Buddha Tonpa Shenrab
The founder of Yungdrung Bon
The founder of the ancient Yungdrung Bön spiritual tradition was the Buddha Tonpa Shenrab. Tonpa Shenrab was born at the palace Barpo Sogye of Tagzig Olmo Lung Ring. According to the Bön canon, his birth dates 18,000 years ago. His father was Gyalbon Thodkar of the Mu clan and his mother Yochi Gyalzhedma. His teachings are called ‘Yung Drung Bön’ or ‘Eternal Bön’, and practitioners of Bön are called ‘Bonpo’. The great Shenrab dedicated his whole life to the practice of Eternal Bön for the benefit of all beings. He taught the teaching of Eternal Bön for about five decades, showing the path of compassion to many beings. At the age of 82 he entered into nirvana. His death was a true reminder to many of his followers that we all have to experience the truth of impermanence. Throughout Shenrab’s teaching he tried to communicate with every being, showing them how to recognize their true nature and live with the moment. The essence of his teachings is how to find our home within and abide joyfully with the treasury of contentment that we are all gifted with. His teachings continue to inspire many beings throughout the centuries.
Tonpa Shenrab descended from the heavenly realms and manifested at the foot of Mount Meru with two of his closest disciples, Malo and Yulo. Then he took birth as a prince, the son of king Gyal Tokar and Queen Zangpa Ringum, in a luminous garden full of marvelous flowers in a palace south of Mount Yungdrung Gutseg at dawn on the eighth day of the first month of the Wood Male Mouse Year. He married while young and had children.
At the age of 31 he renounced his worldly life and started to practice austerity and teach the Bön doctrine. Throughout his life, his efforts to propagate the Bön teachings were obstructed by the demon Khyabpa Lagring who fought to destroy Shenrab’s work. Eventually the demon was converted and became Shenrab’s disciple.
Once, Khyabpa stole Shenrab’s horses and Shenrab pursued him through Zhang-Zhung into southern Tibet. Shenrab entered Tibet by crossing Mount Kongpo. This was his first and only visit to Tibet. At that time the Tibetans practiced ritual sacrifice. Shenrab quelled the local demons and imparted instructions on the performance of rituals using offering cakes in the shape of animals, which led to the Tibetans abandoning animal sacrifices.
On the whole, he found the land unprepared to receive the Five Ways of the Fruit, the higher Bön teachings. So he instead taught the Four Ways of Cause. In these practices the emphasis is on reinforcing relationships with the guardian spirits and the natural environment, exorcising demons, and eliminating negativities. He also taught purification practices by smoke and water offerings and introduced prayer flags as a way of reinforcing fortune and positive energy. Before leaving Tibet, he prophesied that all his teachings would flourish in Tibet when the time was ripe. Tonpa Shenrab passed away at the age of eighty-two.
Nyamme Sherab Gyaltsen
Founder and first abbot of Menri Monastery, in Tibet.
Nyamme Sherab Gyaltsen was born in 1356 in Gyarong in the village of Tegchog, East Tibet and is considered to be a manifestation of She-rab Ma-we Seng-Ge (the Wisdom Lion of Speech) the great liberator. His father was a Tantric master known as Lugyal from the Ra lineage and his mother was Rinchen Men. From early childhood, he was recognized as an extraordinary child: without studying, he could recite mantras, remember and learn spiritual texts easily and was also self-aware. After discovering at the age of 10 the suffering of cyclic existence, he followed the teacher Chala Yungdung Gyaltsen, soon became a monk, took 25 vows and was given the spiritual name Sherab Gyaltsen. From then on he received the higher teachings of Bön: Dho – the Path of Renunciation, Nag – the Path of Transformation, and Dzogchen – the Path of Self Liberation. With great devotion he practiced and learned mainly from the teaching tradition of Yeru Monastery and by following the Great Master Rinchen Lodoe.
Nyammed Sherab Gyaltsen received complete transmission of empowerment (wang), oral transmission (lung), and oral instruction (tri) of the three main streams of Bön teaching: Dho, Ngag, and Dzogchen. He received fully-ordained monks’ vows at the age of 31 and entered into the great center of learning of Bön – the Yeru Monastery in Tsang province. By participating in many other renowned Buddhist institutions and monasteries, he became very well known in Tibet and was recognized as a great wisdom scholar. During his stay at the Yeru monastery, he took charge of one of the schools. He also became a tutor of two royal sons of Dru lineages and was enthroned as the successor of Kunga Wangden, the famous master of the Dru lineages. Through his work he preserved and spread the outer, inner and secret teachings of Bön. From that time forward, every monastery has followed the exact same clear knowledge of the ancient system of monastic laws brought to life by Nyammed Sherab Gyaltsen.
In 1405, he founded the original Menri Monastery known as Tashi Menri Ling in the mountains. Bön protectors directed him as to where exactly he should build Menri Monastery. With support from them and miraculous powers, he built the whole structure of Menri Temple including the monks’ living quarters. He decided to preserve there the traditions and teaching system of the destroyed Yeru Wensakha monastery. Tashi Menri Ling Monastery soon became the mother monastery of Bön.
Nyammed Sherab Gyaltsen became the crowning ornament of Bön for his mastery of text, systems and rules; he came to be considered as the second Buddha. There really are no texts from these three sections of Dho, Ngag and Dzogchen that he did not teach or write about in all of the three transmission lineages of Bön. He passed away at the age of 60, leaving behind many great scholars and practitioners.
HH Menri Tridzin
He is the world-wide spiritual leader of the Bön religion of Tibet. He was born in Amdo, in the far eastern region of Tibet, in 1927 and became a monk at the age of eight, at Kyong Tsang monastery, near where he was born.
When he was sixteen he entered the Dialectic School at the monastery, and after eight years of study took his Geshe degree, specializing in Tibetan medicine, astronomy and astrology. Soon after, at the age of twenty-six, he traveled to Gyalrong in eastern Tibet, where he printed the Bönpo scriptures, a set of over one hundred books called the Kangyur, from wood blocks kept by the king of Trochen Gyalpo, one of the eighteen kingdoms of Gyalrong. He then brought the published Kangyur back to Kyong Tsang Monastery. Then he traveled to central Tibet in Tsang province, for further studies at the Bön monasteries of Yung Drung Ling, sMenri and Khana. Later he went to Drepung monastery in Lhasa to do research and practice, staying five years until the 1959 uprising. At the time of the conflict against the Chinese in 1959 he fled on foot from Tibet to Mustang, on the border of Tibet and Nepal, then to Pokhara, Nepal, and then to India. While in India he got word that the Abbot of Yungduung Ling monastery and many Bönpo lamas had reached the Bön monastery of Samling, a very old and important monastery in the Dolpo region of Nepal, and he went to join them. After some time they all traveled down to the valleys of Nepal.
Later he went back to Samling monastery in order to borrow books so that they might be republished. The books of the Bönpo are very important to practice and study, and when the lamas had fled Tibet the books had to be left behind, and were later destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. The only copies of many texts were often in remote outlying areas, so it was important that the books be republished. While at Samling he met Dr. David Snellgrove, a researcher of Oriental and African studies from London University, who advised him where he could best print the texts. Based on this advice he and the Abbot of Yung Drung Ling took the books to New Delhi where he worked with Samten Gyaltson Karmay and Lopon Tenzin Namdak to republish the texts. Later Dr. Snellgrove invited them to come to England with him under the sponsorship of the Rockefeller Foundation. There they taught Tibetan culture and religion and studied the ways of the West. Sangye Tenzin Jong Dong, as he was then called, stayed in England for three years during which he lived and studied with Benedictine, Cistercian and other Christian monastic orders, and traveled to Rome to meet Pope Paul II.
In 1964 he returned to India to found a school funded by sponsors in England. His Holiness the Dalai Lama asked him to start the school in Massori, India and he staffed it with volunteer teachers from the West. He remained as head of the school for three years, teaching Tibetan grammar and history. Each month he sent his salary, three hundred rupees a month, to the refugee Bönpo lamas living in Manali, India for them to buy food. He also helped create a meditation center in Manali for the lamas and monks. Later the school that he had founded was moved to the south of India, where it became the first permanent Tibetan settlement in the region.
In 1965 Lopon Tenzin Namdak returned to India and with help of the Catholic Relief Service purchased land in Himachal Pradesh, India to found Dolanji, the home for the Tibetan Bönpo refugee community. In 1966 Geshe Sangye Tenzin Jong Dong traveled to the University of Oslo, Norway at the invitation of Per Kvaerne, where he taught Tibetan history and religion for two years. On March 15, 1968 while in Norway he received a telegram from India which stated that the Protectors of Bön had selected him the 33rd Abbot of sMenri, and spiritual leader of the Bönpos. The Abbot of Yung Drung Ling, Lopon Sangye Tenzin, Lopon Tenzin Namdak, and about ten other Bönpo Geshes had prayed in the Drup Khang, or Protector’s temple, for fourteen days. The guardians then selected Geshe Sangye Tenzin Jong Dong from a group of ten Geshe monks eligible to be the new Abbot through a divination process.
Each of the Geshe’s names were written on a small piece of paper, each of which was enclosed in a small ball of ceremonial dough made from barley four and holy medicine, and these balls were placed in a vase. After prayer and rituals lasting two weeks, the Abbot of Yung Drung Ling shook the vase and three names came out, one by one, onto a special Mandala. All of the other names were removed from the vase and the three put back in, and the process began again. This time two names were shaken out, one after the other. The first held the name of who was to be the new Abbot, and this ball was used in initiation and rituals, and then opened in front of all the people present, who promised to honor him as the one true Abbot. The second man chosen would hold a very important position with the Bönpos as a lama and teacher.
On the night of March 14 in Norway, Geshe Sangye Tenzin Jong Dong had a dream that he and the man who was the second name to emerge from the vase were on the top of a temple, each holding a conch shell, used in the monastery to make music at special times. It became very windy and the second man was unable to hold his conch, and it blew out of his hand and broke on the ground below. Sangye Tenzin Jong Dong was able to keep his conch safe in his hand and play, despite the terrible storm. The next morning the telegram came inviting him to become the new Abbot. So he returned to India and assumed his duties as the spiritual leader of the Bönpo at a very crucial time in their long history. Their world had been destroyed and their lineage almost lost, but he had to lead them to a new beginning. It would take a very strong and compassionate man to help them build new monasteries and schools, and to save their culture and religion in strange and new surroundings. Many lamas came from Tibet, Nepal and India to give him their initiations and teachings, and for over one year he intensively trained and practiced for his role as Abbot, the leader who would guide the Bönpo and hold all the teaching lineages.
Slowly over time he was able to build a new sMenri monastery in Dolanji, and after that a Bön Dialectic School, which has now awarded thirty seven geshe degrees, with certification recognized by H. H. the Dalai Lama. He also founded an orphanage at the monastery for Bön children, called the Bön Children’s Welfare Center.
Today there are approximately four hundred Tibetans living in Dolanji, along with one hundred orphans and one hundred monks. Two hundred and fifty Bönpo children from all over India and Nepal attend the boarding school in the village. Dolanji has become a thriving center of Tibetan culture and religion of the guidance of His Holiness Lungtok Tenpa’i Nyima.
H.E Menri Yongdzin
H.E. Menri Yongdzin Rinpoche is the most senior teacher of the Bönpo tradition. He was born in 1926 in southeastern Tibet. Rinpoche began his studies at an early age and took his vows at 15. He continued his studies at the major Bönpo monasteries: gYung-Drung-Ling and sMenri in Tsang near Shigatse in central Tibet. Rinpoche’s two main masters were Bonruponlob Rinpoche and the Venerable Lopon Sangye Tenzin, Rinpoche.
Rinpoche was elected to the position of Lopon in 1953 at the young age of 27. This same year he obtained the Geshe degree from sMenri Monastery. As Lopon, or Head Teacher, Rinpoche is part of an unbroken lineage of 33 generations through Nyammed Sherab Gyaltsen, the founder of sMenri Monastery in Tibet. He was the teaching master from 1953 to 1957 when conflicts between the Chinese and Tibetans in Central Tibet became severe. He entered a long retreat in northern Tsang until 1960 when the Chinese invasion forced Rinpoche to flee Tibet. With great difficulty, including being shot and incarcerated by Chinese soldiers, Lopon Rinpoche was able to reach safety in Nepal.
In 1961 Professor David Snellgrove invited him to London under the auspices of the Rockefeller Foundation Visiting Scholar program. He remained in England for three years, collaborating with Professor Snellgrove on The Nine Ways of Bön, the first scholarly study of the Bön tradition to be made in the West.
Returning to India in 1964, Rinpoche founded Dolanji Settlement in northern India in order to give a home to the Bönpo people in exile. He returned to Europe in 1969 as a visiting scholar at Munich University to collaborate on a Tibetan-German-English dictionary. From 1970 to 1979 Lopon Rinpoche taught the monks at the Bönpo Monastic Center in Dolanji while at the same time supervising the publishing of a large number of important Bönpo texts in New Delhi. By 1978 enough texts were published to organize a curriculum around them. A traditional dialectic school was established under the guidance of Lopon Rinpoche. The purpose of this college was to preserve the Bönpo philosophical tradition where analysis and logic are applied to the teachings of the Sutras, the Tantras, and especially to the Dzogchen. In 1987 he founded another Bönpo monastery and International Education Center known as Triten Norbutse, near the well-known hill of Swayambhu, west of Katmandu, Nepal.
In 1992 Lopon Tenzin Namdak published Heartdrops of Dharmakaya, a handbook of Dzogchen meditation practices, from preliminaries to the most advanced togyal practices. This is the first book in English that is commonly available that actually describes in detail the practices of Dzogchen. Lopon Tenzin Namdak has traveled to the West several times.
H.E Menri Lopon
Rinpoche was born on the 12th day of the 1st Tibetan month of the year 1962 in the small Himalayan village of Tsakha in the Dolpo region of northwest Nepal. Many years ago, the Dolpo region was a part of the Zhang-Zhung kingdom. In the Dolpo region we can still find the culture and language of Zhang-Zhung.
There is a small Bonpo Monastery in his village called Tarzong Phuntsok Ling Bonpo Monastery. It was the only place where people can study traditional education as well as the Tibetan language. Yangton Lama is the abbot of Tarzong Phuntsok Ling Bonpo monastery. This monastery is one of the most precious and secret monasteries for the lineage of Yangton lamas. Lopon Rinpoche is a member of the famous lineage of Yangton lamas. The Yangton lineage goes back to the time of Buddha Tönpa Shenrab over 18,000 years ago. Yangton lamas were the priests for the ancient kings of Tibet. Yang n’gal Tsec Cho was the priest for Nyatri Tsenpo, the 1st king of Tibet. The Yangton Lama Yang n’gal, who was the priest of the Tibetan King Pude Gungyal, established the first Yangton Monastery at Bonri in the Kongpo region of Tibet.
The Yangton lineage originated after the great practitioner Yangton Sherab Gyaltsen became famous for the perfection of his understanding and excellence in Sutra, Tantra and Dzogchen Teachings. Through his studies he compiled the essence of Dzogchen teaching and created the first written manuscript of the Dzogchen Experiential Transmission (Nyam-Gyud) teaching. In 1107 AD he became the single Transmission holder of Dzogchen teaching.
At the age of 13 and on the advice from his uncle Yangton Lama Nyima Tseten, Lopon Rinpoche went into a series of 3 months retreats during 1975, 1976 and 1977. During this time he focused on the practices for the outer, inner and secret Deities of Bön. During these retreats Rinpoche completed the foundation practices of Dzogchen by accumulating nine hundred thousand preliminary practices. He also received various Transmissions and Empowerments of Dzogchen teachings from a variety of different masters.
In 1979, Lopon Rinpoche’s brother, Lama Tashi, brought Rinpoche to sMenri Monastery in India. sMenri Monastery is the main Bonpo monastery for Tibet as well as for the exile community of India. Rinpoche was ordained by H.H. the 33rd sMenri Trizin and H.E. Yongzin Rinpoche. His studies focused on Sutra, Tanta and Dzogchen as well as Ritual, Grammar, Poetry, Astrology, Divination, Medicine, Thangka painting, Mandalas and Stupas. Lopon obtained his Geshe Degree (Doctorate) from the Bön Dialectic School in 1989.
Soon after completing his Geshe Degree, Rinpoche was unanimously appointed Principle Instructor of the Bön Dialectic School by H.H. the 33rd Mentri Trizin and H.E. Yongzin Rinpoche. Again in 1992, His Holiness and Yongzin Rinpoche further honored Rinpoche by giving him the title of Ponlob. It is the second most revered position in sMenri Monastery. Lopon Rinpoche continues to teach at the Bön Dialectic School where he is responsible for the training of the students. He occasionally visits the Dolpo region of Nepal to give the Transmission of Preliminary Practice and teach other aspects of the Bön Religion to thousands of lay people, monks and Tantric practitioners. Rinpoche regularly visits the United States and Europe where he enjoys teaching the elements of Sutra, Tantra and Dzogchen to western practitioners. In 2009 he founded the Bön Center Khyungdzong Wodsel Ling in Los Angeles, in the United States.
Nangzhig Kyabgon was born in 1983 and was recognized as the reincarnation of Nangzhig Kyapgön Tenpa Rabgye by high lamas of both Bön and Buddhist traditions. This includes very esteemed lamas such as Menri Yongzin Tenzin Namdak Rinpoche and the late 10th Panchen Lama. At the age of six, Nangzhig Kyapgön took monastic vows in front of the golden tombs of Nangzhig high lamas. He was initiated in the presence of four lamas, including Jawob Rinpoche. With a great celebration, he was enthroned upon the Golden Throne of Nangzhig Monastery.
Afterwards, he studied with Yongzin Tenzin Yeshé as well as other teachers. He became an expert in philosophy and science, particularly the unique Bön doctrine and philosophy. He also traveled to many different parts of Tibet and gave teachings and empowerments to all of his followers. He blessed the faithful with his empowerments of A Tri (A khrid), Nyengyü, and Dzogchen as well as with the internal, external and secret Bön initiations.
At the age of 19, he visited China’s sacred Buddhist Mount Wutai (Riwo Tse-nga) and there he did the retreat practice of Sherap Mawé Sengé (Bönpo Buddha of clear intellect and understanding). Then, he went to study at the Buddhist University in Beijing and graduated in the doctrines and philosophies of various traditions. During his time there, he also learned the Chinese language. During both the First and Second International Conference on Yungdrung Bön, he acted as president. In brief, he has completed his studies of Bön Sutra, Tantra, Dzogchen as well as other Tibetan cultural sciences and philosophies with Yongzin Tenzin Yeshé and the renowned scholar Böngya Rinpoche. Thus, he is the head and the throne holder of the Nangzhig Monastery.
Gyawob Rinpoche was born in 1927 in Amdo Ngawa. He was recognised as the reincarnation of Khyungmong Tenpa Lodoe, who was the great master of Chinese Phowa Drongjug practice as well as the 21st reincarnation of Khyungmong Rinpoche. At the age of 7, Rinpoche entered the Nangzhig monastery and began his primary education until he completed all the monastic studies, such as reading, writing, recitation, chanting and so on. At the age of 11, he took the vows of novice monk from Nangzhig Kyabgon Namkha Lodoe, and was then named Tsultrim Tenzin Wangyal. In addition, Gywob Rinpoche also received teaching of Bon Sutra, Tantra, Dzogchen from Nangzhig Kyabgon Namkha Lodoe. At the age of 17, he received the empowerment, instruction and teaching of A-khrid, Nyengyu and Dzogchen from his uncle Sangye Tenzin, and in particular, he received teaching and empowerment of three mother tantras (Magyu Sangye Gyusum).
As Nangzhig Kyabgon Tenpa Rabgye appointed him as the representative of Nangzhig monastery, Gyawob Rinpoche took the responsibilities to look after all the interior and exterior matters of the monastery. When the religious freedom was granted in the entire Tibet, Rinpoche also took initiative to open the door of Bon in the Nangzhig monastery. Taking a great hardship, he restored the religious objects such as, stupas and statues that were destroyed before and also built temples to place those objects.
Rinpoche has contributed many activities in terms of developing the interior and exterior compound of the monastery. At the age of 63, he visited Khyungmong Yungdrung Phuntsok Ling, the main seat of Khyungmong Tenpa Lodoe. Rinpoche also gave empowerment, initiation and teaching of A-khrid, Nyengyud and Dzogchen to a large number of audiences there.
In the same year, there was a serious draught in the nomads’ land due to the lack of rainfall. Rinpoche then helped the nomads by producing a rainfall with rituals like Klu mchod ‘o ma’i rgya mtsho (a ritual offering to Naga spirit) and Char ‘beb bdud rtsi ‘khyil ba (a rain making ritual). All the residents of that place were very delighted and the news spread all over Tibet , which made him famous in many parts of Tibet.
Gradually, Rinpoche visited Lhasa, Beijing, Hrang-he and Hrin-tig. He gave there empowerments and instruction on the practice of Yungdrung Bon to a large number of students of Chinese origin. Thus he did great benefits to many sentient beings. In collaboration with Nangzhig Kyabgon, he established the Higher Education Centre of Yungdrung Bon Teachings and Practices at Nangzhig Monastery in 2001.
When Rinpoche reached the age of 80, the concerned staffs of the monastery and general public followers organized a gathering to celebrate his 80th birthday. During that celebration, about ten thousand people were gathered there from different parts of Tibet to perform a long life prayer and ritual. After the ritual, the conference was held at the Nangzhig Monastery to discuss over how to follow, how to preserve, and how to propagate the doctrine of Yungdrung Bon; and in particular, how to restore and propagate the culture and tradition of Zhangzhung and Tibet. The conference was mainly initiated by Rinpoche and a hundred of participants gathered there includes, renown Lamas and Tulkus, distinguished scholars and high officials from all over Tibet. Thereupon, he donated all the money that he received as the 80th birthday present for the renovation project of Namgyal stupa. In this way, he also added another great contribution by renovating a religious support of veneration.
Bon-Gya Rinpoche was born in 1935 in Nothern Amdo region of Rebkong in Tibet. At a young age he showed signs of intelligence and compassion that were unusual in a child. Lamas from both Bon and Nyingma traditions recognized him to be the reincarnation of Bon-Gya Yungdrung Phuntsok.
He studied the various religious texts of Bon and Buddhist traditions from numerous renowned teachers. Today he is respected for his scholarly knowledge and revered for his spiritual depth throughout the Tibetan literary and ecclesiastical world and by both Bon and Buddhist followers from all walks of life. He has attracted students of different faiths from many countries.
In Rebkong he rebuilt the Bon-Gya Monastery where the monks are taught the art of debate and dialectics, practice of Dzogchen meditation, and Tibetan and Zhang Zhung arts and literature. Rebkong is known to be a special place because of the large number of Bon Tantric practitioners. Each village of Rebkong has a temple for the lay practitioners.
Rinpoche is particularly interested in the spiritual development and welfare of the lay people which is why he lays emphasis in building these temples among the people.
Bon-Gya Rinpoche is the author of eight books on subjects as varied as Bon philosophy and Dzogchen meditation to poetry and Zhang Zhung and Tibetan history. He is invited all over the world to attend scholarly and spiritual seminars on Bon and Zhang Zhung and Tibetan traditions. He resides at Bon-Gya monastery and gives spiritual guidance to his wards.