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A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE BON TRADITION
By the Bon Monastic Centre, Dolanji
The Origin of Bon
According to the Bon tradition, Bon originated in the land of Olmo Lungring, a part of a larger country called Tazig. Ol, symbolizes the unborn; Mo, the undiminishing; Lung, the prophetic words of Tonpa Shenrab the founder of Bon; and Ring, his everlasting compassion. Olmo Lungring is said to constitute 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, 'Pyramid of Nine Svastikas'. The svastika is the symbol of permanence and indestructability. The nine swastikas piled up represent the Nine ways of Bon. At the base of Mount Yungdrung spring four rivers, flowing towards the four cardinal directions. The mountain is surrounded by temples, cities and parks. To the south is the palace Barpo Sogye where Tonpa Shenrab was born. To the west and north are the palaces in which lived the wives and children of Tonpa Shenrab. A temple named Shampo Lhatse is to the east. The complex of palaces, rivers and parks with Mount Yungdrung in the centre constitutes the inner region of Olmo Lungring. The intermediate region consists of twelve cities, four of which are towards the cardinal directions. The third region includes the outer land. These three regions are encircled by an ocean and again by a range of snowy mountains. The access to Olmo Lungring is gained by the so-called 'arrow way'. Before his visit to Tibet, Tonpa Shenrab shot an arrow, thus creating a passage through the mountain range.
This sophisticated description of Olmo Lungring has been tentatively related by some scholars to different geographical locations. Some see it as a description of Mount Kailash and the four great rivers that spring from its base; China being the land to the east, India to the south, Orgyen to the west and Khotan to the north. To other scholars, the description seems to resemble the geography of the Middle East and Persia in the time of Cyrus the Great. To a Bonpo, the question of the geographic identification of Olmo Lungring is less important than its symbology which is clearly made use of to indicate the supramandane origin of the tradition. Symbolic descriptions which combine history, geography and mythology are well known phenomena in ancient texts. The Buddhist description of the universe with Mount Meru supporting the sky, the four Chief Continents to the four cardinal points and this earth as the southern continent is another similar example.
The Founder and His Teachings
The founder of the Bon tradition is the Lord Shenrab Mibo. In past ages there were three brothers, Dagpa, Salba, and Shepa, who studied the Bon doctrines in the heaven named Sridpa Yesang, under the Bon sage Bumtri Logi Chechan. When their studies were completed, they visited the Deity of Compassion, Shenlha Okar and asked him how they could help living beings submerged in the misery and sorrow of suffering. He 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. The second brother Salba took the name Shenrab and became the teacher and guide of the present world-age. The youngest brother Shepa will come to teach in the next worldage.
The Lord Shenrab was born in the Barpo Sogye Palace to the south of Mount Yungdrung. He 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 teachings were obstructed by the demon Khyabpa Lagring. This demon fought to destroy or impede the work of Tonpa Shenrab until he was eventually subdued and became a disciple. Once, pursuing the demon to regain his stolen horses, Tonpa Shenrab arrived in Tibet; it was his only visit to Tibet. There he imparted instructions concerning the performance of rituals but, on the whole, found the land unprepared to receive fuller teachings. Before leaving Tibet, he prophesied that all his teachings would flourish in Tibet when the time was ripe. Tonpa Shenrab departed this life at the age of eighty-two.
The Propagation of Bon in Zhang-Zhung and Tibet.
The first Bon sacred texts were brought to Zhang-zhung by six disciples of Mucho Demdrug, the successor of Tonpa Shenrab. They were first translated into the Zhang-zhung language, and then later into Tibetan. The works included in the Bonpo canon, as we know it now, are written in the Tibetan language, but a number of them, especially the older ones, retain the titles and at times whole passages in Zhang-zhung.
Until the seventh century, Zhang-zhung existed as a separate state which comprised the land to the west of the Central Tibetan Provinces of U and Tsang and generally known as Western Tibet. The historical evidence is incomplete but there are some reliable indications that it may have extended over the vast area from Gilgit in the west to the lake of Namtsho in the east, and from Khotan in the north to Mustang in the south. The capital of Zhang-zhung was a place called Khyunglung Ngulkhar - 'The Silver Palace of the Garuda Valley' - the ruins of which are to be found in the upper Sutlej Valley to the south-west of Mount Kailash. The people of Zhang-zhung spoke a language which is classified among the Tibeto-Burmese group of Sino-Tibetan languages.
The country seems to have been ruled by a dynasty of kings which ended in the eighth century when the last king Ligmirya was assassinated and Zhang-zhung became an integral part of Tibet. Since the annexation, Zhang-zhung became gradually Tibetanised and its language and culture were integrated into the general frame of Tibetan culture. Through Zhang-zhung, which was geographically situated near the great cultural centres of Central Asia such as Gilgit and Khotan, many spiritual and philosophical concepts infiltrated Tibet.
With the increasing interest in the Buddhist tradition, the founding of Samye monastery in 779 AD, and the establishment of Buddhism as the principal cultural tradition, the Bon tradition was generally discouraged and serious attempts were made to eradicate it. However, the adherents of Bon among the nobility and especially among the common people, who for generations had followed the Bon traditions, retained their cultural convictions and Bon survived. During the seventh and eighth centuries, which were particularly difficult times, many Bonpo scholars and lamas fled Central Tibet, having first concealed their texts for fear of their destruction, and to preserve them for future generations. Drenpa Namkha, one of the greatest Bonpo masters of that time, embraced Buddhism out of fear of being killed and for the sake of preserving the Bonpo teachings in secret.
From the eighth to the eleventh centuries, we know practically nothing of the developments among the Bonpos. The revival of Bon began with the discovery of a number of important texts by Shenchen Luga in the year 1017 A.D. With him, the Bon tradition emerged as a fully systematized system. Shenchen Luga was born in the clan of Shen, which descended from Kongtsha Wangden, one of the sons of Tonpa Shenrab. The descendants of this important Bonpo 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 one, Druchen Namkha Yungdrung, born in the clan of Dru which migrated to Tibet from Druzha (the Tibetan name for Gilgit), he entrusted the studies of cosmology and metaphysics. Namkha Yungdrung's disciple founded the monastery of Yeru Bensakha in 1072. This monastery remained a great centre of learning until 1386, when it was badly damaged by floods and, later, it was abandoned. With the decline of Yeru Ben-sakha the Dru family continued to sponsor the Bon tradition but this lineage came to an end in the l9th century when, for the second time, a reincarnation of the Panchen Lama was found in this family. (The first reincarnation was the second Panchen Lama (b.1663) and the second, the fifth Panchen Lama (b.1854).
The second disciple, Zhuye Legpo, was assigned to maintain the Dzogchen teachings and practices. He founded the monastery of Kyikhar Rizhing. The descendants of the Zhu family now live in India.
The third disciple, Paton Palchog, took responsibility for upholding the tantric teachings. The members of the pa family moved from Tsang to Kham where they still live.
Meukhepa Palchen (b.1052) who came from the Meu clan founded the Zangri monastery, which also became a centre for philosophical studies. Thus, during the period from the eleventh to the fourteenth centuries, the Bonpos had four important centres of studies, all of which were in Tsang Province.
At the beginning of the fifteenth century, Bon studies were substantially strengthened by the founding of Menri monastery in 1405 by the great Bonpo teacher, Nyamed Sherab Gyaltshan (1356-1415). Menri monastery and the two mentioned below, remained the most important centres of study until the Chinese takeover of Tibet in 1959. The monastery of Yungdrung Ling was founded in 1834 and, soon afterwards, the monastery of Kharna, both in the vicinity of Menri. With these monasteries as centres of study and spiritual inspiration, many monasteries were established throughout the whole of Tibet (except the Central Province of 1J), especially in Khyungpo, Kham, Amdo, Gyarong and Hor. By the beginning of the twentieth century, there were three hundred and thirty Bonpo monasteries in Tibet.
The Bon Monastic Centre
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