The Twelve Deeds: A Brief Life Story of Tonpa Shenrab, the founder of the Bon Religion. Translated by Sangye Tandar & Edited by Richard Guard (1995)
The Twelve Deeds tells the story of Tonpa Shenrab, the founder and most important figure of the Bon religion. The Bon religion is essentially a variant of Tibetan Buddhism with many ancient pre-Buddhist elements. This biography focuses on the details of Tonpa Shenrab’s life and the ways in which he spread his teachings as the first Buddha of the ‘age of degeneration’ (Kaliyuga) in order to save all sentient beings from suffering. It is widely believed in the Bon religion that Shenrab was born 16,016 years ago (B.C) in Olmo Lungring (called Tagzig at the time). He lived for 81 Shen years or 8,100 human years throughout which he taught the fundamentals of Bon.
The three original stories of Tonpa Shenrab’s life come in the lengths of short, medium, and long, and they are considered his direct words. The long version has 61 chapters in 12 volumes, the medium one has 18 chapters in two volumes, and the small version has 24 chapters in one volume. This edition—originally titled sTon pa yang dag rdzogs pa’i songs rgyas rgyal ba gshen rab mi bo’i mdzad pa bcu gnyis kyi rim pa or mDzad chen bcu gnyis kyi rnam bshad mdor bsdus—draws from this small, medium, and long primary accounts of Tonpa Shenrab’s life. The version was initially written in the 1960s by Menri Lopon Sanye Tenzin and published in 1965 by the Tibetan Bonpo Foundation. In 1988, it was finally produced with illustrations for school children learning about Bon, and then first translated in 1992 in Tibet Journal. The work has 12 sections ranging from Tonpa Shenrab’s birth to death (The Deed of Birth, The Deed of Dissemination, The Deed of Pacifying, The Dead of Leading [Sentient Beings], The Deed of Definite [Marriage], The Deed of Emanation, The Deed of Subduing, The Deed of Victory, The Deed of Knowledge, The Deed of Solitude, The Deed of Liberation, The Deed of Accomplishment [Passing Beyond Sorrow]). The story is told in the third person, and each chapter begins with a hymn in praise of Tonpa Shenrab, the legendary founder of the Bon religion.
The Deed of Birth, The Deed of Dissemination, and the Deed of Pacifying
The story begins with Shenrab first manifesting in human form due to his compassion for all beings. He was born into a royal lineage with his father being Mibon Lhabon Gyalbon Thodkar and his mother Machi Lhachi Yochi Gyal. He was born in the celestial field of Tagzig Olmo Lungring where he was immediately identified for his magnificent qualities. He was then named Tonpa Shenrab Mibo-che, the victorious teacher of the teaching of Bon. He quickly took the place of his teacher and became the lord of all realms.
Then, for 12 Shen years, he taught his outer, inner, and secret retinues the teachings of Bon such as the four causal vehicles (Chashen, Nangshen, Trulshen, and Sishen), while also opening the four doors and the fifth treasure. In order to pacify all sentient beings, he emanated millions of enlightened teachers into millions of worlds, spreading peace.
The Dead of Leading (Sentient Beings), The Deed of Definite (Marriage), The Deed of Emanation
Motivated by his compassion for sentient beings in a cyclical existence, Tonpa Shenrab pacified their sufferings, and ultimately released them from ailments like attachment, ignorance, aversion, jealousy, pride, and desire. These beings entered the state of Buddahood by following Shenrab.
Despite being The deity and being asked to marry a goddess by Indra, the king of gods, Shenrab married the reincarnations of the 360 deities at Rajgirh, and to princess Hoza Gyalmed-ma. In order to continue the royal lineage that he was manifested into, he had eight sons and two daughters, and when they were born, there was an array of beautiful, auspicious signs. They all were like their father—compassionate, patient, intelligent, and teachers of the Bon religion. The children, therefore, were emanated for the good of sentient beings.
The Deed of Subduing, The Deed of Victory, The Deed of Knowledge
Upon seeing that his celestial field was being emptied by Tonpa Shenrab, the Pervasive Mara-demon (bdud khyab-pa lag-ring), performed nine miraculous feats to defeat Teacher Shenrab. Even with those feats, Shenrab recognized them and skillfully subdued them. The ninth miraculous feat waged a war with millions of soldiers, but it had no effect on Tonpa Shenrab as he maintained himself in meditation and replaced their darkness with compassion. The Mara-demons then attacked Shenrab’s retinues but they were all protected by their Teacher. Even when the Mara-demons took Shenrab’s seven horses of Shen, Tonpa Shenrab decided to pursue them, not for his possessions, but because he thought it was a good opportunity to purify the Maras. After healing all the damage the Mara-demons had done, he destroyed their mountain and created the great Bon mountain in its place. He beat them again in war by fighting with compassion and converted all of the Maras, spreading his teachings far and wide.
Later, he entrusted the universal kings, like Gya Kongtse Trulgyi Gyalpo, with his holy items that represented his body and mind. Kongtse Trulgyi prayed to Shenrab when he was nine, and when he attempted to build a great temple and the demons attacked it, Tonpa Shenrab pacified them. The temple was then finished and Shenrab taught that the Bon had 5 categories: the four doors and the treasury.
In his 31st Shen year, upon seeing a division between his retinues and a lack of faith in some, Tonpa Shenrab decided to leave his current life to show the way of enlightenment. He renounced his possessions despite being royalty and left his home for Metokling. His retinues begged him to stay but he ignored them even when offered fine items. He restricted his diet and eventually became a Shang-shang bird, visiting the Highest Pure Land and receiving teachings on monkhood. He then followed the lifestyle of monkeys, birds, and humans. His non-believing retinues developed a revived faith in him and he then enlightened his followers with teachings on pure morality.
The Deed of Solitude, The Deed of Liberation, The Deed of Accomplishment (Passing Beyond Sorrow)
Tonpa Shenrab also conducted lessons on solitude and removing sufferings caused by worldly collections. He sat in isolation and eventually his followers sat around him. He instilled intellect in those who needed it and instructed them to go in retreat.
To liberate his followers, he finally instructed them on meditating at the highest stage of the great vehicle. They should have great compassion. This way, the nature of Bon could be perfected in the mind. Finally, in order to ensure peace in the future, he bestowed inexpressible Bon on his followers.
Bon has no birth or death since the nature of the mind does not have death. And, in a similar fashion, Shenrab does not have birth or death, but in his mission to pacify impermanent beings, he allowed himself to pass beyond the cyclic existence. This helped show the helplessness of life. Shenrab caused himself to become ill with a sickness. Despite his retinues’ attempts to revive him, he passed beyond sorrow. After 1,800 years, Mucho Demdrug, Tonpa Shenrab’s successor, helped turn the wheel of Bon for 3,000 years. During this time, many great scholars began to write and spread the teachings of Shenrab.