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Looking at "Bon" in a New Light

Bon means dharma. But the very word turned out to be one of the most misunderstood and prejudiced words in Tibetan religious history. For Bonpos (practitioners of Bon), their religious tradition is Buddhist, an authentic one long before Buddhism in India began. This spiritual tradition has its center in Zhang Zhung, which is presently around Mt. Kailash. It has been in Tibet before the spread of Buddhism from India in the 7th century A.D. It traced its origin to Buddha Tempa Sherab, who they believe to be one and the same as Buddha Shakyamuni.

For many non-Bonpos, Bonpos are outcast, shamans and products of the tradition that sacrifices animals. I don’t know how the stereotype and misunderstanding began. As a student and practitioner of this lineage, I didn’t find anything that can be characterized as animal sacrifice or even shamanism. If there is one, it is the Bodhisattva’s imagination of offering one’s own flesh and blood to pretas so that they are appeased and can cultivate loving-kindness for others. But this practice which we call “chod” cutting through egoism is also found in other Buddist sects.

Once there are stereotypes, it is hard to fix them. I have met many Bonpos who prefer to hide their identity for fear of not being accepted. I have also met Bonpos who told me that they could not use the term Buddhism to describe their tradition. They have to resort to the term Bon religion which others use.

I used to ask myself how a tradition like Bon that teaches the law of Karma, dependent origination, emptiness and clarity as the two most important qualities of Buddha nature, Bodhicitta and the path of enlightenment can be non-Buddhist. What do we use as a criterion to call what is Buddhist and what is not?

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