Abha Eli Phoboo

Kathmandu, February 18

Gelek, a Bon monk, accompanied by an American photographer embarks on a journey from Kathmandu to Zhang Zhung, the cradle of the Bon religion. In search of mythical palaces and holy sites, they travel to the shadows of Mount Kailash in far western Tibet.

“As they travel through the beautiful landscape, their journey begins to shed light on Bon, a religion different and arguably older than Tibetan Buddhism, though it is largely unknown and neglected,” say the makers of ‘In Search of Zhang Zhung’, a documentary directed by Alex Gabbay and written by Subina Shrestha.

One of the finalists of Film South Asia 2003, ‘In Search of Zhang Zhung’, translated into Nepali to reach a wider public in Nepal, is soon to be launched on television.

The Bon religion in Tibet can be traced back to 3,000 years. One of the oldest of the five spiritual traditions of Tibet, Bonpo was the state religion of the country for 2,000 years before eighth century. When Buddhism entered Tibet, it marked the decline of Bonpo.

“The history of the Bon religion is inadvertently connected to the history of Tibet,” says Lopon Tempa Yungdrung Rinpoche of Triten Norbutse Bonpo Monastery, Inchangu, Swayambhu, “in the early times, Bon defined the political and social lives of the people.”

Tempa is a second generation Tibetan Nepali. His parents escaped to Baglung from Tibet in the late 1950s due to political reasons. The indigenous religion of many Thakalis, Gurungs and Tamangs, Bon has fused with Hinduism and Buddhism through the ages. Bon in Nepal has prevailed for over 900 years. There are many Bon monasteries in Nepal but Triten Norbutse is the only one in Kathmandu.

Lhosar, which marks the beginning of the New Year according to the Tibetan calendar is also the birthday of Buddha Tonpa Shenrab Miwo, the founder of the Bon religion. This time the Lhosar festival falls on February 21. His hagiography is preserved in three versions — short, medium and extensive (Dodu, Zermig and Zidji). At the moment, Dodu is being translated into English by professor Samten G Karmay.

The scriptures of the Bon religion are divided into two distinct sections – ‘Kanjur’ and ‘Katen’. The ‘Kanjur’ is the teaching of Buddha Tonpa Shenrab and the ‘Katen’ contains the commentaries by succeeding masters. In universities and libraries all over the world, documentation and scrolls relating to Bon are preserved.

There are five main deities in the Bon religion, manifestation of Tonpa Shenrab — body, speech, quality, mind and activity. “There are thousands of Buddhas,” says Tempa. “Anyone can become a Buddha. Buddha is enlightenment or attainment of wisdom.”

The ultimate goal of Bon followers is to reach The Great Perfection or ‘dzogpa chenpo’. It liberates one from bindings of the world.