Tibet’s oldest spiritual tradition is Bon. According to Bonpo acounts, eighteen enlightened teachers will appear in this aeon and Tonpa Shenrab, the founder of the Bon religion, is the enlightened teacher of this age. He is said to have been born in the mythical land of Olmo Lung Ring, whose location remains something of a mystery. The land is traditionally described as dominated by Mount Yung-drung Gu-tzeg (Edifice of Nine Swastikas), which many identify as Mount Kailash in western Tibet. Due to the sacredness of Olmo Lung Ring and the mountain, both the counter-clockwise swastika and the number nine are of great significance in the Bon religion.
It is believed that Tonpa Shenrab first studied the Bon doctrine in heaven, at the end of which he pledged at the feet of the god of compassion, Shenla Okar, to guide the people of this world. Accordingly, at the age of thirty one he renounced the world and took up a life of austerity, spreading the doctrine in order to help the beings immersed in an ocean of misery and suffering. In his effort to spread the doctrine, he arrived in Tibet, in the region of Mount Kailash, which is known as the land of Zhang Zhung, historically the principal seat of Bon culture and doctirne.
Accounts of Tonpa Shenrab’s life are to be found in three major sources: mDo-‘dus, gZer-mig and gZi-brjig. The first two are believed to be treasure texts (gTer-ma) discovered according to Bon history in the tenth or eleventh century. The third belongs to the whispered lienage (sNyan-brgyud) transmitted amongst adepts.
The doctrines taught by Tonpa Shenrab are generally classified into two types, first, The Four Portals and One Treasury (sGo-bzhi mDzod -lnga): the White Water (Chab-dkar) doctrine dealing with esotric matters; the Black Water (Chab-nag) doctrine concerning narratives, magic, funeral rites and ransom rituals; the Land of Phan (‘Phan-yul) doctrine which contains monastic rules and philosophical exopositions; the Divine Guide (dPon-gsas) doctrine containing exclusively the great perfection teachings; and finally, the Treasury (mTho-thog) which comprises the essential aspects of all the four protals.
The second classification, the Nine way of Bon (Bon theg-pa rim-dga) is as follows: the Way of Prediction (Phyva-gshen theg-pa), which describes sortilege, astrology, ritual and rpognostication; the Way of the Visual World (sNag-gshen theg-pa), which explains the psychophysical universe; the way of Illusion (‘Phrul-gshen theg-pa), Which gives details of the rites for the dispersing adverse forces; the Way of Existence (Srid-gshen theg-pa), which explains funeral and death rituals; the Way of a Lay which explains funeral adn death rituals; the Way of a Lay Follower (dGe-bsnyen theg-pa), which contains the ten principles for wholesome activity; the Way of a Monk, (Drag-srong theg-pa), in which the monastic rules and regulations are laid out; the Way of Primordial Sound (A-dkar theg -pa), which explains the integration of an exalted practitioner into the mandala of highest enlightenment; the Way of Primordial Shen, (Ye-gshen theg-pa), which explains the guidelines for seeking a true tantric master and the spiritual commitment that binds a disciple to his tantric master; and finally, the Way of supreme Doctrine (Bla-med theg -pa), which discusses only the doctrine of great perfection.
The nine ways are further synthesised into three: the first four as the Causal Ways (rGyu’i-theg-pa), the second four as the Resultant Ways (‘Bras-bu’i-theg-pa) and the ninth as the Unsurpassable way or the Way of Great Completion (Khyad-par chen po’i-theg-pa or rDzogs-chen). These are contained in the Bon canon comprising more than two hundred volumes classified under four sections: the sutras (mDo), the perfection of wisdom teachings (‘Bum), and the tantras (rGyud) and knowledge (mDzod). Besides these, the canon deals with other subjects such as rituals, arts and crafts, logic, medicine, poetry and narrative. It is interesting to note that hte knowledge (mDzod) section concernieng cosmology and cosmogony is quite unique to Bon, though there is scholarly speculation that it has a strong affinity with certain Nyingma doctrines.
History has it that with increasing royal patronage of Buddhism, Bon was discouraged, and faced persecution and banishment. Practically nothing is known about Bon during the period from the eighth to the early eleventh centuries. However, with the relentless devotion and endeavor of sincere followers such as Drenpa Namkha (9th century(, Shenchen Kunga (10th century) and many others the Bon, Tibet’s indigenous religion, was rescued from oblivion and re-established itself alongside Buddhism in Tibet.
Since the eleventh century, with the founding of monasteries such as Yeru Ensakha, Kyikhar Rishing, Zangri and later Menri and Yungdrung Ling in Central Tibet; and Nangleg Gon, Khyunglung Ngulkar and others, more than three hundred Bon monasteries has been established in Tibet prior to Chinese occupation. Of these, Menri and Yungdrung monasteries were the major monastic universities for the study and practice of Bon doctrines. A reassessment of Bon took place in the nineteenth century at the hands of Sharza Tashi Gyeltsen, a Bon Master whose collected writings comprising eighteen volumes gave the tradition new impetus. His follower Kagya Khyngtrul Jigmey Namkha trained many disciples learned in not only the Bon religion, but in all the Tibetan sciences. However, with the Chinese invasion of Tibet, like the other spiritual traditions, Bon also faced irreparable loss.
Through the efforts of Abbot Lungtok Tenpai Gyeltsen Rinpochey, Venerable Sangyey Tenzina nd a few elderly monks, a small section of Bon community has been successful in re-establishing Tashi Menri Ling monastery at Dolanji in ht ehills near Solan in Himachal Pradesh, India, with the encourgement fo His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the Concil for Religous and Cultural Affairs. For some time this monastery was the only major centre where young monks could receive a complete training in Bon philosophy, monastic discipline, ritual and religious dance. In addition to grammar, medicine, astrology and poetry monks are also provided with a modern education.
On successfully completing the full course of study, which is assessed by means of both written and dialectical examinations, a monk is awarded a Geshey Degree (Doctorate of Bonism). He then generally serves his community through teaching, writing an so forth.
Besides Mingye Yungdrungling there are also Tashi Thaten Ling and fourteen other Bon monsteries in India and Nepal. Efforts are being made to establish an International Institute of Bon in Nepal in order to further strengthen Bon religion activities and to present its doctrine to the outside world.
The Bon tradition has also received explicit support from His Holiness the Dalai Lama, who recently made a two days visit to Dolanji, where he was impressed by the students’ educational achievements. In addition, he made a statement at the 1988 Tulku Conference in Sarnath in which he stressed the importance of preserving the Bon tradition, as representing the indigenous source of Tibetan culture, and acknowledging the major role it has had in shaping Tibet’s unique identity.