The Bön Sect teachings were firmly established in Zhang-Zhung, an autonomous state with its own language, literature, and culture before the 7th century. The state was divided into three sections known as the “Three Doors”: inner (Phugpa), outer (Gopa), and middle (Barpa). The Olmo Lung Ring represents the inner door, Tazik represents the middle door, and Zhang Zhung itself represents the outer door.
History of Bon Religion
Tonpa Shenrab taught the Bön doctrine, which was recorded in three accounts and spread by his disciples to neighbouring countries such as Zhang-Zhung, India, Kashmir, China, and eventually Tibet. The teachings were translated from the Zhang-Zhung language into Tibetan by Siddhas and scholars, facilitating their transmission. Although the current Bonpo canon is written in Tibetan, older works still contain titles and passages in the Zhang-Zhung language. As a result, Bön thrived in Zhang-Zhung and gradually spread to Central Tibet before 600 A.D. The religion continued to prosper in Tibetan areas until the emergence of Buddhism. Over time, Buddhism influenced the narrative of Bön, which arrived in Tibet in the 7th century.
Bön, a traditional spiritual practice that originated in Tibet, encompasses three distinct phases: Animistic Bön, Yungdrung or Eternal Bön, and New Bön. Each phase represents a different stage in the evolution of this ancient tradition.
The first phase, Animistic Bön, dates back thousands of years and is rooted in the animistic beliefs held by the pre-Buddhist Tibetan people. They worshipped natural elements, spirits, and deities, seeking protection and guidance from the unseen forces of the world around them. This phase laid the foundation for the subsequent development of Bön.
The second phase, Yungdrung or Eternal Bön, emerged as a more organized and structured form of the tradition. Yungdrung Bön emphasized the concept of eternal truth, symbolized by the Yungdrung symbol, a swirling, interlocking pattern that represents the continuous cycle of existence. In this phase, Bön incorporated elements of shamanism, astrology, and ritual practices, serving as a spiritual guide for the Tibetan people.
With the arrival of Buddhism in Tibet in the 7th century, Bön underwent significant changes during its third phase, known as New Bön. Tibetan Buddhist rituals and teachings influenced the evolution of Bön, leading to a blending of the two traditions. While New Bön undoubtedly reflects Buddhist influence, it still retains its distinct identity and unique practices.
Despite their differences, both Bön and Tibetan Buddhism share a common goal: the enlightenment of all sentient beings. Both traditions emphasize the importance of compassion, wisdom, and the cultivation of a peaceful mind. They believe in the interconnectedness of all beings and strive to alleviate suffering in the world. Aesthetic practices play a vital role in the expression of Bön’s teachings. Various art forms, including painting, sculpture, and music, serve as a means to convey spiritual concepts and inspire devotion.
Bön philosophy and theology
Bön philosophy and theology delve into profound topics such as the nature of reality, the cycle of birth and death, and the path to enlightenment. Mudras, hand gestures, and mantras, sacred chants or syllables, are used in Bön rituals to invoke spiritual energies and focus the mind. Dance is another essential aspect of Bön, with practitioners performing intricate and meaningful movements that symbolize spiritual concepts and express devotion.
Astrology is an integral part of Bön as well, with practitioners utilizing the Tibetan calendar and astrological charts to guide their daily lives and spiritual practices. The alignment of celestial bodies and the interpretation of astrological signs are believed to provide insights into one’s destiny and the interplay of cosmic energies. In summary, Bön is a rich and multifaceted spiritual tradition that has evolved over centuries. From its animistic origins to its incorporation of Buddhist influences, Bön has adapted and grown while retaining its distinctive identity. Through various art forms, rituals, and practices, Bön seeks to guide individuals towards enlightenment, compassion, and a deeper understanding of the interconnectedness of all things.
In the vibrant and historically rich eighth century, a significant event unfolded that would forever change the course of Zhang Zhung, a once fiercely independent land. It was during this time that Emperor Ligmincha, a revered ruler of Zhang Zhung, tragically fell victim to assassination at the hands of the ambitious 38th Tibetan king, Trisong Detsen.
This deplorable act not only robbed Zhang Zhung of its sovereign leader but also marked the beginning of a gradual assimilation that would ultimately erase its distinct land and culture from the annals of history. Emperor Ligmincha, a wise and benevolent ruler, ruled over Zhang Zhung with great care and devotion. Under his reign, the land thrived, as he fostered a harmonious relationship between its diverse inhabitants and ensured the prosperity and cultural preservation of his kingdom.
The people revered him as a symbol of stability, strength, and unity. However, the peace and tranquillity that once graced Zhang Zhung were cruelly shattered by the treacherous act perpetrated by Trisong Detsen. Motivated by political ambition and a hunger for power, the 38th Tibetan king orchestrated the assassination of Emperor Ligmincha, plunging the kingdom into turmoil and despair. With the fall of their beloved leader, the people of Zhang Zhung were left vulnerable and defenceless, their future uncertain.
Over time, Tibet absorbed Zhang Zhung, losing its independence. Tibetan customs and language spread, erasing Zhang Zhung’s unique identity. Its culture faded, landmarks crumbled, and traditions became echoes. But Zhang Zhung’s legacy lives on in Tibet’s collective consciousness, a reminder of history’s richness.
However, the influence of Zhang Zhung’s words from ancient Bön texts extends far beyond their existence in modern languages spoken in Kinnaur, Lahul, Spiti, Ladakh, Zanskar, and certain Himalayan regions of Nepal. These words carry with them a rich cultural heritage and provide a glimpse into the ancient traditions and practices of the Bön religion.
In Kinnaur, a picturesque region nestled in the lap of the Himalayas, the echoes of Zhang Zhung’s words can be heard in everyday conversations. The residents of this enchanting land still use words and phrases that have been passed down through generations, linking them back to their Bön origins. It is fascinating to observe how these linguistic remnants have seamlessly merged with the local dialect, creating a tapestry of unique expressions that reflect the region’s diverse cultural tapestry.
Similarly, Lahul, Spiti, Ladakh, and Zanskar, known for their awe-inspiring landscapes and spiritual significance, have also preserved the remnants of Zhang Zhung’s words in their languages. The communities in these regions hold a deep reverence for their ancient roots and take pride in the linguistic connections they share with the Bön tradition. These words serve as a bridge between the past and the present, connecting generations and preserving a sense of identity. Moreover, the influence of Zhang Zhung’s words extends beyond language and seeps into various aspects of daily life. Rituals, customs, and festivities in these regions bear the imprints of the Bön tradition, with the abbot of Menri Monastery holding a position of great honour and reverence.
The practitioners of New Bön find solace in the abbot’s teachings and guidance. Menri Monastery, in the Himalayas, is a sanctuary attracting seekers from far and wide. The abbot embodies Bön teachings, leading towards self-discovery and inner peace. As they honour the abbot, the practitioners continue a legacy that withstands time. The teachings find relevance in those seeking spiritual connection. The abbot’s role symbolizes the ancient lineage’s continuity and profound wisdom.
In conclusion, the presence of Zhang Zhung’s words in modern languages spoken in Himalayan regions is not just a linguistic curiosity. It represents a living connection to the ancient Bön tradition, enriching the cultural tapestry of these regions and offering insight into the past. The honour bestowed upon the abbot of Menri Monastery by practitioners of New Bön is a testament to the enduring legacy of this ancient tradition and the reverence it commands in the hearts and minds of its followers.