What is Bon?
Bön was the indigenous religion of Tibet before the arrival of Buddhism in the 7th century AD. Today, Bön is similar to Tibetan Buddhism. It is a matter of controversy whether Bön influenced Tibetan Buddhism or the other way around. Bön is spelled either Bön or Bon, and is sometimes called Bonism. Followers of Bön are known as Bönpo or Bon-po.
- Date founded: none (Original Bön); 16,000 BC (Yungdrung Bön, according to the Bönpo); 14th cent. AD (New Bön)
- Place founded: Tibet
- Founder: none (Original Bön); Tonpa Shenrab Miwoche (Yungdrung Bön)
- Adherents: unknown, perhaps around 100,000
Both scholars and the Bönpo themselves distinguish between original Bön and modern Bön. "Original Bön" refers to the indigenous religion of Tibet, which was animistic (believing that nature is pervaded by good and evil spirits) and shamanistic. The name was probably derived from the ritual recitation (Bön, meaning "invocation") of its practitioners. 1
The exact nature of original Bön is difficult to determine, since all early descriptions of it are from the Buddhist perspective and intended to discredit it. After the first diffusion of Buddhism into Tibet in the 7th century, Bön was persecuted under Buddhist rulers, but it survived and became more organized at the time of the second diffusion of Buddhism in the 11th century. 2
The Bönpo teach a second stage of Bön, which scholars generally dismiss, called Yungdrung Bön. This stage of Bön is said to have been founded by a Buddha-like figure named Shenrab Miwoche, who lived 18,000 years ago in a mythical land of Zhang Zhung near Tibet.
Like the Buddha, Shenrab renounced his life as a prince to become a monk, achieved enlightenment, and taught others how to attain it. He thus converted the people from animistic Bön to Yungdrung ("eternal") Bön. The claim, therefore, is that Bön incorporated Buddhist-like elements prior to and apart from the influence of Buddhism. 3
Alternatively, Tibetan Buddhist scholars have identified Shenrab with Lao-Tzu, making Bön a derivative of Taoism. Modern scholars have also suggested Shaivite (Hindu sect devoted to Shiva) influence from Kashmir in the development of Bön. 4
Bön as it is practiced now, known as "New Bön," is essentially a form of Tibetan Buddhism. It began in the 14th century when some Bön teachers began to adopt Tibetan Buddhist practices related to Padmasambhava. Although New Bön differs considerably from Yungdrun Bön, the practitioners of New Bön regard their religion as part of a continuous Bön tradition that includes the prior stages. According to the Oxford Dictionary of World Religions, however, "any connection between ancient and modern Bön is extremely tenuous." 5
It is commonly believed that Tibetan Buddhism was shaped by Bön, but the Oxford Dictionary refutes this as well. "Contrary to the popular misconception that Buddhism was significantly influenced by Bön when it entered Tibet, it is clear that what is known of Bön today is almost completely influenced by Mahayana Buddhism, which was itself transplanted from India into Tibet virtually unchanged." 6 The Dalai Lama, who is supportive of Bön, shares a similar persepctive: "In its beginning, I believe, it [Bön] was not such a fruitful religion, but when Buddhism began to flourish in Tibet, Bön also had an opportunity to enrich its own religious philosophy and meditational resources." 7
Today, Bön can be found in the more isolated parts of northern and western Tibet, as well as in exile at the Tashi Menri Ling Monastery in Dolanji in Himachal Pradesh, India. The current leader of Bön is His Holiness Lungtok Tenpai Nyima.
According to the Chinese census, about 10% of Tibetans (about 100,000 people) follow Bön. At the time of the communist takeover there were approximately 300 Bön monasteries in Tibet and western China. According to a recent survey, there are 264 active Bön monasteries, nunneries, and hermitages. 8
In its earlier forms Bön doctrine was a dualistic theism, teaching that the creation of the world was brought about by coexistent good and evil principles, but the philosophy of modern Bön is generally in accord with Buddhist non-theistic tenets. 9
However, Bön ritual includes worship, iconography, and meditation on peaceful and wrathful deities (as in Tibetan Buddhism). In addition to peaceful and wrathful deities, Bön distinguishes between "enlightened" deities and those who are still "of this world," or not fully enlightened. There are four principal peaceful deities, known as the Four Transcendent Lords. These are led by a goddess, Yum, "the Mother," followed by three male deities known as Lha, "the God," Sipa, "the Procreator," and Tönpa, "the Teacher." 10
The main Bön rituals center around the wrathful or tutelary deities (yidam), divided into Mother Tantras and Father Tantras. They are depicted with fierce expressions, many arms and legs wielding frightening weapons, and trampling enemies under their feet. As in Tibetan Buddhism, meditation on the wrathful deities is a means of understanding reality and attaining enlightenment. 11
Bön shares with the Nyingma schools of Buddhism the structure of the nine yanas (ways or vehicles), which climax in the meditation of "the great perfection." This Bönpos claim was transmitted first by Shenrab and only later entered the Nyingma tradition. 12 The Nine Ways of Bön are:
- Way of Prediction (Phyva-gshen Theg-pa) - astrology, ritual and prognostication
- Way of the Visual World (sNang-shen theg-pa) - explains the psychophysical universe
- Way of Illusion ('Phrul-gshen theg-pa) - rites for dispersing adverse forces
- Way of Existence (Srid-gshen theg-pa) - funeral and death rituals
- Way of a Lay Follower (dGe-bsnyen theg-pa) - ten principles for wholesome activity
- Way of a Monk (Drnag-srnng theg-pa) - monastic rules and regulations
- Way of Primordial Sound (Adkar theg-pa) - integration of an exalted practitioner into the mandala of highest enlightenment
- Way of Primordial Shen (Ye-gshen theg-pa) - seeking a true tantric master and the spiritual commitments that binds a disciple to his tantric master
- Way of Supreme Doctrine (Bla-med theg-pa) - the doctrine of great perfection. 13
Bön practices are similar in many ways to those of Tibetan Buddhism, including the use of thangkas, mandalas, and meditation on various deities as means to enlightenment. The monastic life is heavily emphasized. As in original Bön, astrology and medicine remain important.
References & Sources
- "Bön." John R. Hinnels, ed., The Penguin Dictionary of Religions, 2nd ed. (Penguin Books, 1997).
- "Bön." John Bowker, ed., The Concise Oxford Dictionary of World Religions (Oxford UP, 2000).
- "Bön." Wikipedia (December 2005).
- "Bon." John R. Hinnels, ed., The Penguin Dictionary of Religions, 2nd ed. (Penguin Books, 1997).
- Oxford Dictionary.
- Dalai Lama, My Land and My People (McGraw-Hill, 1962), p. 239.
- Penguin Dictionary.
- Per Kvaerne, The Bon Religion of Tibet: The Iconography of a Living Tradition (Shambhala, 2001), p. 24.
- Penguin Dictionary.
- "The Bönpo's Tradition." Official Website of the Government of Tibet in Exile.
- Bön - Internet Encyclopedia of Religion
- About Bön - The Bön Foundation
- The Bönpo's Tradition - The Government of Tibet in Exile
- The Bön Religion - tibetanbon.com
- Nyima Dakpa, Opening the Door to Bon (Snow Lion, 2006).
- Per Kvaerne, Tibet Bon Religion: A Death Ritual of the Tibetan Bonpos (Brill Academic, 1985).
- Per Kvaerne, The Bon Religion of Tibet: The Iconography of a Living Tradition (Shambhala, 2001).
- Dan Martin, Unearthing Bon Treasures: Life and Contested Legacy of a Tibetan Scripture Revealer, With a General Bibliography of Bon (Brill Academic, 2001).
- Donatella Rossi, The Philosophical View of the Great Perfection in the Tibetan Bon Religion (Snow Lion, 2000).
- John Vincent Bellezza, Spirit-mediums, Sacred Mountains and Related Bon Textual Traditions in Upper Tibet: Calling Down the Gods.
- Jean-Luc Archard, Bon Po Hidden Treasures.
- Christoph Baumer, Bon.