lam (the stage and paths according to Dho). This center attracted students as a flower attracts bees, and produced many great scholars, including those known as the “Eighteen Great Teachers” (Yeru Tonpa Chogyed) of Wensa Kha.
The second disciple, Zhu Ye Legpo, established the seat of the Zhu lineage in Kyid Khar Rizhing, also in the Tsang Province of Tibet. There he built a monastery and primarily spread the Dzogchen teachings. Lineage holders of this tradition are still alive in Nepal and Tibet.
The third disciple, Paton Palchok Zangpo, was the holder of the Pa lineage and spread the teachings of the Tantric tradition. The monasteries of this lineage were reestablished at Hor in the Kham region of Tibet, where the lineage holders of this tradition still live.
In A.D. 1052 the great master and scholar of the Meu lineage, Khepa Palchen, established Zang Ri Meu Tsang Monastery in central Tibet. He also systemized the Bon educational institution. Other monasteries were established throughout Tibet, and the traditions of the Bon teachings and practices were revitalized.
Yeru Wensa Kha Monastery, the main Bon monastery of its time, was destroyed by flood and landslide. In order to preserve the Bon traditions for the benefit of all sentient beings, Nyamed Sherab Gyaltsen (1356-1415) was guided by oral transmissions from Sidpa Gyalmo (the chief protector of Bon) in 1405 to establish a new monastery, Tashi Menri Ling, in the Tobgyal village of Tsang Province. This was considered a miracle, because the monastery was built not only by human hands but also by the protectors, while Nyamed Sherab Gyaltsen was in meditation. He reestablished the teaching tradition ofthe Dru lineage of Yeru Wensa Kha and attracted many students from all over Tibet. Since then, Menri monastery has become known as the “mother monastery” of all Bonpos.
Menri Monastery follows the monastic rules (cha yig) established by Nyamed Sherab Gyaltsen. According to these rules, a monk’s family, wealth, or political position is not considered. The monastery hierarchy is based on seniority (i.e., those who have been monks longer have greater seniority).
Other Bon monasteries and teaching centers were also established. These included Khyung Lung Ngari in Zhang Zhung or upper Tibet and others in Tewa, Jadur, Hor, Tsang, Khyungpo, Derge, Ling Tsang, Menyak, Lithang, Nyagrong, Amdo, and Gayrong. In A.D. 1834 Yungdrung Ling was established by Nang Ton Dawa Gyaltsen (1796— 1863) and it eventually became the second most important Bon monastery.
Until 1959 there were three Bon monasteries that functioned as the primary training institutes for monks. These three, Menri, Kharna and Yungdrung Ling, were referred to as the “upper, middle, and lower land of monks” (Drasa Gong Wog Bar Sum).
Bon and its followers suffered the same fate as other Tibetan religions when the Chinese annexed Tibet in 1959. Many Bon monks and laypersons went into exile in India and Nepal. In 1963 His Holiness the 32nd Menri Trizin, Sherab Lodo, the spiritual leader of the Bon religion and the Abbot of Menri Monastery, passed away in exile in India.
In order to keep the Bonpo community and its culture intact, in 1967 H.E. Yongzin Tenzin Namdak Rinpoche established the “New Tobgyal Bonpo Settlement” of Dolanji, in the Himachal Pradesh region of northern India.
The spiritual leaders of the Bon religion, all now in exile, met in 1969 and performed a traditional ceremony to choose a new throne-holder for Menri Monastery. These leaders included H.H. Sherab Tenpa Gyaltsen (the Abbot of Yungdrung Ling Monastery), Senior Menri Lopon H.E. Sangye Tenzin Rinpoche, H.E, Yongzin Tenzin Namdak Rinpoche, and other lamas, monks, and tulkus, Geshe Sangye Tenzin Jongdong was selected by the protectors as His Holiness the 33d Menri Trizin, the spiritual leader of Bon.
Since the enthronement of the 33rd H.H, Menri Trizin, a new temple has been built in Dolanji. In addition, Tibetan and English libraries have been established, as well as the central Yungdrung Bon Monastic Centre, which has extensive living quartets for monks.
An orphanage was built within the monastery in order to house boys whose families cannot care for them. In 1978 the Bon Dialectic School, which offers the full traditional training of Yeru Wensa Kha and Menri, was established at Menri Monastery. Food, lodging, and other necessities are provided by H.H. Menri Trizin so that the students at the Bon Dialectic School may apply themselves entirely to their education. H.E. Yongzin Tenzin Namdak Rinpoche and the dialectics teacher, Lharam Geshe Yungdrung Namgyal or “Tson Du Gongphel,” take responsibility for all education and training concerns.
In 1986 six monks were graduated from the BonDialecticSchool at Menri, receiving the Geshe degree (equivalent to a Ph.D. from a western university). These were the first monks to receive the Geshe degree while in exile. Since then, more than fifty Geshes have graduated from the BonDialecticSchool. Many of them are serving in their native regions to spread the Bon teachings, some travel to the west and spread the Bon teachings, while others remain at Menri monastery. The ancient lineage of the Bon religion is now reestablished and is being passed on to the next generation. Bonpos are proud that their traditions, which have survived great adversity over the centuries, are still alive and active.