Bon: Indigenous Religion of Tibet


Bön is an indigenous religion of the Tibet or also called a Pre-Buddhist religion.
Bön (བོན་པོ།) is the indigenous religion of the Tibet of the ancient Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau. It is believed that Bon is practised before Buddhism, in the 7th century AD.
Originally the term ‘bon’ designated the various existing religious and magico-ritual traditions, very probably based on elements common to the heritage of pan Asiatic Shamanism.

Yungdrung is a left-facing swastika, a sacred symbol of Bon religion.

Bon Religion Symbol
Bon Religion Symbol

Namkha i Norbu (p. xv): Etymologically the term derives from the verb bon pa, ‘to recite magical formulas,’ because the power its practitioners obtained derived from the recitation of the mantra syllables or sounds with the capacity of influencing certain energy dimensions. In fact through the vibration of the mantra, the ancient Bonpos came into contact with and succeeded in controlling the invisible energies and occult forces that govern existence.

John Powers (p. 500): The term bön for Bönpos (practitioners of Bön) signifies “truth.” “reality.” and the true 9.octrine,” which provides a path to liberation.

David Snellgrove (390): it has incorporated so many Buddhist elements that it has become a form of Buddhism that may fairly be regarded as heretical, in that those who follow it have persisted in claiming that their religion was taught not by Sakyamuni Buddha, but by gShen-rab [Shenrap]. likewise accepted as Buddha, and that it came not from India, but from Ta-zig [Taksik] and by way of Zhang-zhung [Shangshung]. Such are the Bonpos, who have managed to hold their own down to the present day against the enormously more powerful representatives of orthodox Buddhism, while they are constantly and quite wrongly identified by other Tibetans.. as the persistent practitioners of pre-Buddhist Tibetan religion.

Origin of the tradition of Bön
a) According to Bön sources, the tradition came to Tibet from Taksik (which appears to roughly refer to the area of Persia). Shenrap, the founder of Bön, brought the religion from Taksik to the kingdom of Shangshung (which was probably an area in western Tibet with Mount Kailash at its center).
Early Bön texts are said to have been written in a language called the language of Shangshung which appears to be an archaic Tibetan dialect.

Snellgrove contends that the claim that Bön came from Shangshung has a ring of authenticity to it, since Shangshung, refers to a remote area in the western part of Tibet. Prior to Buddhism’s dissemination into Tibet, it had already been introduced to neighbouring areas, probably including Shangshung, which was undoubtedly visited by caravans travelling through Central Asia. Since much of Central Asia at one time was Buddhist, it is very plausible that a form of Buddhism could have been transmitted to western Tibet prior to the arrival of Buddhist missionaries in the central provinces. Once established, it might then have absorbed elements of the local folk religion, eventually developing into a distinctive system incorporating features of Central Asian Buddhism and Tibetan folk religion.

Founder of Bön

Tönpa Shenrab – Founder of Bön
According to Bönpos, the founder of this original tradition was Tonpa Shenrab, whose name means “Supreme Clan teacher“. He is considered by Bönpos to be a fully awakened Buddha who took physical form in order to teach others the true path to awakening. His biography bears some similarities to that of Sakyamuni, although there are enough notable differences to indicate that it is not an attempt to copy the Buddhist story. According to the Bon text, Shenrab began his teaching career after deciding to descend from a heavenly realm and take rebirth among humans in order to teach them a path to salvation. Shenrab is said to have spent most of his teaching career as a layman, and that his many wives, sons, daughters, and disciples are important figures in stories of the dissemination of Bön
doctrines and practices. His missionary efforts were most effective in regions to the west of the Tibetan plateau, and Bönpo believes that their tradition entered Tibet from the west during the time of the earliest kings, centuries before the introduction of Buddhism.

Classification of Bön Dharma:

Perhaps as a result of the fact that they are often characterized by Buddhists as mere magicians,
many Bön teachers today make a distinction between three types of Bön:
(1) Old Bön, consisting of shamanistic practices;
(2) New or reformed Bön, which developed as a result of competition with Buddhism, and in the process absorbed Buddhist elements; and
(3) Swastika Bön (g.yungdrung bon), the “eternal Bön”, which refers to the tradition established by Shenrap.

Their claim that Buddhists borrowed their doctrine is baseless argument because Buddhist was transmitted into Tibet from India not from Shangshung where their lord Tönpa Shenrab originated. Because of their minority, they concocted this false story to defend their Bön tradition.
But this is just a childish claim which nobody who studies History of Buddhism well gives ear to it.
b) They see Padmasambhava as a hostile to their cult because Padmasambhava subdued them and rendered them powerless. This is conspicuous without its in their literature. So they put forth baseless arguments of their own creation. Padmasambhava, Vimalamitra brought Dzogchen teachings which were taught to the Bönpos as well.

d) So whatever the claim of Bönpos, in view of above arguments, there are two types of Bön
1. Black Bön (Bön nag)
2. White Bön (Bön Kar)
Before the introduction of Buddhism in Tibet, the Bön were Black Bön and after assimilation of Buddhist teaching into their cult, it became White Bön while retaining the elements of the Black Bön as well. This is not Buddhist persecution of Bön but is a historical fact which the Bön do not think is necessary

David Snellgrove also remarks:

I am bound to understand Bön in the full bonpo sense and that includes all their gradual adaptation of Buddhist doctrine and practice. They themselves do not acknowledge these Buddhist elements as adaptations. Lacking the necessary historical sense, they persist in claiming all their teachings and doctrines are the true original Bön, partly promulgated direct in Tibet by gSen-rab their founder, but mainly received through translations from the language of tan-iun of ancient western Tibet.”

Following way of Bon

There are 9 ways to follow Bon religion. They are:

1. The Way of Prediction (phyva gshen theg pa)
This Way involves four general practices includes divination (mo), astrology calculation (rtsis), various rituals (gto), and medical diagnosis (dypad).

2. The Way of the Shen of the Visual World (Snang gshen theg pa)
It concerned with overpowering or placating the gods and demons of this world. The ritual performed for the benefit of clients. These bring worldly prosperity and depend on the magical powers of those who execute them and involved with exorcism.

3. The Way of the Shen of Illusion (‘phrul gshen theg pa)
It concerned with counteracting the influences of demonic beings, protecting people from harmful forces, and rituals of exorcism.

4. The Way of the Shen of the Existence (srid gshen theg pa)
It concerned with caring for living and the dead. Protecting the life force of living beings and bring back the spirits of the dead. These first four vehicles include the indigenous folk religious practices of Tibet, many of which are of ancient origin are also called Casual Vehicles.

5. The Way of the Virtuous Adherers (dge bsnyen theg pa)
It refers to those who follow the practice of the ten virtues and the ten perfections and build and worship stupas.

6. The Way of the Great Ascetics (drang srong theg pa)
Drang srong- Risi, used by bonpos to refer to fully qualified monks. This is the way of stric ascetic discipline and meditative training. The symbol of this vehicle is the swastika. The Bon swastika differs from the symbol used by Buddhists in that it is oriented in an anticlockwise direction, while the Buddhist swastika’s orientation is clockwise.

7. The Way of Pure Sound (A-dkar theg pa)
It deals with higher tantric practice and meditation. White A refers to the emanation of a five part mandala from the translucent center of a Tibetan letter A. It is responsible for making offerings to deities using nine vessels and nine tormas and for maintaining the order of world through their rituals and chants and with special songs called gshenglu. Correspond to Nyingma Mahayoga tantra.

8. The  Way of the Primordial Shen (ye gshen theg pa)
It renders the guidelines for seeking a true tantric master and the commitments (dam tshigs, parallel to the Sanskrit samaya) that bind a disciple to his tantric master. It corresponds to those of the Nyingma Anuyoga tantras.

9. The Supreme Way (bla med theg pa)
Bon teachings of the great perfection (rdzogs chen) which correspond to those of the Nyingma order. Bonpos consider Dzogchen to be the supreme of all meditative path.

10. Four Bon Portals and the Treasury as Fifth
1. The four portals
i) White Water (chab dkar) relates esoteric matters.
i) Black Water (chab nag) concerns narratives, magic, funeral rites and ransom rituals