History and Teaching of Bön

tonpa.jpgBön is the ancient indigenous religion of Tibet. It shares similar views, goals and practices with Buddhism, but traces its origin through a different lineage. It is said that the Lord Tonpa Shenrab attained enlightenment and first spread the teaching of Bön 17,000 years ago in the land of Tazig, located to the west of Tibet. He only visited Tibet once, according to his biographies, but predicted his teachings would flourish there.

Before Tibet existed as a nation, the kingdom of Zhang Zhung reached from Kashmir to the center of modern Tibet, and from Nepal into central Asia’s deserts. The kings of Zhang Zhung were all Bonpos, as were the people of that time. In the sixth and seventh centuries C.E. the Tibetan kingdom centered in the Yarlung valley set out on a course of military expansion and attacked Zhang Zhung. The Tibetans assassinated the last king of Zhang Zhung, King Ligmincha, in the seventh century, and Zhang Zhung was militarily annexed. About the same time, the kingdom of Tibet endorsed Buddhism as the state religion, and forced all Bonpos to either convert, or move to the outlying provinces of the country. As a result, today we find most Bonpos living in the eastern and western edges of Tibet, and a sizable community living in Nepal and northern India after the Chinese occupation. According to the Chinese census, about 10% of Tibetans call themselves Bonpos.

The teachings of Bön can be categorized in many different ways, but a simple explanation would be to look at four vehicles: the causal vehicle, sutra, Tantra and Dzogchen. The causal vehicle teaches us how to work and be in harmony with the spirits of nature. It involves rituals for pacification of spirits and healing of individuals that are very similar to Native American traditions. These practices are considered essential to all the vehicles, for one must make peace with the spirits of nature before embarking on any meditation, especially a personal retreat. Sutra is the path of renunciation practiced by monks and nuns. Through the observance of vows sutric practitioners avoid negative conduct and thoughts and cultivate good qualities while accumulating merit and wisdom leading to enlightenment. Cultivation of compassion, humility, generosity and devotion, are particularly important. Tantra is a path of transformation. Through visualization and contemplation the Tantric practitioner learns to transform that which appears to be negative into its pure enlightened essence. Many of the medical methods taught in Bön are grounded in Tantra. The path of Dzogchen is the most direct of the vehicles, and is the method most frequently taught through Ligmincha’s activities. Since it is a primary focus, it bears elaboration.

Dzogchen tells us that just as a cloud originates from an empty sky, so all concepts and thoughts arise in our inner space then vanish back into its emptiness. We have to try to understand ourselves, our true condition, to see that all our concepts and problems arise there, abide there, and disappear there. Discovering this condition is finding the primordial state. But in order to understand our condition we have to go beyond concepts and thoughts. Our original condition is thoughtless, and thought cannot touch what is beyond thought. There can be explanation in words to introduce the state, but the explanation is not realization of the state. Dzogchen is direct understanding, not distracted by thought.

Each individual must look within to discover the origin of thoughts. Then when one has had the experience of this discovery, the master can introduce and explain the state since the student has already had the experience. The master does not introduce his own concepts to the student, but confirms and explains what the student has discovered - thoughts arise from emptiness, which is the true condition of the individual. Each individual has this basic condition, which is Buddhahood. It is not something one receives or gets from outside. This is the true condition of the individual.

Through the programs offered by Chamma Ling and Ligmincha Institute, participants learn to appreciate and integrate all four vehicles of Bön. While there is a recommended curriculum with sequential training steps, individuals can also choose to explore and experience any aspect of the Bön teachings that feels right for them.