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About Bon and Menri

Abbot with Text
Among the many Tibetans who fled their homeland since the Chinese occupation of Tibet in 1959, many are Bonpo, followers of Bon, which is the oldest spiritual tradition of Tibet. Bonpo believe their culture to have originated in the land of Olmo Lungring (located in a larger country referred to as Tazig, a region probably to the west of present-day Tibet) and that it flourished as it moved eastward through the Kingdom of Zhang Zhung, which made up much of what is now western Tibet. The ancient roots of Bon religion derive from a profound respect for nature and emphasize the healing of physical and environmental as well as spiritual afflictions. As Indian Buddhism was being established in Tibet, many native Bon elements were incorporated into the incoming religion, resulting in a distinct religion known today as Tibetan Buddhism. In turn, Buddhist influences are abundantly evident in Bon religion as it currently exists. The two religions are distinct in many ways but share a strong and identical commitment to bringing an end to all suffering. Although they trace their origins to ancient times, Bonpo practice a living doctrine dedicated to perpetuating the teachings of their founder Tonpa Shenrab, who occupies a preeminent position in Bon culture similar to that of Sakyamuni in Buddhism. Tonpa Shenrab's teachings are collectively known as Yungdrung Bon or the "tradition of Eternal Wisdom" and include the Nine Ways of Bon that outline the laws of cause and effect on the path to spiritual liberation. Bon monasteries have survived throughout Tibet despite long periods of persecution. H. H. the Dalai Lama's recognition of Bon as the native religion of Tibet and one of its five core spiritual traditions is an important acknowledgement of Bon's significant role in Tibetan history and current affairs.

The Menri Monastery View of Menri Monastery main temple Notes from the journal of
John Bellezza, scholar-explorer, 2006

Menri (Medicine Mountain) Monastery is located in the Solan district of Himachal Pradesh, in a rather out of the way corner, far from cities and bazaars. How this place has changed in recent years! From a sleepy, albeit culturally important backwater, Menri has become a bustling hub of religious learning and ritual activity. Until 1998, Menri was a very rudimentary facility with a few simple adobe and stone buildings. Even the main temple was bereft of the rich decorations that have come to characterize Tibetan religious edifices. There were around 100 monks then. Now there are over 350 residents, and large concrete Tibetan-style buildings have come up to house the new temples, a library, Bon Dialectic School, dormitories, health center, and nunnery as well as other well functioning centers.

The chief lama of Menri Monastery is Menri Trizin, who is also the titular head of all the Bonpo. Now aged 80, His Holiness still maintains a full work schedule, overseeing important functions at the monastery. A typical day will see Menri Trizin delegating tasks to his circle of leading monks (all of whom hold the Doctor of Divinity or Geshe degree), participating in religious ceremonies, receiving visitors, dictating letters, and supervising construction and education projects. Menri Trizin fulfills his role as spiritual leader of the Bonpo admirably well, and he cuts an impressive figure with his deep resonant voice and regal bearing. His Holiness however, is a good listener and is always ready to help all who seek him out. In short, he is the ideal spiritual beacon.

HH blessing
It is good to see the Bonpo finally come out from under the shadow of the Tibetan Buddhists, and to take their rightful place in the international spiritual community. It is no exaggeration to state that Bon has everything Tibetan Buddhism has, and much more too. There are still many who believe that Tibet is synonymous with Buddhism, not realizing that it is home to another of the world's great religions. Fortunately, attitudes are changing as the Bonpo reach out to the rest of the world with ever greater vibrancy. In addition to possessing the doctrinal traditions and ecclesiastic structures of Tibetan Buddhism, Bon has preserved a variety of more ancient cultural traditions. This is of course my area of scholarship.

Needless to say, native Bon traditions are of great interest to historians, anthropologists, and archeologists. But they are also highly valuable in a practical sense, for they contain much that is of relevance to human physical and mental well being. To name but a few aspects of Bon's indigenous heritage, there are medical therapies, rituals for psychological contentment, systems of divination, and special rites for environmental harmony. This profound pre-Buddhist spiritual bequest draws its inspiration from the primal well-spring of human experience, seen as the universal birthright of us all. The Bonpo believe that the foundation of our human identity has been ignored in the theologies and institutional frameworks of the other major world religions. Often mistakenly equated with shamanism by laypeople and poorly-informed religious scholars, the ancient Bon legacy is actually concerned with divinity as it abides in all natural systems. It is held that this divinity or essential state is tantamount to human beings in their fundamental phenomenological form. Known as the "natural state of mind", this view of reality is elucidated in a highly advanced system of teachings known as Dzogchen. Wed to Buddhist cosmological and ethical traditions over the last twelve centuries, Dzogchen is considered the highest of Bon teachings.
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The Yungdrung Bon Monastic Center
Preserving Sacred Traditions
Under the leadership of the Abbot H. H. Menri Trizin, a group of Geshes representing each sector of the monastic and educational community is responsible for the planning, administration, development, and finances at Menri. The democratically- structured YBMC functions, in effect, as the operational office of the Menri complex.

The Redna Menling Nunnery

Nun's temple
A new Bon nunnery is being completed in a pristine setting across the river from, and in view of, Menri Monastery. Called Redna Menling or "Land of Precious Medicine," it is the only Bon nunnery in India and only one of a handful in the world. Girls and women from Tibet and the borderlands arrive here to study and remain as nuns in the Bon culture. Redna Menling is a rapidly growing institution that is a solid reflection of women as leaders and practitioners of the Bon tradition.
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The Menri Bon Children
Menri is a refuge for approximately 350 Bon children whose numbers increase each year. The children -- some of whom are orphaned -- are sent to Menri from poor regions in the borderlands of Tibet and Nepal for their sustenance and education. Boys whose families send them to the monastery are trained as monks. Girls who are placed in the nunnery are trained as nuns. Also within the Menri complex is the Bon Children's Home with dormitories for boys and girls who were sent to Menri for basic care and education.
Girls and boys at the Bon Children's Home All children, including the young monks and nuns, attend school together at the Central School for Tibetans. Situated in the valley below the monastery, the school is run by the Indian government and provides education through the tenth grade. Because Bon tradition places such high value on education and on the continuation of the Bon culture and tradition, the school includes a strong component of Bon studies. Education is regarded as an absolute necessity for the future of Bon.

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Photos: Chesea Ambrose, Bill Megalos, Jonathan Kramer, Mary Ellen McCourt, David Kosowski, Cheri Brady,
and other Menri visitors.