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Bon I

Updated on July 15, 2017

Bon is the native religion of Tibet and it originated in the Western Himalayan kingdom of Zhangzhung. It is divided into two facets. Bon, prior to the arrival of Padmasambhava and the aspects of the religion that survived after the amalgamation with other religious components subsequent to the arrival of the Indian monk (7th - 8th century).

Bon in its original form was realized and propagated by Toenpa Sherab or Gshen-Rab and according to popular myth, Toenpa Sherab, was born with the gift to see spirits and other cosmic beings and was able to communicate with them.

At the age of 12 he was abducted and taken to the underworld where he was taught the secrets of spirits or demons and he reappeared or resurfaced 12 years later at the age of 24 to claim his rightful place as the son of the King of Thogar (Thodkar) a principality towards the northwest of Kashmir.

Central to Bon is the yungdrung which is interestingly enough represented by a symbol turning anti-clockwise. Many commenters on the subject have mentioned that Bon is shamanistic in essence, not that there is anything wrong with shamanism because most ancient religions are shamanistic to some extent or another, and I tend to agree with them because in most orthodox religious circles the symbols are represented clockwise and when the motion is reversed, then it falls outside the realms of orthodox religion and falls into the folds of shamanism.

Let us take it a step further and look at it in a different light. The general presumption is that the yungdrung is a key. When the key is turned clockwise it produces a certain effect and when the key is turned anti-clockwise it produces another effect or a counter effect and if we look at Bon per se without the influences of other orthodox religions, it is in essence and substance propitiation by means of incantation and in this aspect it is without doubt shamanistic and to some degree ritualistic.

According to most sources Bon is similar to Hinduism in that its adherents believe in the laws of karma and reincarnation and therefore are subject to the birth and death cycle.

The exploits of the tantric monk Padmasmabhava may shed more light on the matter. When Padmasmabhava arrived in Tibet, it is said that the prevailing religion was shamanism, though no mention is made of Bon, and the monk had to combat demons and other spirit entities that had been conjured by shamans to free its people.

However, it is worth keeping in mind that Bon adherents were subjected to a period of long-term persecution post the arrival of Buddhism and some of the facts may have been distorted. There have been attempts to dismiss Bon as another branch or sect of Buddhism and nothing could be further from the truth. Bon is a religion that is unique by itself.

By the 8th – 9th century the pre – Buddhist religion of Tibet had been suppressed and supplanted by Buddhism and many of its adherents and followers existed in small pockets scattered around the country.

There have been accusations by some scholars that Bon adherents mimic or imitate Buddhist rites but these accusations are baseless and unfounded.

Bon adherents observe similar rituals as some Hindu schools or sects. The similarities include an altar and offerings of fruits and flowers. They burn incense at the altar and some adherents even chant mantras. Such practices are common not only in orthodox worship but also in shamanistic rites and rituals and it is evident in every nook and cranny of the subcontinent. This type of worship has existed for eons and predates Buddhism.

Likewise, the concept of births, deaths, reincarnation and enlightenment have existed for thousands of years and therefore it is not unusual for any religion that originates from this part of the world to have at its core the aforementioned concepts or precepts.

The differences however would lie in the deities that are worshiped and the status that is accorded to the respective deities and not in the concepts. The determinant factor is if the deities can be classed as orthodox deities i.e. deities that most of us are familiar with or unorthodox deities i.e. deities that most of us have not heard of. With Bon I suspect it is the latter.

The other distinguishing feature with Bon is that worship according to most sources is not conducted from translations of Sanskrit based texts as it is with Buddhism but it is conducted from texts originally written in the Zhangzhung language and later translated into Tibetan which tends to suggest that Bon had its own series of texts which outlined the principles and the canons of the faith, all of which adds to its uniqueness.

© 2016 Kathiresan Ramachanderam and Dyarne Jessica Ward

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