THE BÖN TRADITION
YungDrung Bön is Tibet’s oldest spiritual tradition, and the founder of the Bön religion is Buddha Shenrab. He is said to have been born in the mythical land of Olmo Lung Ring, whose exact location remains something of a mystery. The land is described as dominated by Mount Yung-drung Gu-tzeg(Edifice of Nine Swastikas), which many identify as Mount Kailash in western Tibet. Due to the sacredness of Olmo Lung Ring and the mountain, both the counter-clockwise swastika and the number nine are of great significance in the Bön religion.
Due to royal patronage of Indian Buddhism by Tibet’s king Trisrung Detsun (7th century), Bön was discouraged and practitioners faced persecution and banishment. Practically nothing is known about Bön during the period from the eighth to the early eleventh centuries. However, with the relentless devotion and endeavour of sincere followers such as Drenpa Namkha (9th century), Shenchen Kunga (10th century) and many others, Tibet’s indigenous religion, was rescued from oblivion and re-established itself alongside Buddhism in Tibet.
More than three hundred Bön monastries were established in Tibet prior to the Chinese invasion in 1959. Menri and Yungdrung monastries were the major monastic universities for the study and practice of Bön doctrines. In the nineteenth century, a Bön Master, Sharza Tashi Gyaltsen, gave Bön strength and a new incentive through his collected writings comprising eighteen volumes. His follower Kagya Khyungtrul Jigmey Namkha, trained many disciples learned in not only the Bön religion, but in all the Tibetan sciences. However, with the Chinese invasion of Tibet, like the other spiritual traditions, Bon faced irreparable losses.
The Bön tradition has received explicit support from His Holiness the Dalai Lama, who made a two day visit to Menri Monastery, Dolanji, where he was impressed by the students’ educational achievements. In addition, he made a statement at the 1988 Tulku Conference in Sarnath, in which he stressed the importance of preserving the Bön tradition, as representing the indigenous source of Tibetan culture, and acknowledging the major role it has had in shaping Tibet’s unique identity.
Senior Teacher of YungDrung Bön, Tenzin Namdak Rinpoche has described the history of Bön as occurring in three phases. The ancient Bön was shamanic. In other words, it was based on the belief that spirits residing within the earth’s framework of mountains and rivers, trees and sky are sensitive to human action and therefore must not be harmed. Pollution and degradation of the natural world will provoke the spirits into creating illness and harm to humans. Shamans work to appease and communicate with these spirits, for instance, as in a prayer for rain. The next phase, the Yungdrung Bön, or Eternal Bön consists of the higher teachings found in Lord Tonpa Shenrab’s revelations of truth. These are found in the cycles of Sutra, Tantra and Dzongchen, written here in their commonly known Sanskrit counterparts. Lastly, there is new Bön, which appeared around the 14th century, 700 years after Buddhism took root in Tibet. This Bön relied upon teachings which were saved during the persecution of Bön by Tibet’s Buddhist kings.