16 Jan A Religion Relocated – The Menri monastery at Dolanji, Solan
On March 31, 1959, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, Jetsun Jamphel Ngawang Lobsang Yeshe Tenzin Gyatso, spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhists, exited Tibet and crossed over to the Indian territory at Tawang in the then North-East Frontier Agency (NEFA, now Arunachal Pradesh) following an uprising in Lhasa against the Chinese. The Peoples Liberation Army of China had entered Tibet in 1950 and, in 1951, had signed a Seventeen Point Agreement with the Local Government of Tibet affirming Chinese Sovereignty over Tibet. Before then, Tibet had unilaterally declared independence from China in 1913.
The Dalai Lama stayed at the Buddhist monastery in Tawang (Tawang Galdan Namgye Lhatse Monastery is the largest Buddhist monastery in India and belongs to the Gelug school of Mahayana Buddhism) for a few days and then later was officially welcomed into India at Mussoorie, by the then Prime Minister, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru. He stayed at the Birla House in Mussoorie till 1960. Subsequently, he was moved to his present and world-famous base at Mcleodganj in Dharamsala.
In his wake followed numerous citizens of Tibet seeking refuge in India. There were people who followed Buddhism and there was a handful of Tibetan Muslims, and also, there were a sizeable number of the Bon people or the Bonpos.
So, who are the Bon people?
Practitioners of Bon religion believe that before Buddhism came to Tibet in the 7th century AD, there was Bon. According to the Bon tradition itself, it was founded by Shenrab Miwo, also known as Tonpa Shenrab.
Tonpa Shenrab’s teachings are collectively known as Yungdrung Bon – ‘the tradition of eternal wisdom.’ According to Bon tradition, Tonpa Shenrab was born approximately 18,000 years ago into a royal family in the land of Olmo Lungring in the ancient kingdom of Tazik, to the west of Tibet. He married while young and had children. At the age of 31, he renounced his worldly life and started to practice austerity and teach the Bon doctrine. On one occasion while travelling, his horses were stolen by the Prince of demons. In the process of retrieving the horses, he entered the kingdom of Zhanzhung in Western Tibet. There, Tonpa Shenrab disseminated the first Bon teachings in that region. At that time the Tibetans practised ritual sacrifice. Shenrab taught them to perform rituals by offering cakes in the shape of the sacrificial animals which led to Tibetans abandoning animal sacrifices.
The Four Transcendental Lords
In Bon tradition, there are four chief deities:
1 Sangpo Bumtri, the creator God. He has “neither eyes to see, nor hands to hold, nor ears to hear, or nose to smell, he has only his spirit.”
2 Sherab Chamma – loving mother of compassion, the mother of all Buddhas. Known as Satrig Ersang, the embodiment of the perfection of wisdom, in the Zhangzhung Language.
3 Shenlha Okar – ‘wisdom of white light.’ Shenlha Okar is depicted with a white body “like the essence of crystal,” holding a hook in his right hand (and sometimes a lasso in his left), and seated on a throne supported by elephants.
4 Tonpa Shenrab, the teacher who first taught the Bon way of life in the Western Tibet region.
Before I write more about the Menriling monastery let me share a little anecdote from not long ago. The first time that I had visited the Menri monastery at Dolanji was in 2010 in the company of a friend who was familiar with this place and, on one of our drives uphill from Chandigarh, he asked me if I wanted to see a cool place, a monastery. I replied in the affirmative. So we made our way to the place.
After visiting the main hall and clicking some pictures inside we came out and climbed up a short flight of stairs leading up from the right side of the outer gallery surrounding the hall. There was a small room there with its door open and sounds of chanting were emanating from that room. My friend peeped in, gestured for permission and then stepped in. I followed suit. There was a monk sitting inside in front of a gong. He looked up with a benevolent smile. We sat down silently. I remember sitting opposite of, and face to face with, the young monk while my friend sat to my right. The monk had a book of some sort open in front of him and was engaged in rhythmic chanting in a deep, heavy voice. From time to time, and in time with the rhythm of the chant, he would hit the gong with some object he held in his right hand. I don’t remember how long we sat there (could not have been more than 10 minutes) or whether I had shut my eyes or not while I sat. But I do remember that there was an incredible feeling of calm and peace that I experienced for the duration of the time that I sat there. It was as if everything happening outside that open door, the world going on about its business, simply ceased to matter. I have a strong feeling that there were no outside sounds entering the room despite the open doors and windows. Now, I have been a bit of a sceptic in all matters religious or mystical but that is one experience that has stayed with me!
I have visited the monastery three more times over these last few years, once on a solo bike outing, and twice in the company of friends. Every time I have come back with wonderful pictures and memories of a time well spent. Much water has flown under the bridge, so to speak, in these past years but neither did I happen to step into that room again nor have I experienced any similar thing in that place again.
The Menri Monastery at Dolanji
Menri means ‘the medicine mountain’ in the Tibetan language. The original Menri monastery, founded in 1405, was in Tsang province of Tibet and was destroyed by the Chinese during the Cultural Revolution. After the Bon people were relocated to Dolanji at Solan by the Indian Government in the mid-1960’s, they founded a new monastery there in 1967 and named it Menri in honour of the original one in Tibet. Today, the place is a sprawling complex comprising temples, a library, a Bon Dialectic School, a children’s welfare centre, dormitories, a guest house, a medical college, and workshops teaching various crafts. There is also a nunnery, the Redna Menling (land of precious medicine) Nunnery, located across the valley from the main monastery complex.
In 1969, Lungtok Tenpai Nyima assumed his duties as the 33rd Abbot of Menri (33rd Menri Trizin). He passed away at the age of 88 in September 2017. Traditionally, the head of the original Menri monastery in Tibet had also been regarded as the spiritual head of all the Bonpo, the Bon people. Today the Abbot of Menri Bon monastery at Dolanji has that status and the Menri monastery is the formost centre for spiritual and ritual training in the Bon tradition.
The left-facing Swastika
The Bon sacred symbol, yungdrung or the left-facing swastika, is associated with the moon. Therefore the Bon do a counter-clockwise circum-ambulation of their shrines and turn the prayer wheels, too, in the counter-clockwise direction following the moon’s pattern of moving counter-clockwise (As opposed to the clock-wise circum-ambulation and prayer wheel-turning in Buddhist practices). So the next time you visit the Menri monastery, make sure that you move around outside the main hall in the counter-clockwise direction!
The Bon Monks
Bon monks wear a blue upper shirt (togag), rather than red or yellow, setting them apart from Tibetan Buddhist monks. They are also required to take a pledge of vegetarianism which is not necessary for Buddhist monks.
Bon vs Tibetan Buddhism
There has been a long historical competition between the Bon tradition and Buddhism in Tibet. After the advent of Buddhism in Tibet around the 7th century AD, the practice of Bon gradually took a backseat. With the establishment of Buddhism as the state religion in the year 779, Bon was generally discouraged and serious attempts were made to eradicate it. From the 8th to 11th centuries the practice of Bon went mainly underground with practitioners hiding texts and scriptures for fear of their destruction. Priests were banished or forced to flee from Central Tibet.
The resurgence of Bon occurred, first, around the 11th century and then again in the 14th century after the discovery of a number of important concealed Bon texts.
In general, Bon practitioners were stigmatised and marginalized by Tibetan Buddhists, who labelled them ‘chipa‘ (outsiders) while calling themselves ‘nangpa‘ (insiders).
In 1977, the Bon leadership at the menri monastery at Dolanji sent representatives to the 14th Dalai Lama for talks. As a result, the Dalai Lama advised the Tibetan Parliament-in-exile and the Assembly of Tibetan Peoples’ Deputies to accept Bon practitioners into their ranks. In the Tibetan Parliament-in-exile today there are two representatives of Bon religion together with two representatives each of the main Buddhist schools (Nyingma, Kagyu, Sakya and Gelug). In April 2007, during a visit to the menri monastery at the opening of a new library complex, the Dalai Lama wore the Bon ritual hat (the lotus hat-pad zhwu which is for the higher monks in the Bon tradition) and held the yungdrung in his hand.
The Pal Shenten Menriling monastery is situated at Dolanji village near Ochchghat in Solan district of Himachal Pradesh. A leisurely paced drive from Chandigarh should not take more than two and a half hours time to reach there. The best route, in my experience, to reach the monastery is via the State Highway 6 which helps you avoid the traffic-congested Solan city.
At Kumarhatti on the Kalka-Shimla national highway, take the Kumarhatti-Sarahan-Nahan road exiting right towards Nahan. Two kilometres down this road take the left cut on to State Highway 6 which takes you to Ochchghat via Sultanpur. The SH-6 passes in front of Manav Bharti University and then on to Sultanpur and Shoolini University and exits on to the Solan-Rajgarh road at Ochchghat next to the petrol pump. Proceed on into the Ochchghat bazaar towards Rajgarh. At Ochchghat bazaar keep an eye out for the right exit towards Narag onto the Ochchghat-Kalagarh road. The signboard, in Hindi, is easy to miss as it is usually hidden behind the taxi-cabs parked on the road! At Kalaghat, there is a fork in the road, with one branch of the road taking a u-turn towards Narag and the other going straight towards Ganyar. Keep going straight towards Ganyar. It is advisable to keep asking for directions. The locals know the Menri monastery as the ‘Buddhist monastery,’ which obviously, it is not.