The 34th Menri Trizin Explains about the Bon Tradition

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The Two Insider Traditions: Bhante and Bon

In my opinion, the Tibetan term nang-pa, meaning “insider” – literally someone who looks within, the commonly used term for a Buddhist – is not restricted to the followers of just one specific spiritual tradition. An “insider” is any man or woman who takes refuge in the Three Precious Gems. Basically, the distinction between an “insider” and an “outsider” is drawn on the basis of taking refuge or not in the Three Gems. Among the “insiders,” the distinction between those who follow the Greater or Lesser Vehicles is drawn on the basis of whether or not there is the generation of bodhichitta.

In Tibet, there are actually two kinds of “insider” followers of the Greater Vehicle: those who follow the teachings of the great teacher Tonpa Shenrab Miwo (sTon-pa gshen-rab mi-bo) and those who follow the teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha. Followers of both traditions refer to themselves with the same Tibetan term, nangpa, insider. Whether one practices the teachings of the Bhantes (ban-de, Skt. bhavanta; venerable Buddhist monks) or the Bonpos is one’s own wish. We cannot say one teaching is good and the other is bad. Both are the teachings of enlightened Buddhas. Bon or Dharma – whichever you follow, the ultimate goal is to alleviate the sufferings of sentient beings.

It is true that many disputes took place between followers of these two “insider” traditions, but it is pointless to talk about these disputes. The important thing is to know how to take lessons from these disputes. It would be great if the Bhantes and Bonpos in the Snow Land of Tibet would live in harmony like the family members of one household. In the words of the great Gyalwa Nyamme Сhenpo (rGyal-ba mNyam-med chen-po Shes-rab rgyal-mtshan) (1356–1415) [from his Autocommentary to “Lamp for Rituals for Dispelling Divisiveness” (rNam-’byed ’phrul-gyi sgron-me’i rang-’grel)]:

Do not be attached to your own view; do not hate the views of others. If you present your philosophical view in this way, it becomes a source for the generation of wisdom and a wonderful method for training in pure vision. This is the tradition of the hallowed ones. 

If everyone could train in pure vision toward each other in the way that he said, that would be great.

If we look back at the historical records, there was a time when both Bhantes and Bonpos experienced living together in harmony. As early as eighth century, during the reign of the Emperor Tri Songdetsen (bTsan-po Khri-srong lde-btsan), the religious leaders of the Bhantes and Bonpos, and the king Tri Songdetsen himself, along with his ministers, gathered at a place called Zurphug-kyang (Zur-phug rkyang). There, they took a solemn oath before the royal tombs, scriptures and eight classes of spirits, declaring:

As long as the earth and sky remain unchanged as they are, then just as the sun and moon shine day and night in the sky, the two communities, Bhante and Bonpo, shall live together on this earth and give up mutual suspicion, attachment and hatred, and projections and denials. The Bhantes and Bonpos shall not fight with each other or cause the pain of conflicts of jealousy.

They took this solemn oath, taking as witnesses the eight classes of spirits from the highest peak of uncontrollably recurring existence all the way up to the Three Bodies of the Blissfully Gone Ones and down to the masses of the lowest hells. This appears in the colophon of The Lineage of Temporal Rulers [by Kopo Lodro Togme (Kod-po Blo-gros thogs-med)].

The Bon tradition has a much longer history in Tibet than the Bhante tradition of Buddhism. According to our tradition, the Bon tradition was founded by the great teacher Tonpa Shenrab Miwo 18,000 years ago in Olmo Lungring (Ol-mo lung-ring) on the eastern edge of the land of Tagzig (sTag-gzig), [to the west of Tibet]. From there, it spread to the kingdom of Zhang-zhung (Zhang-zhung) in western Tibet. By the time of the first king of Tibet, King Nyatri Tsenpo (gNya’-khri btsan-po) [of the Yarlung (Yar-klungs) dynasty, founded 127 BCE], these teachings had already spread to central Tibet. By way of contrast, the Buddhism founded in India by the great teacher Shakyamuni did not spread to Tibet before the seventh century CE.

The Nine Vehicles of Bon

As for these insider teachings of the followers of the great teacher Tonpa Shenrab Miwo, they include the nine-staged vehicles of mind of Bon (bon theg-pa rim-dgu). These are:

  1. The vehicle of mind of the wisdom of prediction (phyva-gshen theg-pa) – astrology (rtsis), prognostication (mo), analysis of causes of disease (dpyad) and protector rituals (gto)
  2. The vehicle of mind of the wisdom of appearances (snang-gshen theg-pa) – the origins and nature of the gods and spirits in this world and methods for controlling them
  3. The vehicle of mind of the wisdom of rituals for exorcism (phrul-gshen theg-pa) – exorcism rituals (mdos) to dispel harmful spirits by transferring them to a scapegoat and casting spells (zor)
  4. The vehicle of mind of the wisdom of further existence (srid-gshen theg-pa) – funeral and bardo rituals for leading the dead to liberation or at least to better rebirth
  5. The vehicle of mind of laypersons (dge-bsnyen theg-pa) – the ten constructive and ten destructive actions and the ten far-reaching attitudes (perfections)
  6. The vehicle of mind of ascetics (drang-srong theg-pa) – the vows and rules of discipline for monastics
  7. The vehicle of mind of the white A (a-dkar theg-pa) – the practices and rituals of tantra
  8. The vehicle of mind of primordial wisdom (ye-gshen theg-pa) ­– the tantric master, the place for tantric practice, the description of mandalas, and the generation and complete stages of highest tantra
  9. The vehicle of mind of the unsurpassable (bla-med theg-pa) – the great completeness, dzogchen (rdzogs-chen), and the state of enlightenment.

 The Spread of Bon in Tibet

During the reign of King Nyatri Tsenpo, the first king of Tibet, causal Bon teachings (rgyu-bon) – [the first four Bon vehicles of mind] – were spread widely in Tibet. During the reign of Mutri Tsenpo (Mu-khri btsan-po), the second king of Tibet, the Bon teachings of the tantras and the unsurpassable mind – [the seventh, eighth and ninth Bon vehicles of mind] – were spread widely. During the reign of Dingtri Tsenpo (Ding-khri btsan-po), the third king of Tibet, the vinaya teachings of rules of discipline – [the fifth and sixth Bon vehicles of mind] – were spread widely.

In short, from the reign of Nyatri Tsenpo, the first king of Tibet, through the reign of Namri Songtsen (gNam-ri srong-btsan), ­the thirty-second king of Tibet [and father of Emperor Songtsen Gampo] – [or more fully:]

  • From the reign of the seven with the name “khri” from the sky (gnam-gyi khri-bdun) [which includes Nyatri Tsenpo],
  • the two with the name “sde” from the in-between space (bar-gyi sde-gnyis),
  • the six with the name “legs” on the earth (sa-la-legs-drug),
  • the eight with the name “lde” on the water (chu-la-lde-brgyad),
  • the five with the name “btsan” of the in-between space (bar-gyi-btsan-lnga) [which includes Namri Songtsen and Songtsen Gampo],
  • through the four splendid Bon kings (phun-sum-tshogs-pa’i-bon-rgyal-bzhi) [up to and including Tride Tsugtsan (Khri-lde gtsug-btsan), also known as Me Agtsom (Mes ag-tshoms), father of Emperor Tri Songdetsen (Khri-srong lde-btsan) (742–789), during whose reign the insider Buddhist teachings of Shakyamuni were spread to Tibet],

the insider teachings [of Shenrab Miwo] included in the three (classes): sutra, tantra and mind (mdo-sngags-sems-gsum), were widespread. These teachings were first spread in Zhang-zhung and then in Tibet.

The Course of Study for the Bon Geshe Degree

To obtain the Geshe degree in the Bon tradition, one has to study the three classes of teachings – sutra, tantra and mind – at a monastic academy of study (bshad-grva) for at least fourteen years or at the most for sixteen years. Every day, without shrinking from the heat in summer or shrinking from the intense cold in winter, one has to study the abandoning path of sutra (spang-lam mdo), the transformative path of tantra (bsgyur-lam sngags) and the liberating path of the mind class (grol-lam sems-phyogs) in accordance with the timetable. In terms of the year classes, there is the study of:

  • Collected topics and logic (bsdus-grva) in the first-year class
  • Valid cognition (tshad-ma) in the second-year class
  • Philosophical tenet systems (grub-mtha’) in the third-year class
  • The [ten] bhumi-minds and [five] pathway minds (sa-lam) in the fourth-year class
  • Prajnaparamita (phar-phyin) in the fifth- and sixth-year classes
  • Madhyamaka (dbu-ma) in the seventh-year class
  • Abhidharma (mdzod) in the eighth-year class
  • Vinaya (’dul-ba) in the ninth-year class
  • The four tantra classes (rgyud-sde bzhi) in the tenth- and eleventh-year classes
  • The great dzogchen texts, taking as the main ones the Zhang-zhung ear-to-ear transmission line of dzogchen (zhang-zhung snyan-rgyud) in the twelfth- and thirteenth-year classes.

Likewise, from among the secular fields of knowledge (rig-gnas), there is the study of:

  • Tibetan spelling (dag-yig)
  • Tibetan grammar (brda-sprod)
  • Poetics (snyan-ngag)
  • Element astrology (byung-rtsis)
  • Stellar astrology (skar-rtsis)
  • Sanskrit grammar (sgra)
  • Ritual music (rol-mo)
  • Calligraphy with the Zhang-zhung marchen and marchung scripts (zhang-zhung smar-chen smar-chung
  • Crafts (bzo)
  • Mantras and relic filling of statues and stupas (gzungs-gzhug)
  • Grids for drawing mandalas (dkyil-’khor thig-rtsa
  • The four medicine tantras (bum-bzhi).

At the conclusion of completing all these studies, one is granted the title and degree of Geshe.

Although the students in the various Bon monastic academies of study and practice are allowed to examine the tenets and views of any of the other Dharma traditions, however they take as their main studies the classics of their own tradition, the great Bon classical texts. Among those texts, there are those well-known as the earlier, middle, and later textbooks (yig-cha gong-’og-bar gsum).

  • The earlier textbooks were composed by the great master possessing the eyes of the Bon teachings, Azha Drogon Lodro Gyaltsen (A-zha ’Gro-mgon Blo-gros rgyal-mtshan) (1198–1263).
  • The middle textbooks were composed by the great peerless triumphant one, Nyamme Sherab Gyaltsen (mNyam-med Shes-rab rgyal-mtshan) (1356–1415).
  • The later textbooks were composed by the omniscient Kunkyen Nyima Tenzin (Kun-mkhyen Nyi-ma bstan-’dzin).

For the study of Madhyamaka, although the students are free to study the texts of Nagarjuna and Chandrakirti, they are not part of the curriculum and I have not seen any commentaries to these texts by Bonpo masters.

The Bon Vows

According to my way of thinking, I would say that the vows of both the Bhantes and Bonpos should be recognized as being “insider” vows. A vow is called [literally, a “vowed restraint”] from its aspect of its being something that restrains one’s three gateways [body, speech and mind] from negative behavior. If we speak in terms of the Bon tradition, there is the tradition of speaking of the vows as being divided into three groups:

  • The external vows for individual liberation (pratimoksha) (phyi so-so’i thar-pa’i sdom-pa)
  • The internal tantric vows of a knowledge holder (vidyadhara) (nang rig-’dzin sngags-kyi sdom-pa)
  • The secret bodhisattva vows (gsang-ba byang-chub sems-kyi sdom-pa).

[1] The ethical discipline of the determination to be free with which one abandons harming others, together with its basis, is called “the vow for individual liberation.”

[2] The ethical discipline of the determination to be free that is held by the profound method of borrowing aspects of the result and taking them as a path is called “the tantric vow of a knowledge holder.”

[3] The ethical discipline of the determination to be free that is held by the special thought to benefit others is called “the bodhisattva vow.” It has the same meaning as the generation of the bodhichitta aim in Mahayana.

As for what can be called having a vow or not, the point is that when one receives a vow, one needs to feel that one has received it. Those who feel they have the vow on their mental continuum after having received it possess the vow.

As for the vows for laypeople, there are both laymen and laywomen who possess on their mental continuums:

  • Refuge vows (skyabs-’gro’i sdom-pa)
  • One-day vows (bsnyen-gnas sdom-pa)
  • Lay vows (dge-bsnyen sdom-pa)
  • Tantric vows
  • Bodhisattva vows.

I don’t know whether or not these are the same layperson vows as given in the five [Tibetan Buddhist] Dharma traditions (chos-rgyud lnga). It’s possible that there could be a different way of conferring vows in each of these [Buddhist] Dharma traditions. Each teacher has his or her own way of teaching and each chef has his or her own way of cooking.

Historically speaking, Buddha Tonpa Shenrab Miwo conferred vows on everyone [who requested them], irrespectively of their being men or women. There are the sets of vows for:

  • Full ascetic monks (drang-srong) [with 250 vows] and full ascetic nuns (drang-srong-ma) [with 360 vows. Both sets of vows include not consuming onion, garlic, meat or alcohol.]
  • Novice monks (gtsang-gtsug) and novice nuns (gtsang-gtsug-ma) – [both with 25 vows]
  • Laymen (dge-bsnyen) and laywomen (dge-bsnyen-ma) [with 5 vows]
  • One-day vow observing laymen (bsnyen-gnas) and one-day vow observing laywomen (bsnyen-gnas-ma) [with 8 vows].

These days, at Menri Monastery, for example, there are around 80 nuns (btsun-ma). There are many thousands of Bonpo nuns in Tibet.

Features of the Bon Tradition

Prayer Flags and Space-harmonizing Webs

Prayer flags (dar-lcog) are treated in The Sutra on Methods of Attaining the Topmost Achievement of Peerless Brilliance (gZi-brjid bla-med-go-’phang-sgrub-thabs-kyi mdo), The Wind God Tantra for Complete Liberation (Kun-grol rlung-lha’i rgyud), The Sutra for an Indestructible, Auspicious Pure Life (g.Yung-drung gtsang-ma’i -tshe mdo), The Great Triumphant Dharani Formula (rNam-rgyal gzungs-chen), and The Tantra of the Hundred-Syllable [Mantra] (Yi-ge brgya-pa’i rgyud).

As for the benefits of putting up prayer flags, The Tantra of the Hundred-Syllable [Mantra] states:

If you write the wish-fulfilling essence of syllables on brocade or merely on cloth with the ink of any precious red or blue gems and then hoist it on the top of a mountain, those beings who enjoy the grass or the water originating from the mountain, or simply see it with their eyes, will attain the state of a Buddha. If you hoist it near a holy mountain, whoever hoisted it there will definitely go to a Buddha-field. If you hoist it somewhere nearby a big city, the beings living there will attain the state of a Buddha. That region will not be struck by epidemics or harm from malevolent spirits. If you hoist it somewhere by a solitary retreat place, any spiritual teacher residing there will reach successful completion of their constructive activities and purify any degeneration of their commitments.

Likewise, The Sutra for an Indestructible, Auspicious Pure Life states:

If you write this “life-lengthening dharana formula,” which eliminates obstacles, on any piece of blue paper, brocade or cloth with the ink of five kinds of gems – gold, silver, turquoise and so forth – and then wear it on your neck or display it in a crowded marketplace, those beings who hear or see it, whether people or animals, will have all their obstacles purified away and come to attain the fruit, liberation.

Although there are many different [views] as to the year, month, day and hour when to put up prayer flags, wind-horse flags (rlung-rta, having five animals printed on them) and so on, I think it is correct to put up them up in the morning, from the third to sixteenth of the first Mongolian month (hor-zla) according to the Tibetan calendar.

From the pith instructions of the glorious Shardza Tashi Gyaltsen (Shar-dza bKra-bshis rgyal-mtshan) (1859–1933):

Concerning the time for putting up prayer flags: Among the years, it should be the year of the rat. Among the Mongolian months, it should be the first. Among the days, it should be eighth, the fifteenth and so on. As for the time, they should be put up at sunrise, and so on.

From The Sutra for the Eyes of Memory (mDo gzer-mig):

For the sake of benefiting wandering sentient beings, [the hoisting of prayer flags should be] at the start of the [twelve-year animal cycle of] years, the year of the rat, at the cusp of Chaitya (dpyid-zla) [the first] of the twelve lunar months, at the start of Pushya (rgyal) the first of the [twenty-seven] constellations, at the first hour after dawn break, like when the sun rises.

Kunkyen Nyima Tenzin has said: 

It should be understood by everyone, monastic and lay, that in general whatever constructive deeds they do between the first and fifteenth of the first Mongolian month, [the positive force from that] multiplies 100,000-fold.

As for “namkha” space-harmonizing webs (nam-mkha), the textual sources for the vehicle of mind of the wisdom of further existence (snang-gshen theg-pa) offer [teachings on] them as the great thread-crosses of the secret expanse of space (mkha-klong-gsang-ba’i mdos-chen). In general, space-harmonizing webs [of colored threads as temporary dwelling places for deities during rituals] are constructed to represent the bodily colors and handheld implements of the deities in accordance with the texts of each. During the great general stage prayer festival (spyi-rim-chen-mo), a special space-harmonizing web [in the shape of the auspicious symbol of an endless knot] is created.

Fields of Knowledge

In the Bonpo tradition, what are known as “ways of knowing” (rig-pa) is included in the textual sources on the knowledge of grammar (sgra rig-pa) from among the five great secular fields of knowledge (rig-gnas chen-po lnga). 

Further, Buddha Tonpa Shenrab Miwo has said, “The knowledge of crafts (bzo rig-pa) is presented because it is provides a [material] foundation for the teachings of the Buddhas and takes care of the needs of others.

The knowledge of Sanskrit grammar and valid cognition (tshad-ma) are presented in order to cut off all critiques based on not understanding, misunderstanding and doubt, and then to establish correctly the definitive meanings.  

The knowledge of medicine (gso rig-pa) is presented in order to alleviate the torments from the sicknesses of wandering beings and heal their bodies and life force.

The knowledge of external phenomena (phyi rig-pa) is presented in order to reveal, through astrological calculation, good and faulty [times to act] and to bring peace and happiness to the world of appearances.

The knowledge of internal phenomena (nang rig-pa) is presented in order to overcome, with skillful means, obstacles and malevolent spirits so that the ultimate and common goals will be obtained on one’s mental continuum.

If one studies the pathway of knowledge of valid cognition, the ability to understand decisively will come about by sunset. No matter what type of practices it may be, whether sutra, tantra or mind, they won’t be proper without the pathway of knowledge of valid cognition. As for ways of setting out the presentation of valid cognition, the sutra, tantra and mind teachings each has its own individual way of setting them out. It’s like that.


The Bon tradition has its own Kalachakra Tantra. Explaining according to our own traditional historical account, at the age of 12, Buddha Tonpa Shenrab Miwo taught the Kalachakra Tantra of 8000 chapters in the southern Mon country (Mon-yul) at the palace of the king of the region Sumto Wangchen (Sum-stod dbang-chen sa-bdag rgyal-po). This was during the time of the first turning of the wheel of his teachings. I have not seen, however, anything like a tradition of conferring the teachings of the great Kalachakra empowerment, in full or in stages, in later times. 

Physical Exercises

Physical exercises (phrul-’khor) are very important for the sake of making progress on the higher paths of practice and, for the body, to ward off sicknesses and prevent them before they happen. In the Bon texts there are teachings on this, divided into two classifications. They’re called “physical exercises for enhancing one’s practice” (bog-’don-gyi ’phrul-’khor) and “physical exercises for eliminating obstructions” (gegs-sel-gyi ’phrul-’khor).

In short, these are the practices of the energy-channels and energy-winds (rtsa-rlung). They open up the knots in the energy-channels for the energy-winds, cleanse the pathways of the energy-channels and defeat the various classes of sickness and harm from spirits. These days, people call this “yoga.” There are an unimaginably large number of kinds of physical exercises related to the energy-channels and energy-winds contained in the ancient Bon texts.

Concluding Advice

You need to prepare in advance. Before a flood comes, you need to prepare a barricade; and before enemies come, you need to perform the rituals for dispelling enemies (dgra-sgrub). They will be difficult to deal with right at the time [when they come].

When you wake up early in the morning, your first thought should be this: “No matter what adverse circumstances or what kinds of persons I might encounter today who might instill in me attachment, anger or delusion, I will not separate myself from the conduct of the bodhisattvas.” If you are able to keep the firm pledge of this thought, that will be extremely excellent.

As an antidote to anger, there is love; as an antidote to envy and jealousy, there is spaciousness (yangs-pa); as an antidote to naivety, there is deep awareness (ye-shes); as an antidote to longing desire, there is generosity; and as an antidote to pride and arrogance, there is calming down (zhi-ba). You need to have the very strong intention with which you think, “I must act in such a way that will enable me to make use of these by inculcating them on my mental continuum without leaving them just in the texts.”

If you have such thoughts as the essential aim of your entire day, it will definitely make it constructive and auspicious. If you able to practice like this, then each month, each entire year, your whole life, your life will be meaningful. You yourself will have auspiciousness; your friends will also have auspiciousness; your family too will have auspiciousness; and the whole county will definitely come to have auspiciousness.

If you are able to look at things from a broad perspective, your troubles will naturally be reduced. If you remain stressed and narrow-minded, your troubles will definitely get greater and greater. In short, you will be able to dispel your troubles if you are able to use your intellect appropriately in accordance with circumstances.

Final Words

Buddha Tonpa Shenrab Miwo has stated:

If you set a fire on the ground, it must be one that is able to burn the earth. 


Whatever you study, master it completely; then when many things come before your mind that are not yet accomplished, you will not get flustered. If you try to study everything, you may not take even one to completion; but if you become learned in one thing, become learned to the point of complete mastery.

As has been said, if there is something that any one of you study in your lifetime, it should be something that you will be able to know down to its depths. If there are too many things to think about and to remember, your knowledge will get confused. If you had to study everything in one human lifetime, that would be very difficult. “If you are learned in one basic thing, you are a learned person” – this refers to that.

If someone who gives a Dharma teaching is completely qualified to give that teaching, then it is all right to attend that teaching from that person. But nowadays there are many who give Dharma teachings who are not like that. If the person giving the Dharma teaching and the setting in which it is given are both, by conventional standards, a sham, there won’t be much benefit.