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Bön was 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.

Approximately 7% of the Tibetan population is Bön.[1]

Historical phases of Bön[edit]

According to the Bönpo themselves, the Bön religion has actually gone through three distinct phases: Animistic Bön, Yungdrung or Eternal Bön, and New Bön.

Animistic Bön[edit]

The first phase of Bön was rooted in animistic and shamanistic practices.

Yungdrung Bön[edit]

The second phase is more controversial phase, and 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. 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.

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 assassinated King Ligmincha of the Zhang Zhung and annexed the Zhang Zhung kingdom. The same Songsten Gampo was also the first Tibetan king to marry a Buddhist (or in his case two). Both Tibetan and Bön history agree 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.

New Bön[edit]

The "New Bön" phase emerged 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.

The present spiritual head of the Bön is Lungtok Tenpai Nyima, who now presides over Tashi Menri Ling Monastery in Dolanji in Himachal Pradesh, India.

Bön spiritual practices[edit]

New Bön, while essentially identical with other schools of Tibetan Buddhism, may be distinguished by certain characteristics:

  1. Counter-clockwise (rather than clockwise) circumambulation of chortens.
  2. 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.)
  3. Additional sacred texts including many in the ancient Zhang Zhung language.
  4. 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.

Deities and demons[edit]

Srin mo is the demoness who on her back resembles the land of Tibet, Buddhist temples were erected to tame her and the goddesses worshiped there. Srin mo may very well be the first example of Moe anthropomorphismWikipedia for an entire country and not just a sacred mountain.[2]