Bon Religion

Bon, indigenous religion of Tibet that, when absorbed by the Buddhist traditions introduced from India in the 8th century, gave Tibetan Buddhism much of its distinctive character. Today, Bon is similar to Tibetan Buddhism. It is a matter of controversy whether Bon influenced Tibetan Buddhism or the other way around. Followers of Bon are known as Bonpo or Bon-po. 

Fast Facts

1. Date founded: none (Original Bon); 16,000 BC(Yungdrung Bon, according to the Bonpo); 14th Century AD (New Bon)

2. Place founded: Tibet

3. Founder: none(Original Bon); Tonpa Shenrab Miwoche(Yungdrung Bon)

4. Adherents: unknown, perhaps around 100,000


Both scholars and the Bonpo themselves distinguish between original Bon and modern Bon. “Original Bon” refers to the indigenous religion of Tibet, which was animistic(believing that nature is pervaded by good and evil spirits) and shamanistic. The name was probably derived from the ritual recitation (Bon, meaning “invocation”) of its practitioners.

The exact nature of original Bon is difficult to determine, since all early descriptions of it are from the Buddhist perspective and intended to discredit it. After the first diffusion of Buddhism into Tibet in the 7th century, Bon was persecuted under Buddhist rulers, but it survived and became more organized at the time of the second diffusion of Buddhism in the 11th century.

The Bonpo teach a second stage of Bon, which scholars generally dismiss, called Yungdrung Bon(雍仲苯). This stage of Bon is said to have been founded by a Buddha-like figure named Shenrab Miwoche, who lived 18,000 years ago in a mythical land of Zhang Zhung near Tibet. Like the Buddha, Shenrab renounced his life as a prince to become a monk, achieved enlightenment, and taught others how to attain it. He thus converted the people from animistic Bon to Yungdrung(“eternal”) Bon. The claim, therefore, is that Bon incorporated Buddhist-like elements prior to and apart from the influence of Buddhism.

Alternatively, Tibetan Buddhist scholars have identified Shenrab with Lao-Tzu, making Bön a derivative of Taoism. Modern scholars have also suggested Shaivite(Hindu sect devoted to Shiva) influence from Kashmir in the development of Bon. 

Bon as it is practiced now, known as “New Bon,” is essentially a form of Tibetan Buddhism. It began in the 14th century when some Bon teachers began to adopt Tibetan Buddhist practices related to Padmasambhava. Although New Bon differs considerably from Yungdrun Bon, the practitioners of New Bon regard their religion as part of a continuous Bon tradition that includes the prior stages. According to the Oxford Dictionary of World Religions, however, “any connection between ancient and modern Bon is extremely tenuous.”

It is commonly believed that Tibetan Buddhism was shaped by Bon, but the Oxford Dictionary refutes this as well. “Contrary to the popular misconception that Buddhism was significantly influenced by Bon when it entered Tibet, it is clear that what is known of Bon today is almost completely influenced by Mahayana Buddhism, which was itself transplanted from India into Tibet virtually unchanged.”

The Dalai Lama, who is supportive of Bon, shares a similar view: “In its beginning, I believe, it [Bon] was not such a fruitful religion, but when Buddhism began to flourish in Tibet, Bon also had an opportunity to enrich its own religious philosophy and meditative resources.”

Today, Bon can be found in the more isolated parts of northern and western Tibet, as well as in exile at the Tashi Menri Ling Monastery in Dolanji in Himachal Pradesh, India. The current leader of Bon is His Holiness Lungtok Tenpai Nyima.

According to the Chinese census, about 10% of Tibetans (about 100,000 people) follow Bon. At the time of the communist takeover there were approximately 300 Bon monasteries in Tibet and western China. According to a recent survey, there are 264 active Bon monasteries, nunneries, and hermitages.


In its earlier forms Bon doctrine was a dualistic theism, teaching that the creation of the world was brought about by coexistent good and evil principles, but the philosophy of modern Bon is generally in accord with Buddhist non-theistic tenets.

However, Bon ritual includes worship, iconography, and meditation on peaceful and wrathful deities(as in Tibetan Buddhism). In addition to peaceful and wrathful deities, Bon distinguishes between “enlightened” deities and those who are still “of this world,” or not fully enlightened. There are four principal peaceful deities, known as the Four Transcendent Lords. These are led by a goddess, Yum, “the Mother,” followed by three male deities known as Lha, “the God,” Sipa, “the Procreator,” and Tönpa, “the Teacher.”

The main Bon rituals center around the wrathful or tutelary deities (yidam), divided into Mother Tantras and Father Tantras. They are depicted with fierce expressions, many arms and legs wielding frightening weapons, and trampling enemies under their feet. As in Tibetan Buddhism, meditation on the wrathful deities is a means of understanding reality and attaining enlightenment.

Bon shares with the Nyingma schools of Buddhism the structure of the nine yanas(ways or vehicles), which climax in the meditation of “the great perfection.” This Bonpos claim was transmitted first by Shenrab and only later entered the Nyingma tradition.

Bon Spirituality

Bon, was officially recognized by the Dalai Lama as the fifth wisdom school of Tibet in 1978.

1. Cha Shen Thegpa: the Way of Prediction – Describes the four methods of prediction; astrology, ritual examination of causes, and prophecy.
2. Nang Shen Thegpa: the Way of the Visual World – explains the psychophysical universe, as relating to the origin and nature of gods and demons living in the world and the methodology of exorcism and the liberation of beings through energetic exchange.
3. Trul Shen Thegpa: the Way of Illusion- rites for dispersing adverse powers.
4. Si Shen Thegpa: the Way of Existence –describes the phases after death and the methods for guiding living beings toward final liberation.
5. Ge Nyen Thepga: the Way of a virtuous layperson’s path, offers ten principles of practices for well being, and the practice of fasting.
6. Drang Song Thegpa: the Way of Monk hood – explains the rules of monastic conduct and the first level of tantric practices.
7. A Kar Thegpa: the Way of Pure A or Primordial Sound – elucidates higher tantric practices and the necessary rituals of visualization as well as the tantric practice of Che rim, explaining how to cut the bonds of rebirth, death and the intermediate state.
8. Ye Shen Thegpa: the Way of Primordial – expounds upon the essential reasons for having the appropriate master, place and occasion for tantric practice and emphasizes the perfection tantric process Dzog rim, and obtaining the illusory body, Gyu lu.
9. La na me ba: the Unsurpassable Way – details the doctrine, views, meditation and behavior of the Great Perfection, Dzogche.

Bon Religion Practices

1. The Bon religion has traditionally used shaman to dispel demons and appease the gods, and employs a number of mudras(ritual postures), mantras(sacred speech), yantras(sacred art) and secret initiation rites.

2.  Modern Bon religion, known as Yungdrung, and Buddhism are very similar. They embrace many of the same practices and rituals except they have different names or slight variations.

3. Mt Kailas and Bonri are Bon’s holiest mountains. During the pilgrimage season you can see many Bon pilgrims at Mt. Kailas as well as Buddhist pilgrims. Bonpo is found in small hamlets in isolated valleys in eastern Tibet, parts of the Chhnagtang in northern Tibet and the Aba region of northern Sichuan. Major Bon monasteries include Menri and Yungdrungking in central Tibet and Tengchen in eastern Tibet.