Bon: An Indigenous Religion in Tibet


Discover the ancient wisdom for spiritual development in the Bon indigenous tradition.

Amidst the towering Himalayan mountains thrives the indigenous religion of Bon. Bon, also known as Yungdrung Bon, has been part of Tibetan spirituality for centuries, but its origins remain elusive. Was it a variant of Buddhism or a heterodox form of its own? Our journey to unravel the secrets of Bon takes us on a path strewn with conflicting theories and fascinating revelations. From the kingdom of Zhangzhung to the emergence of a self-conscious religious system, we’ll uncover the beliefs, practices, and customs that make Bon a significant minority religion in Tibet and the surrounding regions.

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Origin of Bon, Tibet’s Indigenous Religion

Bon Indigenous Religion
A statue of Tonpa Shenrab, the central Buddha in Yungdrung Bon via Wikimedia Commons

The Bon religion has a rich history dating back to ancient Tibet and Zhangzhung. According to traditional beliefs, the original religion in these regions was Bon, taught by various Buddhas, including the revered Tonpa Shenrab. Tonpa Shenrab, whose name means “Supreme Holy Man,” received teachings from the transcendent deity Shenlha Okar in a pure realm before being reborn in the human realm to liberate beings from the cycle of rebirth. He is said to have attained Buddhahood several hundred years before Sakyamuni Buddha, in a semi-mythical holy land called Olmo Lungring or Tazig, west of Tibet.

Tonpa Shenrab was born into the Tazig royal family and later became king of the realm. He had multiple wives and children, constructed many temples, and performed numerous rituals to spread the Bon teachings. He also had remarkable magical powers, which he used to defeat and subjugate demons, similar to Padmasambhava, who led campaigns against evil forces like King Gesar.

During his travels, Tonpa Shenrab visited the kingdom of Zhangzhung, where he encountered people whose spiritual practice involved animal sacrifice. He taught them to substitute offerings with symbolic animal forms made from barley flour. He also taught according to each student’s capacity, providing them with the lower vehicles to prepare them for the study of sutra, tantra, and Dzogchen in later lives.

After Tonpa Shenrab’s paranirvana, his teachings were saved in the language of Zhangzhung by ancient Bon siddhas. Unfortunately, many of these teachings were lost in Tibet due to persecutions against Bon during the reign of Trisong Detsen. However, some of Tonpa Shenrab’s teachings were concealed as termas and later rediscovered by Bon treasure revealers (tertons), including Shenchen Luga, who lived in the early 11th century.

In the 14th century, Loden Nyingpo revealed a terma called The Brilliance, which contained the story of Tonpa Shenrab. Loden Nyingpo’s terma became one of the definitive scriptures of Bon and continues to be revered today.

Bon histories also describe the lives of other significant religious figures, such as Tapihritsa, the Dzogchen master from Zhangzhung. The Bon religion’s rich history and teachings continue to inspire and influence people around the world.

Related: Exploring the Incredible Indigenous Tribes of Asia

Shamanism and Awareness in the Bon Tradition

Bon: Tradition and culture
Bon Monastery Dholanji, Solan. By Garconlevis via Wikimedia Commons

Geshe Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche, a meditation master from the Bon tradition, states that shamanism can be a double-edged sword. It has a light side that respects nature and its spirits, but it can also have a darker side that involves sacrificing things. However, his recent encounter with the Lepcha people in Sikkim has shown him a fascinating approach to spirituality that doesn’t rely on formal structure or imagery.

Instead, the Lepcha people have little shrines in their homes with rocks, feathers, candles, and symbols of nature as direct access to the ‘Great Spirit’ and its essence. Rinpoche found this direct connection with nature to be inspiring and unique, unlike any other tradition he’s ever encountered.

While some Himalayan forms of shamanism focus on connecting with the ‘Great Spirit’ and deity instead of achieving ultimate liberation or enlightenment, the Bon tradition has nine ways of Bon (practices) that involve elemental work, spirit connections, healing rituals, and exorcisms. Despite some overlap with other shamanic traditions, Bon does not identify itself as shamanism. Nonetheless, its practitioners possess incredible knowledge about nature and its healing powers, making it a fascinating and powerful practice.

The ‘Five Element’ practice is a powerful way of working with the fundamental elements in their rawest form. This technique involves causal vehicles and shares similarities with shamanic work, but again, the Bon tradition does not refer to it as such. The practice also incorporates working with the elements in their higher forms, like the movement of wind or energy, which are recognized within the body.

Tantric tradition utilizes practices such as movement, breathing, postures, and gaze to connect with elemental energies and elevate the mind towards a higher form of meditation. Rinpoche further explains that the most advanced form of the ‘Five Element’ practice involves working with the elements as pure light—white, blue, red, green, and yellow—also known as the five pure lights. This method of practice is linked with a different state of consciousness called the five wisdoms. By practicing with the five wisdoms in their highest form of consciousness, one can attain the ultimate goal of liberation of the rainbow body.

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Bon: A monastery of Bon religion
The Bon monastery of Nangzhik Gompa in Ngawa, Sichuan, China. By Jialiang Gao via Wikimedia Commons

It’s important to understand that the use of the ‘Five Element’ practice is complementary in its gross, energetic, and highest forms, and all three are interdependent. In some Tibetan traditions, the significance of working with the raw elements may be overlooked, or energetic work may be considered merely physical without enhancing higher awareness. However, the complete understanding is to see that all three forms of practice are essential and work in harmony with each other.

According to the master, it is necessary to practice all three forms together for optimal spiritual development. This holistic and comprehensive approach to spiritual development is a unique and vital aspect of the Bon tradition.

The Bon tradition encompasses other various practices that require a strong sense of awareness, such as offering one’s body, soul retrieval, and working with spirits to retrieve stolen souls. Shamanism is perceived differently in Western culture, with varying degrees of positivity or negativity. Therefore, it is essential to approach it from a balanced perspective, recognizing the valuable aspects while considering the less crucial ones to preserve.

Rinpoche also notes that many modern shamanic practices, particularly those rooted in indigenous traditions, attract people who seek connection. People who have lost connection with themselves, their families and trust in various aspects of their lives are drawn to these practices. Nature offers a simpler and more familiar way to connect, and spirits provide a sense of something greater than their ordinary selves. The pursuit of material possessions and economic and technological developments based on greed rather than basic needs have left people feeling confused between wants and needs. However, the meditation master believes that happiness can be found in connecting to nature, ourselves, and loved ones. The desire for connection may be the simple answer to why people are drawn to shamanism.


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