The Bonpo tradition

The Founder of Bon and His Teachings

Three brothers

It is said that in a past age there were three brothers, Dagpa (Dag-pa), Selba (gSal-ba) and Shepa (Shes-pa), who studied the Bon doctrines in the heaven named Sridpa Yesang (Srid-pa Ye-sangs), under the Bon sage Bumtri Logi Chechen (`Bum-khri gLog-gi lCe-can).

When they had completed their studies they visited the God of Compassion Shenlha Okar (gShen-lha `Od-dkar) and asked him how they could help living beings who are submerged in the misery and sorrow of suffering. Shenlha Okar advised them to act as guides to mankind in three successive ages of the world.

To follow his advice, the eldest brother Dagpa completed his work in the past world age, while the second brother Selba took the name Shenrab and became the teacher and guide of the present world age. It will be the youngest brother, Shepa, who will come to teach in the next world age.

Tonpa Shenrab Miwoche

According to the Bon religion of Tibet, about 18000 years ago Lord Tonpa Shenrab Miwoche (sTon-pa gShen-rab Mi-bo-che: Teacher and Great Man of the Shen) was born in the land of Olmo Lungring (`Ol-mo lung-ring), a part of a larger country called Tagzig (sTag-gzigs: Central Asia). “Ol” symbolizes the unborn, “mo” the undiminishing; “Lung” denotes the prophetic words of Tonpa Shenrab, the founder of Bon, and “ring”, his everlasting compassion. Olmo Lungring constitutes one-third of the existing world, and is situated to the west of Tibet.

It is described as an eight-petalled lotus under a sky which appears like an eight-spoked wheel. In the centre rises Mount Yungdrung Gutseg (g.Yung-drung dgu-brtsegs), the “Pyramid of Nine Swastikas.”

The nine swastikas represent the Nine Ways of Bon, which will be described below. The swastika or yungdrung is a symbol of permanence and indestructibility of the wisdom of Bon.

At the base of Mount Yungdrung Gutseg spring four rivers, flowing towards the four cardinal directions. The mountain is surrounded by temples, cities and parks. To the south is Barpo Sogye (Bar-po so-brgyad) palace, where Tonpa Shenrab was born. To the west and north are the palaces where Tonpa Shenrab`s wives and children lived. To the east is Shampo Lhatse (Sham-po lha-rtse) temple. The complex of palaces, rivers and parks with Mount Yungdrung Gutseg in the centre constitutes the inner region (Nang-gling) of Olmo Lungring. The intermediate region (Bar-gling) consists of twelve cities, four of which lie in the four cardinal directions. The third region includes the outer land (mTha`-gling). These three regions are encircled by an ocean and a range of snowy mountains.

Tonpa Shenrab was born a prince, married while young and had children. At the age of thirty-one he renounced the world and lived in austerity, teaching the doctrine. During his whole life his efforts to propagate the Bon religion were obstructed by the demon Khyabpa Lagring (Khyab-pa Lag-ring), that fought to destroy or impede Tonpa Shenrab`s work until eventually the demon was converted and became his disciple. Once while pursuing the demon to recover his stolen horses Tonpa Shenrab arrived in present-day western Tibet. This was his only visit to Tibet. On this occasion he imparted some instructions on the performance of rituals, but on the whole he found the people unprepared to receive more teachings. Before leaving Tibet he prophesied that all his teachings would flourish in Tibet when the time was ripe. Tonpa Shenrab passed away at the age of eighty-two. Admittedly 82 years in Olmo Lungring correspond to some 8200 years of human time.

There are three biographies of Tonpa Shenrab. The earliest and shortest one is known as Dondu (mDo`-`dus: “Epitome of Aphorisms”); the second is in two volumes and is called Zermig (gZer-mig: “Piercing Eye”). These two accounts were rediscovered as terma (see below) in the 10th and 11th centuries respectively. The third and largest is the twelve volume work entitled Zhiji (gZi-brjid: “The Glorious”). This last book belongs to the category of scriptures known as Nyan gyud (bsNyan-rgyud: oral transmission), and was dictated to Loden Nyingpo (bLo-ldan sNying-po) who lived in the 14th century. (1)

The doctrine taught by Tonpa Shenrab and recorded in these three accounts was spread by his disciples to adjacent countries such as Zhang-Zhung, India, Kashmir, China, and finally reached Tibet. Its transmission was secured by siddhas and scholars who translated texts from the language of Zhang-Zhung into Tibetan.

Of Tonpa Shenrab`s many disciples, the foremost was Mucho Demdrug (Mu-cho lDem-drug), who in his turn taught many students, the most important of whom were the “Six Great Translators”: Mutsha Trahe (dMu-tsha Tra-he) of Tazig, Trithog Pasha (Khri-thog sPa-tsha) of Zhang-Zhung, Hulu Paleg (Hu-lu sPa-legs) of Sum-pa (east of Zhang-Zhung), Lhadag Ngagdrol (Lha-bdags sNgags-grol) of India, Legtang Mangpo (Legs-tang rMang-po) of China and Sertog Chejam (gSer-thog lCe-byams) of Phrom (Mongolia).

They are regarded as especially important in the dissemination of Bon because they translated the teachings into their own languages before returning to their countries to teach.

Tonpa Shenrab taught his doctrines in two systems

The first classification is called Thegpa Rimgu`i Bon (2) (Theg-pa rim-dgu`i bon), the “Bon of Nine Successive Stages” or, as it is more commonly known, the “Nine Ways of Bon,” of which there are three versions: the Lhoter (lho-gter) or “Southern Treasure,” the Jangter (byang-gter) or “Northern Treasure” and the Uter (dBu-gter) or “Central Treasure”. (3)

The second classification is called Gozhi dzonga (sGo-bzhi mdzod-lnga), “The Four Portals and the Treasury, the Fifth”:

According to the system of the lho-gter (Southern Treasure) the Nine Ways are:

1. Chashen thegpa (Phywa-gshen theg-pa), the Way of the Shen of Prediction, describes four different ways of prediction, by divination (mo), astrology (rtsis), ritual (gto) and examination of causes (dphyad).

2. Nangshen thegpa (sNang-gshen theg-pa), the Way of the Shen of Visible Manifestation, expounds the origin and nature of gods and demons living in this world and various methods of exorcism and ransom.

3. Trulshen thegpa (`Phrul-gshen theg-pa), the Way of the Shen of Magical Power, explains rites for disposing of adverse powers.

4. Sidshen thegpa (Srid-gshen theg-pa), the Way of the Shen of Existence, deals with the after-death state (bar-do) and with methods for guiding sentient beings towards liberation or at least towards a better rebirth.

5. Genyen thegpa (dGe-snyen theg-pa), the Way of Virtuous Lay Practitioners, guides those who apply the ten virtues and ten perfections.

6. Drangsong thegpa (Drang-srong theg-pa), the Way of the Sages, contains the rules of monastic discipline.

7. A-kar thegpa (A-dkar theg-pa), the Way of the White A, explains the practices and rituals of the higher Tantras.

8. Yeshen thegpa (Ye-gshen theg-pa), the Way of the Primordial Shen, stresses the need for a suitable teacher, place and occasion for Tantric practices, explains the mandala in greater detail as well as instructions for deity meditation.

9. Lamed thegpa (bLa-med theg-pa), the Unsurpassed Way, is concerned with the highest attainment through the path of Great Perfection (i.e., rDzogs-chen).

The second classification is called Gozhi dzonga (sGo-bzhi mdzod-lnga), “The Four Portals and the Treasury, the Fifth”:

1. Chab-kar (Chab-dkar), the “White Waters”, contains spells and higher esoteric Tantric practices.

2. Chab-nag (Chab-nag), the “Black Waters”, consists of various rituals (healing, purificatory, magical, prognosticatory, divinatory, funerary, and ransom rituals).

3. Phenyul (“Phan-yul), the “Land of Phen”, explains rules for monks and nuns and lay-people and expounds philosophical doctrines.

4. Ponse (dPon-gsas), the “Masters Guide”, instructs on psycho-spiritual exercises and meditation practices of Great Perfection (rDzogs-chen).

5. Thothog (mTho-thog), the “Treasury”, subsumes the essential aspects of all four portals.

The Propagation of Bon in Zhang-Zhung and Tibet


The first Bon scriptures were translated from the language of Zhang-Zhung into Tibetan. The works contained in the Bonpo canon as we know it today are written in Tibetan, but a number of them, especially the older ones, retain the titles and at times whole passages in the language of Zhang-Zhung.

Until the 8th century Zhang-Zhung existed as a separate kingdom, comprising the land to the west of the central Tibetan provinces of U (dBus) and Tsang (gTsang) and generally known as Western Tibet, extending over a vast area from Gilgit in the west to the lake of Namtsho (gNam-mtsho) in the east and from Khotan in the north to Mustang in the south. The capital was called Khyunglung Ngulkhar (Khyung-lung dngul-mkhar), the “Silver Palace of Garuda Valley”, the ruins of which lie in the upper Sutlej valley south-west of Mount Kailash. Its people spoke a language classified among the Tibeto-Burmese group of Sino-Tibetan languages.

The country was ruled by a dynasty of kings which ended in the 9th century A.D. when the last king, Ligmincha, (Lig-min-skya) was assassinated by order of the king of Tibet and Zhang-Zhung militarily annexed by Tibet. Since that time Zhang-Zhung has become gradually Tibetanized and its language, culture and many of its beliefs have been integrated into the general frame of Tibetan culture. Due to its geographical proximity to the great cultural centres of central Asia such as Gilgit and Khotan, it was through Zhang-Zhung that many religious concepts and ideas reached Tibet.


The Bon religion has undergone two persecutions in Tibet during its long history. The first occurred during the reign of King Drigum Tsenpo (Gri-gum btsan-po`) in the 7th century B.C. All but the Bon of Cause” (rgyu`i bon: the first four of the Nine Ways) was abolished, and most of its practitioners banished. They were, however, able to conceal many texts as terma (gTer-ma, “treasure”) that were rediscovered at a later date by tertons (gTer-ston, “treasures discoverer”).

With the increasing interest in Buddhism and its establishment as the state religion and the founding of Samye (bSam-yas) monastery in 779 A.D. Bon was generally discouraged and a further serious attempt was made to eradicate it. This was the second persecution of Bon, by King Trisong Detsen (Khri-srong lDe-btsan). However, adherents of Bon among the nobility and especially among the common people, who had followed the Bon beliefs for generations, retained their religious convictions and Bon survived. Again during this period many Bon priests were banished or forced to flee from Central Tibet, having first concealed their scriptures for fear of their destruction and in order to preserve them for future generations.

One of the foremost Bonpos of the time, Dranpa Namkha (Dran-pa Nam-mkha”), (4) played an important role during the second persecution of Bon. He headed the Bonpo side in a contest against the Buddhists organized by the king to discover which side had the greatest miraculous power.

The Bonpos lost the contest and had to disperse in fear of their lives or be converted to Buddhism. While ostensibly embracing the Buddhist religion out of fear of being killed, in fact Drenpa Namkha did it for the sake of preserving in secret the Bonpo teachings, thereby saving Bon from complete eradication.

Resurgence of Bon

From the 8th to 11th centuries the practice of Bon went mainly underground. The year 1017 C.E. (5) marks the resurgence of Bon, which began with the discovery by Shenchen Luga (gShen-chen kLu-dga`, 996–1035) of a number of important concealed texts. With his discoveries Bon re-emerged as a fully systematized religion. Shenchen Luga was born in the Shen clan, descended from Kontsha Wangden (Kong-tsha dBang-ldan), one of Tonpa Shenrab`s sons. The descendants of this important family still live in Tibet.

Shenchen Luga had a large following. To three of his disciples he entrusted the task of continuing three different traditions. To the first, Druchen Namkhai Yungdrung (Bru-chen Nam-mkha` g.Yung-drung) born in the clan of Dru which migrated to Tibet from Druzha (`Bru-zha, i.e., Gilgit), he entrusted the studies of cosmology and metaphysics (mDzod-phug and Gab-pa). It was to this end that one of his disciples and relations, lama Drurje Yungdrung (Bru-rje g.Yung-drung bla-ma) founded the monastery of Yeru Wensakha (gYas-ru dBen-sa-kha) in Tsang province in 1072.

This monastery remained a great centre of learning until 1386, when it was badly damaged by flood. Despite the decline of Yeru Wensakha the Dru family continued to sponsor the Bon religion, but the family came to extinction in the 19th century when, for the second time, a reincarnation of the Panchen Lama was found in the family.

The second disciple, Zhuye Legpo (Zhu-yas Legs-po), was assigned to maintain the Dzogchen teachings and practices. He founded the monastery of Kyikhar Rizhing (sKyid-mkhar Ri-zhing). The descendants of the Zhu family now live in India.

The third disciple, Paton Pelchog (sPa-ston dPal-mchog), took responsibility for upholding the Tantric teachings. The Pa family too still exists.

Another important master of that time was Meukhepa Tsultrim Palchen (rMe`u-mkhas-pa Tsul-khrims dPal-chen, b. 1052), of the Meu clan, who founded Zangri (sNye-mo bZang-ri) monastery, which also became a centre for philosophical studies. Thus during this period the Bonpos founded four important monasteries and study centres, all in Tsang province (Central Tibet).

Menri monastery

In 1405 the great Bonpo teacher, Nyammed Sherab Gyaltsen (mNyam-med Shes-rab rGyal-mtshan, 1356–1415), founded Menri (sMan-ri) monastery near the site of Yeru Wensakha, which had been destroyed by flood. Yungdrung Ling (g.Yung-drung gling) monastery was founded in 1834 and, soon afterwards, Kharna (mKhar-sna) monastery, both in the vicinity of Menri.

These remained the most important Bon monasteries until the Chinese takeover of Tibet in 1959, and following their inspiration many monasteries were established throughout Tibet, especially in Khyungpo, Kham, Amdo, Gyelrong and Hor, so that by the start of the 20th century there were 330 Bonpo monasteries in Tibet.

Nyammed Sherab Gyaltsen was especially venerated for his great achievements and realization. He was known as a great reformer and reinvigorated the Bonpo monastic tradition, causing many monasteries to flourish. Nyenme Sherab Gyeltsen also was the first master to collect and hold all the transmissions and empowerments of all the Bon lineages. All of these transmissions have continued to be held by each of the successive abbots of Menri, and over time the abbot of Menri came to be regarded as the head of the Bon religion. This tradition was officially recognized by the Tibetan government in exile in 1977.

The Bon Pantheon and Religious Commitment

The Bon Pantheon

The Bon pantheon contains a great number of deities. Every Tantric ritual cycle in the Bonpo canon has its own complete set of divinities, method of visualization and worship. One classification divides the deities into three groups: the peaceful (zhi-ba), the wrathful (khro-bo) and the fierce (phur-pa). Also, Bonpo cosmogony describes groups of deities of Light and Darkness. (6)

The highest ranking deities are Kuntu Zangpo (Kun-tu bZang-po), the Bonku (bon-sku), Shenlha Okar (gShen-lha `Od-dkar), the Dzogku (rdzogs-sku: Perfect Sphere), and Tonpa Shenrab, the Tulku (sprul-sku) who is the Teacher (sTon-pa) of the present world age. The most important female deity is Jamma (Byams-ma), the “Loving Mother”, also known as Satrig Ersang (Sa-trig Er-sangs). There are also sets of 1000 Buddhas and of the Buddhas of the three times (past, present and future). Among the guardian deities, known as the Dharma`s Protectors (bKa`-skyong), the most important are Sidpai Gyalmo (Srid-pa`i Gyal-mo: “Queen of Existence”, the female guardian of the Bonpo teachings), Midud or Midud Jampa Traggo (Mi-bdud `bYams-pa Khrag-mgo: the male guardian of Menri monastery) and Tsengo Hurpa (bTsan-rgod Hur-pa).

The most general division of the deities is that which distinguishes between the supra-mundane gods of the higher spheres (`Jig-rten las` das-pa`i lha) and the demi-gods and minor deities who remain active in this world (`Jig-rten pa`i lha).

To the latter group belong a whole host of mountain gods, local gods (Sa-bdag), evil demons (gNyen), female demons (Ma-mo) and other spirits such as the `Dre, Sri, kLu, etc.

Religious Commitment

Religious life among the Bonpos may take many varied forms. Here we will briefly examine the traditions of monastic life, the Ngagpa, Dzogchen and Chod.

Monastic life

According to Bon it is by good actions and a virtuous life that a being achieves spiritual perfection and the spheres of the Perfect Buddhas (Sangs-rgyas). The methods for reaching the highest goal were taught by Tonpa Shenrab and by successive Bonpo sages.

The noblest way to practise religion is to take religious vows; a layperson may strive for perfection, but it is the monastic life that offers the best opportunity of attaining the highest levels. In fact over the centuries the monastic life has formed an essential part of the Bon religion.

There are four grades of religious vows, two lower and two higher. The lower ones, called nyenne (bsNyen-gnas) and genyen (dGe-bsnyen), are normally taken by lay-people who want to practise religion in a more perfect way; when taken by monks they are considered to form an initial stage in their religious life.

These vows can be taken for any period of time. The higher grades are called tsangtsug (gTsang-gtsug), that applies on taking monastic initiation (rab-byung) and consists of twenty-five vows, and drangsong (Drang-srong), that applies on full ordination and consists of two hundred and fifty vows. Nuns take three hundred and sixty vows.


The Bonpos are also particularly known for their tradition of Ngagpas (sNgags-pa), who are recognizable by their uncut, loosely worn hair. Ngagpas are lay practitioners, who take the vows of refuge, genyen and Ngagpa genyen, that primarily practice tantra.

There are family lineages of Ngagpa, with the practice of a particular tantric yidam being passed down through the family, but any man may choose to become a Ngagpa and take the appropriate vows. Though a Ngagpa may marry, have children and work in the world, he must spend a great deal of time in retreat and perform rituals when requested by villagers.

While Ngagpas may perform many different rituals, they are particularly known for performing birth rituals, weddings, funerals, divinations, and pacification of ghosts or nature spirits. Typically Ngagpas live with their families in villages, but many Ngagpas also congregate in Bonpos, the Ngagpa equivalent of a monastery.


Along with the spiritual life, there are special methods of practising in the pursuit of spiritual perfection.

The most highly esteemed practices are those of the Dzogchen (rDzogs-chen, “Great Perfection”) traditions.

There are four streams or methods of meditation in Dzogchen, collectively known as A-Dzog-Nyengyud, i.e., A-Tri (A-khrid), the “Teaching on A”, founded in the 11th century by Dampa Meu Gongje Ritro Chenpo (1038–1096); Dzogchen, founded in 1088 A.D. by terton Zhoton Ngodrub Dragpa (gZhod-ston dNgos-grub Grags-pa); Nyengyud (its full title is Zhang zhung sNyan-rgyud, the “Oral Transmission of Zhang-Zhung”) and Yeti tasel, a lineage deriving from Tonpa Shenrab, but passing through India and translated from Sanskrit to Zhangzhung-pa.

The Zhang zhung sNyan-rgyud is the oldest and most important Dzogchen tradition and meditation system in Bon. While the other three are terma traditions based on rediscovered texts, the third is an oral tradition based on continuous transmission by an uninterrupted lineage of masters.

The Zhang-Zhung Nyangyud cycle of teachings was first put in writing by the important 8th century master Gyerphung Nangzher Lopo, the foremost disciple of Tapihritsa (ta-pi-hra-tsa), revered by Bonpos as the union of all the lineage masters.


There also exists another important system of meditation called Chod (gCod), “Cutting the ego” which is performed by lay practitioners, Ngagpa and monks alike. The purposes of Chod are to generate generosity, dispel fear and overcome attachment.

This has been only the briefest of introductions to the rich religious traditions of Bon. It is not possible to capture the full depth and breadth of one the world`s great religions, but hopefully the reader will have some taste for what the Bonpos value.


(1) The gZer-mig and gZi-brjid are both published by the Bonpo Foundation, Dolanji, 1965 and 1967–69, respectively. Extracts from the gZi-brjid have been edited and translated by D.L. Snellgrove, The Nine Ways of Bon, London Oriental Series, vol. 18, London 1967. The first seven chapters of gZer-mig and part of the eighth have been translated into English by A.H. Franke, “A Book of the Tibetan Bonpos”, Asia Major, Leipzig 1924, 1926, 1927, 1930; Asia Major (New Series) 1, London 1949. A summary of the contents of gZer-mig has been made by H. Hoffmann in The Religions of Tibet, London 1961, 85–96.

(2) Another classification, in 12 lores or sciences, is examined in great detail in Drung, Deu and Bon by Namkhai Norbu (Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, India 1995).

(3) The dBu-gter classification is given below, in the Course of Studies section. According to the Zang-zang-ma tradition the Byang-gter consist of:

1. Tho-tho theg-pa,
2. sPyi-tho theg-pa,
3. Yang-tho theg-pa,
are three;

4. sNang-ldan theg-pa,
5. Rang-ldan theg-pa,
6. bZhed-ldan theg-pa,
are three;

7. lha-rtse theg-pa,
8. sNang-rtse theg-pa,
9. Yongs-rtse theg-pa,
are three.

(4) Dran-pa Nam-mkha` is a popular figure in Bonpo history. His biography in 8 volumes was recently published by sPa-tshang Sonam Gyeltsen, Delhi 1983. He is believed to have had twin sons: Tshe-dbang Rig-`dzin, a Bonpo teacher, and Pad-ma Byung-gnas, the famous Buddhist teacher Padmasambhava (see cf. Karmay, The Treasury of Good Sayings, Oxford University Press, London 1972: xxxii n.4, for a discussion of this.)

(5) All dates except in the 20th century and unless otherwise stated are taken from Sangs-rgyas-kyi btsan-rtsis ngo mtshar nor-bu`i phreng-ba zhes bya-ba-bzhugs-so by Nyima Tenzin in Tibetan-Zhang Zhung Dictionary, The Bonpo Foundation, Delhi 1965, 23–40. It has been translated into English by Per Kvaerne, “Chronological table of the Bonpo”, Acta Orientalia, xxxiii (Paris 1971): 33–48.

(6) For an overview of Bonpo iconography with excellent color reproductions of thankas and statues see Per Kvaerne`s Bon Religion of Tibet, Serindia, London, 1995.

Source: Yungdrung Bon

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