Biography Of Shenchen Luga

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Biography of Shenchen Luga

Wylie namegshen chen klu dga'
Name etymologyGreat Priest Happy Serpent or Happy Serpent of the Great Shen Clan
Naming historyHe was called merely klu dga’ by his family, but was referred to in early sources as gshen sgom chen, which he was probably called while he was alive, especially by his disciples. Only as he became more prominent after death was he referred to as gshen chen klu dga’ or gshen sgur.
Person typehuman: historical/mythological, religious, scholar
Ethnicitybod: gtsang
Clangshen, dmu
Summary (1 paragraph)Shenchen Luga was born in 996 in the Dringtsham (‘bring ‘tshams) region of Tsang, to a father of the sga clan and a mother who was the sibling of a Bonpo. Not much about his early years is known, but he did not seem to be formally engaged in religious pursuits until his massive corpus of treasure revelation appeared in 1017, when he was 21. He spent the rest of his life teaching and debating, and perhaps established a seat at Darding (dar lding) near the town of Geding (dge lding). His greatest disciple was Zhuyé Legpo (zhu yas legs po), who eventually became the progenitor of his own lineage. In 1035, the Buddhist monk Lotön Dorjé Wangchuk (lo ston rdo rje dbang phyug) allegedly poisoned and thus murdered Shenchen near the latter’s birthplace.
Birth date (Tibetan)Fire Female Monkey
Birth date (international)966 (Norbu 1997); 996
Birth place (Tibetan)lcog ro 'bring 'tshams (in gtsang)
Death dateWood Male Tiger?
Death date (international)1035
Death placea pass outside of mgur mo, a monastery in dar lding, in gtsang
Spheres of activitylcog ro 'bring 'tshams, brag dkar, rdza skya seng gi thod, upper nyang in gtsang

Detailed Template


TBRC ID: P1651

Names and titles (ming dang mgo sa)

Name (ming gzhan dag/): Shenchen Luga

Etymology: gshen - chen - klu - dga’ = Great Priest Happy Serpent or Happy Serpent of the Great Shen Clan

Type (rigs)

  • Primary Name (ming gtso bo/): gshen chen klu dga'
  • Personal Name: klu dga’
  • Birth names: klu dga’
  • Nicknames: gshen sgom chen, gshen sgur klu dga’
  • Epithets: pho shed can
  • Family Name: gshen klu dga’

Types (rigs)

Sentient being type (sems can rigs mi 'dra/):

  • human
    • historical/mythological
    • religious
    • scholar

Gender (pho mo/):

  • male (mo)

Ethnicity (mi rigs):

  • bod: gtsang

Birth and death ('khrungs 'das)

Birth International date ('khrungs dus/ _spyi 'o'i lo zla tshes grangs/): 966 (Norbu 1997); 996

Birth Tibetan date ('khrungs dus/ _spyi lo'i lo zla tshes grangs/): Fire Female Monkey

Death date ('das dus/ _spyi 'o'i lo zla tshes grangs/): 1035

Death date Tibetan ('khrungs dus/ _spyi lo'i lo zla tshes grangs/): Wood Male Tiger?

Places & Institutions (yul)

Birth place ('khrung yul/): lcog ro 'bring 'tshams

Death place ('das yul/): a pass outside of mgur mo, a monastery in dar lding, in gtsang

Principal sphere(s) of activity (spyod yul/): lcog ro 'bring 'tshams, brag dkar, rdza skya seng gi thod, upper nyang in gtsang

Family (khyim tshang/)

Paternal clan (a pha'i rus pa'i ming/): sga/dmu

Related individuals:

  • Father (a pha): dpal mgon gsas
  • Son (elder): rin chen rgyal mtshan (1030-1110)
  • Son (younger): byang chub rgyal mtshan
  • Uncle: 'brug gsas
  • Uncle: dgos gsas
  • Brother (younger): klu rtsegs
  • Brother (younger): ge khod
  • Grandmother: bu sring? (Martin 2001, p. 57 n6) suggests this might be a proper name
  • Grandfather: mi g.yo mgon po
  • Grandson: sman rgod (1049-1082), elder son of rin chen rgyal mtshan
  • Grandson: tha ru me rog, son of rin chen rgyal mtshan
  • Wife: na ga za dpal sgron



  • Main teacher: dpon gsas ra zhags
  • Main disciple: zhu yas legs po
  • Enemy: lo ston rdo rje dbang phyug, not an ongoing nemesis, but the Buddhist monk who allegedly poisoned him
  • Deity: srid pa’i rgyal mo, though no evidence of direct interaction/worship, Karmay claims she was the favorite of the gshen clan

Incarnational pedigree

Emanations of: dmu tsha gyer med, da mi thad kye, klu bon ye shes snying po

Religious sectarian affilialtion (chos lugs): Bön

Institutional base(s): dge lding gser sgo khra mo, in dar lding

Summary of career activities: his career activity is almost exclusively centered around his treasure revelations in 1017 in 'bring 'tshams

Writings (rtsom yig)

  • g.yung drung las rnam par dag pa srid pa’i phug gi mdo (Innermost Treasury of Life), text written in both Tibetan and Zhangzhung, revealed in 1017
  • khams brgyad gtan la phab ya’i ‘bum, revealed 1017
  • rnam dag yum gyi ‘phrin las (rnam dag padma klong yangs), revealed outer tantra 1017
  • thang ma ‘od rgyal gyi mchod gtor, revealed outer tantra 1017
  • mu dra lha’i phyag rgya, revealed outer tantra 1017
  • kun snang khyab pa, revealed outer tantra 1017
  • rab gnas skor gsum, revealed outer tantra 1017
  • kun rigs lha ma yin gyi sbyin bsreg, revealed outer tantra 1017
  • zhi ba yongs rdzogs, revealed inner tantra 1017
  • man ngag thig le dbyings ‘chad, revealed inner tantra 1017
  • khro bo dbang chen gzhung rtags, revealed inner tantra 1017
  • dbang chu bo rab ‘byam, revealed inner tantra 1017
  • dus drug ma mo, revealed inner tantra 1017
  • ma mo ‘dus pa yang snying, revealed inner tantra 1017
  • ”Nine series of lesser Mental Class texts including the ga pa”, revealed 1017
  • mu stegs a mu kha phung gi rgyud, revealed 1017
  • shan pa ma bzhi’i gsang sgrub, revealed 1017
  • khro gzhung ngo mtshar rgyas pa, revealed 1017
  • tig le dbyings ‘ched, revealed 1017

Biographical sketch

Shenchen Luga was perhaps the greatest and most popular Bönpo of the Tibetan Renaissance period, if not in all of the modern history of Bön. Adepts and supporters trace the religion back to Shenrab Miwo (gshen rab mi bo) and beyond, but there’s no question that the actual religion of Bön, in the admittedly trendy sense of an established and systematized tradition, was founded by Shenchen Luga. His treasure revelations of 1017 and the years that followed (though Shenchen’s own narrative and those of his biographers attribute almost all of his texts to this one year) forged a uniquely Bönpo identity with the very instruments (mature doctrinal, ritual, and narrative texts), strategies (treasure revelation), and sensibilities (lineal autonomy, historical validity) that worked so effectively for the Nyingma Buddhists of the same period. Around the scholarship and personality of Shenchen, the Bön tradition coalesced for the first time, blossoming into a widespread and internally consistent religious system that would inspire polemical publications and considerable anxiety on the part of the more dominant Buddhist traditions for many hundreds of years to come.

There is no question that Bön existed in various shapes prior to the lifetime and revelatory explosion of Shenchen, and, indeed, most sources attest to the Bönpo ethnicity (“ethnicity,” assuming the Zhangzhung narrative is true) of his grandmother. Contemporary and later etic sources also characterize Bön as having undergone three very different iterations: “outbreak Bon” (rdol bon), “erring Bon” (‘khyar ba’i bon), “transformed Bon” (bsgyur bon), and most consider Shenchen to be the founder of the lattermost.

Due to the enormity of his activities in 1017, and their subsequent mythologization, it is difficult to know much about the historical figure of Shenchen. Arguably the most valuable source, the bstan pa’i rnam bshad dar rgyas gsal ba’i sgron me (Lamp to Illuminate the Growth and Spreading of the Explanations of the Teachings), probably written in 1477, by Patön Tengyel Zangpo (spa ston bstan rgyal bzang po), includes some biographical information as well as alleged first-person narrative from Shenchen himself. Though the chasm of over four centuries between the lifetime of Shenchen and the writing of this valuable source is difficult to bridge confidently, much of the information in the text corresponds to earlier accounts.

The contents of this text relate the story of Shenchen’s revelations and of his later activities involving, most notably, the move of the gshen family to Geding (dge lding) and the establishment of the Darding (dar lding) monastery (though sources disagree about whether Shenchen founded the seat -- Dondrub Lhagyel, in his essay in Karmay 2000, is the most vociferous proponent of him having done so, while others find the date of its founding over a century after Shenchen’s death), the training of his greatest disciple, Zhuyé Legpo (zhu yas legs po), and the alleged poisoning incident that led to his death in 1035.

This last incident is an especially important dynamic in the interpretation of Shenchen’s life and its role in Bön history. Many of the early anti-Bön polemics by Buddhists focused not on the inauthenticity of Bön as a tradition, but on the character and motivations of Shenchen. The division of Bön into three movements, with the last “transformed Bön” considered a pale “transformation” of Nyingma Buddhism into Bön, and the rhetoric around its plagiarism in polemical works, clearly conveys the persistent Buddhist sentiment that Shenchen was an unqualified hack who was competent only in pilfering good ideas. Despite this animosity, however, it is important to note that the poisoning incident is attested exclusively in Bönpo sources and in a manner that expresses Bönpo hostility towards Buddhism as much or more than the contrary. Of course, the Buddhists would never admit to such an act, and there is evident delight in some polemical works regarding Shenchen’s inevitable suffering at the time of and/or after death for having espoused wrong views, but the polarity of the figure of Shenchen illustrates a mutual hostility that mitigates the common Bönpo sentiment of their being the “real compassionate religion” in that they accept Buddhists and all other views in a way that the Buddhists historically did not.

There were at least fifteen treasure revealers before Shenchen, according to most sources, but their revelations, as well as those of any revealers subsequent to Shenchen in the same relative time period, vanished in the shadow of Shenchen’s genius and prolificacy. As a result, modern Bön came to prominence via the institutionalization of the personality and sensibilities of this one individual, especially his vision of a preserved traditionalism and identity melded with modern trends of religiosity and structuralism.


Title: bstan pa’i rnam bshad dar rgyas gsal ba’i sgron me in Sources for a History of Bon
Author: spa ston bstan rgyal bzang po, Tenzin Namdak
Language: Tibetan, English
Publisher location: Dolanji
Publisher: Tibetan Bonpo Monastic Center
Publication year: 1477, 1972
Edition (par gzhi): ?
ID/Abbreviation: N/A

Title: Unearthing Bon Treasures
Author: Dan Martin
Language: English
Publisher location: Boston
Publisher: Brill
Publication year: 2001
Edition (par gzhi): First
ID/Abbreviation: Martin 2001

Title: The Bon Religion of Tibet
Author: Per Kvaerne
Language: English
Publisher location: London
Publisher: Serindia
Publication year: (1995) 2001
Edition (par gzhi): First Reprint
ID/Abbreviation: Kvaerne 2001

Title: Bon: Tibet's Ancient Religion
Author: Christopher Baumer
Language: (German) English
Publisher location: Trumbull, CT
Publisher: Weatherhill
Publication year: (1999) 2002
Edition (par gzhi): First English Edition
ID/Abbreviation: Baumer 2002

Title: The Arrow and the Spindle: Studies in History, Myths, Rituals and Beliefs in Tibet
Author: Samten Karmay
Language: English
Publisher location: Kathmandu
Publisher: Mandala Book Point
Publication year: 1998
Edition (par gzhi): First
ID/Abbreviation: Karmay 1998

Title: New Horizons in Bon Studies
Editors: Samten G. Karmay and Yasuhiko Nagano
Language: English
Publisher location: Osaka
Publisher: National Museum of Ethnology
Publication year: 2000
Edition (par gzhi): First
ID/Abbreviation: Karmay 2000

Title: Drung, Deu, and Bön
Author: Namkhai Norbu
Language: (Tibetan) (Italian) English
Publisher location: Dharamsala, India
Publisher: Library of Tibetan Works and Archives
Publication year: (1995) 1997
Edition (par gzhi): Second Printing
ID/Abbreviation: Norbu 1997

Title: A Survey of Bonpo Monasteries and Temples in Tibet and the Himalaya
Editors: Samten G. Karmay and Yasuhiko Nagano
Language: English
Publisher location: Osaka
Publisher: National Museum of Ethnology
Publication year: 2003
Edition (par gzhi): First
ID/Abbreviation: Karmay 2003