Classification Traditional Religion of Tibet
Orientation Traditional Pre-Buddhism
Scripture Ngondro

Bön was the indigenous religion of Tibet before the arrival of Buddhism in the 7th century AD. Today, Bön is similar to Tibetan Buddhism. It is a matter of controversy whether Bön influenced Tibetan Buddhism or the other way around. Bön is spelled either Bön or Bon, and is sometimes called Bonism. Followers of Bön are known as Bönpo or Bon-po.

Fast Facts

  • Date founded: none (Original Bön); 16,000 BC (Yungdrung Bön, according to the Bönpo); 14th cent. AD (New Bön)
  • Place founded: Tibet
  • Founder: none (Original Bön); Tonpa Shenrab Miwoche (Yungdrung Bön)
  • Adherents: unknown, perhaps around 100,000


In its earlier forms Bön 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 Bön is generally in accord with Buddhist non-theistic tenets.

However, Bön ritual includes worship, iconography, and meditation on peaceful and wrathful deities (as in Tibetan Buddhism). In addition to peaceful and wrathful deities, Bön 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 Bön 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.

Bön 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 Bönpos claim was transmitted first by Shenrab and only later entered the Nyingma tradition.

The Nine Ways of Bön are:

  1. Way of Prediction (Phyva-gshen Theg-pa) - astrology, ritual and prognostication
  2. Way of the Visual World (sNang-shen theg-pa) - explains the psychophysical universe
  3. Way of Illusion ('Phrul-gshen theg-pa) - rites for dispersing adverse forces
  4. Way of Existence (Srid-gshen theg-pa) - funeral and death rituals
  5. Way of a Lay Follower (dGe-bsnyen theg-pa) - ten principles for wholesome activity
  6. Way of a Monk (Drnag-srnng theg-pa) - monastic rules and regulations
  7. Way of Primordial Sound (Adkar theg-pa) - integration of an exalted practitioner into the mandala of highest enlightenment
  8. Way of Primordial Shen (Ye-gshen theg-pa) - seeking a true tantric master and the spiritual commitments that binds a disciple to his tantric master
  9. Way of Supreme Doctrine (Bla-med theg-pa) - the doctrine of great perfection. 


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