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Tibetan Buddhism



The Bon-po school developed alongside Tibetan Buddhism and both influenced and was influenced by Buddhist teachings.  Thus, it shares many of its doctrines and methods of practice with the Tibetan Buddhist schools.  Its tradition of philosophy resembles the scholastic curriculum at Buddhist monasteries and prior to 1947, monks at the head Bon-po monastery had received academic training from the Sa-skya-pas.  Similarly, the Bon-po have their own version of rDzogs-chen teachings, the meditative traditions which form the culmination of the Vajrayana path in rNying-ma-pa presentations.  At the same time, the Bon-po preserve some unique doctrines which they claim derive from pre-Buddhist Tibet: eg. they have their own cosmology, and unlike Buddhists, they include pan-Tibetan folk beliefs and practices as part of their religious system.


The Bon-po trace their heritage to the land of sTag-gzig, to the west of Tibet, which may indicate that the early traditions which came to be called Bon were not all indigenous but were imported, ultimately from Central Asia or India, prior to the large scale introduction of Buddhism.  Be that as it may, those who followed non-Buddhist religious teachings were undermined (and sometimes persecuted) by the Buddhist kings of Tibet in the eighth to ninth centuries CE.  From the tenth century, the Bon-po, like the emerging "rNying-ma-pa", began to "rediscover" teachings said to have been "hidden" (gter-ma texts), and from the eleventh century, they introduced monastic organisation, like the newly forming Buddhist schools.  In the fifteenth century, the monastery of sMan-ri, which later became the Bon-po centre, was founded in gTsang, Central Tibet.  sMan-ri was later responsible for the development of Bon-po monasteries in the East.  Other major Central Tibetan monastic establishments (g.Yung-drung-gling and mKhar-sna) date from the nineteenth century.  A "new Bon" (Bon-gsar) movement originating in sDe-dge in the eighteenth century, emphasised the interpenetration of many Bon-po and Buddhist teachings.  New Bon lamas were active in the Ris-med movement, and some new Bon works were included in the Ris-med compilations of texts.  The more traditional Bon (Bon-rnying) in contrast, were concerned to uphold their distinctiveness and continued to dominate the Bon-po establishment in Central Tibet.  There was, however, declining support for the Bon-po in Central Tibet, and the dGe-lugs-pa confiscated much of their land in the nineteenth century.  The co-existence of Buddhism and Bon was more easy in the East, where the Bon-po had a less pronounced separate identity, although some Eastern Tibetan Bon-po monasteries were appropriated by the expanding dGe-lugs-pa in the twentieth century.

Symbols The Bon-po share much of their ritual symbolism with the Tibetan Buddhist schools.  Some of the Buddhist symbolism is inverted: circumambulations are performed in an anti-clockwise rather than a clockwise direction.  A Bon-po temple will appear very similar to a Buddhist one, although there will be a few distinctive features.  The monks may wear some blue as well as maroon and yellow, and the images, although virtually identical to Buddhist ones, in fact depict Bon-po lamas and deities.  gShen-rab, the mythical founder of the Bon-po, takes the place of the Buddha in Bon-po devotional practice.
Adherents It is not possible to estimate the numbers of Bon-po in pre-modern Tibet.  However, there were pockets of Eastern Tibet (in Khams and A-mdo) where they were well represented.  There were no large communities of Bon-po lay people to support the monasteries in Central Tibet, so they relied on lay sponsorship from distant areas such as Byang-thang, Khams and A-mdo.  Bon-po followers now form about one percent of the refugee population.  The reconstructed monastery of sMan-ri in India now forms a focus not only for refugee Bon-pos, but also for Bon-po communities in Dol-po, Mustang and Tibet.  To a rather lesser extent than the Buddhist schools, Bon-po lamas have gained followers in Western countries.  Some Ris-med influenced rNying-ma-pa lamas have given their Western followers Bon-po teachings.
Main Centre

The head Bon-po monastery of sMan-ri in Central Tibet has been reconstructed in India: Bon Monastic Centre, Dolanji Village, P.O. Ochghat, Via Solan, Himachal Pradesh, India.