Foundation for the Preservation of Yungdrung Bön / གཡུང་དྲུང་བོན་ཉར་ཚགས་རིག་མཛོད།

“Tönpa Shenrab Miwo and Buddha Shakyamuni”: brief discourse by Yongdzin Rinpoche

“Tönpa Shenrab Miwo and Buddha Shakyamuni”: brief discourse by Yongdzin Rinpoche

Many people may wonder if or how the historical Buddha Shakyamuni is connected with Tönpa Shenrab Miwo.[1]

Tönpa Shenrab descended to this planet eighteen thousand and eighteen years ago,[2] but that is not according to our era, our time.[3] Maybe you think this something beyond history, that it must be some kind of mythological story. You are free to think that, of course, but we followers of Bön are still using his teachings even though we have had so many different struggles over this long period. We have kept the Teachings very carefully, and we don’t trust or take whatever we have heard or seen lightly; we check things very carefully then keep and preserve them. So we believe that what we are keeping is something very precious; we don’t easily just accept whatever we see or hear. Therefore, our studies and our dialectic school[4] are very important for us, because through study and debate we can ensure that the teachings are pure and not mixed with any defects. They have been preserved in pure form for so many centuries. That is why our studies take a long time and are very hard.

            Before Tönpa Shenrab descended to this planet, he was in the Deva Loka palace.[5] There, he had a very special disciple called Hlabu Dampa Tog Karpo,[6] Son of Gods, Sage with a Crystal Head-ornament. This disciple was a previous incarnation of Buddha Shakyamuni. At that time, heretics[7] were destroying human health and wealth on Earth so there was a lot of suffering. Tönpa Shenrab saw the connection between the spread of false teaching and the human suffering, and he saw he was able to control it through his first disciple. So Tönpa Shenrab ordered Hlabu Dampa Togkar to go to India. That was the centre from where the heretic teachings spread.

‘What shall I do? How can I control them?’ asked Hlabu Dampa Tog Karpo.

 ‘You should preach what you have heard from me, your Master,’ replied Tönpa Shenrab.

Then the Buddha explained his disciple the Twelve Deeds of Buddha,[8] and advised him to control the heretics in that way.

Thus, whatever Shakyamuni preached is acceptable for Bönpos. But because there is so much studying and knowledge which we need to practise on the Bönpo side that even though we do respect Buddha Shakyamuni’s teachings, there is not much time to practise them. It is a bit like the situation here, today, in this retreat – you can listen but you don’t have much time to practise!

As Bönpos we do very much respect Buddha Shakyamuni’s real teaching, but then gradually so many commentaries were added, and maybe some people added their personal ideas or something, so there are so many different explanations that gradually it became quite different. Maybe some points are still very closely related to Shakyamuni’s own teachings. Anyhow, we respectfully keep his teachings and the doctrines he preached.

            The background and subject do not differ so much for Tönpa Shenrab or Shakyamuni. The names and languages are quite different since Tönpa Shenrab taught in Tagzig, Olmo Lungring and Zhang Zhung.[9] Shakyamuni taught in India. But the meaning has to be very similar. Why? Because it is Teacher and Pupil speaking.

Extracted from and re-edited: Yongdzin Lopön Tenzin Namdak, Trnscr. & Ed. Carol and Dmitry Ermakovi. Teachings in Blanc: Nyamgyud, Morning, Volume I, 3-15 June, 2001. Association Yungdrung Bön, 2006.

[1] Tib. Ston-pa Gshen-rab mi-bo-che.

[2] As of 2001. This year, 2022, is 18039th year since the birth of Tönpa Shenrab.

[3] In many traditional sources Tönpa Shenrab’s lifespan is calculated in shen-years (Tib. gshen-lo) with one shen-year being equal to 100 human years.

[4] Tib. bshad-grwa – dialectic school.

[5] Tib. Srid-pa ye-sangs.

[6] Tib. Lha-bu Dam-pa tog-dkar.

[7] Tib. mu-stegs-pa.

[8] Tib. Mdzad-chen bcu-gnyis.

[9] Tib. Stag-gzig, ‘Ol-mo lung-ring, Zhang-Zhung.

Featured images:

Left: Buddha Tönpa Shenrab Miwo. Thangka by Geshe Monlam Wangyal. Right: Buddha Shakyamuni. Seated Buddha, Gandharan style, Kushan era. Tokyo National Museum. Photo: Jean-Pierre Dalbéra, Creative Commons / Wikimedia.


7 Responses

  1. Benzing says:

    Thank you! What lovwly surprise at the end of my stay in the hospital!

  2. I am an Indian of Himalayan cultural heritage. I have been reading a bit about the Foundation of Buddhism and trying to reconcile it with the teaching / concept of Bon. Having read the brief article above , I would be very great full for a bit more clearification as to what is the concept of Bon’s ” Deva Loka and how does one decent from it to this planet ” ?

    • FPYB says:

      Hello, Norden. Thank you for your question. In this case ‘Deva Loka’ refers to the dimension known as Tib. Srid-pa ye-sangs, which is translated as ‘Dimension of Primordial Enlightenment’. In Yungdrung Bon there recognised to types of ‘devas’ which are called Tib. lha: 1. enlightened beings, Buddhas; 2. worldly gods e.g. Brahma, Shiva etc. The Deva Loka referred to here, the Dimension of Primordial Enlightenment, is a Buddha-field or a special kind of ‘paradise’ called Tib. zhing-khams. According to Yungdrung Bon scriptures Tonpa Shenrab was already enlightened and descended on Earth from this dimesion.

      Re: Deva Lokas of worldly gods, here is an excerpt from my book Ermakov, Dmitry. Bѳ and Bön: Ancient Shamanic Traditions of Siberia and Tibet in their Relation to the Teachings of a Central Asian Buddha, (Kathmandu: Vajra Publications, 2008), pp. 196-198 []:

      “God Realms
      There are actually very many God Realms situated on different levels
      of the Triple World.

      i. Six God Realms of the Realm of Desire
      The six lower God Realms156 are still on the level of the Realm of
      Desire and the gods still experience attachment and desire for sensory
      – The first of these God Realms is the Realm of the Four Great
      Kings157 who dwell in the four cardinal directions of the
      World Mountain.
      – The second is the Realm of the Thirty-Three Gods158 situated
      on the summit of Rirab. It consists of thirty-three cities with
      thirty-three principal gods living in each. The chief of this
      realm is Gyajyin Karpo.159

      154 Tib. lha srin sde brgyad, lha sri sde brgyad.
      155 Tib. bya grub ye shes.
      156 Tib. ‘dod lha rigs drug.
      157 Tib. rGyal chen ris bzhi.
      158 Tib. sum bcu rtsha gsum lha gnas.
      159 Tib. brGya sbyin dKar po is the equivalent of the Hindu god Indra.

      196 ~ BӨ AND BÖN
      The splendour of these realms stirs the jealousy of the demi-gods
      bound to the realms below and they wage never-ending, helpless war
      against the gods. These two lower God Realms, then, are still on the
      earthly plane and are not free from conflict.
      – Higher up are the four God Realms which are free from
      conflict: Free of Conflict; Joyful; Enjoying the Manifestations;
      Mastery Over the Manifestations.160 These realms are located
      in space above the World Mountain and are very peaceful.
      The cause for being born in these Six God Realms is the accumulation
      of virtue.
      ii. Seventeen God Realms of the Realm of Form
      Above are the seventeen God Realms of the Form Realm161 and birth
      here is dependent on attaining progressively higher levels of Zhine162
      (the meditation of calm-abiding), Lhagtong163 (the meditation of insight)
      and Samten164 (meditative concentration). Gods who dwell here possess
      beautiful bodies of light, hence the name ‘Realm of Form’.
      The seventeen God Realms of this level are divided into five groups:
      four groups of three and one group of five. Birth in the one of the first
      four groups of three depends on which of the four levels of Zhine one
      has attained.
      – The three realms of the first group are Tsangpa creator-gods,
      Tsangpa priests and Great Tsangpa165 corresponding to the
      three degrees of the first level of Zhine.
      – The three realms of the second group are Small Light,
      Measureless Light and Clear Light166 corresponding to the
      three degrees of the second level of Zhine.
      – The three realms of the third group are Small Virtue,
      Measureless Virtue and Complete Virtue167 corresponding to the three degrees of the third level of Zhine.

      160 Tib. ‘Thab bral; Tib. dGa’ ldan; Tib. ‘Phrul dga’; Tib. gZhan ‘phrul dbang
      161 Tib. gZugs khams gnas rigs bcu bdun.
      162 Tib. zhi gnas.
      163 Tib. lhag mthong.
      164 Tib. bsam gtan/ Sans. dhyana
      165 Tib. Tshangs ris. Tsangpa gods are equivalent to the Hindu god Brahma; Tib.
      Tshangs pa’i mdun na ‘don; Tib. Tshangs chen.
      166 Tib. ‘Od chung; Tib. Tshad med ‘od; Tib. ‘Od gsal.
      167 Tib. dGe chung; Tib. Tshad med dge; Tib. dGe rgyas.

      – The three realms of the fourth group are Cloudless, Meritorious
      Birth and Great Result168 corresponding to the three degrees
      of the fourth level of Zhine.
      – The first four realms of the fifth group correspond to the
      progressively higher levels of concentration which combine
      Zhine with the special realization of emptiness-wisdom
      or self-less-ness. They are Not Greater, No Turmoil, Far-
      Reaching Vision and Vision of Richness.169
      The fifth and highest realm among this last group of the Seventeen
      God Realms of Form is Ogmin,170 Unsurpassable. This is the realm where
      Yungdrung Sempas171 take birth after achieving the tenth bhumi,172 the
      highest stage of practice prior to gaining full enlightenment. According
      to Bönpo Sutra teachings, complete Buddhahood cannot be accomplished
      on earth or any other realm of samsara in any body of the Desire Realm
      so to attain total realization one must first attain a light body of Ogmin.
      Ogmin, then, is a very high heaven where Yungdrung Sempas practise
      before becoming complete Buddhas of Sutra.
      iii. Four Dimensions of the Gods of the Formless Realm
      Then follow four categories of gods residing in the Formless Realm.
      Birth here results from achieving one of the Four Meditative Absorptions
      of the Formless Realm173 which are deviations from the correct meditation
      path taught by the Buddhas:
      – Meditative Absorption of Infinite Space;
      – Meditative Absorption of Infinite Consciousness;
      – Meditative Absorption of Nothingness;

      168 Tib. sPrin med; Tib. bSod nams skyes; Tib. ‘Bras bu che.
      169 Tib. Mi che ba; Tib. Mi gdung ba; Tib. Gya nom snang ba; Tib. Shin tu mthong
      170 Tib. ‘Og min.
      171 Tib. g.yung drung sems dpa, equivalent to Sanskrit Bodhisattva.
      172 Tib. sa, lit. ‘earth’ but here referring to the progressive stages of the spiritual
      path of advanced Sutra practitioners.
      173 Tib. gZugs med snyoms ‘jug bzhi.

      198 ~ BӨ AND BÖN
      – Meditative Absorption of Neither existence nor Nonexistence.
      These gods have no shape or form, and their dimensions are without
      location or shape. Lifespans in these God Realms are extremely long,
      with some even lasting for a whole cycle of creation and destruction.175
      Although birth in a specific God Realm is determined by the level
      of meditative practice attained, the general cause for being born as a
      god is laziness or indolence. This is not normal laziness but a kind of
      equilibrium of all the five negative emotional states which lead to birth
      in the other realms. Through meditative concentration these emotions
      can be suppressed for some time (in the case of gods, for a very, very
      long time) but not completely liberated. Consequently when the cause
      for birth as a god is exhausted, gods must suffer the painful deterioration
      of their external world and their bodies, and fall down to the lower
      realms. This constitutes the main suffering of the God Realm. No god
      is eternal; even the gods of the Formless Realm finally fade and fall. In
      some God Realms this process is very prolonged and painful as a falling
      god clearly sees where s/he is going to be born and which sufferings s/he
      must undergo. Moreover, relatives and friends abandon the falling god
      in fear of being defiled by ugliness and unpleasant odours radiating from
      them. So the dying god wanders alone in terrible sadness moving lower
      and lower until the vision of the God Realms completely disappears and
      the new realm of rebirth is reached.
      Birth in the God Realms can be averted by generating great
      compassion and applying the practices of the higher teachings by which
      laziness is transformed into self-originated wisdom.”

      Hope this answers your question.

      Dmitry Ermakov for FPYB

  3. Margit says:

    Thanks for sharing 🌺

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