Great Tibet Tour Logo GREAT TIBET TOUR ®

Bon—The Indigenous Religion of Tibet

Situated high up in the Himalayas, Tibet has long been isolated due to its unique geological barriers. Throughout its unique historical evolution, its indigenous people were able to develop a unique form of religion known as "Bonism". Usually, it's called for short "Bon."

Bon originated from the "Gangdise Mountains" and " Manasarovar Lake" areas, where belong to the ancient Xiangxiong Kingdom. That mysterious Kingdom has a long and splendid history and culture, which is listed as World Cultural Heritage now. From the perspective of Tibetan history, "Xiangxiong" is almost synonymous with the entire western part of ancient Tibet. The ancient Xiangxiong civilization is the origin of Tibetan civilization. It's no exaggeration to say, to understand Tibetan civilization, we must first understand the Xiangxiong civilization; to study Tibetan Buddhism, we must first study this Bon religion.

The well-known Mt. Kailash kora, circumambulating holy Lakes, kowtow, scattering Longda, hanging prayer flags, mani stones, butter sculptures, vajra knots, Tibetan writing, Gzi Beads, Tibetan Guozhuang dance, Thangka paintings, etc. are all derived from the ancient Xiangxiong culture. The ancient Xiangxiong had a tremendous impact on later generations of culture and religion. So now, you can still find traces of Xiangxiong from the culture, arts, religion, and other fields around the world, and it's also where Bon is from.

Kowtow is originated from Bon religion.
Kowtow is originated from Bon religion.

There are basically two phases in the development of Bon: one is the pre-Buddhism phase, and the other one is the Post-Buddhism influence. The first phase refers to the unadulterated form of Bon, before the inroads of Buddhism influences. The second phase started in the 8th century when Buddhism started to reach Tibet, and later, alongside the very revival of Buddhism in Tibet. At present, around 10 percent of Tibetans subscribe or follow Bon.

Bon and Its Deities

Bon, as a Tibetan indigenous religion, was created by Tönpa Shenrab Miwoche. It holds the belief in various divine presences of deities, and these deities are traditionally incorporated into the designing and construction of the Tibetan houses, making each Tibetan house a veritable castle (dzongka) protected against the evil forces of the outside world. For this reason, an average Tibetan house usually has seats ascribed to the male god that protects their houses. Every day each father or the man of the house would invoke this god and eventually would burn juniper leaves and wood to placate this god. The woman of the household also has a protecting deity (phuk-lha) whose seat is situated in the kitchen. Moreover, there are many sets of deities and there are many practices that are unique to Bon religion.

Sand Mandala
Sand Mandala is one of the great Tibetan arts.

The Evolution of Bon under the Influence of Buddhism

In the 8th Century, Buddhism slowly came into Tibet, and its influence eventually caused struggles between the powerful nobles and the ruling house of Tibet. Prodded by these struggles and the need to have a scripture of its own, Bon started to evolve into a distinctly systematized religion with well-written sacred scripture and well-laid doctrines. Throughout these struggles, Bon did not gain religious supremacy over Buddhism because of the late 8th-century persecution of Bon religion and its followers by King Khrison Detsen. Despite this persecution, however, Bon—as an indigenous religion—and its practices persisted in the eastern and northern frontiers of Tibet.

Zezhol Monastery
Zezhol Monastery is the earliest practice place of Bon masters.

Bon and Buddhism

There are essential differences between the original Bon religion and the original Buddhism: the Bon religion believes in everything and Buddhism believes in Buddha. Bon religion is an original native religion in Tibet, which is influenced by Buddhism from India. Both Bon and Buddhism learned from each other and generally formed the current Tibetan Buddhism. Tibetan Buddhism is neither Hinayana Buddhism nor Mahayana Buddhism. Instead, it is an independent genre. Songtsan Gambo spread Buddhism in Tibet and made it replace Bon in the mid-sixth century. Later, even Bon believers found some disadvantages of its religion, and they began to emulate something from Buddhism.

Bon at Present

As mentioned above, a sizeable number of indigenous Tibetans (around 10%) still subscribe to the religious practices and beliefs of the Bon religion based on the most recent Chinese census. In fact, before the liberation of Tibet by the People's Republic of China, there were still 300 Bon monasteries throughout Tibet and western China. At present, there are around 264 active Bon convents, monasteries, and hermitages throughout Tibet including the most famous ones such as Zelzhol Monastery in Qamdo, Yungdrung Ling Monastery in Shigatse, etc.

Moreover, a number of Bon monasteries and establishments also exist in Nepal such as Triten Norbutse on the western outskirts of the city of Kathmandu. Furthermore, Bon’s leading monastery (Menri Monastery) is refounded in Dolanji, Himachal Pradesh, India. Lastly, at present, Bon is already officially recognized as a religious group with equal rights as the Buddhist schools, and discrimination against “Bonpos” is forbidden and is considered self-defeating and undemocratic.

Related Articles

  • Tibetan Cham Dance
    Cham is a religious dance associated with Tibetan Buddhism. It provides compassionate guidance and bestows merit upon devotees.

  • Tibetan Sky Burial Custom
    Tibetan Sky Burial is a traditional funeral ritual for Tibetan Buddhists, in which the dead body is consecrated to the vultures, to get into reincarnation ...

  • Tibetan Handicrafts
    Handmade art has been an indispensable part of people's lives such as Thangka, Tibetan incense, Tibetan medicine, Tibetan ornaments, etc.

  • Tibet Religion
    Tibet religion starts from Yungdrung Bon, the indigenous region of the Tibetan Plateau. After Buddhism spread to Tibet, Bon religion also greatly influenced it.

  • Tibetan Thangka Painting
    Tibetan thangka is a scroll painting used for worship in Tibetan Buddhism with distinct national characteristics, religious color and unique style.

  • Tibetan Knife
    Tibetan knives here are the most commonly used in hunting, and they are a sharp weapon for breaking through brambles and thorns.

  • Tibetan Buddhism
    Tibetan Buddhism is the branch of Buddhism introduced into Tibet. It is divided into five major sects: Kadampa, Nyingmapa, Kagyupa, Sakyapa and Gelugpa.

  • Unveiling the Mystery of Longda
    Many people scatter scraps of paper into the sky for the purpose of seeking blessing from God. Those scraps of paper are called Longda.

  • Tibetan Nomads
    Tibetan Nomads are one of the ethnicities who prefer the nomadic lifestyle. They have no fixed residence for long and choose places with grass and water.

  • Tibetan Sound Bowls
    Tibetan Sound Bowls are a musical instrument widely used in Tibetan Buddhism and also used in daily life such as in yoga meditation and psychotherapy.

  • Tibetan Architecture
    Tibetan architecture is influenced by people's emotions and mentality, which are derived from the specific natural environment and historical accumulation.

Ask a Quick Question Below?
or Email Us