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History of the Bön religion

Taught by Yongdzin Tenzin Namdak Rinpoche

Paris, October 16-17, 2004

For the new-comers, I wanted to give a brief introduction to what I am going to teach and who I am, and also what kind of School I belong to; there are many different Schools in Tibet. There’s no need to introduce myself to the Sangha members; we’ve known each other for so many years that now we know each other very well. But anyway, I will explain briefly what my religion, Yungdrung Bön, is. Generally, the name Bön is very popular in Tibetan indigenous culture and religion, but there are three completely different aspects within this name. First of all, before Tibet became one kingdom, there were many villages and people scattered throughout the country, and those people followed individual beliefs and worshipped different things such as water, air – all the natural elements. Those people are called primitive or shamanic people. But their name was also Bön.

The second phase began when a kind of civilization began and Tibet was one kingdom. They invited several scholars and religious experts from the neighbouring kingdom of Zhang Zhung to translate (the Teachings) into Tibetan, so then Yungdrung Bön spread in Tibet, and that name is still used today. This tradition was practised throughout the reign of the thirty-seven Tibetan kings, from the start up to the eighth century; both the Kings and the local people all practised Yungdrung Bön and that was the only religion in Tibet until the eighth century. At that time, they translated and began the religious life, so it was similar to neighbouring Zhang Zhung and other countries mentioned in history. However, after the eighth century, the thirty-seventh king was interested in inviting Buddhism from India, and at that time there was a lot of persecution and problems, more or less similar to those in other countries. When they invited scholars from India, young Tibetans such as Vairochana, Drenpa Namkha and many others had already been trained and educated under Yungdrung Bön and when Guru Rinpoche came to Tibet, they were there, so they had knowledge from both schools. They became great scholars, collecting and selecting (Teachings) from both traditions and they composed their own way of Teachings. They wrote many books. But the King realized what they were doing and said they should only follow Indian Buddhism in a pure way and not mix them. So they hid (texts) in the rocks and temples – they knew many places. This tradition and their work have been coming from those places and are still used, particularly in East Tibet. This tradition is called New Bön. It is quite different from Yungdrung Bön, which is what I am teaching here, but they are all Bönpos. So these are the three different beliefs and traditions which all go under the name Bön: Shamanic Bön, Yungdrung Bön and New Bön.

Various divisions of Yungdrung Bön


Now I am going to teach my own religion, and maybe it is useful for our Sangha to know what is contained in Bön. The main thing which I have been asked to teach on today is Chöd. Usually our Sangha members always hear about Dzogchen, so maybe you think that is all we have, but I wanted to tell you something about our ‘property’, you see, otherwise we are always talking about Dzogchen.


Generally, we have practices, texts and Teachings and many things, so many things to tell about who practised in which places etc, but we won’t have enough time to go through all this. However, I wanted to tell you briefly which practice texts we have. The first is Dö-de[1]; it is similar. Usually we use Sanskrit, but we often use Tibetan. For you it doesn’t make any difference whether the name is Sanskrit or Tibetan, you don’t know either so you can learn them at the same time. So there are Dö-de, Bam-de, Gyud-de, Dzö-de – Four Categories of the Buddha’s Teaching. Whatever the Buddha taught himself is all called Ka-jur and it is divided into these four.


The first category, Do, is a synonym for the Sanskrit Sutra and it contains mainly things like medicine, biographies of the Buddha’s life and many mantras which can cure people and problems – these all belong to Do-de, the first one.


The second one, Bum-de, is Prajnaparamita in Sanskrit; maybe you have heard of that. Usually this belongs to Shunyata. Both Do and Bum teach the Ten Paramitas, Bodhichitta, Refuge, but the Bum-de is particularly according to Shunyata, emptiness of the Madyamaka system.


The third is Gyud-de and the fourth is Dzö-de. Gyud-de means Tantra in Sanskrit and it also has four subdivisions. If people are ready or believe in Tantra, there are Four Categories: Dza-wa’i gyud, Chö-pa’i gyud, Ye-shen gyud, Ye-shen Chen-po’i gyud. It is not easy to learn Tantra, but briefly you have to keep in mind what Tantra is.


The fourth, Dzö-de, is Dzogchen. Sometimes we talk about Tantra and Dzogchen together and call them Ngak. That is according to the Tantra system.

            These four categories are all generally what the Buddha preached during his lifetime, but they were taught to different people in different countries with different languages so these four were divided into Nine Ways according to the circumstances of the followers, according to which is suitable for them; this Teaching doesn’t dictate what you should and shouldn’t do. Everything depends on the individual, on what is suitable and convenient for them


There are three categories of students of different qualifications, and then each of these three is further divided into there, so there are nine altogether. That corresponds to the Nine Ways of the Teaching.

The first way of Bön

First, our tradition was preached to poor people who didn’t know anything and were only able to see what existed in nature. They lived off the land and saw clearly what was around them. When they fell ill and had problems, they were cured by a man who came there and gave them herbal medicines which helped. These people didn’t understand anything about invisible things behind what they could see, so this man helped them with medicines. That was the first step to introduce them to the faith. So these people understood that most of the time they could cure their problems with this medicine, but sometimes it didn’t work well. So then they asked this medicine man what the problem was. He said he didn’t know, he had used all his diagnostic skills but still couldn’t cure the problem. So then he used what we call Tra. There are four categories of this which are used by fortune tellers to see the invisible problem behind the sickness. So they asked the man again and first he did divination. Then secondly there are many practices which use a mirror to see what is wrong by watching the symbols which appear there. Then the third way is like an oracle; some spirits possess a man and tell him what to do to cure the patient. Then fourthly, there are several methods to practise using dreams; through the dream, the medicine man can be shown how to cure the patient and what is wrong. So they asked him to use these four methods, and then they followed his advice. So that is the second method to cure problems.

He could also use astrology to see a cure for the problems.

This second method – after using medicine – is to use rituals. There are many, and we have already talked about some of them before, such as Lüd, ransom. So these can all be used to cure on an invisible level and are part of the First Way, Cha-shen Theg-pa, the first step of the Nine Ways. They are all methods to wake up these nature-people.

The second way

They grew their own food and were dependent on rain, and had to look after their crops or animals, and they needed cures so that they wouldn’t have many disturbances. So they asked again whether the man could do something more for humans. They told him about problems like hail which destroyed crops or animals which fell ill and died suddenly and unexpectedly and asked the medicine man or a knowledgeable man. The reply was that there are many methods, but they have to have trust and follow. So they did follow them and they showed them what we call Dö. Invisibly, there are so many powerful spirits in the air or water, like Nagas, and many other powerful spirits. They worshipped them, but sometimes without knowing it, people disturbed these spirits who then took revenge and brought miseries and sufferings. So it was necessary to make peace between them so that they could have a peaceful relationship. We call this method Great Dö and it includes many methods to repay. The other beings are similar to humans, so they need to be offered medicines and many other things. This method is the Second Vehicle or Way.

These methods work peacefully, but sometimes it doesn’t work because very wrathful things come against humans and humans themselves become very wrathful.


 The third way 

So for that purpose we have the Third Vehicle, the Trul-shen Theg-pa, which uses Yidams and practice to subdue (wrathful spirits) and sends wrathful Guardians to bring them and subdue them. It is kind of killing them; they don’t use weapons, but there are spells and methods to subdue them. This is the Third Vehicle.

The fourth way

Once they have subdued and ‘killed’ them – it is not normal killing; it means preventing them from following their cause and trying to put them into paradise to help them. So that is the Fourth Vehicle. These Four Vehicles are to help in the worldly living life, in our living conditions. No matter how much our modern life has developed, if you know these kinds of things, they can be very useful. We know that earthquakes still happen and destroy many properties – it is till the same, nothing has changed. So these methods are only used for visible phenomenal existence to cure people and beings during their lifetime.


The fifth way

OK. Then after this, the practitioners who work like this for people look back to themselves; what can they do for themselves? So then they start to practise and take vows, practising the Ten Virtues and purifying the Ten Sins. That is the Fifth Vehicle, Ge-nyen Theg-pa. It is for the individual – the practitioner starts to practise for himself. He had been able to cure others long before, but now he starts to think about himself. If he is able to, he takes at least some vow like the Refuge vow or the Bodhichitta vow. Also, there are four root vows and subdivisions, whatever he could practise by himself.

The sixth way           

The Sixth Vehicle is more than this. He has to take renunciation for purification and take vows such as Bodhichitta vows or monks’ vows. It depends on the person, whether he is suitable or not and what his lifestyle is.

The seventh and the eighth way     

The Seventh is Tantra, and the Eighth is Higher Tantra. This is also according to the person who can take and keep the tantric vows, called Ngak-pa. This is very important. If anyone is unable to manage with vows, then it is not useful to recite mantras or do visible things like offerings; you can use them, but real Ngak means keeping the vows, the very root of the Tantra system. So if according to your lifestyle you are suitable, there is higher or lower and you could choose according to your life.

The ninth way

  If someone is ready and has the knowledge and is a suitable student, then he could join Dzogchen. Dzogchen is the highest Way, but ‘higher’ or ‘lower’ very much depend on the student and what he is able to manage and know. Otherwise, this Dzogchen is the highest but it depends on the person’s circumstances. If you are ready, then it is very high, but if you are not ready and try to follow Dzogchen, there are so many things you could mistake, so then Dzogchen is not very high for such a person. A Dzogchen practitioner needs to practise to realize Nature, and then once you have realized it, if you want to practise, you need a lot of strength and determination. Otherwise Dzogchen looks like a simple, easy way which doesn’t involve much activity, but in fact it is very slow because you have to learn many new things which must become as your nature and manner. So it takes a long time.

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