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Bon Religion & Culture: Technical Glossary

Bon Religion & Culture: Technical Glossary | HAR Main Glossary

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Amnye Machen: the name of both a mountain range and mountain god in the Amdo region of north eastern Tibet.

Bon (truth): the full name is Yungdrung Bon meaning Everlasting Truth, the indigenous religion of Tibet, the Himalayan regions and parts of Central Asia and China.

Bon Sarma (New Bon): a form of the Bon religion and culture that has incorporated many Buddhist elements.

Bongya Monastery: a center of Bon culture in the Rebkong area of Amdo, Eastern Tibet.

Bonri, Mountain:

Cham: religious dance. The principle Bon dances revolve around the deity Sipai Gyalmo, origin myths, and her animal headed daughters.

Chariots: a common image found depicted in paintings illustrating the life story of Tonpa Shenrab. These chariots can be drawn by any number of animals such as horses or elephants, or self propelled.

Choga Chunyi: the Twelve Ritual deities depicting various appearances of Tonpa Shenrab as described in his life story. These twelve forms are typically found as a painted set.

Chorten: a reliquary mound comparable to the Buddhist stupa. Bon chorten can be immediately distinguished from the Buddhist stupa by a set of Horned Eagle (kyung) horns that are placed on the top.

Cuckoo Bird: the physical appearance that Tonpa Shenrab assumed for his descent from the heavens down to earth and entry into his mother's womb.

Dodu: a one volume, twenty-four chapter biography of Tonpa Shenrab.

Dolpo, Nepal: a region of west Nepal that is ethnographically Tibetan with many adherents of the Bon religion. (Images of the area).

Dough Molds (Tibetan: tor par): lengths of wood, intricately carved and used to create specific symbolic shapes when barley dough (tsampa) is pressed against the carved surface. The dough molds are used to produce large numbers of offerings for use in ritual services.

Dragpa Sengge: a worldly protector of the Bon religion. He is believed to be the subjugated demon that arose at the time of the death of the 10th Shamarpa.

Dragtsen: a worldly protector deity depicted as red and riding a red horse.

Dralha, Drablha (English: life or soul god): a class of indigenous Himalayan, Tibetan and Central Asian gods.

Dralha Yesi Gyalpo: a protector god associated with the family of Tonpa Shenrab and described in stories narrating the early childhood of Tonpa Shenrab.

Drenpa Namka: an early Bon teacher of the 8th century from the Shangshung Kingdom. He is regarded as an emanation of Tonpa Shenrab. Comparable to the Buddhist Padmasambhava, Drenpa Namka is an important early teacher of Bon.

Dru Shu Pa Me'u and Shen: the names of the five early Bon family lineages.

Dulwa Shen Drug: the Six Teachers of Discipline, forms of Tonpa Shenrab that are associated with each of the six realms of existence: god, demi-god, human, animal, ghost and hell realm.

Field of Accumulation (tsog shing): a painted or visualized subject that includes all the sacred figures, teachers, deities, literature and chorten of the Bon religion. These paintings are not common to Bon and are likely borrowed from Buddhism and based on the visions of Shardza Tashi Gyaltsen (1859-1933).

Five Bonpo Families:

Five Excellent Ones of the Se Fortress: 1. Walse Ngampa, 2. Lhago Topa, 3. Tsochog Kagying, 4. Walchen Gekho, 5. Purba Drugse Chempa.

Five Gods of the Head: an ancient system enumerating five personal gods that each human child is born with and accompanies that person throughout their life. The gods are believed to dwell on the four sides of the head and above the top of the head.

Five Sciences: art, language, medicine, the cosmos and the occupants of the cosmos. See the Gods of the Five Sciences.

Flat Bell (Tib.: shang, silnyen): a flat metal bell shaped like a cymbal with a decorative clapper made with semi-precious stones such as coral and turqouise. The flat bell is a unique Bon ritual object.

Four Deathless Ones: often depicted as a single deity combining four separate personalities; Drenpa Namka - the father, Tsewang Rigdzin and Yungdrung Tongdrol - the twin brothers, and the consort embracing Drenpa Namka - the mother of the twins. Yungdrung Tongdrol is understood as identical to the important Buddhist figure Padmasambhava.

Four Transcendent Lords: the four supreme deities of the Bon religion: Satrig Ersang, Shenla Okar, Sangpo Bumtri and Tonpa Shenrab. The subject of the Four Transcendent Lords is described in detail in chapter 30 of the Ziji with the story of the death of Prince Trishang of Tazik. The Four Lords are the principal deities in the funeral ritual for the prince. In chapter 61 the Four Lords are further discussed with reference to the death and funeral of Tonpa Shenrab. The Ziji is a twelve volume, sixty-one chapter, biography of Tonpa Shenrab.

Gyabyol: (see throne back).

Horned Eagle: (see kyung).

Initiation Cards (tsak li, tsa ka li): small paintings, generally the size of playing cards, created in sets and used in religious rituals and initiations. They depict illustrations of deities, animals, objects, and abstract images.

Jakyung: a mountain god belonging to the retinue of Amnye Machen and the special protector for the town of Rebgong in Amdo, specifically the region on the north side of the river.

Jang, or Naxi: a minorities people of China centered in the city of Lijiang and surrounding areas. They have a unique culture, language and written script. Both the Bon religion and Tibetan Buddhism are practiced amongst other belief systems.

Kailash, Mountain: (see Tise).

Kandro: female deities that can also function as meditational deities as found in the Magyu cycle of practice, or as attendant figures and helpers along the path to spiritual realization.

Kula Kari: the name of a god associated with a mountain on the border between Tibet and Bhutan. The ritual texts for this mountain god were discovered by the Terton Dorje Lingpa [1346-1405] who was regarded as being both a Bon and a Buddhist follower. (See Dorje Lingpa Terma discoveries in Bhutan, PDF).

Kundun: a title of honour originally used for the highest abbot of Menri Monastery. It is not commonly used these days and more commonly heard with reference to the Dalai Lama of Tibetan Buddhism.

Kuntu Zangpo: the All-good, a deity that represents primal purity and goodness.

Kunzang Akor: the All-good 'A' Circle is a meditational form of Shenlha Okar. He is generally recognized by the Tibetan letter 'A' placed on the chest at the level of the heart. The two hands generally rest in the lap and hold the stems of two flower blossoms supporting a yungdrung (svastika) on the right and a vase on the left. There are numerous traditions of ritual cycles and meditation practices for Kunzang Akor.

Kunzang Gyalwa Dupa: the All-good Collection of Conquerors is a peaceful deity representing the powers and strengths of all the great Bon deities. He also functions as the peaceful form of three of the fiercest deities: Walse Ngampa, Trowo Tsochog Kagying and Lhago Togpa.

Kunzang Gyalwa Gyatso: the peaceful form of the wrathful deity Walse Ngampa. In the Bon religion all deities have both a peaceful and a wrathful form. Each of these forms has a distinct name.

Kyilkor: a sacred circle known as a mandala in Buddhist and Hindu Tantric literature.

Kyung: a mythical Horned Eagle, sometimes said to be the king of birds and similar to the Garuda of Indian literature.

Lama: a religious teacher or preceptor. Ponse Lama is a higher title that refers to a teacher that is both a master of the common and secret teachings (exoteric and esoteric).

Lamlha: the Goddess of Travel, a patron deity for travelers, merchants, pilgrims and robbers. She rides on the back of a queen bee and is accompanied by a host of figures and animal creatures.

Ligmincha, King (8th century): the 18th and last king of the Shangshung kingdom of the western Himalayas and the Tibetan Plateau. According to the histories of the Bon religion the Buddhist King Trisong Detsen, of central Tibet, murdered King Ligmincha during his expansionist campaigns. Ligmincha's queen was later able to avenge the death and likewise murdered King Trisong Detsen. (Note: There is confusion between the Bon and Buddhist histories about the identity of the Buddhist King. The Bon say Trisongdetsen and the Buddhists say Songtsen Gampo).

Lion, Snow: (see snow lion)

Lu (serpent spirit): a type of mythical serpentine creature appearing as human or snake, or both together with a human torso above and a coiled snakes tail below. They inhabit the regions beneath the earth, and in the oceans, lakes, streams, or large rocks and boulders. They are similar to the naga creature found in Indian literature.

Magyu Sangchog Tartug: a principal meditational deity popular with the New Bon tradition.

Mawai Sengge: a peaceful Bon deity associated with wisdom and learning.

Menri Monastery: the principal monastery of the Bon religion. It is located in Central Tibet half way between Lhasa and Shigatse that was founded by Nyamme Sherab Gyaltsen.

Menri Tridzin: the Throne Holder of Menri Monastery. Currently the head abbot is Lungtok Tenpa'i Nyima, the 33rd Abbot of Menri.

Meri, Zhang Zhung: a meditational deity of the Bon religion arising from the ancient kingdom of Zhangzhung and the holy Mount Tise in the center of that kingdom.

Nakhi (Naxi) Cultural Group (China): (Nakhi): a minorities people of China centered in the city of Lijiang and surrounding areas. They have a unique culture, language and written script. Both Tibetan Buddhism and Bon religion are practiced amongst other belief systems.

Namka: thread-cross constructions made from thin pieces of wood as a frame wrapped with variously coloured threads into geometric patterns, circular, square and triangular.

Nampar Gyalwa: a specific depiction of Tonpa Shenrab associated with stories from the biographies and episodes related to an emperor of China named Kongtse.

Nyamme Sherab Gyaltsen (1356-1415): founder of Menri Monastery in 1405.

Nyipangse: a popular worldly protector.



Number Sets

Three Protectors: Ma, Du, Tsen: meaning Sipai Gyalmo, Midud and Tsen Apse.
Four Deathless Ones (Chime Yabse Shi): Drenpa Namka and his consort along with the two sons Tsewang Rigdzin and Yungdrung Tongdrol.
Four Guardian Kings: these four are similar to the Kings of the Indian tradition.
Four Transcendent Lords: (see other entiry).
Five Bonpo Families: the Dru, Shu, Pa, Meu and Shen.
Five Deity Sherab Chamma: a focus for meditation using five forms of Sherab Chamma.
Five Excellent Ones of the Se Fortress: Walse Ngampa, Lhago Togpa, Tsochog Kagying, Walchen Geko and Purba Drugse Chempa.
Five Gods of the Five Sciences (Yewang Rignga): (see other entry).
Five Gods of the Head (Gowai Lha Nga): (see other entry).
Five Kandros of the Elements (Magyu System):
Five Offering Goddesses:
Six Guardians of the Six Realms (Dulwa Shen Drug): six different forms of Tonpa Shenrab.
Six Kandros of the Magyu: relating to six special esoteric practices such as transference, bardo, etc.
Six Realms of Existence: god, demi-god, human, animal, ghost and hell-being.
Six Sipai Gyalmo Manifestations: each appearing as white, yellow, red, black, blue and dark brown in colour.
Six Teachers of Discipline (Dulwa Shendrug): six different forms of Tonpa Shenrab.
Eight Chamma Protecting From the Eight Fears: a meditational practice focusing on the deity accompanied by eight forms each protecting from a common fear.
Eight Offering Goddesses:
Nine Shangshung Sages: important early teachers of the Shangshung Nyengyu practice.
Twelve Ritual Deities: different forms of Tonpa Shenrab that follow from his biography and represent different stories and episodes from his life.
Twenty-four Shangshung Masters:
Forty-five Peaceful Deities: related to the Shitro, peaceful and wrathful deities of the between state.
Eighty-six Wrathful Deities: related to the Shitro, peaceful and wrathful deities of the between state.
One Hundred and Twenty-one Chorten (Stupa) of the Bon Religion: from a larger system of 360 chorten divided between the underworld, the earth and the heavens.
Two Hundred and Fifty Deity Satrig Ersang: the 250 deities surrounding the central Satrig Ersang in the painted depictions of the Four Transcendent Lords.
Two Hundred and Fifty Deity Shenlha Okar: the 250 surrounding the central figure (see Satrig Ersang above).
Two Hundred and Fifty Deity Sangpo Bumtri: the 250 surrounding the central figure (see Satrig Ersang above).
Two Hundred and Fifty Deity Tonpa Shenrab: the 250 surrounding the central figure (see Satrig Ersang above).
One Thousand Sanggye of the Bon: the set of the Four Transcendent Lords together with their two-hundred and fifty attendant figures in total adds up to the One Thousand Sanggye (enlightened ones) of the Bon religion. Note that two-hundred and fifty of the thousand are female.


Olmo Lungring: the sacred land of the Bon founder Tonpa Shenrab. It is believed to be a kingdom located to the west of the Tibetan Plateau.

Peaceful & Wrathful Deities (Shi-Tro): the presentation of a system of deities relating to the between death and life state. Peaceful and Wrathful is also the basic catagorization for Bon deities. Deities are grouped into one or the other catagory. All wisdom, or enlightened, deities have a peaceful and a wrathful form.

Pesha (Bon Hats Outline): the name for the most important monastic hat worn by Bon teachers having the title of Ponse. The hat is surrounded with eight lotus petals, however images in paintings often depict only four or five petals.

Ponse Lama: a title signifying the highest of Bon religious teachers. The title refers to a teacher that is both a master of the common and highest secret teachings (exoteric and esoteric).

Prayer Flags: a printed image on paper or cotton cloth intended to be thrown into the wind or fixed in place where the wind blows. The flags often contain prayers and mantras along with images of deities and animals. Prayer Flags are common in the popular practice of both the Bon and Buddhist religions of the Himalayas and Tibet.

Purba Drugse Chempa: one of the five principal meditational deities of the Bon religion. (See Five Excellent Ones of the Se Fortress).

Refuge Field (see Field of Accumulation).

Rinchen Gyaltsen: the principal disciple of Nyamme Sherab Gyaltsen.

Sanggye Lingpa (1705-1735): an influential teacher belonging to the tradition of 'New Bon' known for merging elements of Tantric Buddhism with the Bon religion.

Sangpo Bumtri: one of the Four Transcendent Lords.

Satrig Ersang: one of the Four Transcendent Lords. She is identical to the mother goddess Sherab Chamma. When appearing as on of the Four Lords she is referred to by her Shangshung language name - Satrig Ersang. The two names Satrig Ersang and Sherab Chamma are said to both mean the same thing - Loving Mother of Wisdom.

Shangshung: a language and a kingdom that existed in the western Tibetan plateau up until the 8th century C.E. The center of the kingdom was Mount Tise and the last king was Ligmincha.

Shangshung Meri: a visually complex meditational deity associated with Mount Tise and the Shangshung Kingdom.

Sharabha: a mythical animal commonly depicted on the throne backs of many peaceful Bon deities such as the Four Transcendent Lords and the form of Tonpa Shenrab known as Nampar Gyalwa.

Shardza Tashi Gyaltsen (1859-1933): a Bon teacher of Eastern Tibet. Interested in all subjects, he wrote five large collections of works known as 'the Five Treasures.'

Shenchen Luga: an important 'terton' of the 10th - 11th century.

Shenlha Okar: a deity of peaceful appearance that is associated with funeral rituals and purification.

Sherab Chamma (English: Loving Mother of Wisdom. Tibetan-Wylie: shes rab byams ma): a form of the enlightened goddess Satrig Ersang. In her most wrathful form she manifests as the wrathful enlightened protector Sipai Gyalmo - the principal protector of the Bon religion.

Sipai Gyalmo: the principal protector deity of the Bon religion. She is both a meditational deity and a protector and has six main manifestations (white, yellow, red, black, blue and dark brown) along with twenty-eight retinue attendant figures.

Six Teachers of Discipline: the six teachers are forms of Tonpa Shenrab, each appearing in a slightly different manner for the purpose of ministering to the six different types of beings in the world: god, demi-god, human, animal, ghost and hell-being.

Snow Lion: a mythical creature of Central Asia, the Himalayan regions and Tibet. There is some evidence to suggest that there are three types of mythical lions: the Snow Lion, the Gold Lion and the Conch Lion.

Svastika: (see yungdrung).

Symbols unique or original to Bon: shang, silnyen, pesha hat, left-turning svastika, otter, yak, nine-crossed swords, torma shapes, smoke ritual (sang), prayer flags, dough molds (torpar), etc.

Tagla Membar: a Bon deity fearsome in appearance. Tagla Membar was originally a human being that became deified over the course of time and now functions both as a meditational deity and protector.

Tapihritsa: an early Bon teacher associated with the Shangshung Nyengyu Cycle of ritual and meditation practice.

Targo Mountain and Dangra Lake:

Tazik: a kingdom located to the west of the Tibetan Plateau and associated with the kingdom of Shangshung and Olmo Lungring.

Terma: an object that has been discovered by a terton, a treasure finder.

Terton: a treasure finder, a person that finds lost treasures such as religious texts and objects. In the Bon tradition a terton can be anybody with any level of spiritual attainment.

Thread-cross Constructions (Tibetan: namka): namka are made from thin pieces of wood as a frame wrapped with variously coloured threads into geometric patterns, circular, square and triangular.

Throne Back (gyabyol): the decorative structure that encloses, or encircles important peaceful figures such as Tonpa Shenrab and Sherab Chamma.

Tise, Mount (Mount Kailash): the mountain at the center of the Shangshung kingdom in the western Himalayas.

Tonpa Shenrab: founder of the Bon religion and ruler of the kingdom of Tazig which is thought to be located somewhere west of the Tibetan Plateau.

Torma: dough sculpture, torma are generally cone shaped ritual food offerings made from barley flour, hand sculpted in a variety of shapes and sizes, coloured and then adorned with flat circular 'buttons' made from butter.

Torpar: ritual barley dough molds created from pressing dough into pre-set shapes carved in wood. The molds are required for specific functions such as sacred rituals and funerals.

Transcendent Lords: the group of Four Transcendent Lords, the four most important sacred figures in the Bon religion. They are Satrig Ersang, Shenlha Okar, Sangpo Bumtri and Tonpa Shenrab. They are described in detail in chapter 30 of the Ziji with reference to the story of the death of Prince Trishang of Tazik. The Four Lords are the principal deities in the funeral ritual for the prince. In chapter 61 they are further discussed at the time of the death and funeral of Tonpa Shenrab.

Tsakli (Initiation Cards): (Tib.: tsak li): small paintings, generally the size of playing cards, created in sets and used in Buddhist and Bon rituals and initiations. The ritual cards depict illustrations of deities, animals, objects, and abstract images.

Tsewang Rigdzin: The son of Drenpa Namka and the brother of Yungdrung Tongdrol. Like his father and brother Tsewang Rigdzin has also become deified and represented in many ritual cycles, especially common in the New Bon tradition (Bon Sarma).

Tsochog Kagying: a complex wrathful meditational deity, also know as Trowo Tsochog Kagying.

Tsultrim Tanpai Gyaltsen: a 20th century Bon teacher in Eastern Tibet and a student of Shardza Tashi Gyaltsen.

Walchen Gekho: a wrathful and complex meditational deity associated with Mount Tise and the kingdom of Shangshung.

Walse Ngampa: a wrathful and complex meditational deity.

Wensaka, or Yeru Wensaka: the traditional main monastery of the Bon built in 1072. It was destroyed by a flood in 1386 and soon after that, and close by, Menri Monastery was built by Nyamme Sherab Gyaltsen a former teacher at Wensaka.

Werma Nyenya: a class of worldly gods that are very popular in the religious art of the Naxi tradition of the Bon religion.

Yeshe Walmo: a special form of the female protector deity Sipai Gyalmo and associated with meditations and rituals concerning health and long-life.

Yewang Rignga: The Gods of the Five Sciences are the God of the Cosmos, the physical world, Yewang Sai Gyalpo, God of Art, Yesi Zangpo Bumtri, God of Language, Yechen Dralai Gyalpo, God of Medicine, Yeje Tutob Gyalpo, and God of the Occupants of the Cosmos, Yewel Tutob Gyalpo.

Yungdrung (ever-lasting): the Tibetan word for the bent four-legged cross known as the svastika. When turning to the left it is the principal symbol representing the Bon religion.

Yungdrung Bon (everlating truth): the indigenous religion of Tibet, the Himalayan regions and parts of Central Asia and China.

Yungdrung Gu Tseg Ri: the nine yungdrung stacked mountain at the center of the land of Tazig (Olmo Lungring), the birth place of Tonpa Shenrab.

Yungdrung Monastery: the second most important Bon monastery in Central Tibet. Wensaka (ruins), Menri and Yungdrung Monasteries are cloe in proximity located half way between Lhasa and Shigatse just off the main highway. Yungdrung Monastery can be seen across the river from the main highway.

Yungdrung Scepter (Tibetan: yungdrung chag tsen) a small hand held scepter, like a dumb-bell, with a yungdrung inscribed at each end. The scepter is depicted in art for both sculpture and painting displayed in the right hand of Tonpa Shenrab (example 1, example 2). The symbol does not appear to be very old possibly originating in the 18th century. The oldest dateable painting depicting the scepter is from the early 19th century.

Yungdrung Tongdrol: the same person as the popular Buddhist figure Padmasambhava. The Bon biographies for Yungdrung Tongdrol and Padmasambhava vary in the details.

Ziji: a twelve volume, sixty-one chapter, biography of Tonpa Shenrab.

Jeff Watt 4-2007 [updated 1-2017]