When we read the description of Yungdrungling Monastery in our Lonely Planet guidebook, we asked our guide if we could possibly visit there on our way back to Lhasa, even though it was not on our original itinerary. He had never been there but was willing to give it a try.
The reason it sounded interesting is that this was a Bon monastery, not a Buddhist monastery. Bon was the religion of the Tibetan people before Buddhism arrived in the 8th century.
We expected to find something very different from what we had seen in Buddhist monasteries and temples, but surprisingly, this monastery had much in common with them.
According to "The History of Bon" in Lonely Planet (p. 68),
"Bon has its deepest roots in the earliest religious beliefs of the Tibetan people. Centered on an animist faith shared by all central Asian peoples, religious expression took the form of spells, talismans, oaths, incantations, ritual drumming and sacrifices. Rituals often revolved around an individual who mediated between humans and the spirit world.
"Bon is thought to have its geographical roots in the kingdom of Shang-Shung, which is located in western Tibet, and its capital at Kyunglung (Valley of the Garuda). Bon's founding father was Shenrab Miwoche, also known as Tonpa Shenrab, the Teacher of Knowledge, who was born in the second millennium BC in the mystical land of Olma Lungring in Tajik (thought to be possibly the Mt Kailash area or even Persia). Buddhists often claim that Shenrab is merely a carbon copy of Sakyamuni (Sakya Thukpa), and certainly there are similarities to be found. Biographies state that he was born a royal prince and ruled for 30 years before becoming an ascetic. His 10 wives bore 10 children who formed the core of his religious disciples. Many of the tales of Shenrab Miwoche deal with his protracted struggles with the demon king Khyabpa Lagring.
"Bon was first suppressed by the eighth Yarlung king, Drigum Tsenpo,and subsequently by King Trisong Detsen. The Bon master Gyerpung Drenpa Nampa (a gyerpung is the Bon equivalent of a lama or guru) struggled with Trisong Detsen to protect the Bon faith until the king finally broke Shang-Shung's political power. Following the founding of the Samye Monestary, many Bon priests went into exile or converted to Buddhism,and many of the Bon texts were hidden.
"To the casual observer it's often hard to differentiate between Bonpo and Buddhist practice. It can be said that in many ways Bon shares the same goals as Buddhism but takes a different path. The word 'Bon' has come to carry the same connotation as the Buddhist term 'dharma'. Shared concepts include those of samsara, karma and rebirth in the six states of existence. Even Bon monasteries, rituals and meditation practice are almost identical to Buddhist versions. Still, there are obvious differences. Bon has its own Kangyur, a canon made up of texts translated from the Shang-Shung language, and Bonpos turn prayer wheels and circumambulate monasteries anticlockwise. The main difference comes down to the source of religious authority: Bonpos see the arrival of Buddhism as a catastrophe, the supplanting of the truth by a false religion."