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An Introduction to Bön

Fast Facts of Bön

  • Date founded: none (Original Bön); 16,000 BC [18,000 years] (Yungdrung Bön, according to the Bönpo); 14th cent. AD (New Bön)

  • Place founded: Tibet

  • Founder: none (Original Bön); Tonpa Shenrab Miwoche (Yungdrung Bön)

  • Adherents: unknown, perhaps around 100,000

Introduction to Bon

Bön (Tibetan: བོན་; Wylie: bon) is the oldest extant spiritual tradition of Tibet. The history of Bön is difficult to clearly ascertain because the earliest surviving documents referring to the religion come from the 9th and 10th centuries, well after Buddhists began the suppression of indigenous beliefs and practices. Moreover, historian Per Kværne notes that "Bön" is used to describe three distinct traditions:

  • the pre-Buddhist religious practices of Tibetans that are "imperfectly reconstructed [yet] essentially different from Buddhism" and were focused on the personage of a divine king;

  • a syncretic religion that arose in Tibet during the 10th and 11th centuries, with strong shamanistic and animistic traditions, that is often regarded by scholars as "an unorthodox form of Buddhism;"

  • "A vast and unstructured body of popular beliefs" including fortune telling.

However, other scholars do not accept the tradition that separates Bön from Buddhism; Christopher Beckwith calls Bön "one of the two types of Tibetan Buddhism" and writes that "despite continuing popular belief in the existence of a non-Buddhist religion known as Bön during the Tibetan Empire period, there is not a shred of evidence to support the idea. Although different in some respects from the other sects, it was already very definitely a form of Buddhism."

Tenzin Gyatso, the fourteenth Dalai Lama, recognizes the Bön tradition as the fifth principal spiritual school of Tibet, along with the Nyingma, Sakya, Kagyu, and Gelug schools of Buddhism, despite the long historical competition between the Bön tradition and Buddhism in Tibet.

The syllable ‘-po’ or ‘-pa’ is appended to a noun in Tibetan to designate a person who is from that place or performs that action; "Bönpo" thus means a follower of the Bön tradition, "Nyingmapa" a follower of the Nyingma tradition, and so on. (The feminine parallels are ‘-mo’ and ‘-ma’, but these are not generally added to the names of the Tibetan religious traditions.)

Both scholars and the Bönpo themselves distinguish between original Bön and modern Bön. "Original Bön" refers to the indigenous religion of Tibet, which was animistic (believing that nature is pervaded by good and evil spirits) and shamanistic. The name was probably derived from the ritual recitation (Bön, meaning "invocation") of its practitioners.

The exact nature of original Bön is difficult to determine, since all early descriptions of it are from the Buddhist perspective and intended to discredit it. After the first diffusion of Buddhism into Tibet in the 7th century, Bön was persecuted under Buddhist rulers, but it survived and became more organized at the time of the second diffusion of Buddhism in the 11th century.

The Bönpo teach a second stage of Bön, which scholars generally dismiss, called Yungdrung Bön. This stage of Bön is said to have been founded by a Buddha-like figure named Shenrab Miwoche, who lived 18,000 years ago in a mythical land of Zhang Zhung near Tibet.

Like the Buddha, Shenrab renounced his life as a prince to become a monk, achieved enlightenment, and taught others how to attain it. He thus converted the people from animistic Bön to Yungdrung ("eternal") Bön. The claim, therefore, is that Bön incorporated Buddhist-like elements prior to and apart from the influence of Buddhism.

Alternatively, Tibetan Buddhist scholars have identified Shenrab with Lao-Tzu, making Bön a derivative of Taoism. Modern scholars have also suggested Shaivite (Hindu sect devoted to Shiva) influence from Kashmir in the development of Bön.

Bön as it is practiced now, known as "New Bön," is essentially a form of Tibetan Buddhism. It began in the 14th century when some Bön teachers began to adopt Tibetan Buddhist practices related to Padmasambhava. Although New Bön differs considerably from Yungdrun Bön, the practitioners of New Bön regard their religion as part of a continuous Bön tradition that includes the prior stages. According to the Oxford Dictionary of World Religions, however, "any connection between ancient and modern Bön is extremely tenuous."

It is commonly believed that Tibetan Buddhism was shaped by Bön, but the Oxford Dictionary refutes this as well. "Contrary to the popular misconception that Buddhism was significantly influenced by Bön when it entered Tibet, it is clear that what is known of Bön today is almost completely influenced by Mahayana Buddhism, which was itself transplanted from India into Tibet virtually unchanged." The Dalai Lama, who is supportive of Bön, shares a similar persepctive: "In its beginning, I believe, it [Bön] was not such a fruitful religion, but when Buddhism began to flourish in Tibet, Bön also had an opportunity to enrich its own religious philosophy and meditational resources."

The rituals performed by the ancient Bonpo priests were above all concerned with ensuring that the soul of the dead is conducted safely to a postmortem land of bliss by an appropriate animal - usually a yak, a horse, or a sheep- which was sacrificed in the course of the funerary rites. The offering of food, drinks and precious objects, and, in the case of kings, even servants and ministers, likewise accompanied the dead. The purpose of these rites was twofold: on the one hand, to ensure the happiness if the deceased in the land of the dead, and on the other, to obtain their beneficial influence for the welfare and fertility of the living.

The Bonpo swastika turns to the left i.e. counter-clockwise, while the Buddhist versions turns to the right. In Bon the sacred movement is always counter-clockwise.

The sacred mantra is not the Buddhist "Om Mani Padme Hum", but “Om Matri Muye Sale Du".

It is claimed that before reaching Tibet, Bon prospered in a land known as ZHANGZHUNGi and that this country remained the center of Bon until it was conquered by the expanding Tibetan empire in the 7th Century. Zhangzhung was subsequently converted to Buddhism and integrated into Tibetan culture, losing not only its independence but also its language and its Bonpo religious heritage in the process. There is no doubt as to the historical reality to Zhangzhung, although its exact extent and ethnic and cultural identity are far from clear. It seems however, to have been situated in what today is, roughly speaking, western Tibet, with Mt. Kailash as its center.

However, the Bonpo believe that 'Eternal Bon' was first proclaimed in a land called Tazik. Tazik is merely not a geographical country like any other; in Bon Tradition, it assumes the character of a hidden, semi- paradisiacal land which latter-day humans can only reach in visions or by supernatural means after being spiritually purified. Tazik, also known as “Wolmo Lungring” may thus be regarded as a counterpart to the Buddhist holy land of Shambhalaii.

Bon and Buddhism were established as rival traditions in Tibet, their relationship it is now realized was a complicated one of mutual influence. Like the Buddhists, the Bonpo also have a vast collection of scripts which are known as the Tenjuriii. Tenjur is divided into three sections they are:

  • External: monastic discipline, morality and the biography of Tonpa Shenrap

  • Internal: tantras including ritual focusing on the tantric deities and the cult of dakinis, goddesses whose task it is to protect the doctrine, and wordly rituals of magic and divination

  • Secret: meditation practice,

For the sake of convenience the Indian Buddhist terms are used in the Bon Scripts, but it must be kept in mind that although the Bonpo employ the same Tibetan terms as the Buddhists, they do not accept their Indian Origin, since they trace their religion terminology to Zhangzhung.

One source suggests that Tonpa Shenrap and the Buddha Shakyamuniiv were in reality cousins, and their doctrines, consequently, essentially identical.

The important pilgrimages for the Bonpo are Mt. Kailash and Mt. Bonri (Southeastern district of Kongpo). In the north of Nepal there are Bonpo villages, especially in the district of Dolpo

Today, Bön can be found in the more isolated parts of northern and western Tibet, as well as in exile at the Tashi Menri Ling Monastery in Dolanji in Himachal Pradesh, India. The current leader of Bön is His Holiness Lungtok Tenpai Nyima.

According to the Chinese census, about 10% of Tibetans (about 100,000 people) follow Bön. At the time of the communist takeover there were approximately 300 Bön monasteries in Tibet and western China. According to a recent survey, there are 264 active Bön monasteries, nunneries, and hermitages.


  • (2011) ‘Tenjur’ [online] [accessed 11 March 2011].

  • Kværne, P. (2001) The Bon Religion of Tibet, London: Serindia Publications.

  • Himalayan Art (2011) ‘Glossary’ [online] [accessed 11 March 2011]

  • Himalayan Art (2011) ‘Miscellaneous – Torana (item no. 65651)’ [online] [accessed 11 March 2011]

  • Religion Facts (2005) ‘Bön’ [online] [accessed 11 March 2011]

  • Wikipedia (2010) ‘Dolpo’ [online] [accessed 11 March 2011].

  • Wikipedia (2010) ‘Kyunglung’ [online] [accessed 11 March 2011

  • Wikipedia (2011) ‘Ashtamangala’ [online] [accessed 11 March 2011].

  • Wikipedia (2011) ‘Bön’ [online] http://ön [accessed 11 March 2011].

  • Wikipedia (2011) ‘Garuda’ [online] [accessed 11 March 2011]

  • Wikipedia (2011) ‘Gautama Buddha’ [online] [accessed 11 March 2011].

  • Wikipedia (2011) ‘Makara (Hindu mythology)’ [online] [11 March 2011]

  • Wikipedia (2011) ‘Shambhala’ [online] [accessed 11 March 2011].

  • Wikipedia (2011) ‘Zhangzhung’ [online] [accessed 11 March 2011].

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