Fujisan's Kyareng

Friday, August 21, 2015

Bon Religion of Tibet

Yungdrung-bon, the Religion of Eternal Truth in the Land of Snow
~ A Note to dispel the misunderstanding and misinterpretation of the religion ~
Buddha Tonpa Shenrab

Bon is generally considered as the indigenous religion of Tibet, which has survived to this day, and Bonpo as the followers of this religion. But this is a general assumption which is true to some extent at a conventional level only. Before the advent of Buddhism in 8th century AD, the religion was widespread in the land and has been a primal force which nourished the Tibetan culture, language and identity of the region. Tibetan civilization owed greatly to this indigenous faith or religion of their ancestors, which gave them a unique identity and cohesive force to survive and evolve as a nation. The early Tibetan empire has been managed and sustained by Drung, Deu and Bon[1]. Just as Buddhism became popular in Tibet and the neighboring regions around 8th century AD, Bon too was popular in the Himalaya and the neighboring regions at one time in the past[2].  We must remember that before the Tibetan nation emerged under the Yarlung dynasty, there already was a land known by Zhangzhung and ruled by Zhangzhung kings. The land covers a some part of Tibet and the surrounding areas[3]. 

Historians and scholars have attempted to unravel the origin and the meaning of the word Bon. According to Prof. Namkhai Norbu, Bon is an ancient Tibetan term having the same meaning as that of the word, bZla[4], meaning to recite. Bon-pa is an archaic verb meaning: to recite.[5] It is sometimes substituted with the word Gyer, which also means to recite or invoke[6]. Gyer is believed to be a Zhangzhung word for Bon, and Zhangzhung is the country from where the Yungdrung-bon religion came to Tibet. In ancient text, we can see the use of Bon as a verb as well as a noun to mean teach, recite, say, religion etc.[7] Bon is also said to be the source of the term "bod" for Tibet in Tibetan, and that the land took over the name of the religion "Chos Ming Yul la Tsur brTag-pa"[8].  Just as Chos, a term used for Dharma or Buddhism initially, has different meanings apart from religion, Bon too has a different meaning[9].

The term "Bon" is as ancient as the early history of Tibet, which we will deal with later. The concept of Bon, its teaching and the culture associated with it are purely of Tibetan origin. Unfortunately, this unique strength and original wisdom of Tibetan civilization has not been well understood and appreciated. Even in this 21st century of open knowledge, free access to information, and religious tolerance, Bon doctrine and its spiritual and culture contribution has not found the rightful place and acceptance it deserved from the progeny of the civilization it nurtured for so long. As a Tibetan who is proud of his ancestral heritage, although limited in knowledge, inspired by old books and people, this is my sincere attempt to throw some light on the matter to correct our perspective through reasoning rather than through concocted prejudiced bigotry and conventional hearsay.  

Just like any ancient civilization, Tibetan ancestors too lived with nature. Calm and bountiful nature provided peace, prosperity and development. Flood, thunder storms, earthquake, diseases and other natural calamities brought fear and insecurity. In order to live in harmony with nature and tame the destructive natural forces, our ancestors too were intelligent and ingenious enough to come up with the idea of communicating with these forces to pacify or to control them. This communication took the form of rituals involving propitiation, offerings, expelling, incantation, fumigation etc. As the civilization developed, the rituals also became more widespread and sophisticated. This took the form of the belief and foundation of the religion. These early practices and different forms of worship were called Bon. It has no doctrinal foundation, and was comparable with shamanism to some extent. R.S. Stein used the term "Nameless Religion"[10] to mean all the ritual practices widespread in Tibet and the neighboring regions in early times. With the advent of civilization, these indigenous practices also evolved and various form of Bon practices emerged in Tibet and the neighboring regions.

Some of the early forms of Bon prevalent in the land were: gDon-bon, bDud-bon, bTsen-bon, Dur-bon etc.[11]  There were kLu-bon, gNyen-bon, 'Dre-bon, Ngod sBying-bon, Ma-Sangs-kyi-bon etc[12]. Like any primitive religion, some of these Bons among other things involved sacrifice of flesh and blood [dmar-mchod] as propitiation rituals. It can be deduced from these facts that the term "Bon" was used broadly for all "Religious practice" in this early period. It was not a specific but a generic term to mean various forms of rituals and religious practices or faith in the land. The Bon religion that we are talking about in Tibetan society is Yungdrung-bon taught by Buddha Tonpa Shenrab. This Yungdrung-bon, which has sustained the Tibetan civilization since the early Zhangzhung and Yarlung Empire, and which later came to be known by Bon only, should not be confused with the generic Bon, a term used to mean various rituals, beliefs and faiths in the early period.

Tonpa Shenrab Miwo was the founder of Yungdrung-bon religion of Tibet. He reformed and reorganized the existing Bon rituals and expounded the doctrine of Eternal Bon. Tonpa Shenrab was believed to have beeen born in Wolmolungring[13], a mystical land in Tagzig[14], identified as Persia or modern day Iran. But given the direction, its proximity and the sound, any phonetician would link it to Tajik-sathan [the land Tajik people], which broke away from Soviet Union in 1991. Some scholars ascribe it to Zhangzhung, the present day Ngari region of Western Tibet[15]. The description of Wolmolungring described in Tonpa Shenrab's biography bears a striking resemblance to the area around Mount Tise and Lake Mansarovar in Western Tibet[16].

In mDo gZer-mig, the medium version of Tonpa Shenrab's life, existence of some forms of Bon practices is clear from the text, "Bod kyi bonpo la bon-du lha-gSol-wa, 'dre bkar-wa, yug phud-pa", meaning "For the Bonpos in Tibet, the religion of propitiating gods, interrogating demons, purification rites were introduced."[17] Here the term "Bonpo" is used for the practitioners and "Bon" for religion or ritual. It is also to be noted that in mDo-mDus, the shortest 8th century biography of Tonpa Shenrab, the title name of his father was Lha-bon Mi-bon rGyal-bon, meaning bon of god, bon of human, bon of king. These early scriptures very succinctly prove that there were practices known by Bon in Tibet and beyond the border of Tibet before the coming of Master Tonpa Shenrab.

People are apt to say that followers of Bon religion are called Bonpo. But this was not so in the early period. Before Buddhism, Yungdrung-bon religion flourished in Tibet. There was no need to identify the general populace as Bonpos; they were Tibetans only. The term "Bonpo" has been used synonymous to "Lama". It was a specific term used for a person or a priest or to the one who is conducting the religious ritual irrespective of what kind of Bon he was practicing. In mDo-gZer-mig, the medium version of Tonpa Shenrab's biography, he talks about different Bonpos, who tried to cure the ailing prince[18]. The general populace who believed in these rituals were not referred as Bon or Bonpo. Some scholars say that the term was originally used for a class of priest-magicians, and not to the religion itself[19]. This reference of Bonpo to all the practitioners and believers in Bon religion started only after the coming of Buddhism in Tibet to differentiate it from the Buddhist chospas.

So, this distinction of general Bon and Yungdrung-bon, and the term Bonpo in early and modern time should be properly understood to have a clear perception of what Bon and Bonpo we are talking about. The term "Chos", Tibetan equivalent to Dharma was coined with the coming of Buddhism in Tibet in 8th century. Initially, Chos was used to mean Buddha dharma, later it also came to be used to mean "religion" in general: Yeshu-chos for Christian, Kache-chos for Islam, Hindu-chos for Hindu etc. A parallel could be drawn to the fact that all yellow-haired [go-ser] foreigners were "Inji" [English] for Tibetans. Only after coming to India in 1959, Tibetans realized that all yellow-haired people are not "Inji".  

Just as all chospas are not Buddhist and all go-sers not Inji, all bonpos are not Yundrung-bon followers. Chos in generic terms is different from Buddhism; likewise, Bon in generic terms is different from Yungdurng-bon. This distinction should be very clear. What was Bon for religion earlier became Chos later. As early Bon practices were reformed and abolished, Yungdrung-bon religion came to be known only by Bon in the later period. Yungdrung-bon means religion of Yundrung, "Yung" means not distracted from the eternal truth or meaning, "Drung" means everlasting[20], so "Yungdrung-Bon" means "Religion of everlasting or eternal truth". And this religion should not be confused with the other early practices which may have survived in and around Tibet in the name of Bon.

Yungdrung-Bon doctrine taught by Tonpa Shenrab, which has come from Zhangzhung and has been practiced since the early days of Nyatri Tsenpo[21], the first king of Tibet, should not be taken as the same as the early Bon practices where some form of animal sacrifices were involved. In mDo-gZer-mig, the medium version of Tonpa Shenrab's biography, one of the Bonpo priests has said, "I don't understand the Bon of killing one to revive another; it is not proper and should be avoided."[22]. Tonpa Shenrab reformed and abolished all forms of animal sacrifice and blood offerings and replaced it with substitutions using dough, effigies, etc. for glud and dmar-chos[23] rituals. These teachings are well recorded in the four Bon of cause; where he taught divination, astrology, sortilege, healing, exorcism, ransom, funeral rites, etc. In fact, if we look at Tibetan culture, it is these four Bon of cause which have made the Tibetan culture unique and rich, and these practices are still very much alive in Tibetan society in different forms and are well adapted into their religious and secular life.

In order to properly understand the teaching of Yungdrung-bon, commonly known as Bon, study of the biography of the Teacher Tonpa Shenrab, which is in three versions, is indispensable. mDo ‘dus is one of the earliest and shortest written sources in one volume with 21 chapters under gTerma [discovered text] on the life of Tonpa Shenrab[24]. The text is believed to be translated from Zhangzhung to Tibetan by sNya-chen Lishu stag-ring and he concealed it in 8th century. Two other biographies: gZer-mig and gZi-brJid are the medium and longer versions of the Teacher's life and teachings, containing 2 volumes with 18 chapters, and 12 volumes with 61 chapters respectively. The doctrine and philosophical teachings of the Yungdrung-bon are classified into two as 1) sGo-Zhi mZod-nga; four doors and one treasury, and 2) Theg-pa rim-pa dgu; nine stages of vehicle. The latter is popularly known as "Nine ways of bon", after David Snellgrove's translation.[25] The Nine ways of Bon are further classified as rGyu-bon zhi; four bon of cause, 'bres-bon zhi; four bon of result, and the rZod-pa chen-po; the great perfection. Until and unless one has gone through these hagiographies and the vehicles, it may not be prudent to slander the teachings of this great Master of Tibet[26], Tonpa Shenrab.

It is true that Buddhism greatly enriched and enlightened the Tibetan civilization, but discarding and belittling one's own root and culture is not an honorable conduct. Buddhist missionaries extolled India as the land of Gods; anything coming from India was considered sacred and pure, so much so that the propagators tried and were in fact successful in rewriting the Tibetan ancient history by ascribing the origin of the Tibetan race[27], king[28], and language[29] to India. Scholars like Namkhai Norbu have refuted these claims as overdoing of the Buddhist masters to show their loyalty to the land of Dharma[30] and to disparage the native civilization.  

"In both China and Japan, the Dharma flourished and greatly influenced the development and enrichment of the cultures of respective nations. But nowhere have these nations sacrificed the uniqueness of their own culture and history for the sake of Dharma. There would be nothing wrong if the Tibetans would view the relation between Buddhist religion and their cultural history in such a perspective."[31]            

Guru Padma Sambhava
We sometimes hear of the difficult situation faced by children of Bonpo families when they were in Tibetan schools in India. In one of the Guru Rinpoche's prayers "Bar Ched Lam-Sel" it is written "gDon-gZugs Bon-gyi bsTen-pa bsNubs"[32], and many interpret this as "Guru Rinpoche abolished the Bon religion of Tibet". This is not true, and it is blasphemous to interpret it in this way. gDon means demonic spirit, and gZugs means form. So what the scripture is saying is that Guru Rinpoche abolished the Bon teaching that was in the form of "gDon-worship", i.e. demonic spirit-worship or propitiation. Tonpa Shenrab too disapproved of this practice much earlier, when he introduced Yungdrung-bon. A simple explanation from a teacher could have saved many Bonpo children from the psychological trauma of having to recite this prayer along with other students in the schools, and other students also from thinking that Bon was to be avoided. We have already discussed the various forms of Bon prevalent in Tibet and the neighboring regions before Tonpa Shenrab and this gDon-bon could have survived in some form, even during the Guru Rinpoche's time. So, this gDon-bon which Guru Rinpoche subdued and was recorded in the scripture should not be misunderstood for Yungdrung-bon practiced by the Tibetan Bonpos. Guru Rinpoche did not suppress or abolish Yungdrung-bon teaching.
As for Guru Rinpoche's view on the Bon teaching, here is an extract from Kathang, "gYung-drung bon kyang bden-par nges. Sid-pai dgu-lha dus su mchod. gnod-byed nyes-pa' si-mgo non. Long-spyod phyawa dang gyang du 'gug. Bod rnam bde-legs 'byung bar mzed[33]." This can be roughly translated in laymen's language as: "Yungdrung-bon is also a confirmed truth. Deities of the land should be propitiated in time. Heads of the harmful demons should be suppressed. Prosperity should be summoned through Phya and Yang [luck and essence]. Tibetans be blessed with health and prosperity."

Buddhism too was misinterpreted in early 10th and 11th century, where tantra practices were greatly misused. This led Lha Lama Yeshe-Od to invite Atisha Dipamkarashrijana to clarify and revive the real teaching of the Buddha[34]. But this does not mean that Buddhism before Atisha was bad and Buddhism after Atisha was good. Buddhism as a religion is pure and good, but there could be bad practitioners. Just because there are bad practitioners, we cannot say that the religion is bad. So it is same with Bon teaching, not all early forms of Bon are bad. There could be bad as well as good Bon, but the mDo, sNgags and Sems teaching of Yungdrung-bon taught by Tonpa Shenrab is what is being practiced by the Tibetan Bonpos. And it is this Bon we have to take into the context while talking about Bon religion of Tibet and its followers, Bonpo.

Tibetans should be proud that like any other major civilizations of the world, they too had an ancient religious culture, which evolved over the period of time, coexisted with Buddhism, and gave the land and the world a unique religion and culture of peace, compassion and non-violence. Bon and Buddhism are two inalienable sacred paths, analogous to the method and wisdom aspect of Vajrayana teachings, indispensable to understand the depth and essence of the Tibetan mind and civilization. Bon is the foundation of Tibetan socio-cultural identity, and we should learn to appreciate our origin and heritage, and be grateful to the everlasting wisdom of our forefathers.   


Bibliography Footnotes

[1] (1) Nyang-rel, page-158. (2) Orgyen Lingpa, page- 151-152. (3) Namkhai Norbu, ddb, xv-xx (4) Sherig Lekhung, Tibetan Reader VI Part, page-11                  
[2] (1) mDo-'dus, p-323. (2) Sharza Tashi Gyaltsen, p-150. (3) Gopa Tenzin Drugdak, page-24
[3] (1) Tenzin Namdhak, page-33-34. (2) Triten Norbutse, p-12
[4]Namkhai Norbu, Necklace of dZi, page-16
[5] Bod-rgya tsig-mzod chen-mo, page-1853
[6] ibid, page-385
[7] Bon-sGo 24: Gopa Yungdrung Yonten, page 135 footnote28
[8] Gedhun Chophel, DK, page-8-9.
[9] (1) Bon-sGo 6: sMen-ri Ponlop Thinley Nyima, page-20, 1993. (2) Bon-sGo: 5 'go-pa bsTen-'Zin 'Brug-drags, page 31. (3) Bon-sGo 24, Lhakpa Tsering, page-23
[10] R.S. Stien, Tibetan Civilization, page- 191 ff
[11] (1) Namkhai Norbu, page-45. (2) Bon-sGo 5, 'go-pa bsTen-'Zin 'Brug-drags, Bon gyi skor cun zhig gLen-ba, Page-37.
[12] dGe-gShes Phunstok Nyima, page-xxiv
[13] mDo-gZermig, Chapter three, page-23.
[14] Samten Karmay, Arrow & the Spindle, page 104, 109
[15] (1) Namkhai Norbu, The Necklace of dZi, page-16. (2) Samten Karmey, The Arrow & the Spindle, page-107
[16] mDo-'Dus, page- 307
[17] (1) Shar-rDza bKra-Shis rGyal-tsen, page-47, 161 (2)   Samten Karmay, TGS, page-30.
[18] mDo-gZer-mig, Chapter nine, page-161-162. "Bon-po tham-ced kyi gTo byes kyang ma phen". [Rituals of all the Bonpos brought no effect.] And the text talked about a Bon-po, who was against dmar-mchod, animal sacrifice.   
[19] Priyadarsi Mukherji, p-37
[20] ibdi, Bon-sGo 10,  'go-pa sTen-'zin 'brug-drags, page- 21
[21] Tenzin Namdak, page-41-42
[22] (1) mDo-gZer-mig, Chapter nine, page-162. "gCig bsed gCig gSo bya ba'i Bon ni bDag gis mi shes-so. De-ni log-par gol-wa'i bya mi rung-ngo. " (2) Gopa Tenzin Drukdak, Theg-chen.., page-28 
[23] glud means expelling or banishing someone away with a request or order to take the disease or bad luck along it. dMar-chos means propitiation through the offering of blood and life.
[24] Samten Karmay, The Arrow & the Spindle, page-109
[25] David L. Snellgrove, The Nine Ways of Bon,
[26] As provenance of Wolmolungring and sTag-gZig could not be identified, some scholars believe that this Wolmolungring is none other than Zhangzhung, which was once western region of Tibet, therefore, Tonpa shenrab was a Tibetan master 
[27] (1) Nyang-rel Nyima 'Od-zer, page-139-140. (2) Tsepon Shakabpa Tsepon, page 1. [Based on the text Lha les Phul-byung gi sTod-'Grel by Indian master Sherab Goched. Indian prince Rupati along with his platoons fled to Tibet in the guise of women following their defeat against Pandavas in Mahabarat war of Indian epic, they were said to be the first inhabitants in Tibet.]  
[28] 1) Khes-pa lDe'u, page -150. [It was written that after the Mahabarat war, Rupa-skyes, the 99th son of Dhrtarastra fled to Tibet. When the native asked from whence he come, not knowing the language, he pointed to the sky. People beleived he came from the sky and was made their king. Such is the narration of the first king of Tibet, gNya-khri tsen-po.] (2) Nyang-rel Nyima 'Od-zer, page-156-157. [Here the King of Badsala tribe had a prince with many strage features, bird like eye lid, webbed fingers etc. He was thrown in a river, when he grew up and came to know the reality, he went to Tibet, where people made king because the native belived him to be divine when he pointed his finger in sky about his orgin.]
[29] (1) Nyang-rel Nyima 'Od-zer, Page-170. (2) Tsepon Shakabpa, page-12 and 25.
[30] (1) Namkhai Norbu, The Necklace of dZi, page-3-4, and 7. (2) Namkhai Norbu, DDB, page-43. [A boy of Shen clan having donkey's ear was depicted as the origin of the so called rDol-bon. Namkahi Norbu has refuted this.] 
[31] ibid Namkhe Norbu, page 8.
[32] Nyer mKho'i Shel 'don kun-phen nyi-ma, page-283.
[33] Bon-sGo 10, 'Go-pa sten-'zin 'brug-drags, page-32.
[34] Shakabpa Tsepon, page-56-60

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