The Treasury of Lives

The Three Kinds of Bon

From the view-point of modern followers of Bon, their tradition represents the original religion of Tibet that was spread in Zhangzhung, Tibet and several other geographically related areas since ancient times down to the present day. In the view of modern Bonpos, the Bon tradition was spread in three hundred and sixty countries, including India and China.

According to traditional accounts of Bon, several Enlightened Beings (sangs rgyas) appeared during this kalpa and Tonpa Shenrab was the eighth of them. Before reaching enlightenment, he followed the teachings of Shenlha Okar (gshen lha 'od dkar, the source of all yidams in Bon) in a pure realm (zhing khams) and then incarnated on the human level of existence in order to guide beings and to liberate them from the circle of rebirths. With this perspective in mind, contemporary Bonpos consider that three kinds of Bon have existed and that at least two of them are now still being practiced in Tibet, and to a lesser extent in India:

1. The first is known as the “Old Bon” (bon rnying) which was practiced in Tibet itself before the coming of Tonpa Shenrab to the Land of Snows where he converted some Bonpos practicing animal sacrifices and rituals now loosely related to some of the causal Vehicles (rgyu’i theg pa) of the second kind of Bon.

This religious tradition seems to have been somehow connected to the ancient (and in some cases legendary) kings of Tibet as particular priests were directly connected to the royal power and known as kushen (sku gshen) or “Priests of the Body”, i.e., the king’s body. This royal cult survived even after the introduction of Buddhism in the seventh century and was still practiced in the eighth century, before being slowly discarded during the reign of the later Buddhist kings (chos kyi rgyal po). In its royal cult-related aspect, this tradition has disappeared but some ritual practices that are probably related to it are still to be seen on the borders of the cultural areas of Tibet. It was eventually suppressed during the period of the religious kings (eighth-ninth centuries) by the followers of the Buddhist religion.

2. The second is styled as “Eternal Bon” (g.yung drung bon) and, according to present-day Bonpos, it stands as the teachings that were taught and spread by Tonpa Shenrab in the region of Olmo Lungring ('ol mo lung ring) , in Tazig (stag gzig). It is this kind of Bon that contemporary Bonpos consider as the “authentic” (yang dag) tradition of Bon.

3. The New Bon (bon gsar or sometimes gsar bon and even gsar ma bon) represents a new current of teachings related to both Eternal Bon and to the Nyingmapa tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. It is often — but not always and not only — centered on the personages of Drenpa Namkha (dran pa nam mkha’), Tsewang Rigdzin (tshe dbang rig 'dzin) and Padmasambhava, all three thought to have lived in the eighth century, even if the case of Drenpa Namkha is more complex.

So in the view of present-day followers of Bon, the teachings of Tonpa Shenrab were diffused in Tazig Olmo Lungring, and then in Zhangzhung and Tibet. Tonpa Shenrab himself is said to have come to Tibet once and to have converted Bonpos there. Later, his teachings are said to have spread wider while the ancient cults and rituals were gradually suppressed. After Tonpa Shenrab's nirvana, numerous works were translated into the language of Zhangzhung by ancient Sages whose names are still venerated nowadays.

In Bon historical works, these ancient masters played important roles in the translation of texts from the language of Zhangzhung into that of Tibet, writing extensive commentaries to the works of Tonpa Shenrab. Many of such key figures of the Eternal Bon lineages are associated with the discoveries of later masters (e.g. Dechen Lingpa [1833-1893] and others), including famous personages such as Drenpa Namkha and his consort Khandro Oden Barma, the four Scholars (mkhas pa mi bzhi), the ancient Treasure Revealers (gter ston) of the tenth and following centuries, etc. By the second part of the fourteenth century, a new kind of Bon teachings started to spread, essentially in Eastern Tibet. The initiator of this movement was Tulku Loden Nyingpo (1360-1385) who discovered the famed Zibji (gzi brjid), the longest version of Tonpa Shenrab’s biography. One of Loden Nyingpo’s main incarnations was Techen Mishik Dorje whose revelations (gter ma) were largely spread in Eastern Tibet. Tulku Sangye Lingpa (a.k.a. byang chub rdo rje, b. 1705) was also a key-figure of this movement in the middle of the eighteenth century, together with the first Kundrol Drakpa (kun grol grags pa, b. 1700) whose influence was even greater.

The four above-mentioned masters — Loden Nyingpo, Mishig Dorje, Sangye Lingpa and Kundrol Drakpa — are collectively known as the four Emanation Bodies (sprul sku rnam bzhi) and are considered as the founders of the most important lineages within the New Bon tradition. However, they do not consider themselves as “New Bonpos”, since for them there is no reason to differentiate between the teachings styled as Eternal Bon and those they themselves discovered. Indeed, some lineage holders of Eternal Bon use the designation “New Bon” in a rather pejorative way as they consider these termas as being tinged with Buddhist teachings mostly linked to Padmasambhava. Shardza Rinpoche (1859-1934) answered these critics with interesting arguments in his Treasury of Good Sayings (legs bshad mdzod).


Jean-Luc Achard
September 2010

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