The syllable -po appended to the name of any of the five main Tibetan spiritual traditions indicates a follower of that tradition; so, for example, "Bonpo" means a follower of the Bon tradition.
Often described as the shamanistic and animistic tradition of the Himalayas prior to Buddhism's rise to prominence in the 7th century, more recent research and disclosures have demonstrated that both the religion and the Bönpo are significantly more rich and textured culturally than was initially thought by pioneering Western scholars.
Many Nyingmapa and Bonpos were executed and Tibetans visiting Dzungar officials were forced to stick their tongues out so the Dzungars could tell if the person recited constant mantras (which was said to make the tongue black or brown). This allowed them to pick the Nyingmapa and Bonpos, who recited many magic-mantras. This habit of sticking one's tongue out as a mark of respect on greeting someone has remained a Tibetan custom until recent times.
According to the Bönpo, eighteen enlightened entities will manifest in this æon and Tönpa Shenrab Miwoche, the founder of Bön, is considered the enlightened Buddha of this age (compare yuga and kalpa). The 33rd lineage holder of Menri Monastery, HH the Menri Trizin Lungtog Tenpei Nyima Rinpoche, and Lopön Tenzin Namdak are important current lineage holders of Bön.
More than three hundred Bön monasteries had been established in Tibet prior to Chinese annexation. Of these, Menri Monastery and Yungdrung Monastery were the two principal monastic universities for the study and practice of the Bön knowledges and science-arts.
"[C]omplexes include mosaics of performing practices and discourses rather than discrete or fixed sets of practices or beliefs. They are syncretic and overlapping. The power of sound to communicate with spirits is recognized…" and a recurrent motif throughout the region.
Pegg (2006) lists the artifacts that have generally been used in the Himalaya:
"[A] small hand-bell (Tibetan dril-bu, Mongol honh) held in the left hand together with the ritual sceptre (Mongol dorje) in the right; thigh-bone trumpets, usually played in pairs for invocation of fierce deities and to signal entry of masked dancers in the 'chams; long, metal bass trumpets and white, end-blown conch-shell trumpets; wooden shawms; and a range of cymbals and double- and single-headed frame drums."
Trance and the energetic use of sound is accompanied by sophisticated possession induced trance dances where the practitioners carry the 'aspect' of the deity or thoughtform, or transform into the yidam, elemental process, or dæmon.
Tibet is not confined culturally to modern political Tibet. The broader area of ethnic Tibet also includes to the east, parts of the Chinese provinces of Sichuan, Gansu and Yunnan; to the west, the Indian regions of Ladakh, Lahul and Spiti; to the south, Bhutan, Sikkim, parts of northern Nepal, the Sherpa and Tamang regions of eastern Nepal and the extreme north-west of Assam.
The altitude and vastness of the Tibetan Region is striking, landscape uncrompromisingly dominated by mountains and sky, where the starkness of the human condition relentlessly tested the mettle of its peoples. The lofty Tibetan Plateau and Geography of Tibet has had a profound effect on the Bonpo and the shaping of Vajrayana in general. Many of the local deities (jik ten pa) pre-dating the arrival of Buddhism, were co-opted and made 'protectors' of the Vajrayana and various teachings:
"The Tibetan legends testify to an inseparable sacred connection between the land of Tibet and its peoples that pre-dates the arrival of Buddhism. Of course many of these attitudes and ideas would later find themselves placed in a Buddhist context and given significance within a Buddhist doctrinal framework. Pre-Buddhist gods of mountains and rocks (dre, trin, tsen) were thus described as ‘worldly gods’(jik ten pa) who allowed themselves to be converted to ‘Protectors’ or ’Defenders’ of the Dharma (the Buddhist teaching and path) by Padmasambhava the legendary bringer of Buddhism to Tibet in the seventh century. The gods and goddesses were said to possess magical powers and were capable of working miracles. Nevertheless the lay Tibetan practitioner had to remain wary of these gods as they were not always benign. Once the ire of such gods was invoked then their violent nature often succeeded in gaining the upper hand."
"Traditionally in Tibet divine presences or deities would be incorporated into the very construction of the house making it in effect a castle (dzong ka) against the malevolent forces outside of it. The average Tibetan house would have a number of houses or seats (poe khang) for the male god (pho lha'') that protects the house. Everyday the man of the house would invoke this god and burn juniper wood and leaves to placate him. In addition the woman of the house would also have a protecting deity (phuk lha) whose seat could be found within the kitchen usually at the top of the pole that supported the roof."
Bön's leading monastery is the Menri Monastery in Dolanji, India (Himachal Pradesh).
Initiation rituals and rites closely correlate to the indigenous shamanic traditions of Siberia. Many Bönpo shaman were members of a clan-guild from which the volume of shaman came. Shaman were of either gender. A shamanic aspirant was often visited and possessed by an ancestral shaman and/or one or more of any number of entities such as gods, elementals, dæmons, and spirits. The possession typically results in a divine madness and a temporary retreat into the wilderness, where the shaman lives like an animal and experiences visions of his own death at the hands of spirits.
After the newly-possessed shaman returns, they are taught by senior practitioners and members of the clan-guild how to exert power over the spirits that visit them, as well as incantation of mantra.
These texts assert that Yungdrung Bön was founded by the Buddha Tönpa Shenrab Miwoche. He discovered the methods of attaining enlightenment and is considered to be a figure analogous to Gautama Buddha. He was said to have lived 18,000 years ago in the land of Olmo Lung Ring part of the land of Tagzig (se Tagzig Olmo Lung Ring) to the west of present day Tibet (which some scholars identify with the Persian Tajik).
According to Buddhist legend, prior to the manifestation of Shakyamuni Buddha there were numerous other historical Buddhas. Tönpa Shenrab Miwoche transmitted the lore (similar in many regards to Buddhism) to the people of the Zhangzhung of western Tibet who had previously been practicing animistic Bön, thus establishing Yungdrung ("eternal") Bön.
One interesting premise, countered by most Himalayan scholars (Rossi, Donatella (1999). The Philosophical View of the Great Perfection in the Tibetan Bon Religion. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion. ), is that Buddhism may have arrived in Tibet by a path other than directly from northwest India. A transmission through Persia prior to the 7th century is not improbable as Alexander the Great had connected Greece with India almost a millennium prior, resulting in a flourishing Greco-Buddhist art style in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Additionally, the 6th century Khosrau I of Persia is known to have ordered the translation of the Buddhist jataka tales into the Persian language. The Silk Road, the path by which Buddhism traveled to China in 67 CE., lies entirely to the west of Tibet and passed through the Persian city of Hamadan. Recently, Buddhist structures have been discovered in far western Tibet that have been dated to the third century CE. Bönpo stupas have also been discovered as far west as Afghanistan.
Nonetheless, no scholars have yet identified a major center of Buddhist learning in Persia which corresponds to the Bönpos' land of Tagzig Olmo Lung Ring. Alternative proposed sites have included the ancient cities of Merv, Khotan or Balkh, all of which had thriving Buddhist communities active in the correct timeframe and are located to the west of Tibet.
The existence of the Zhang Zhung culture is supported by many lines of evidence, including the existence of a remnant of living Shangshung speakers still found in Himachal Pradesh. The claim that Lord Shenrab was born 180 centuries ago is generally not taken literally (Rossi, Donatella (1999). The Philosophical View of the Great Perfection in the Tibetan Bon Religion. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion. ), but understood as an allusion to a master born in the very distant past.
One interesting question relating to the history of Bön is: when did Bön really enter the Yungdrung phase, that is, when did elements strongly resembling Buddhism become important? These elements became apparent with the codification of the Yungdrung Bön canon by the first abbot of Menri Monastery, Nyame Sherab Gyaltsen, in the 14th century, but this trend probably began earlier. At the same time, the Nyingma, Kagyu, and Sakya orders of Buddhism were also reorganizing themselves in order to be able to compete effectively with the dominant, Gelug order.
If we do not accept the Bön claim that Bön's Buddhist elements are older than the historical Buddha, we may consider some other milestones in Tibetan history which may mark points at which Buddhist ideas became integrated into Bön.
The present spiritual head of the Bön is Lungtok Tenpa'i Nyima (b. 1929), the thirty-third Abbot of Menri Monastery (destroyed in the Cultural Revolution, but now being rebuilt), who now presides over Pal Shen-ten Menri Ling in Dolanji in Himachal Pradesh, India, for the abbacy of which monastery he was selected in 1969.
A number of Bön establishments also exist in Nepal; the most accessible is probably Triten Norbutse Bönpo Monastery, on the Western outskirts of Kathmandu. In Kathmandu, go to the bus stop on the Ring Road nearest Swayambhu (downhill just behind the great stupa.)
Since then, Bön has had official recognition of its status as a religious group, with the same rights as the Buddhist schools. This was re-stated in 1987 by the Dalai Lama, who also forbade discrimination against the Bönpo, stating that it was both undemocratic and self-defeating. He even donned Bön ritual paraphernalia, emphasizing "the religious equality of the Bon faith.
However, Tibetans still differentiate between Bön and Buddhism, referring to members of the Nyingma, Shakya, Kagyu and Gelug schools as "nangpa," meaning "insiders," but to practitioners of Bön as "Bönpo," or even "chipa" ("outsiders").
The Bönpo school is said to resemble most closely the Nyingma school, the oldest school of Tibetan Buddhism, which traces its lineage to the First Transmission of Buddhism into Tibet.
"[P]hysical properties are assigned to the elements: earth is solidity; water is cohesion; fire is temperature; air is motion; and space is the spatial dimension that accommodates the other four active elements. In addition, the elements are correlated to different emotions, temperaments, directions, colors, tastes, body types, illnesses, thinking styles, and character. From the five elements arise the five senses and the five fields of sensual experience; the five negative emotions and the five wisdoms; and the five extensions of the body. They are the five primary pranas or vital energies. They are the constituents of every physical, sensual, mental, and spiritual phenomenon."
The names of the elements are analogous to categorised experiential sensations of the natural world. The names are symbolic and key to their inherent qualities and/or modes of action by analogy. In Bön, the elemental processes are fundamental metaphors for working with external, internal and secret energetic forces. All five elemental processes in their essential purity are inherent in the mindstream and link the trikaya and are aspects of primordial energy. As Herbert V. Günther (1996: pp. 115-116) states:
"Thus, bearing in mind that thought struggles incessantly against the treachery of language and that what we observe and describe is the observer himself [sic.], we may nonetheless proceed to investigate the successive phases in our becoming human beings. Throughout these phases, the experience (das Erlebnis) of ourselves as an intensity (imaged and felt as a "god", lha) setting up its own spatiality (imaged and felt as a "house" khang) is present in various intensities of illumination that occur within ourselves as a "temple." A corollary of this Erlebnis is its light character manifesting itself in various "frequencies" or colors. This is to say, since we are beings of light we display this light in a multiplicity of nuances."
A modern teacher, Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche uses a computer analogy: main chakras are like hard drives. Each hard drive has many files. One of the files is always open in each of the chakras, no matter how "closed" that particular chakra may be. What is displayed by the file shapes experience.
The tsa lung practices such as those embodied in Trul Khor lineages open channels so lung (prana or qi) may move without obstruction. A yogi opens chakras and evokes positive qualities associated with a particular chakra. In the computer analogy, the screen is cleared and a file is called up that contains positive, supportive qualities. A seed syllable (Sanskrit bija) is used both as a password that evokes the positive quality and the armor that sustains the quality.
Tantric practice eventually transforms all experience into bliss. The practice liberates from negative conditioning and leads to control over perception and cognition.