Traditionally, Tonpa Shenrab Miwoche is believed to have established the Bon religion. He is traditionally held to have been born in the land of Tagzig Olmo Lung Ring, considered an axis mundi, which is traditionally identified as Mount Yung-drung Gu-tzeg ("Edifice of Nine Swastikas"), possibly Mount Kailash, in western Tibet. Due to the sacredness of Tagzig Olmo Lung Ring and the Mount Kailash, both the sauwastika and the number nine are of great significance and considered auspicious by the Bonpo as well as Hindus.
After the introduction of Buddhism to Tibet during the 7th century, there were oftentimes fierce competitions between the two traditions, especially during the time of the reign of Langdarma. Over time, Bon has been losing influence and has been marginalized by the Tibetan political elite.
The Dzungars invaded Tibet in 1717, deposed and killed a pretender to the position of Dalai Lama (who had been promoted by Lhabzang, the titular King of Tibet), which met with widespread approval. However, they soon began to loot the holy places of Lhasa which brought a swift response from Emperor Kangxi in 1718, but his military expedition was annihilated by the Dzungars not far from Lhasa.
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
In the nineteenth century, Sharza Tashi Gyeltsen, a Bon master (whose collected writings comprise eighteen volumes) significantly rejuvenated the tradition. His disciples Kagya Khyungtrul Jigmey Namkha trained many practitioners learned in not only the Bon religion, but in all Tibetan schools.
According to the Bonpo, eighteen enlightened entities will manifest in this pan and Tonpa Shenrab Miwoche, the founder of Bon, 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 Lopon Tenzin Namdak are important current lineage holders of Bon.
There were more than three hundred Bon monasteries in Tibet, of which Menri Monastery and Yungdrung Monastery were the two principal monastic universities for the study and practice of the Bon knowledges and science-arts.
A complex appreciation of Bon is emerging by scholars. Bon, prior to the Tibetan diaspora, existed within a web of ancient indigenous animism, Hinduism, sympathetic magic, Buddhism, folk religion, shamanism, Vajrayana, asceticism and mysticism; complexes prevalent throughout the Himalaya and intermingling throughout the Inner Asian region.
Both Buddhists and Bonpos agree that when Buddhism succeeded in gaining royal patronage in Tibet in the eighth and ninth centuries, Bon suffered a serious setback. By the eleventh century, however, an organized religious tradition, styling itself Bon and claiming continuity with the earlier, pre-Buddhist religion, appeared in central Tibet. It is this religion of Bon that has persisted to our own times, absorbing doctrines from the dominant Buddhist religion but always adapting what it learned to its own needs and perspectives. This is not just plagiarism, but a dynamic and flexible strategy that has ensured the survival, indeed the vitality, of a religious minority.
Among the important aims of Bon are cultivating heartmind to purify and silence the noise of the mindstream within the bodymind to reveal rigpa ?a transcendent natural bodymind where the obscuration of dualism and dukkha no longer entrance the Bonpo, and sambhogakaya and nirmanakaya are aligned and in sympathetic resonance.
The Bonpa monastery of Narshi Gonpa at Ngawa, Sichuan Province, China.
Ethnic Tibet is not confined culturally to Tibet. The broader area of ethnic Tibet also includes to the east, parts of the 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 Dolpo, 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 uncompromisingly 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."
Bonpo cultivate household gods in addition to other deities:
"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. Every day 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."
Bon's leading monastery is the Menri Monastery in Dolanji, India (Himachal Pradesh).