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Bonpo and Nyingmapa Traditions of Dzogchen
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Bonpo and Nyingmapa Traditions of Dzogchen
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In general, the Dzogchen teachings are found only in the old unreformed Tibetan schools of the Buddhist Nyingmapas and the non-Buddhist Bonpos. In both cases, these teachings are substantially the same in meaning and terminology, and both traditions claim to have an unbroken lineage coming down to the present time from the eighth century and even before. Both of these schools assert that Dzo gchen did not originate in Tibet itself, but had a Central Asian origin and was subsequently brought to Central Tibet by certain masters known as Mahasiddhas or great adepts.
There thus would appear to exist two ancient and authentic lineages for the Dzogchen teachings, the Buddhist and the Bonpo. As I have previously discussed the Nyingmapa Buddhist tradition of the origin of Dzogchen in my book The Golden Letters, here I shall present a preliminary survey of the Bonpo tradition of Dzogchen known as the Zhang-zhung Nyan-gyud. This Bonpo tradition is especially important for research into the historical origins of Dzogchen because it claims to represent a continuous oral tradition (snyan-rgyud) from the earliest times coming from Zhang-zhung in Western Tibet. [1]


Although some medieval and modern Tibetan histories written by cloistered Buddhist monks portray the ancient pre-Buddhist religion of Tibet called Bon as a nefarious mixture of sorcery, black magic, shamanism, and bloody sacrifices, this appears to be just so much anti-Bonpo propaganda providing a melodramatic effect. The principal aim of these Buddhist historians was to glorify the role of Indian Mahayana Buddhism in Tibetan history, suggesting that there was no culture nor civilization in Tibet before the coming of Indian Buddhism to Central Tibet in the seventh century of our era. India, the birthplace of the Lord Shakyamuni Buddha, was looked upon, not only as the source of all genuine religion and spirituality, but as the source of civilized culture generally, and even the lineage of Tibetan kings was traced back to an Indian origin by such native Tibetan historians as Go Lotsawa, Buton, and others. [2]

Another problem is that the Tibetan term bon, probably deriving from the old verb form 'bond-pa, meaning "to invoke the gods," [3] has two different cultural referants. In the first usage, Bon does indeed refer to the indiginous pre-Buddhist shamanistic and animistic culture of Tibet, a culture that possessed many characteristics in common with other shamanistic tribal cultures of Central Asia and Siberia. Although these cultures involved various types of religious practice and belief, the central role was occupied by a practitioner known as a shaman. The activity of the shaman was definitively characterized as entering into an altered state of consciousness by way of chanting, drumming, dancing, and so on, whether this altered state of consciousness or "ecstasy" was understood to be soul-travel, as an out-of-the-body experience, or a form of spirit possession. [4] The principal social function of such a practitioner was healing. A traditional form of Central Asian shamanism involving spirit possession continues to be practiced widely in Tibet even today among both Buddhist and Bonpo populations, as well as among Tibetan refugees living elsewhere in Ladakh, Nepal, and Bhutan. Such a practitioner is known as a lha-pa or dpa'-bo. [5] Elsewhere on the borders of Tibet in the Himalayas and along the Sino-Tibetan frontiers, among certain Tibetan speaking and related peoples, there exist shamanic practitioners known as Bonpos, as for example among the Na-khi in China [6] and among the Tamangs in Nepal. [7]

But there exists a second type of religious culture also known as "Bon" whose adherents claim to represent the pre-Buddhist civilization of Tibet. These practitioners of Bon assert that at least part of their religious tradition was not native to Tibet, but was brought to Central Tibet sometime before the seventh century from the previously independent country of Zhang-zhung, west of Tibet, and more remotely from Tazik (stag-gzig) or Iranian speaking Central Asia to the northwest. [8] This form of Bon is known also as Yungdrung Bon (g.yung-drung bon), "the Eternal Teaching," a term which could be reconstructed into Sanskrit as "Svastika-dharma," where the swastika or sun-cross is the symbol of the eternal and the indestructable, corresponding in most every respect to the Buddhist term vajra or diamond (rdo-rje). In addition to ritual texts relating to shamanic and animistic practices, this ancient tradition possesses a large corpus of texts, also claiming to be pre-Buddhist in origin, relating to the higher teachings of Sutra, Tantra, and Dzogchen (mdo rgyud man-ngag gsum). The Bonpo Lamas, instead of looking back to the North Indian prince, Siddhartha Gautama, as their Buddha and as the source of their higher teachings of Sutra, Tantra, and Dzogchen, look back even further in time to another prince, Shenrab Miwoche (gShen-rab mi-bo-che), born in Olmo Lungring ('Ol-mo lung-ring) in remote Central Asia, as their Buddha (sangs-rgyas) and as the source of their teachings. Hence, the latter is given the title of Tonpa or Teacher (ston-pa), literally "the one who reveals". Modern scholars may question the historicity of this figure and Tonpa Shenrab is indeed given a rather fabulous date by the Bonpo tradition, asserting that he flourished some eighteen thousand years ago. [9] Futhermore, he is given a hagiography in Bonpo sources in no way inferior to that of Shakyamuni Buddha, as found, for example, in the Lalitavistara. [10] Along with the fabulous hagiographies of Padmasambhava found in the extensive literature of the Nyingmapa school, such as the Padma bka'-thang and the bKa'-thang gser-phreng, the career of Tonpa Shenrab represents one of the great epic cycles of Tibetan literature. [11]

To the outsider this Yungdrung Bon nowadays appears little different from the other schools of Tibetan Buddhism in terms of their higher doctrines and monastic practices. Contemporary Bon possesses a monastic system much like the Buddhist one and a Madhyamaka philosophy fully comparable with the other Tibetan Buddhist schools. According to the Bonpo Lamas themselves, the main difference between Bon and the Buddhist schools is one of lineage rather than of teaching or doctrine, since the Bonpos look to Tonpa Shenrab as their founder and the Buddhists look to Shakyamuni. Indeed, both of these numenous figures are manifestations of Buddha enlightenment in our world, an epiphany that is technically known as a Nirmanakaya (sprul-sku). H.H. the Dalai Lama has now recognized Bon as the fifth Tibetan religious school, along side the Nyingmapas, the Sakyapas, the Kagyudpas, and the Gelugpas, and has given the Bonpos representation on the Council of Religious Affairs at Dharamsala. [12]