Chapter 11

Main topics covered
• Introduction
• Yungdrung Bon
• Bonpo narratives and teachings
• Bonpo history and the relationship with Buddhism
• The history of Bon studies
• Modern developments
• Conclusion
Key points 1
• The term Bon has been used to describe several different aspects
of Tibetan religion that are only loosely connected with each
other, if at all. The main subject of this chapter, Yungdrung Bon,
is essentially a variant of Tibetan Buddhism that developed in the
tenth and eleventh centuries, with close resemblances to
Nyingmapa Buddhism in particular. It claims to have preBuddhist origins and probably preserves at least some genuinely
ancient features.
• The followers of the Bon tradition, perhaps 5 to 10% of the
Tibetan population, were traditionally discriminated against by
Tibetan Buddhists, but have now been recognised by the 14th
Dalai Lama as a fifth major tradition of Tibetan Buddhism.
Key points 2
• This tradition, Yungdrung Bon, is in many ways similar to
Tibetan Buddhism, but claims to originate in a different
teacher, Tönpa Shenrap, is connected with different deities and
has a different set of myths and stories.
• The term Bon is also used to refer to a class of priests during
the early Tibetan Empire, and to a variety of village-level
religious practitioners found along the Himalayas and
elsewhere in Tibetan regions, who seem mainly concerned
with invocations to local deities.
Yungdrung Bon temple
Temple at Bongya Monastery, Rebkong, photo 2010
Key points 3
• The founder of Yungdrung Bon, Tönpa Shenrab (Shenrab Mibo), is
believed to have been a Buddha who achieved Buddhahood many
hundred years before the historical Buddha Śākyamuni, in a country
to the west of Tibet known as Ölmo Lungring, perhaps
corresponding to parts of present-day Iran or Central Asia.
• Tönpa Shenrab is said to have visited Central Tibet, but his
teachings are claimed to have been passed down through the
kingdom of Shangshung in what is now western Tibet. Most were
lost during periods of persecution, so that with few exceptions the
Yungdrung Bon practice lineages today derive from terma
Tönpa Shenrap
Tönpa Shenrap. Bongya Monastery, Rebkong , photo 2010
Key points 4
• Bonpo deities and rituals resemble and in many cases are
used for the same purposes as Buddhist deities and rituals,
though the names and detailed iconography are usually
• Bon mythology, such as their account of the creation of the
world, may preserve genuine early Tibetan material.
Chamma and Tārā
Left, the Bonpo goddess Chamma. Tsiwu Gompa, Qinghai, photo 2010. Right, the Buddhist goddess White Tārā
The Bon deity Phurba. Triten Norbutse, Kathmandu, photo 2006
Sipé Gyelmo (Queen of Existence)
The Bon goddess Sipé Gyelmo. Triten Norbutse, Kathmandu. Photo 2006

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