Bön has typically been described as the shamanistic religion in Tibet before the arrival of Buddhism in the 7th century. With the recent exile of many Bönpo lamas to India, however, a more complex description of Bön is emerging and is now being considered by Western scholars.
Contents1 Historical phases of Bön
1.1 Animistic Bön
1.2 Yungdrung Bön
1.3 New Bön
2 Bön spiritual practices
3 See also
Historical phases of Bön
According to the Bönpo themselves, the Bön religion has actually gone through three distinct phases: Animistic Bön, Yungdrung or Eternal Bön, and New Bön
The second phase is the controversial phase which rests on the claims of the Bönpo texts and traditions (which are extensive and only now being analyzed in the West). These texts assert that Yungdrung Bön can be traced back to a Buddha-like founder named Tonpa Shenrab Miwoche who renounced his kingship to become a monk. He discovered the methods of attaining enlightenment and is considered to be an analogous figure to Gautama Buddha. He was said to originate 18,000 years ago in the land of Olmo Lungring, or Shambhala, which was a part of the so-called land of Tazig to the west of present day Tibet (which some scholars identify with the Persian Tajik). According to Buddhist legends, before the Shakyamuni Buddha came, there were many other Buddhas in the past, this may be one of those. Tonpa Shenrab transmitted the faith (similar in many regards to Buddhism), to the people of the Zhang Zhung culture of western Tibet who were previously practicing animistic Bön, thus establishing Yungdrung ("eternal") Bön.
The most tantalizing claim (which on balance is not endorsed by most scholars) is that Buddhism may have arrived in Tibet by some other path than directly from northwest India. A transmission through Persia prior to the 7th century is not impossible. Alexander the Great had connected Greece with India almost a millennium earlier, resulting in a flourishing Greco-Buddhist art style in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The 6th century Khosrau I of Persia is known to have ordered the translation of the Buddhist jataka tales into the Persian language. The Silk Road, the path by which Buddhism traveled to China in 67 AD, lies entirely to the west of Tibet and passed through the Persian city of Hamadan. Nonetheless, we cannot identify a major center of Buddhist learning in Persia which corresponds to the Bönpo's land of Tazig. Alternative proposed sites have included the ancient cities of Merv, Khotan, or Balkh, all of which had thriving Buddhist communities active in the correct timeframe and are located to the west of Tibet.
Leaving aside the speculation on Tazig, what can we say about the other Bön claims? The existence of the Zhang Zhung culture is supported by many lines of evidence, including the existence of a remnant of living Zhang Zhung speakers still found in Himachal Pradesh. The claim that Lord Shenrab was born 180 centuries ago, however, does not merit much consideration. The interesting question is: when did the Bön really enter the Yungdrung phase (that is, when did elements of Buddhism enter the faith)?
If we do not accept the Bön claim that the Buddhist elements are older than Buddha, we may consider some other milestones in Tibetan history which may mark points at which Buddhism became part of Bön.
- In the first half of the 7th century, the Tibetan King Songtsen Gampo assassinates King Ligmincha of the Zhang Zhung and annexes the Zhang Zhung kingdom. The same Songsten Gampo is also the first Tibetan king to marry a Buddhist (or in his case two): in 632 to Nepalese princess Bhrikuti, and in 641 to Princess Wencheng, daughter of Emperor Tang Taizong of Tang Dynasty China (where Buddhism is approaching its zenith). Both Tibetan and Bön history agrees that King Songtsen Gampo decides to follow Bön, despite his marriages. It is not clear if his Bön has Buddhist elements or if it is purely animistic.
- Approximately 130 years later, King Trisong Detsen (742-797) holds a debate contest between Bön priests and Buddhists and decides to convert to Buddhism. He invites the great Indian saint Padmasambhava to bring Tantric Buddhism to Tibet in 779. According to Tibetan Buddhist tradition, the arrival of Padmasambhava represents the First Transmission of the faith. Tantric Buddhism becomes important in Tibet at this point, which may be when Bön absorbed Buddhist practices.
- As Tantric Buddhism becomes the state religion of Tibet, the Bön face persecution, forcing Bönpo masters such as Drenpa Namkha underground. In several decades, however, with the collapse of the Tibetan Empire into civil war in 842, it is possible that Bön may have experienced a partial revival in some districts, especially in western Tibet.
- In the 11th century, approximately coincident with the Second Transmission of Tantric Buddhism associated with saints such as Atisha and Naropa, a Bön school of Tibetan Buddhism emerges, clearly evidencing Buddhist aspects.
At what point prior to the 11th century did Buddhist elements actually become part of Bön? This is the mystery of the Yungdrung Bön phase. We can only hope for further textual or archaeological discoveries that will give us greater insight.
The "New Bön" phase emerges in the 14th century when some Bön teachers began to adopt Tibetan Buddhist practices related to Padmasambhava. New Bön is primarily practiced in the eastern regions of Amdo and Kham. Although the practices of New Bön vary to some extent from Yungdrun Bön, the practitioners of New Bön still honor the Abbot of Menri as the leader of their tradition.
Presently about 10 percent of Tibetans are estimated to follow Bön Buddhism according to the Chinese census. At the time of the communist takeover in Tibet 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.
The present spiritual head of the Bön is His Holiness Lungtok Tenpai Nyima, the thirty-third Abbot of Menri Monastery (destroyed in the Cultural Revolution, but now being rebuilt), who now presides over Tashi Menri Ling Monastery in Dolanji in Himachal Pradesh, India.
Bön spiritual practices
New Bön, while essentially identical with other schools of Tibetan Buddhism, may be distinguished by certain characteristics:
- counter-clockwise (rather than clockwise) circumambulation of chortens
- a nine-way path (distinct from the nine-yana system of the Nyimgma) that the Bön consider a superset of other Tibetan Buddhist paths. (Despite talk of a superset, the Bön divide their teachings in a familiar way: Causal Vehicle, Sutra, Tantra and Dzogchen)
- additional sacred texts including many in the ancient Zhang Zhung language
- symbolism which includes the Mountain of Nine Swastikas and the Olmo Lungring paradise.
The Bön school is said to resemble most closely the Nyingma school, the oldest school of Tibetan Buddhism which traces its lineage to the First Transmission.