The Nine Ways of Bon

by D.L. Snellgrove

The following text is from "The Nine Ways of Bon: Excerpts from Gzi-brjid". Edited and Translated by D.L.
Snellgrove, pp.1-23 London Oriental Series , Vol 18, Oxford University Press 1968.


The bonpos

To practising bonpos - and nowadays it has become comparatively easy to meet them if one knows where to look among the many tens of thousands of Tibetans who have arrived as refugees in India and Nepal-BON simply means the true religion of Tibet. To the far greater number of other Tibetans, who are not Bonpos, BON refers to the false teachings and practices that were prevalent in Tibebet before Buddhism finally succeeded in gaining a firm hold on the country.

Bonpos are regarded as pagans -and as such they have suffered serious hostility in the past- and nowadays others take as little account of their existence as possible. By western scholars BON is gernarally understood as referring to the pre-Buddhist beliefs and practices of the Tibetans. Several scholars have discussed the actual meaning of this term. By the few Bonpos who know their texts well BON is explained as the Tibetan equivalent of the Zhang-Zhung term gYer which means 'chant'. Textual evidence can be shown for this in the titles of works said to be translated from the language of Zhang- Zhung into Tibetan. Here bon is regulary glossed by gYer. This is the original meaning they say, for they know that bon now covers all the meanings of the Tibetan Buddhist term chos .

As is well known, chos simply translates Sanskrit dharma in all its Buddhist meaning.
There is no word for 'Buddhism' in Tibetan. Tibetans are either chos-pa (followers of chos) or bon-po (followers of bon). They both use the term sanyg-rgyas (literally:'amply purified') to define a perfected sage, a buddha. Thus in translation of bonpo texts there contunues to be such terms as 'buddha' and 'buddhahood'. Any readers who are new to the subject will therefore assume that BON is a form of Buddhism, and that it has certainly develeoped as such there is no doubt. In this work we are bound to understand BON in the full bonpo sense and that includes all their gradual adaptation of Buddhist doctrine and practice. They themselves do not acknowledge these Buddhist elements as adaptations. Lacking the necessary historical sense, they persist in claiming that all their teachings and doctrines are the true original BON, particularly promulgated directly in Tibet by gShen-rab , their founder, but mainly received the rough translations from the language of Zhang-Zhung of ancient western Tibet.

The ultimate souce of their teachings is sTag-gzigs , a country situated rather vaguely still further to the west. They would claim that it is the chos-pa, the 'Buddhists' of Tibet, who are the adapters and the plagiarists. Without accepting their claims, we are nevertheless bound to accept their interpretations of terms in presenting an account of their reachings and practices, and this is the primary intention of the present volume. In giving an account of any religion we cannot ignore what the practisers have to say about themselves. Thus in giving an historical accout of Buddhism itself, we cannot ignore, for example, the eighty-four Siddhas, however different their doctrines and practices may be from those of the early Buddhists. We cannot deny the term Buddhist to the Newars
of the Nepal Valley, however much they seem to be influenced by Brahmanical practice.
We can merely observe that their form of Buddhism represents a very special development of this religion. Likewise in the case of the Bonpos we have to accept them and understand them as they are, while still trying to unravel the historical developments of their religion. An understanding of them on their own terms is all the more important nowadays, because we need the assistance of their few remaining scholars in order to understand something of their early texts.

Tibetans who can help with these texts are now very rare indeed. Educated bonpo monks are brought up in the dGe-lugs-pa ('Yellow Hat') Way, trained in conventional Buddhist philosophy and logic and receiving after examination by debate the academic degree of dGe-bshe . They know their monastic liturgies and the names of their own bonpo gods, but very rarely indeed are they at all experienced in reading the sort of bonpo texts in which we most need assistance, namely material which represents 'pre- Buddhist' traditions. This lack of familiarity on the part of present-day bonpos with what Western scholars would regard as real bon material, may come as a dissappiontment. It also explains why there still remain terms and ideas not yet properly interpreted in this present work.

Among the three bonpo monks who accompanied me to England in 1961 was Tenzin Namdak, once Lopön ( slob-dpon ), best translated as 'Chief Teacher', at sManri (3).
Tenzin Namdak, who has now returned to India after three years in England, is a devoted Bonpo, firm in his doctrines as well as his vows. Initiated primarily in a threefold bon tantra, the Ma-rgyud sngs-rgyas rgyud gsum , he was practised in the meditations and teachings of the VIIIth Way. Remaining celibate, he continued to adhere to the rules of the Vith Way, or rather he adhered to them as fas as possible in a foreign western setting. We have read through many texts together and it was on his suggestion that we set to work to produce a concise account of the 'Nine Ways on Bon', and it was he who selected the ectracts which serve as the substance of the present account.

The Source of the 9 Ways of Bon

The souce of these extracts is a work entitled hdus-pa-rin-po-che dri-ma med-pa gzibrjid rab tu hbar-bahi mdo 'The precious compendium the blazing Sutra Immaculate and Glorious', in short referres to simply as gZi-brjid 'The Glorious'. This work seems to be quite unknown outside Tibet. gShen-rab 's 'biography' is written in three versions, one
long, one of medium length and one short. gZi-brjid in twelve volume is the long version. gZer-mig in two volume is the medium version. mDo-hdus in one volume is the short one. gZer-mig is known of by Western Scholars since A.H. Francke editied and translated the first seven chapters, which are published in Asia Major, 1924, 1926, 1927, 1930, and 1939. Professor Hoffmann has also used gZer-mig for the brief account that he gives of gShen-rab 's life in his „The religions of Tibet" (pp. 85-97). mDo-hdus reamins unknwon in the West, although there may be a copy somewhere in India.

These three works are all classed by the bonpos as 'Kanjur' (the term is borrowed from the Buddhists), that is to say as the inspired word of their early sages as translated from the languages of Zhang-zhung. gZi-brjid is further cleassed as 'oral-tradition' ( snyanrgyud ). It is belived that rTang-chen mu-thsa-gyer-med , a disciple of the sage Dranpa nam-mkhah (eight century), transmitted it in a vision to Blo-ldan snyin-po , who compiled it in its present form.

The 'Great Incarnation' ( mchog-sprul ) Blo-ldan snyin-po of Khyung-po in Khams is a well-knwon literary figure of the bonpos . He was a close contemporary of Tsong-khapa , for he was born about A.D. 1360. He is said to have died in his twenty-fith year.

Thus gZi-brjid would seem to have been compiled towards the end of the fourteenth century, and the contents of the work bear out this tradition. By that time the bonpos had adsorbed the vast variety of Indian Buddhist teachings, and so were able to restate them as the substance of their higher doctrines of the 'Nine Ways' with the conviction that can only come from that experience and knowledge that is based upon well learned lessons combined with practical experience. At the same time they had preseved through their own oral and literary traditions large quantities of indigenous material which goes back to the eighth century and earlier. But by the fourteenth century bonpos had long since forgotten the meanings of many of the earlier names and terms.

From the manner in which he orders his material in the first two 'Ways', it is clear that the compiler was by no means sure of himself as when he was dealing with the later Buddhist material.

The copy of gZi-rjid used by us came from Samling monastery in Doplo. According to its brief colophon, the lama responsible for our manuscipt was Yan-ston Nam-mkah rinchen and it was written at Klu-brag. Fortunately, he writes more about his family in the 'preface' ( dkar-chags ) to the mauscript. He praises his nephews Sri-dar rnam-rgyal,
Rin-chen and hKhro-ba, and especially his elder brother Yang-ston Tshul-hkrims rnam-rgyal , who consecrated the finished mansucript.

Thus despite the difference in name, these relationships identifiy him firmly with Lama Rin-chen rgyal-mtshan , who is referred to in the genealogy of the lamas of Samling as a great producer of books. gZi-brjid is specifically mentioned. 'It was the measure of an arrow (in size), and as a sign of (this lama's) phenomenal powers each time the pen was dipped in the inkpot a whole string of words was written.' Unfortunately, the scanty references to dates in this genealogy leave the period unertain. It is, however, possible to calculate that this Rin-chen rgyal-mtshan belonged to the ninth generation from Yang-ston rGyal-mtshan rin-chen , the founder Lama of Samling, who must have lived in the thirteenth century.

Thus, our mauscript is probably about 400 years old. It was copied from an existing manuscrip at Lu-brag and then brought to Samling.

The Chapters of the gZi-brjid

The gZi-brjid is an enormous work, totalling in our manuscript 2,791 folios. There are twelve volumes numbered ka to da with a final volume a . The text is arranged in sixtyone chapters, and a list of these chapters will give some idea of the scope of this composite work:

1 'The teacher descends from the gods of pure light'
2 'The teacher turns the Wheel of Bon for the non-gods'
3 'The sutra of the coming of the doctrine of the buddhas'
4 'The sutra of gShen-rabs taking birth'
5 'The sutra of the young prince's playful sport'
6 'The sutra of the prince's enthronement'
7 'The sutra of the prince's law-giving'
8 'The sutra of the IInd Way of the Shen of Illusion'
9 'The sutra of the IIIrd Way of the Shen of Existence'
10 'The sutra explaining the Way of the Shen of Existence
11 ‘The sutra that teaches the meaning of mandala of the five universal (buddha-)bodies'
12 'The sutra explaing the Way of the Virtuous Adherers'
13 The sutra explaing the Way of the great ascetics
14 The sutra of the VIIth Way of pure sound
15 Thw sutra of the VIIIth Way of the primaeval Shen
16 The sutra of the IXth and supreme Way
17 The sutra explaning the bon of the various translations
18 The sutra of spreading the doctrine by converting those who are hard to convert
19 The sutra of the mandala of the Loving Conqueror
20 The sutra of the very form and precious doctrine
21 The sutra of the three tenets taught by the teacher
22 The sutra of the spreading reays that convert sentient beings
23 The sutra explaining cause and effect
24 The sutra of the teacher drawing beings to salvation
25 The sutra of the light of the Blessed All-knowing
26 The liturgy of the All-Good the Ocean of Victory
27 The sutra of the washing away of the sind of King Gu-wer
28 The sutra of the teacher's taking the most glorious of wifes
29 The sutra of the teacher's producing the offspring of method and wisdom
30 The sutra of the Teacher's assumption of royal power
31 The sutra of the producing of offspring who convert sentient beings
32 The sutra of the Teacher teaching Bon to the gods
33 The spell of the Fierce Destroyer
34 Mandala of the liturgy of the God of Medicine
35 The sutra of the pure prayer of good conduct
36 The sutra of the Teacher teachung bin to the serpents
37 The sutra of Mara's magical display to the teacher
38 The secret spell the Destroyer of Mara
39 The sutra of the Teacher establishing the realm of Mara in salvation
40 The sutra of removing obstructions and subduing Mara
41 The sutra of producing offspring for continuing the family-line of royal sway
42 The sutra for establishing the teaching of the IXth Way
43 The sutra for establishing the teaching about relics
44 The sutra of the acquisition of the way of salvation of thr supreme order
45 The Mother sutra the Great Way of the Word of the Perfection of Wisdom
46 The sutra of the mandala of the Great Way of the Mother
47 The spell of the Sacred Light of Vaidurya
48 The liturgy of the basic mandala of the goddess Loving kindness
49 The sutra in praise of the twenty-one forms of the goddess Loving Kindness
50 The sutra establishing the three forms of the doctrine
51 The sutra of the Teacher leaving his home and becoming a religious wanderer
52 The sutra of the perfecting of austerities, the actions of a Shen
53 The sutra of the manifestations of the four spoked wheel of Bon
54 The sutra of pure disciplinary rules
55 The basic sutra of the pure regulations of the Shen
56 The sutra of the sections of the regulations of the Shen
57 The sutra of the pure virtuous conduct of the Shen
58 The sutra of removing the hellish evils of King 'Kong'
59 The sutra of the Teacher leaving his entourage and practicing in solitude
60 The sutra explaining the meanings of the names, marks and qualities of the buddhas
61 The sutra of the Teacher handing the Bon doctrine over into the care (of others)

The titles of these chapters will indicate at once to any (non-Tibetan) Buddhist scholar the dependence of this work upon Buddhist material. Although the study of the gZer-mig remains incomplete, there has never been any doubt that the inspiration and the frameworl for the legend of gShen-rab have been derived from the life of Shakyamuni. Yed this framework has been filled with indigenous Tibetan legendary material which still awaits serious study.

In this present work we abe made a very restricted use of gZi-brjid , extracting excerpts relevant to the bonpo doctrines of the 'Nine Ways'. The Tinetan term theg-pa , as all Buddhist scholars of Tibetan will know, simply represents the Sanskrit Buddhist term yana, and I translate it sometimes as 'Way', and sometimes as 'Vehicle'. However, there are very few Tibetans, however well educated, who know the orifinal meaning of theg-pa (as connected with the verb hdegs-pa and its various roots, meaning 'raise' or 'sustain'), and who thus understand it in the meaning of 'vehicle'. No Tibetan Buddhist would think of accusing the bonpos of having appropriated terms that were originally Buddhist. To all Tibetans, wether Buddhist or bonpo, their religious vocabulary is just part of their own language to be used as they please. But the non-Tibetan Buddhist scholar readily recognizes those terms which were once specially coined as the Tibetan equivalents of Indian Buddhist technical terms. He is thus able to pass judgement on bonpo material in a way which no Tibetan has yet thought of doing.

Remarks On The 9 Ways Edition

Chaps., 9 Ways, and Remarks

The brief extracts here edited have been taken from Chapters 7,8,9,12,12,13,14,15 and 16. In editing we have not hesitated to emend the text as seemed desirable.
The original manuscript spellings are shown in the case of all 'main word' ( ming ) changes, but we have not recorded every 'particle' ( tshig-phrad ) emendment.
Connecting partices ( kyi, gyi , etc.) are often written instead of the corresponding instrumental particles ( kyis, gyis , etc.) and vice versa. The particles te, ste, de are sometimes use incorrectly (e.g. yin-ste instead of yin-te ), and la is wirtten for las and vice versa. It would be tedious and misleading for any student to follow the text from the translations if such corrections wee not made. The text is written in dbu-med and abbreviated compounds are quite frequent. Numerals are normally written in figurines and not in letters, and since I have spelt out the numeras in every case, it will no longer be obvious how for example 'eight' may be safely corrected to 'two'. After final vowles (not only after a) h is regulary added, as in gtoh, dbyeh , etc. In conformity with later Tibetan practice, I have omitted h except after final a. Generally, the manuscript is clear and remarkably accurate. Some 'mistakes' tend to be regular. For example gnyan
'a fury' is regulary written as gnyen, klung-rta is regulary written as srungs-rta.
Certain spellings, which may appear unusual to other scholars, we have, however, preserved, for example, sgra-bla for dgra-lha.

I present the translation in the hope that interested reader will assist me in identifying the assiciations that may be apparent to them in much of the materia, for I do not pretend to have solved all the problems. A brief survey of the 'Nine Ways' may assist comprehension.

I. THE WAY OF THE SHEN OF THE PREDICTION (phyva-gshen theg-pa)

This describes fairly coherently four methods of prediction:

(a) sortilege (mo)
(b) astrological calculation (rtsis)
(c) ritual (gto)
(d) medical diagnosis (dpyad).

II. THE WAY OF THE SHEN OF VISUAL WORLD (snang-gshen theg-pa)

This is the longest and most difficult section of our work. It is concerned with overpowering or placating the gods and demons of this world, and I suspect that even the original compiler if the work was already unfamiliar with many of the
divinities and rites to which he refers. Thus the account is not really coherent, but it makes quite sufficient sense. The various practics are arranged into four parts:

1) The lore of exorcism (employing) the 'great exposition' of existence (I have written on 'exposition' smrang . The rite is clearyl described in the translation).
The text then goes on to describe various types of divinities,the thug-khar , the wer-ma , and other. Sime are describet in great detail, and some, such as the cang-seng, and shug-mgon , scarely mentioned except by name. Finally, we are
told the 'lore of stream of existence' ( srid-pahi rgyud gzhung ). This is presumably all part of the 'exposition' ( smrang ) of the officiating priest.

2) This deals with demons ( hdre ) and vampires ( sri ), their origin, nature, and the ways of suppressing them.

3) This deals with ransom of all kinds.Their extraordinary variety testifies to their importace in early Tibetan religion. Tenzin Namdak can identify very vew of them, and I doubt that any other living Tibetan can do much better. My
translations of the many unfamiliar terms are as literal as possible, but they do not pretend to be explanatory.

4) This deals with fates ( phyva ) and furies ( gnyan ) and local divinities generally ( sa-bdag, gtog, lha, dbal , etc.) and the offerings due to them.

III. THE WAY OF THE SHEN OF ILLUSION (hprul-gshen theg-pa)

This is concerned with rites für disposing od enemies of all kinds. The rites described here are to be found in the bon tantras, e.g. those of dBal-gsas and the khro-bahi rgyud drug , which we have on microfilms. Similar practices are
referred to in Buddhist tantras, e.g. Hevajra -Tantra.

IV.THE WAY OF THE SHEN OF EXISTENCE (srid-gshen theg-pa)

This deals with beings in the 'Intermediate state' ( bar-do ) between death and rebirth, and ways of leading them towards salvation.

V. THE WAY OF THE VIRTUOUS ADHERERS (dge-bsnyen theg-pa)

dGe-bsnyen is the normal Tibetan term for upasaka which in India referred to the Buddhist layman. Similarly, here it refers to those who follow the practice of the ten virtues and the ten perfections, and who build and worship stupas.

VI. THE WAY OF THE GREAT ASCETICS (drang-srong theg-pa)

drang-rong translates rsi which in India refers to the great seers of the past.
Drang-rong is used by bonpos to refer to fully qualified monks, corresponding to the buddhist term dge-slong (= bhiksu ). This is the way of strict ascetic discipline. The whole inspiration is Buddhist, but many of the arguments and even the substance of some rules are manifestly not Buddhist.

VII. THE WAY OF PURE SOUND (a-dkar theg-pa)

This deals with higher tantric practices. It gives a very good account of the tantric theory of 'transformation' through the mandala. (I have alreafy summarized these ideas in my introduction to the Hevajra -Tantras). It then goes on to refer briefly to the union of Method and Wisdom as realized by the practiser and his feminine partner. This anticipates VIII. The section ends with concise lists of nine 'reliances', eighteen 'performances' and nine 'acts'. The 'reliances' comprise a list of primary neds, the 'performances' resume the whole process of ritual of the mandala, and the 'acts' represent the total power that accrues to one from mastering all the Nine Vehicles.


This deals with the need for a suitable master, as suitable partner, and a suitable site. The preparation of the mandala is then described in detail together with important admonitions not to forget the local divinites ( sa-bdag ). The process of
mediation (known as the 'Process of Emanation'-in Sanskrit utpattikrama) is recounted (10). The last Part of this section describes the 'Proces of Realisation' (Sanskrit nispannakrama), which is the 'super-rational' state of the perfected sage. His behaviour might often be mistaken for that of a madman.

IX. THE SUPREME WAY (bla-med theg-pa)

This describes the absolute, referred to as the 'basis' ( gzi corresponding to Sanskrit alaya) , from which 'release' and'delusion' are both derived. 'Release' is interpreted as the state of fivefold buddhahood, and 'delusion' as the false
conceptions of erring beings in the 'Intermediate State' ( bar-do ). 'The Way' is then described as mind in its absolute state, as the pure 'Thought of Enlightenment'. The 'Fruit' or final effect is then finally described in terms of the special powers of the perfected sage. The whole subject-matter is then resumed under the four conventioanl headings of insight, contemplation , practice and achievment. The categories and ideas elaborated in this IXth Vehicle are usually
referred to as the teachings of the 'Great Perfection' ( rdzog-chen ).

Bon - Classification of Ways

What is remarkable about the 'Nine Ways of Bon' is the succint manner in which they resume the whole range of
Tibetan religious practices:

- methods of prediction to which Tibetans of all religious orders and of all ranks of society are addicted

- placating and repelling local divinities of all kinds of whose existence all Tibetans, lay and religious, are equally convinced

- destroying enemies by fierce tantric rites practices in which Buddhists and bonpos are equally interested

- guiding the consciousness through the 'Intermediate State' powers claimed equally by the older orders of Tibetan Buddhism and by the bonpos

- moral discipline of devout believers and strict discipline of monastic orders ways that have followers in all orders of Tibetan religion

- tantric theory and ritual fundamental to the iconography and the worship of all Tibetan religious communities

- tales of perfected wonder-working sages typical again of the older orders of Tibetan Buddhism as well as bonpos.

All that is missing out of this list is the religious life of academic learning which is now typical of educated monks of the dGe-lugs-pa ('Yellow Hat') order. This is only omitted because when the list of 'Nine Ways' was elaborated, the dGe-lugs-pa way had not yet come into existence. But nowadays the bonpos have this, too, with their scholars of philosophy and logic and their academic honours and titles. Nor are they just dresses in other's plume. They really have developed the practices of all these diverse ways over the last thirteen centuries or so, and they have produced a very large literature of their own in support of all the various ways of their practice. Much of this literature, e.g. some of their sutras and especially the 'Perfection of Wisdom' teachings, has been copied quite shamelessly from the Buddhists but by far the greater part would seem to have been absorbed through learning and then retold, and this is not just plagiarism.

In classing the four lower ways as 'Bon of cause' and the five higher ways as 'Bon of effect', they were trying sincerely to relate the old ways of magic ritual to the new ways of morality and meditation. If one practices even the rites of the 1st Way intent on the 'Thought of Enlightenment', benefit will come to all living beings. Likewise the 2nd Way is something for delighting living beings with benefits and happines, but it is important to have as basis the raising of one's thought (to enlightenment). The 3rd Way, if practised properly, reaches out towards the 8th Way, achieving the effect where Method and Wisdom are indivisible. The practiser of the 4th Way, concerned as he is with rescuing others who wander in the 'Intermediate State', is effectively preparing himself for Buddhahood.

Conversely, the rites of the lower ways are still indispensable even when one has reached the higher ones. 'Fertile fields and good harvest, extent of royal powers and spread of dominion, although some half (of such effects) is ordained by previous actions (viz. Karmic effext), the other half comes from the powerful „lords of the soil"- so you must attend to the „lords of the soil", the serpents and the furies'.

Now every Tibetan, whatever religious order, believes this, but -to my knowledgeonly the bonpos have formulated this belief as doctrine.

A Collection of Studies on the Tibetan Bon Tradition

Main Library