History of Bön and Ligmincha

Bön is Tibet's oldest spiritual tradition and as an indigenous source of Tibetan culture, it plays a significant role in shaping Tibet's unique identity.Until very recently, the ancient teachings of Bön were offered to a few students of each generation. Now, its lamas are trying to spread this rich spiritual tradition to many western students.

A brief introduction to the Bön tradition

Yungdrung Bön – one of the oldest spiritual traditions in the world

Yungdrung Bön , or Eternal Bön , is one of the oldest spiritual traditions in the world and is the oldest organised religions still practiced today. Its origins trace very ancient roots to the Buddha Tönpa Shenrap Miwoche, whose date of birth is discussed by various versions, among which the most common and disclosed within the original Bönnpo sources, places his manifestation in the year of the Wood Rat 16,017 BC in ancient Tazig land, Olmo Lungring, identified by some anthropologists and modern scholars as the Zhang Zhung. His teachings have been handed down from master to disciple by oral transmission in a pure and unbroken lineage for tens of thousands of years until today.

Yungdrung Bön is sometimes translated as “ Eternal Light ”, “Eternal Dharma” or “ Teaching for Enlightenment” . The word yungdrung in Tibetan corresponds to swastika in Sanskrit, and symbolizes the interdependence of all phenomena in the universe and the union of the 5 elements that make up the entire manifested universe. It also symbolises the cycle of rebirth ( samsara ) within which it is possible through the practice of the Buddha’s teachings to attain enlightenment ( nirvana ).

The wisdom of this pre-Buddhist tradition was disseminated and practiced by the indigenous peoples of the Himalayan plateau, as well as many people in Eurasia. The Yungdrung Bön is a spiritual tradition with a complex and complete structure containing in its teachings both elements of shamanic origin and the Five Major Sciences such as medicine, astrology, grammar and poetry, art and the inner science or Dharma.

Buddha Tönpa Shenrap Miwoche

Tönpa Shenrap Miwo (Mu ra ta Hen, zhangzhung language ) was the eighth Buddha of Yungdrung Bön and is considered the founder of Bön. There are three hagiographies that narrate his origins:

  • the Drimé gZi-brjid ( ‘dus pa rin po che’i rgyud dri ma med pa gzi brjid rab tu ‘bar ba’i mdo ) – extended version consisting of 61 chapters, collected in 12 volumes (partially translated by the well-known Tibetologist David Snellgrove in “Nine Ways Of Bon, The: Excerpts From gZi-brjid“).
  • the gZer mig ( ‘dus pa rin po che’i rgyud gzer mig ) – middle version composed of 18 chapters, collected in two volumes.
  • the mDo’ Dus – short condensed version, composed of 24 chapters and collected in a single volume.

According to the median version of gZer mig, the name Tönpa Shenrap Miwo has the following meaning:

  • Tön : to reveal, – nangsri ye sri sa ler tonpe na ton -; one who clearly reveals both absolute and relative truth.
  • Pa : father, – kye dro sem chen bu tar so we pa -; one who feeds all sentient beings as he would his children.
  • Shen : – bön nyi ying su sem nyi dal we shen -; one who has attained great perfection in the nature of mind.
  • Rap : the best, supreme, – dro we dhon du trul ne jon pe na rap -;   the one who has manifested himself for the benefit of all sentient beings.
  • Mi : human being, – ku dho chak tsen mi ru ton pe na mi -; the one who manifested in human form.
  • Wo : overflow, –  to gyü ché gyü dü –

Through the Buddha Tönpa Shenrap, the teachings, overflowing like nectar, of the 360 ​​aspects of rituals and 84,000 aspects of medicine were passed on to two of his sons, Tobu Bumsang and Chébu Trishe, for the welfare of all sentient beings. He had six other sons: Lungdren Salwa, Gyüdren Dronma, Kongtsa Wangden, Kongtsa Trulbu, Oldruk Tangpa, Dungtsop Mucho Demdruk; and two daughters: Shensa Nechen and Shensa Nechung. All of his sons were his disciples and lineage holders. Tönpa Shenrap also enunciated the Nine Vehicles or Nine Paths of Bön to many disciples, according to their abilities. These teachings are still followed today by practitioners known as bönpowithin – an unbroken lineage of Sutra, Tantra and Dzogchen masters. The Buddha divided these teachings into three successive cycles: the first of the “Four Portals of Bön”, the second of “the Fifth, the Treasure”, and the third with “The External, Internal and Secret Precepts” relating to: the Way of Renunciation (the Sutras), the Way of Transformation (the Tantras), and the secret cycle of the Way of Self-liberation or Dzogchen. There are three main Dzogchen lineages in the Bön tradition: the Zhang Zhung Nyen Gyud (shangshung nyen rgyud, Oral Transmission of Zhang Zhung), A-Thri (a khrid, Instructions of A), and Dragpa Korsum (The Three Great Proclamations).

The traditional story of Buddha Tönpa Shenrap has it that he descended from the celestial realms and manifested himself at the foot of Mount Meru. There, he took a princely birth as the son of King Gyal Tokar and Queen Zanga Ringum, in the bright garden full of beautiful flowers of a palace in south of Yungdrung Gutseg Mountain, in Lungring Elm Land, at dawn on the eighth day of the first month of the first year of the wood mouse. He was born into the Mu Shen clan, a sacred family lineage blessed by Shenlha Ökar (the Buddha of Compassion). Much later in history, descendants of this lineage moved to the Tsang area of ​​Tibet and became known as Shen-Tsang, who are still present in Tibet today. Tönpa Shenrap married young and had children. At 31 he gave up worldly life to become a fully ordained monk under the guidance of Drangsong Lekden Gyalwa, the regent of the seventh Bön Buddha, from whom he received the monastic name of Tritsuk Gyalwa ( victorious throne with crown as ornament ).

Tsukpu Namdrol Rinpoche, the heir of the Mu Shen clan

Tönpa Shenrap Miwo was then King of Elm Lungring (Zhang Zhung), which today’s scholars identify as a geographical area including Persia and Tajikistan, or as indicated in the text Sri Pa Chi Do kyi Zhung, an area near Mount Kailash and Lake Mansarovar in western Tibet. “Ol” symbolizes the “unborn”, “mo” that which is constantly increasing (not decreasing), “rlung” the prophetic words of Tönpa Shenrap, and “ring” his unending compassion. At the center of Olmo Lungring stands Mount Yungdrung Gutseg, the Pyramid of the Nine Yungdrung (Nine Swastika). Yungdrung is the symbol of eternal durability and indestructibility. The Nine Yungdrung represent the Nine Vehicles or Nine Paths of Bön. Four rivers flow from the base of the mountain and flow in four directions. This description has led scholars to identify Yungdrung Gutseg with Mount Kailash (Tib:  Gang Rinpoche) and Olmo Lungring with Zhang Zhung, cradle of Tibetan civilization. Zhang Zhung was the largest area in Central Asia, encircling thousands of kilometers of mountain ranges covering much of western Tibet, Tajikistan, Iran, Nepal, Pakistan and northern India. The capital was Khyunglung Nulkhar ( Silver Palace of the Garuda Valley ), the ruins of which are found in the Sutlej Valley (which some scholars identify as ancient Shambala), southwest of Kailash. The population spoke a Tibetan-Burmese dialect, and was governed by a dynasty of rulers that ended in the 8th century, when King Ligmincha (Ligmirya), was assassinated by the 34th Tibetan king Trisong Detsen, who annexed Zhang Zhung to Tibet.

The Zhang Zhung kingdom
Tibetan Cultural Area

Bön: A multifaceted phenomenon

According to extensive research carried out by some Tibetologists and anthropologists of different nationalities, in close collaboration with His Holiness 33rd Menri Trizin Lungtok Tenpai Nyima Rinpoche and His Eminence Yongdzin Tenzin Namdak Rinpoche, which was collected and studied by the Foundation for the Preservation of Yungdrung Bön, it has been asserted that it is possible to classify Bön as a complex multifaceted phenomenon, which through the millennia has manifested four main well-defined religious and cultural traditions:

  • gDod ma’i Bön: the prehistoric Bön of Zhang Zhung and Tibet, an extremely ancient system of beliefs and ritual practices, still largely extinct today. A small part of it is represented by the traditions of lha pa and dpa’bo , comparable to Siberian shamanism;
  • Yungdrung Bön: also sometimes called Bön Nyingma (Old Bön), the teachings of the Central Asian Buddha Mura ta hen, also known in Tibet as Tönpa Shenrap Miwo;
  • Bön Sarma or New Bön: a syncretic tradition born in the VIII century from the union between Yungdrung Bön and the Buddhism of Buddha Shakyamuni, introduced from India;

This is the traditional threefold classification of Bön religions found in the Yungdrung Bön text entitled Legs bshad rin po che’i gter mdzod  by Shardza ​​Tashi Gyaltsen (1902-1973). The bod kyi bonpo, the followers of the gDod ma’i Bön, are also mentioned in the Zer mig as opponents of the Shenpo (the followers of the Yungdrung Bön).

  • Mixed Bön : fusion of these three types of Bön in different proportions, often with the addition of elements from other adjacent religions/philosophical traditions, such as Hinduism, Taoism, indigenous Himalayan tribal religions, native Siberian beliefs. Mixed Bön could include Secular Bön, the civil religion of the borderlands – studied by Charles Ramble in his “ The Navel of the Demoness ” – such as the Bo Murgel of Buryatia, the religion of the Naxi in Yunnan

The persecutions and the rebirth of Bön

The Bön religion during its long history has suffered two strong persecutions. The first occurred during the reign of King Drigum Tsenpo in the 7th century. BC Everything except the “Bön of Causality” (rgyu’i bon: the first Four Paths of the Nine Vehicles) was abolished and most of its practitioners were banned. They were however adept at hiding many texts such as terma (Wy: gTer-ma, treasure) which would later be rediscovered by tertön (Wy: gTer-stön, treasure discoverers ). 

With the growing interest in Buddhism and its establishment in Tibet as the new state religion and the founding of Samye Monastery (bSam-yas) in AD 779, Bön was generally discouraged. A serious attempt to eradicate it ensued and in an attempt to cause its extinction. This was the second persecution of Bön, carried out at the hands of King Trisong Detsen (Khri-srong lde-btsan). However, Bön adherents, among the nobility and especially the common people, who had followed Bön beliefs for generations, maintained their religious ties and beliefs, and Bön survived. Again during this period of persecution, many Bön priests were banished and forced to flee the heart of Tibet,

One of the greatest Bonpos of that time was Drenpa Namkha, who played an important role during the second Bön persecution. Oral tradition states that Drenpa Namkha led the Bonpo side in a fight against the Buddhists, organized by the Tibetan king, to find out which of the two sides had greater miraculous powers. The Bonpos lost the contest, resulting in both a diaspora out of fear for their lives and, for many, conversion to Buddhism. While Drenpa Namkha apparently appeared to embrace Buddhism out of fear of being killed, he actually did so to preserve the Bön teachings in secret, thus saving it from complete eradication.

Drenpa Namkha
Shenzhen Luga

Between the 8th and 11th centuries the practice of Bön was mainly done clandestinely. The year 1017 marked the rebirth of Bön, which began with Shenchen Luga (996-1035) discovering a number of important hidden texts. With his discoveries, Bön re-emerged as a systematized religion. Shenchen Luga was born into the Mu Shen clan, a descendant of Kongtsa Wangden, one of the sons of Tönpa Shenrap (The descendants of his noble family living in Tibet).

Shenchen Luga had a large following. To three of his disciples he entrusted the task of continuing the transmission of three different traditions. The first, Druchen Namkha Yungdrung born in the Dru clan, who emigrated to Tibet from Druzha (in Gilgit, Pakistan), was entrusted with the study of cosmology and metaphysics (mDzod-phug and Gab-pa). It was for this purpose that one of his disciples and relatives, Bruje Yungdrung Lama, founded Yeru Wensakha Monastery in Tsang Province in 1072.

This monastery remained a great center of learning until 1386, in which it was badly damaged by a flood. Despite the decline of the Yeru Wensakha, the Dru family continued to sponsor the Bön religion. The family died out in the 19th century when, for the second time, a reincarnation of the Panchen Lama was found in their family.

The second disciple, Zhuye Legpo, was assigned to maintain the Dzogchen teachings and practices. He founded Kyikhar Rizhing Monastery. The descendants of the Zhu family now live in India. The third disciple, Paton Palchog, took it upon himself to uphold the tantric teachings. Even the Pa family still exists today.

Another important master of that time was Meukhepa Palchen (1052) of the Meu clan, he founded the Zangri monastery and became another important centre of philosophical studies. This historical period the Bonpos founded four important monasteries and centres of study, all in the province of Tsang (Central Tibet).

Menri Trizin, the Spiritual Head of Bön

In 1405 the great Bonpo master Nyamme Sherap Gyaltsen, of the Yangton clan (1356-1415), founded the Menri Monastery near the site of Yeru Wensakha. In 1834 Yungdrung Ling and Kharna Monastery were established in the same area. These monasteries remained the most important of the Bön tradition until the Chinese Cultural Revolution took over Tibetan territory in 1959. Inspired by the latter, many other monasteries were built in Tibet, especially in the Khyungpo area, Kham, Amdo , Gyarong and Hor areas. By the beginning of the 20th century there were 330 Bonpo monasteries in Tibet.

Nyamme Sherap Gyaltsen’s ancestors of the Yangton lineage are descended from Sinbon Yangngal and Yangngal Gyimgong, disciples of Buddha Tönpa Shenrap Miwo. Nyamme Sherap Gyaltsen was especially revered for his great achievements. He was known as a great reformer and reinvigorated the Bonpo monastic tradition, causing many monasteries to flourish. He was also the first master to unite and hold all transmissions and initiations of all Sutra, Tantra and Dzogchen lineages of Yungdrung Bön.

He died at 60 years of age. During the cremation, many rainbows appeared and an eagle circled the cremation grounds three times before disappearing to the west. He is remembered as the Second Buddha of Yungdrung Bön.

All these transmissions continued to be given, from master to disciple and by each of the successive Abbots of Menri until today. Over time the Abbot of Menri came to be regarded as the Head of the Bön religion. This spiritual tradition was officially recognized by the Tibetan government in exile in 1977 in the person of the XIV Dalai Lama Tenzin Gyamtso, thus sanctioning an end to the persecutions and sectarianism that had occurred for centuries between the Buddhist schools that had developed in Tibet and the Bön.

The current Abbot of Menri (the 34th in succession), spiritual head of the international Bonpo community is His Holiness Lungtok Dawa Dhargyal Rinpoche.

Nyamme Sherab Gyaltsen
Lungtok Dawa Dhargyal Rinpoche

Bringing Bön to the West

Until very recently, the ancient teachings of Bön were offered only to a few students of each generation. Now, its lamas are trying to spread this rich spiritual tradition to many Western students. Through the unceasing efforts of His Holiness Lungtok Tenpai Nyima Rinpoche, the 33rd Menri Trizin (until his death on 09/14/17) and His Eminence Yongdzin Tenzin Namdak Rinpoche, the oldest master of the Bön tradition, it has been possible build two new monasteries outside the borders of Tibet. Tashi Menri Ling Monastery, primarily established in Tibet in 1405 by Nyamme Sherap Gyaltsen, was rebuilt in Dolanji, India in 1967 by HH Lugtok Tenpai Nyima Rinpoche. The Triten Norbutse Monastery, built in Tibet in the 14th century, was re-established in Kathmandu Nepal in 1987 by HE Yongdzin Rinpoche. Both monasteries have schools qualified to provide Geshe’s doctorate. The Menri Monastery also has a primary school up to the eighth year and an orphanage with more than 150 boys and girls.

Menri Monastery, Dholanji (India) – residence of His Holiness Menri Trizin, spiritual head of Bön
Triten Norbutse Monastery
XIV Dalai Lama Tenzin Gyatso

“Bön is Tibet’s oldest spiritual tradition and as an indigenous source of Tibetan culture, it plays a significant role in shaping Tibet’s unique identity. Therefore I often insist on the importance of preserving this tradition.”

Tenzin Rinpoche and Dalai Lama Tenzin Gyatso