It is often said that Tibetan Buddhism is a combination of regular Buddhism and Bon, which gives it a unique flavour. This may or may not be so…But…. what is Bon?
Bon was the original native religion of Tibet ~ a shamanistic religion based on animism, which is the belief that all natural things, both animate and inanimate possess a ‘soul” or spiritual essence. Animism is the oldest belief system of all humankind ~ the conviction that there is no difference between the spiritual and the mundane world. Bon existed at least as early as 400BC.
The word Bon itself means ”Invocation”.
In the 7th Century Buddhism arrived in Tibet, and tried to discredit Bon practices. But in the end they merged and influenced each other. There are two forms of Bon, the more modern being very close to Mahayana Buddhism.
Tonpa Shenrab is said to be the founder of original Bon – known as Yungdrung Bon. His teachings ~ ”the tradition of eternal wisdom” ~ include the Nine Ways of Bon, which aspire to teach the way to enlightenment. Followers of Bon are called Bonpo. There are 2 main Bon monasteries remaining in Tibet.
These are the Nine Ways of Bon (Source Wiki)
- Way of Prediction (phyva gshen theg pa) codifies ritual, prognostication, sortilege and astrology;
- Way of the Visual World (snang shen theg pa) details the psychophysical Universe;
- Way of Illusion (‘phrul gshen theg pa) explains the rites for the dispersal of adverse thoughtforms, entities and energies;
- Way of Existence (srid gshen theg pa) details funeral and death rituals;
- Way of a Lay Follower (dge bsnyen theg pa) contains the ten principles for wholesome activity;
- Way of a Monk (drang srong theg pa) codifies monastic rules and regulations;
- Way of Primordial Sound (a dkar theg pa) charts the integration of an exalted practitioner into the mandala of highest enlightenment;
- Way of Primordial Shen, (ye gshen theg pa) renders the guidelines for seeking a true tantric master and the commitments (dam tshigs, parallel to the Sanskrit samaya) that bind a disciple to his tantric master; and finally,
- Way of Supreme Natural Condition (bla med theg pa), or The Way of Dzogchen
Opinions vary on Bon. Some say that the indigenous religion of Tibet was a fairly eclectic and random mix of rituals performed by priest-castes propitiating good and bad spirits and tending to after-life ceremonies, and that it was only after Buddhism was imported that this native cult organised itself and acquired a definite identity. Others say Bon was a very well organised creed long before the advent of Buddhism. In any event Both Bon and Tibetan Buddhism use the same terms and names, eg Buddha and Dakini names. Some of the Bonpos claim this was the way it was for them before the advent of Buddhism ~ and that Tonpa was in fact an incarnation of Buddha, bringing the essential teachings prior to Padmasambhava ~ but this is unlikely. Prior to the 7th century arrival of Buddhism Bon had no official scriptures, though the Bonpos are said to have quickly appropriated the Buddhist sutras.
The Tibetan folk religion encompasses indigenous beliefs and practices, many of which predate the introduction of Buddhism and which are commonly viewed as being distinct from the mainstream of Buddhist practice. These are primarily concerned with propitiation of the spirits and demons of Tibet, which are believed to inhabit all areas of the country Folk religious practices rely heavily on magic and ritual and are generally intended to bring mundane benefits, such as protection from harm, good crops, healthy livestock, health, wealth, etc. Their importance to ordinary people should not be underestimated, since in the consciousness of most Tibetans the world is full of multitudes of powers and spirits, and the welfare of humans requires that they be propitiated and sometimes subdued. Every part of the natural environment is believed to be alive with various types of sentient forces, who live in mountains, trees, rivers and likes, rocks, fields, the sky, and the earth. Every region has its own native supernatural beings, and people living in these areas are strongly aware of their presence. In order to stay in their good graces, Tibetans give them offerings, perform rituals to propitiate them, and sometimes refrain from going to particular places so as to avoid the more dangerous forces.
Here is an interesting site with some theories on early Bon.
A stick record of a ritual to a Bon deity found by Aurel Stein in Miran (an ancient oasis town located on the southern rim of the Taklamakan Desert in China) in 1907
A description of Bon by Sheng Yen-Lu http://tbsn.org/english2/article.php?id=775
Followers of the Bon Religion believed the world was divided into three spheres: the upper Heaven sphere, the middle Earth sphere, and the lower Underworld sphere, the latter of which was inhabited by demons. In heaven there lived six gods who were brothers. The greatest god `Samba`* was regarded as the creator of the universe. Bon followers also worshipped Dragon gods (kLu) who ruled over the human world. There were also mountain, water, and earth spirits collectively known by the name gNyan. The god of the powerful Thang-lha mountain chain was also known as `the Great gNyan.`
Shantarakshita suggested that the Tibetan King invite Padmasambhava to Tibet to subjugate the Bon sorcerers. Padmasambhava was the great Tantrayana master in Udyana, the modern city of Kashmir. On his journey, Padmasambhava started conquering the Bon shamans. The details are recorded in the biography of Padmasambhava. Of course, Padmasambhava was a true Tantrayana master, far more capable than the Bon-pos. This enabled him to finally gain the upper hand.
Padmasambhava also adopted a new strategy. After subduing the great mountain and water spirits of the Bon Religion, he turned them into the Dharma Protectors of Buddhism. Among the Bon spirits, there are `twelve Dan-mas`* who have all become Tantrayana Dharma Protectors. The following is a description of Padmasambhava in the religious history of Tibet. `Using his transcendental and miraculous powers, Padmasambhava subjugated the maras and non-humans who vowed from then on to turn to goodness and protect the righteous Dharma.`
Another interesting article on Bon by Alexander Berzin
According to the Bon tradition itself, it was founded by Shenrab Miwo, who lived thirty thousand years ago. That would place him somewhere in the Stone Age. I don’t think this means he was a caveman. A common way to show great respect to a lineage is to say it is ancient. The actual dates of his lifespan are not possible to prove in any case. Shenrab Miwo lived in Omolungring. The description of this place seems to be a mixture of ideas about Shambhala, Mt. Meru, and Mt. Kailash. It is the description of an ideal spiritual land. It was said to be within a larger area called Tazig. The word “Tazig” can be found both in Persian and Arabic to refer to either Persia or Arabia. In other contexts, it refers to a nomadic tribe. In the Bon tradition, Tazig is described as being to the west of the kingdom of Zhang-zhung, which was in Western Tibet.
This suggests that Bon came from Central Asia, and probably an Iranian cultural area. It is possible that Shenrab Miwo lived in an ancient Iranian culture and then came to Zhang-zhung. Some versions say he came sometime between the eleventh and seventh centuries B.C.E. That is also a very long time ago and, again, there is no way of proving one or the other position. What is clear is that by the time of the founding of the Yarlung Dynasty in Central Tibet (127 B.C.E.) there was already something of a native tradition. We do not even know what it was called at that time.
We find that there is a tremendous amount in common with the Tibetan Buddhist traditions. This is why His Holiness calls Bon one of the five traditions. The Bonpos would not like it, but we can call them another form of Tibetan Buddhism. It depends on how we define a Buddhist tradition. Most of the terminology is the same. Bon talks about enlightenment, attaining enlightenment, Buddhas, and so on. Certain terms are different as are the names of various deities, but the basic teachings are there. There are some very trivial differences such as circumambulating counterclockwise rather than clockwise. The type of ceremonial hat is different. The monks’ robes are identical except that part of the vest is blue rather than red or yellow.
Bon also emphasizes the various traditional Indian sciences, which they study much more intensely than in the Buddhist monasteries – medicine, astrology, poetic meters, and so on. Within the Buddhist monasteries, these subjects are emphasized much more in Amdo in eastern Tibet than in central Tibet.
Both Bon and Tibetan Buddhism have monasteries and monasticvows. It is quite interesting that although many of the vows are the same in the two traditions, Bon has certain vows that one would expect Buddhists to have but they do not. For example, Bonpos have a vow of being vegetarian. Buddhists don’t. The Bon morality is a little stricter than the Buddhist.
Bon has a system of tulkus, which is the same as that in the Buddhist monasteries. They have Geshes. They have Prajnaparamita, Madhyamaka, Abhidharma, and all of the divisions that we find in the Buddhist texts. Some of the vocabulary and the presentations are slightly different, but the variation is no more dramatic than that between one Buddhist lineage and another. For example, Bon has its own account of the creation of the world, but we find a unique account in Kalachakra as well. This is a general picture. Bon is not so strange.