14 February 2010

Tibetan Bön

Bön (Wylie: bon; Lhasa dialect IPA: [pʰø̃̀(n)]) is the oldest spiritual tradition of Tibet. 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 of influences 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 appended to the names of the Tibetan religious traditions.)

Often described as the shamanistic and animistic tradition of the Himalayas prior to Buddhism's rise to prominence in the 7th century, more recent research and disclosures have demonstrated that both the religion and the Bönpo are significantly more rich and textured culturally than was initially thought by pioneering Western scholars.

Traditionally, Tönpa Shenrab Miwoche is believed to have established the Bön religion. He is traditionally held to have been born in the land of Tagzig Olmo Lung Ring, considered an axis mundi, which is traditionally identified as Mount Yung-drung Gu-tzeg ("Edifice of Nine Swastikas"), possibly Mount Kailash, in western Tibet. Due to the sacredness of Tagzig Olmo Lung Ring and the Mount Kailash, both the sauwastika and the number nine are of great significance and considered auspicious by the Bönpo as well as Hindus.

After the introduction of Buddhism to Tibet during the 7th century, there was often fierce competition between the two traditions, especially during the reign of Langdarma. Over time, Bön has been losing influence and has been marginalized by the Tibetan political elite.

The Dzungars invaded Tibet in 1717 and deposed and killed a Dalai Lama (who had been promoted by Lhabzang, the titular King of Tibet), which met with widespread approval. However, they soon began to loot the holy places of Lhasa which brought a swift response from Emperor Kangxi in 1718, but his military expedition was annihilated by the Dzungars not far from Lhasa.

Many Nyingmapa and Bönpos were executed and Tibetans visiting Dzungar officials were forced to stick their tongues out so the Dzungars could tell if the person recited constant mantras (which was said to make the tongue black or brown). This allowed them to pick the Nyingmapa and Bönpos, who recited many magic-mantras. This habit of sticking one's tongue out as a mark of respect on greeting someone has remained a Tibetan custom until recent times.

In the nineteenth century, Sharza Tashi Gyeltsen, a Bön master (whose collected writings comprise eighteen volumes) significantly rejuvenated the tradition. His disciple Kagya Khyungtrul Jigmey Namkha trained many practitioners learned in not only the Bön religion, but in all Tibetan schools.

According to the Bönpo, eighteen enlightened entities will manifest in this æon and Tönpa Shenrab Miwoche, the founder of Bön, is considered the enlightened Buddha of this age (yuga or kalpa). The 33rd lineage holder of Menri Monastery, HH the Menri Trizin Lungtog Tenpei Nyima Rinpoche, and Lopön Tenzin Namdak are important current lineage holders of Bön.
More than three hundred Bön monasteries had been established in Tibet prior to Chinese annexation. Of these, Menri Monastery and Yungdrung Monastery were the two principal monastic universities for the study and practice of the Bön knowledge and science-arts.

A complex appreciation of Bön is emerging by scholars. Bön, prior to the Tibetan diaspora, existed within a web of ancient indigenous animism, Hinduism, sympathetic magic, Buddhism, folk religion, shamanism, Vajrayana, asceticism and mysticism; complexes prevalent throughout the Himalaya and intermingling throughout the Inner Asian region.

Leading Bön scholar Per Kvearne writes: "Both Buddhists and Bönpos agree that when Buddhism succeeded in gaining royal patronage in Tibet in the eighth and ninth centuries, Bön suffered a serious setback. By the eleventh century, however, an organized religious tradition, styling itself Bön and claiming continuity with the earlier, pre-Buddhist religion, appeared in central Tibet. It is this religion of Bön that has persisted to our own times, absorbing doctrines from the dominant Buddhist religion but always adapting what it learned to its own needs and perspectives. This is ...not just plagiarism, but a dynamic and flexible strategy that has ensured the survival, indeed the vitality, of a religious minority"

Among the important aims of Bön are cultivating heartmind to purify and silence the noise of the mindstream within the bodymind to reveal rigpa -- a transcendent natural bodymind where the obscuration of dualism and dukkha no longer entrance the Bönpo, and sambhogakaya and nirmanakaya are aligned and in sympathetic resonance.

Ethnic Tibet is not confined culturally to modern political Tibet. The broader area of ethnic Tibet also includes to the east, parts of the Chinese provinces of Sichuan, Gansu and Yunnan; to the west, the Indian regions of Ladakh, Lahul and Spiti; and the Baltistan region of Pakistan, to the south, Bhutan, Sikkim, parts of northern Nepal, the Mustang, Dolpo, Sherpa and Tamang regions of eastern Nepal and the extreme north-west of Assam.

The lofty Tibetan Plateau and Geography of Tibet has had a profound effect on the Bönpo and the shaping of Vajrayana in general. Many of the local deities (jik ten pa) pre-dating the arrival of Buddhism, were co-opted and made 'protectors' of the Vajrayana and various teachings.

Traditionally in Tibet, divine presences or deities would be incorporated into the very construction of the house making it in effect a castle (dzong ka) against the malevolent forces outside of it. The average Tibetan house would have a number of houses or seats (poe khang) for the male god (pho lha) that protects the house. Everyday, the man of the house would invoke this god and burn juniper wood and leaves to placate him. In addition the woman of the house would also have a protecting deity (phuk lha) whose seat could be found within the kitchen usually at the top of the pole that supported the roof

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

The first phase of Bön was grounded in animistic and shamanistic practices and corresponds to the general characterization of Bön as described by western scholars.

Initiation rituals and rites closely correlate to the indigenous shamanic traditions of Siberia. Many Bönpo shaman were members of a clan-guild from which the volume of shaman came. Shaman were of either gender. A shamanic aspirant was often visited and possessed by an ancestral shaman and/or one or more of any number of entities such as gods, elementals, dæmons, and spirits. The possession typically results in a divine madness and a temporary retreat into the wilderness, where the shaman lives like an animal and experiences visions of his own death at the hands of spirits.

After the newly-possessed shaman returns, they are taught by senior practitioners and members of the clan-guild how to exert power over the spirits that visit them, as well as incantation of mantra.

The religion's second era is the contentious phase, which rests on the assertions of the Bönpo texts and traditions (which are extensive and only now being analyzed in the West).
These texts assert that Yungdrung Bön was founded by the Buddha Tönpa Shenrab Miwoche. He discovered the methods of attaining enlightenment and is considered to be a figure analogous to Gautama Buddha. He was said to have lived 18,000 years ago in the land of Olmo Lung Ring part of the land of Tagzig (see Tagzig Olmo Lung Ring) to the west of present day Tibet (which some scholars identify with the Persian Tajik).

According to Buddhist legend, prior to the manifestation of Shakyamuni Buddha there were numerous other historical Buddhas. Tönpa Shenrab Miwoche transmitted the lore (similar in many regards to Buddhism) to the people of the Zhangzhung of western Tibet who had previously been practicing animistic Bön, thus establishing Yungdrung ("eternal") Bön.

One interesting premise, countered by most Himalayan scholars (Rossi, Donatella (1999). The Philosophical View of the Great Perfection in the Tibetan Bon Religion. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion.), is that Buddhism may have arrived in Tibet by a path other than directly from northwest India. A transmission through Persia prior to the 7th century is not improbable as Alexander the Great had connected Greece with India almost a millennium prior, resulting in a flourishing Greco-Buddhist art style in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Additionally, the 6th century Khosrau I of Persia is known to have ordered the translation of the Buddhist jataka tales into the Persian language. The Silk Road, the path by which Buddhism traveled to China in 67 CE., lies entirely to the west of Tibet and passed through the Persian city of Hamadan. Recently, Buddhist structures have been discovered in far western Tibet that have been dated to the third century CE. Bönpo stupas have also been discovered as far west as Afghanistan.

Nonetheless, no scholars have yet identified a major center of Buddhist learning in Persia which corresponds to the Bönpos' land of Tagzig Olmo Lung Ring. Alternative proposed sites have included the ancient cities of Merv, Khotan or Balkh, all of which had thriving Buddhist communities active in the correct timeframe and are located to the west of Tibet.

The existence of the Zhang Zhung culture is supported by many lines of evidence, including the existence of a remnant of living Shangshung speakers still found in Himachal Pradesh. The claim that Lord Shenrab was born 180 centuries ago is generally not taken literally, but understood as an allusion to a master born in the very distant past.

One interesting question relating to the history of Bön is: when did Bön really enter the Yungdrung phase, that is, when did elements strongly resembling Buddhism become important? These elements became apparent with the codification of the Yungdrung Bön canon by the first abbot of Menri Monastery, Nyame Sherab Gyaltsen, in the 14th century, but this trend probably began earlier. At the same time, the Nyingma, Kagyu, and Sakya orders of Buddhism were also reorganizing themselves in order to be able to compete effectively with the dominant, Gelug order.

If we do not accept the Bön claim that Bön's Buddhist elements are older than the historical Buddha, we may consider some other milestones in Tibetan history which may mark points at which Buddhist ideas became integrated into Bön.

In the first half of the 7th century, the Tibetan King Songtsen Gampo assassinates King Ligmicha of the Shangshung and annexes the Shangshung kingdom. The same Songtsen Gampo is also the first Tibetan king to marry a Buddhist (or, in his case, two): in 632, Nepalese princess Bhrikuti, and in 641, Princess Wencheng, daughter of Emperor Tang Taizong of Tang Dynasty China (where Buddhism is approaching its zenith). Jokhang Temple, the first Buddhist temple in Tibet, was built in the 7th century to house a Buddhist statue brought by the Chinese Buddhist princess WenCheng and to celebrate the marriage.

Approximately 130 years later, King Trisong Detsen (742-797) holds a debate contest between Bön priests and Buddhists, and decides to convert to Buddhism; in 779, he invites the great Indian saint Padmasambhava to bring Tantric Buddhism to Tibet. 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.

As Tantric Buddhism becomes the state religion of Tibet, Bön faces persecution, forcing Bönpo masters such as Drenpa Namkha underground. It is, however, possible that several decades later, with the collapse of the Tibetan Empire into civil war in 842, 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 into Tibet associated with Indian saints such as Atisha and Naropa, we start to find more Bönpo texts, discovered as terma.

The "New Bön" phase emerges in the 14th century, when some Bön teachers discovered termas 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 Yungdrung Bön, the practitioners of New Bön still honor the Abbot of Menri Monastery as the leader of their tradition.

According to a recent Chinese census, an estimated 10 percent of Tibetans follow Bön. Currently, there are 264 active Bön monasteries, convents, and hermitages.

The present spiritual head of the Bön is Lungtok Tenpa'i Nyima (b. 1929), the thirty-third Abbot of Menri Monastery (destroyed in the Cultural Revolution, but now being rebuilt), who now presides over Pal Shen-ten Menri Ling in Dolanji in Himachal Pradesh, India, for the abbacy of which monastery he was selected in 1969.

A number of Bön establishments also exist in Nepal; the most accessible is probably Triten Norbutse Bönpo Monastery, on the Western outskirts of Kathmandu, accessible from the bus stop on the Ring Road nearest Swayambhu (downhill just behind the great stupa).

Lozang Gyatso, the fifth Dalai Lama, was the first to declare Bön to be a fifth school of spirituality in Tibet. However, the Bönpo remained stigmatised and marginalised until 1977, when they sent representatives to Dharamsala and Tenzin Gyatso, the fourteenth Dalai Lama, who advised the Tibetan parliament-in-exile, the Assembly of Tibetan People’s Deputies, to accept Bön members.

Since then, Bön has had official recognition of its status as a religious group, with the same rights as the Buddhist schools. This was re-stated in 1987 by the Dalai Lama, who also forbade discrimination against the Bönpo, stating that it was both undemocratic and self-defeating. He even donned Bön ritual paraphernalia, emphasizing "the religious equality of the Bön faith."
However, Tibetans still differentiate between Bön and Buddhism, referring to members of the Nyingma, Shakya, Kagyu and Gelug schools as "nangpa," meaning "insiders," but to practitioners of Bön as "Bönpo," or even "chipa" ("outsiders").

Bön, while now very similar to schools of Tibetan Buddhism, may be distinguished by certain characteristics:

The origin of the Bönpo lineage is traced to Buddha Tönpa Shenrab (sTon pa gShen rab), rather than to Buddha Shakyamuni.

Bönpo circumambulate chortens or other venerated structures counter-clockwise (i.e., with the left shoulder toward the object), rather than clockwise (as Buddhists do).

Bönpos use the yungdrung (g.yung drung or sauwastika ~ a vrddhi derivation of the swastika) instead of the dorje (rdo rje, vajra) as a symbol and ritual implement.

Instead of a bell, Bönpos use the shang, a cymbal-like instrument with a "clapper" usually made of animal horn, in their rituals.

A nine-way path is described in Bön, which is distinct from the nine-yana (-vehicle) system of the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism. Bönpo consider Bön to be a superset of Buddhist paths. (The Bönpo divide their teachings in a mostly familiar way: Causal Vehicle, Sutra, Tantra and Dzogchen).

The Bönpo textual canon includes rites to pacify spirits, influence the weather, heal people through spiritual means, and other "shamanic" practices. While many of these practices are also common in some form in Tibetan Buddhism (and mark a distinction between Tibetan and other forms of Buddhism), they are actually included within the recognized Bön canon (under the causal vehicle), rather than in Buddhist texts.

Bönpo have some sacred texts, of neither Sanskrit nor Tibetan origin, which include some sections written in the ancient Zhangzhung (象雄語) language.

The Bönpo mythic universe includes the Mountain of Nine Swastikas and the Tagzig Olmo Lung Ring paradise.

The Bönpo school now is said by some to resemble most closely the Nyingma school, the oldest school of Tibetan Buddhism, which traces its lineage to the First Transmission of Buddhism into Tibet, while other researchers say many practices of Bönpos resemble folk Taoism.

In Bön, the five elemental processes of: earth, water, fire, air and space are the essential elements of all existent phenomena or skandhas (aggregates) the most subtle enumeration of which are known as the Five Pure Lights.

The names of the elements are analogous to categorised experiential sensations of the natural world. The names are symbolic and key to their inherent qualities and/or modes of action by analogy. In Bön, the elemental processes are fundamental metaphors for working with external, internal and secret energetic forces. All five elemental processes in their essential purity are inherent in the mindstream and link the trikaya and are aspects of primordial energy.

Chakras, as pranic centers of the body, according to the Tibetan Bön tradition, influence the quality of experience, because movement of prana can not be separated from experience. Each of six major chakras are linked to experiential qualities of one of the six realms of existence.
A modern teacher, Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche uses a computer analogy: main chakras are like hard drives. Each hard drive has many files. One of the files is always open in each of the chakras, no matter how "closed" that particular chakra may be. What is displayed by the file shapes experience.

The tsa lung practices such as those embodied in Trul Khor lineages open channels so lung (prana or qi) may move without obstruction. A yogi opens chakras and evokes positive qualities associated with a particular chakra. In the computer analogy, the screen is cleared and a file is called up that contains positive, supportive qualities. A seed syllable (Sanskrit bija) is used both as a password that evokes the positive quality and the armor that sustains the quality.

Tantric practice eventually transforms all experience into bliss. The practice liberates from negative conditioning and leads to control over perception and cognition.

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