Yungdrung Bön

An ancient spiritual tradition

Taphiritsa   Sherab Chamma Bon society In search of Zhang Zhung

Yungdrung Bon is one of the world's most ancient native, spiritual traditions of Tibet. It has a unique and very rich heritage. Its knowledge also helps sentient beings to cope with the demands of daily life and ultimately leads them all the way up to full enlightenment.

In a distant past age, there were three brothers, Dagpa, Salba and Shepa, who studied the Bon Doctrines in heaven under the Bon sage Bumtri Logi Chechen. They completed their studies and they visited the God of Compassion, Shenlha Okar to ask him how they could best help the living beings submerged in the misery and suffering. He advised them to guide the humans and all the sentient beings, in the three ages of the world. Accordingly, the eldest brother Dagpa completed his task in the past age; Salba (who took the name Shenrab) is the guide of the present age and the youngest brother Shepa will come to guide in the next world age. The founder of Bon religion is Lortd Tonpa Shenrab Miwo. He was a prince, born in the palace Barpo Sogye. He got married while young and had children. At the age of 31 he renounced the worldly life and started to live in austerity, teaching the Bon doctrine. Throughout his life his efforts to propagate the Bon religion were obstructed by the demon Khyaba Lagring, until he eventually converted him as his disciple. Once pursuing this demon to rerieve his stolen horses, Tonpa Shenrab arrived in Tibet. It was his only visit there; he imparted some instructions concerning rituals but found the people were unprepared to receive higher teachings. Before leaving he prophesied that his doctine would flourish in Tibet when the right time would come. In 8020 BC, Lord Tonpa Shenrab Miwo departed this world at the age of 81 Shen years.

There are different written accounts of the life of Tonpa Shenrab: ‘Dhodu (10th Century), Zermik (11th Century) and Ziji revealed to Loden Nyingpo in the 14th century in the way known as “Spiritual Transmission”. His teachings can be classified into two systems: “The Four Portals and the Treasury as the Fifth (Gozhi Zonga)” or “The Bon of the Nine Successive Stages (Thegpa Rimgui Bon)”. As well as the formulated path of the monastic training, there are special methods to achieve the highest level of spirtitual perfection. The highest are those of Dzogchen (the Great Perfection), forming three different systems of meditation: A-tri (Akhrid), Nyengyud (Oral Transmission) and Dzogchen.

The Yungdrung Bon was the religion of Tibet from the time of the first Tibetan king until the 8th century. Originally taught by Tonpa Shenrab in the country of Olmo Lungrig, the Yungdrung Bon spread to Tazig, Gilgit, Swat, Kashmir, Zhang-Zhung and finally to Tibet.

Before the Yungdrung Bon came to the lands of Zhang-Zhung and Tibet, the people there worshipped mountain and spirits, and propitiated these with animal sacrifices. Tonpa Shenrab himself came to Tibet, but only briefly, and finding the Tibetans not yet ready to understand his teaching, he merely taught a few offering practices such as the offering of juniper, hanging wool on bushes, the offering of Chang (se chang), and the throwing of tsampa mixed with butter. He only taught practices like these which really have little to do with religion, but he said that in the future he would reveal all of the Nine ways of Bon to the people in those countries. And so when his doctrines later came to Zhang-Zhung and Tibet, the early Shamanistic “Bon” tradition gradually ceased. In the border regions, however, remains of it can still be found, e.g. among the Nepalese Tamangs and also among the Na-khi in China.

Native Bon traditions are of great interest to historians, anthropologists, and archeologists. But they are also highly valuable in a practical sense, for they contain much that is of relevance to human physical and mental well-being. To name but a few of aspects of Bon's indigenous heritage, there are medical therapies, rituals for psychological contentment, systems of divination, and special rites for environmental harmony. This profound pre-Buddhist spiritual bequest draws its inspiration from the primal well-spring of human experience, seen as the universal birthright of us all. The Bonpo believe that the foundation of our human identity has been ignored in the theologies and institutional frameworks of the other major world religions. Often mistakenly equated with shamanism by lay people and poorly-informed religious scholars, the ancient Bon legacy is actually concerned with divinity as it abides in all natural systems. It is held that this divinity or essential state is tantamount to human beings in their fundamental phenomenological form. Known as the "natural state of mind," this view of reality is elucidated in a highly advanced system of teachings known as Dzogchen. Wed to Buddhist cosmological and ethical traditions over the last twelve centuries, Dzogchen is considered the highest of Bon teachings. More:

The Yungdrung Bon came to Tibet, from the country of Zhang-Zhung, at the time of the first Tibetan King Nyatri Tsanpo. This was long before the monastic system as an institution was established (in the 8th century CE, somewhere between Zhang-Zhung and Tibet). In the early days the Bonpos were laymen, individual masters who specialized in particular subjects belong to the various Sutra, Tantra, and Dzogchen Teaching. They were not organized as a church, but had common gathering places where they would meet from time to time, and they had among them a high priest.

In those early days each Tibetan king had attached to him a priest with the special function of protecting the king. As it is said in the rGyal-rabs bon qyi ‘byug-nas:

“Each of the political kings had one priest as his guardian and specially practiced a specific kind of Bon. Each king also had a translator attached to him. The first king Nyatri Tsanpo built the castle Tjing Wa Dak Tse in the Yarlung valley south of Tibet, and he settled the village Yarlung there. His wife was Ngam Mo Muk, sometimes called Nam Men Karmo, and his son Mu Tsen Tempo, the 2nd Tibetan King. Nyatri Tsanpo’s and he had three priests Janal, Tse and Djo.”

Nyatri Tsanpo invited Bonpos from Zhang-Zhung to Tibet where 12 kinds of ritual texts (Bon shes-pa bcu-gnyis) were translated from the Zhang-Zhung language into Tibetan. This is well established as a historical fact, but if this was just an oral transmission or whether the texts were actually written down in Tibetan is a matter of dispute. Some say that Tibetan letters did not exist until the 6th century CE. Lopon Tenzin Namdak argues that a Tibetan script did in fact exist much earlier than the 6th century CE, known as sMar-yig. This view is supported by Prof. Namkhai Norbu a.o.
If opinion differs as to whether a Tibetan literature existed at the time of the first king of Tibet, there is no disagreement that it did at the time of his son, the second king, Mutri Tsanpo. Mutri Tsanpo was very well educated and a practitioner of the Yungdrung Bon.

His wife was Sam Men Deng Dingma and his priest was Jowu Lentsa. He built the temple Ko Ma Nechung. Like his father he employed many translators who translated texts from many different languages into Tibetan. He particularly invited many Zhang-Zhungpas, the first to teach the Yungdrung Bon in Tibet being Namkha Nagwa Dogden, and he built 45 gathering places (Duné) for the Bonpo practitioners. Each place had temples and stupas. He thus established a real indigenous Tibetan tradition of teaching and studying such as existed in the neighboring countries of China and India. He himself composed many texts, a.o. prayers to his personal yidam Jyamma. This king is very important to the Yungdrung Bon because he held all the lineages of Sutra, Tantra and DzogChen.

Continuously up until the time of the 8th king (said to be a contemporary of Sakyamuni in India), translations were made from the Zhang-Zhung language into Tibetan. However, with the advent of the 8th king Drigum Tsanpo, this process came to an end.

The pride of this king caused him to be annoyed with the superior status of the Bonpo priests, and he presented them with the ultimatum of either leaving Tibet or suffering persecution.

The Bonpos gathered what they could carry of their sacred books and objects, departed, and somewhere in western Tibet they assembled to discuss what to do. Prominent at this meeting were the 4 great Scholars, the Khepa Gongma zhi: Shari Uchen, Chimtsa Machung, Chetsa Kharbu, and chief among them, the high priest, the Mahasiddha-Tong-jyung Thuchen. Some of them argued. “We must respond wrathfully, with power –we must use the zor!” But Ton-jyung Thuchen said: “No, there is nothing we can do. Whatever we might attempt, the prophesies say that we shall be losing this battle, so we will have to leave, and take with us sacred books and objects, and leave our enemies to do what they will. “Then the others agreed.

They divided among themselves what they have, and dispersed. Some escaped to the southern areas of Bhutan and Sikkim, and started teaching there. Others went to areas in the north, particularly Mongolia. Many went back to Zhang-Zhung.Many hid away.

Tong-jyung Thuchen, the chief, departed for Bhutan, but on the way at the pass Drek Tsem Takgan near Lha Chen, at the backside of Sikkim, a terrible snowstorm arose and he couldn’t cross. He then received a prophesy telling him to hide there whatever books he had brought with him. And he accordingly did so. These texts were re-discovered especially in the 10-11 century CE.

This was the first persecution of the Bonpos in Tibet. The next king, Pude Gung-gyal, tried to repair the damage that his father had done, and asked the priests to come back, esp. Tong jyung Thuchen, and to bring the texts back with them. And some went back, but not many. And as for the texts, the Bonpos replied, they were now entrusted to the protectors of the teachings, and the time was not ready to retrieve them. And furthermore – in the future there would be more problems.

The Yungdrung Bon remained the religion of Tibet up until the time of the 42nd King Tri Tsong Detsen, in the 8th century CE. Influenced by Indian Buddhists, he inaugurated the second persecution of Bon, which, however, has managed to survive to the present day.

H.H. Tenzin Gyatso, the current 14th Dalai Lama, recognizes the Bön tradition as the fifth principal spiritual school of Tibet, along with the other oriental schools such as (1) Nyingma, (2) Sakya, (3) Kagyu, and (4) Gelug schools of Buddhism, despite the long historical dispute between the Bön tradition and Buddhism in Tibet. 

In particular, Bön occupies a very significant place in the cultural identity of the Great Himalayan Range of Nepal, Sikkim and northwestern India. Recent discoveries prove that Zhangzhung was one of Asia’s major Iron Age civilizations. Today scholars and practitioners from many countries in the world feel drawn to Bön because of the richness of its profound ancient knowledge and its unique spiritual practices for awakening the individual to the real Nature and full significance of Life.


Spiritual Commitment

 H.E Yongdzin Lopon Tenzin Namdak Rinpoche

Spiritual life among the Bonpos may take many varied forms. Here we will briefly examine the traditions of monastic or retreat life, the Nagpa, Dzogchen and Chod.

Monastic life

According to Bön it is by good actions and a virtuous life that a being achieves spiritual perfection and the spheres of the Perfect Buddhas (Sangs-rgyas). The methods for reaching the highest goal were taught by Tonpa Shenrab and by successive Bonpo sages.

The noblest way to practise is to take vows; a layperson may strive for perfection, but it is the monastic life or life in retreat that offers the best opportunity of attaining the highest levels. In fact over the centuries the monastic life has formed an essential part of the Bön religion.

There are four grades of vows, two lower and two higher. The lower ones, called nyene (bsNyen-gnas) and genyen (dge-bsnyen), are normally taken by lay-people who want to practise religion in a more perfect way; when taken by monks they are considered to form an initial stage in their spiritual life.

These vows can be taken for any period of time. The higher grades are called tsangsug (gtsang-gtsug), that applies on taking monastic initiation (rab-byung) and consists of twenty-five vows, and drangsong (drang-srong), that applies on full ordination and consists of two hundred and fifty vows. Nuns take three hundred and sixty vows.


The Bonpos are also particularly known for their tradition of Nagpas (sNgags Pa), who are recognizable by their uncut, loosely worn hair. Nagpas are lay practitioners, who take the vows of refuge, genyen and Nagpa genyen, that primarily practice tantra.

There are family lineages of Nagpa, with the practice of a particular tantric yidam being passed down through the family, but any man may choose to become a Nagpa and take the appropriate vows. Though a Nagpa may marry, have children and work in the world, he must spend a great deal of time in retreat and perform rituals when requested by villagers.

While Nagpas may perform many different rituals, they are particularly known for performing birth rituals, weddings, funerals, divinations, and pacification of ghosts or nature spirits. Typically Nagpas live with their families in villages, but many Nagpas also congregate in Bonpos, the Nagpa equivalent of a monastery.


Along with the spiritual life, there are special methods of practising in the pursuit of spiritual perfection.

The most highly esteemed practices are those of the Dzogchen (rDzogs-chen, 'Great Perfection') traditions.

There are four streams or methods of meditation in Dzogchen, collectively known as A-Dzog-Nyangyud:

(1) Atri (A-khrid) - the 'Teaching on A', founded in the 11th century by Dampa Meu Gongjad Ritro Chenpo (1038-1096);

(2) Dzogchen - founded in 1088 A.D. by terton Zhoton Nogrub Dragpa (gZhod-ston dNgos-grub Grags-pa);

(3) Nyangyud - its full title is Zhang zhung sNyan-rgyud, the 'Oral Transmission of Zhang-zhung' and

(4) Yeti tasel - a lineage deriving from Tonpa Shenrab, but passing through India and translated from Sanskrit to Zhangzhung-pa.

The Zhang zhung sNyan-rgyud is the oldest and most important Dzogchen tradition and meditation system in Bön. While the other three are terma traditions based on rediscovered texts, the third is an oral tradition based on continuous transmission by an uninterrupted lineage of masters.

The Zhang-zhung Nyangyud cycle of teachings was first put in writing by the important 8th century Master Gyerphung Nangzher Lodpo, the foremost disciple of Tapihritsa, revered by Bonpos as the union of all the lineage masters.


There also exists another important system of meditation called Chod (gCod), 'Cutting the ego' which is performed by lay practitioners, Nagpa and monks alike. The purposes of Chod are to generate generosity, dispel fear and overcome attachment.

This has been only the briefest of introductions to the rich spiritual traditions of Bön. It is not possible to capture briefly the full depth and breadth of one the world's great traditions, but hopefully the reader will have some taste for what the Bonpos value. For further explanation and more detail please refer to Triten Norbutse in Nepal - - , or at the Association Yungdrung Bon - - in France.