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Tonpa Shenrab

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Tonpa Shenrab

Tonpa Shenrab (Tibetan: ston pa gshen rab) or Shenrab Miwo (Tibetan: gshen rab mi bo)—also called Buddha Shenrab, Guru Shenrab, Tonpa Shenrab Miwoche, Lord Shenrab Miwo, and known by a number of other titles—is the founder of the Bon religious tradition of Tibet.

According to Samten G. Karmey:
He occupies a position very similar to that of Śākyamuni in Buddhism, but... we have no available [or pre-10th century] sources with which to establish his historicity, his dates, his racial origin, his activities, and the authenticity of the enormous number of books either attributed directly to him or believed to be his word."[1]

Shenrab's life according to Bon traditions

According to Bon tradition, Tonpa Shenrab predates Padmasambhava and the Buddha Sakyamuni. It is held that Tonpa Shenrab first studied the Bon doctrine in Tagzig Olmo Lung Ring (which for economy may be equated with space, heaven and the aetherial realm), at the end of which he pledged to Shenla Odkar (Tibetan: gshen lha 'od dkar), the god of compassion, that he would guide the peoples of this world to liberation.

Like the Buddha Śākyamuni, Tönpa Shenrab was of royal birth. Tonpa Shenrab renounced his royal inheritance at the age of thirty-one to travel the path to enlightenment. Tonpa Shenrab embraced the life of a renunciate and commenced austerities, spreading the doctrine of Bon; at length, he arrived in the land of Zhangzhung near what is widely held to be Mount Kailash.

Accounts of Tonpa Shenrab's life are to be found in three principal sources, entitled Do-dü (mdo 'dus), Zer-mik (gzer mig), and Zee-jee (gzi brjid). The first and second of the accounts are held to be terma (gter ma) discovered by Bon tertön (gter ston) in the 10th or 11th century; the third is part of the "aural lineage" (nyen jü, snyan brgyud), transmitted via disciplic succession.

The Four Portals and the Fifth, the Treasury

The doctrines taught by Tönpa Shenrab are generally classified variously, two being most common. In the first, The Four Portals and the Fifth, the Treasury (sgo bzhi mdzod lnga), the:

  • White Water (chab dkar) relates esoteric matters;
  • Black Water (chab nag) concerns narratives, magic, funeral rites and ransom rituals;
  • Land of Phan ('phan yul) codifies monastic rules and philosophical expositions;
  • Divine Guide (dpon gsas) enshrines the Dzogchen teachings; and finally
  • Treasury (mtho thog) which serves as an anthology of the salient items of the Four Portals.

The Nine Ways of Bon

The second classification, the Nine Ways of Bon (bon theg pa rim dgu) is as follows—the:

  • Way of Prediction (phyva gshen theg pa) codifies ritual, prognostication, sortilege and astrology;
  • Way of the Visual World (snang shen theg pa) details the psychophysical Universe;
  • Way of Illusion ('phrul gshen theg pa) explains the rites for the dispersal of adverse thoughtforms, entities and energies;
  • Way of Existence (srid gshen theg pa) details funeral and death rituals;
  • Way of a Lay Follower (dge bsnyen theg pa) contains the ten principles for wholesome activity;
  • Way of a Monk (drang srong theg pa) codifies monastic rules and regulations;
  • Way of Primordial Sound (a dkar theg pa) charts the integration of an exalted practitioner into the mandala of highest enlightenment;
  • Way of Primordial ShenTemplate:Dn, (ye gshen theg pa) renders the guidelines for seeking a true tantric master and the commitments (dam tshigs, parallel to the Sanskrit samaya) that bind a disciple to his tantric master; and finally,
  • Way of Supreme Natural Condition (bla med theg pa), or The Way of Dzogchen.

The nine ways can also be classified into three groups, the:

  • Causal Ways (rgyu'i theg pa) comprises the first four of the above;
  • Resultant Ways ('bras bu'i theg pa) includes the fifth through eighth; and
  • Unsurpassable Way or the Way of Dzogchen (khyad par chen po'i theg pa or rdzogs pa chen po, abbreviated rdzogs chen) is the ninth.

The Bon Canon

The Bon canon comprises more than two hundred volumes, classified in four categories: the Sutras (mdo), the Perfection of Wisdom Teachings ('bum), the Tantras (rgyud) and Knowledge (mdzod). Besides these, the Bon canon includes material on rituals, arts and crafts, logic, medicine, poetry and narrative. It is interesting to note that the "Knowledge" section concerning cosmogony and cosmology, though in some respects unique to Bon, shares a more than passing resemblance to Nyingma (rnying ma) doctrines.

Aspects of Shenrab Miwoche

Shenrab Miwoche is said to have three aspects or forms: the tulku (Tibetan: sprul sku; Sanskrit: nirmaṇakāya), Shenrab Miwoche; the dzoku (Tibetan: rdzogs sku; Sanskrit: sambhogakaya), Shenlha Okar; and the bonku (Tibetan: bon sku; Sanskrit: dharmakāya), Tapihritsa.[2]



  • Bellezza, John Vincent. (2010). "gShen-rab Myi-bo, His life and times according to Tibet’s earliest literary sources." Revue d’Etudes Tibétaines Number 19 October 2010, pp. 31–118.
  • Unknown Author (2005). The Bonpo's Tradition. (Accessed: January 17, 2007).

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