BON - AS A PRE-BUDDHIST RELIGION OF TIBET
Buddhist ideas certainly pervade BON throughout:
• the definition of truth as absoute and realtive (this was a useful idea for the
bonpos as it could provide a justification for the lower ways of magic ritual)
• the realization of the 'Thought of Enlightenment' as the coalescence of Method
• the whole conception of living beings revolving through the six spheres of
• the notion of buddhahood as fivefold
• the whole gamut of tantric theory and practice
Some might be tempted- when there is still so much else of interest in Tibetan civilization that awaits investigation - to neglect this developed and elaborate BON as mere second-hand Buddhism.
But there have been also serious scholars who conversely would regard Buddhism in Tibet as little more than demonological priestcraft. Waddell's remarkable book, Lamaism, which contains so much precise information about Tibetan Buddhism practices of all kinds, provides evidence enough that Bon and Buddhism in Tibet are in their
theories and practices one and the same. What Wadell perhaps failed to appreciate is that Tibetan Buddhism -and for that matter BON too- is often sincerely practised by Tibetans as a moral and spiritual discipline.
We are thus concerned not only with pre-Buddhist Tibetan religion, but with Tibetan religion regarded as one single cultural complex. The bonpos merely pose the problem nicely for us by having arranged all types of Tibetan religious practice within the framework of their 'Nine Ways'. Regarded in this way, BON might be indeed claim to be the true religion of Tibet.
Accepting everything, refusing nothing through the centuries, it is the one allembracing form of Tibetan religion. Its few remaining educated representatives seem to be still motivated by its spirit.
Western scholars of Tibetan well know how difficult it is to persuade an indigenous Tibetan scholar to take any interst in forms of Tibetan literature that lie outside his particular school. Normally a dGe-lugs-pa ('Yellow Hat') scholar would be ashamed at the idea of reading a work of any other Tibetan Buddhist order, let alone a bonpo work.
Yet educated bonpo monks clearly have no such inhibitions. They will learn wherever they can, and given time they will absorb and re-adapt what they have learned.
BON - HOW IT CAME TO TIBET AS A RELIGION
Regarded in this way Bon is a strange phenomenon, and what we really want to know is how it began to develop in its early stages. The bonpos themselves concede that their religion as practised in Tibet consisted in the first place of little more than ritual magic, and they believed that gShen-rab himself established these practices there.
A clear account is given of the story in chapter XII of gZer-mig , which recounts how the demon Khyab-pa -lag-ring sends his followers who steal the seven horses of gShen-rab from the sacred city of hol-mo lung-ring . In the previous chapter it was related how this demon had carried off gShen-rabs daughter, gShen-bzah ne-chung, and forcibly married her. Their two children were then abducted by gShen-rab and concealed at hol-mo lung-ring . At the beginning of chapter XII the demon sends his followers to see where the children are. They cannot be found, so he gives orders for the theft of the horses as a form of reprisal. Rather than keep the horses in his own realm (bdud-yul min-pahi glin ), he plans to keep them in rKong-po, and he sends messengers to make arrangements with the two rulers of rKong-po , named rKong-rje dkar-po and rKong-rje dmar-po . gShen-rab himself together with four followers comes after them, not (as he explains) in order to get the horses only, but because the time has come to spread the doctrine in Zhang-Zhung and Tibet. The demons block his way with snow, then fire, then water, and then sand, but he disperses them and reaches Zhang- Zhung.
gShen-rab gave to the bonpos of Zhang-Zhung as bon (doctrine) the 'inspired teaching' ( lung ) about bombs and spells , and as ritual items he instructed them in the 'Divine Countenance of the Celestial Ray' and in black and white 'thread-crosses'. Then he went in to Bye-ma lu-ma dgu-gyes ('The ninefold Spreading of the Desert Spring') in gTsang, where he pronounced this prayer: 'Now it is not the occasion for establishing the doctrine among all the bonpos of Tibet, but may „Bon of the Nine Stage Way" spread and be practised there some time!' As he said this, a group of demons were subjected to him. gShen-rab gave to the bonpos of Tibet as bon (doctrine) the 'inspired teaching' concerning prayers to the gods and the expelling of demons, and as ritual items he showed them various small aromatic shrubs, the use of barley as a sacrificial item and libations of chang.
Nowadays the bonpos of Tibet, summoning all gods and demons by means of bon, get their protection, and by worshipping them send them about their tasks, and by striking them prevail over them. This is the prood of gShen-rab 's having subdued them when they beheld his countenance.
In historical terms this account simply means that before Indian religious ways spread to Tibet, Tibetan religion consisted of magical rituals ( of the kind enumerated in the Second Way of BON) performed by priests known as bon and as gShen. The full doctrine (referred to as the 'BON of the Nine Stage Way') came later and -except for the rituals
that were already practised in Tibet- through translations- The bonpos were certainly impressed by the need for translations.
Thus BON teachings, they claim, were translated into 360 languages and taught throughout the known world, which for them consisted of India generally, the states of north-west India in particular, Central Asia states and peoples, Nepal, and China. Lastly, it reached Tibet, again from the West through translations from the language of Zhang- Zhung.
This Bon that spread west, south and north of Tibet was of course Buddhism, and it is quite conceivable that the Tibetans of western Tibet, whose ancestors first made contact with the forms of Buddhism popularly practised in Jalandhara ( za-hor ) and Kashmir ( kha-che ), in Uddiyana ( o-rgyan ) and Gilgit ( bru-sha ), were unaware of its direct connection with the Buddhism officially introduced into Tibet in the eighth century by King Khri-srong-lde-btsan.
The bonpos are insistent that their teachings came from the west , and there are good reasons for believing that Buddhist yogins and hermits, and probably Hindu ascetics as well, had already familiarized the villagers of western Tibet with Indian teachings and practices before Buddhism was formally introduced by the Tibetan religious kings.
Moreover, these 'informal' contacts continued over several centuries. Perhaps the main original difference between bonpos and rNyingma-pas (Tibetan Buddhist of the 'Old order') consists in the fact that the rNyingma-pas acknowledged that their doctrines, despite the earlier promulgation, were nevertheless Buddhist, and that the bonpos never would make this admission. Fundamental to an elucidation of this interesting problem is a comparative study of the tantras and the rDzog-chen ('Great Perfection') literature of these two oldest 'Tibetan Buddhist' groups.
The organizing of their religious practices into the 'Nine Ways' must have come somewhat later, perhaps by the tenth century. The rNyingma-pa set of nine begins with the three 'ways' of conventional Indian Buddhism, the sravalaana, the
pratyekabuddhayana, and the boddhisattvayana. The other six ways are even higher stages of tantric practice, viz. Kriyatantra, upayatantra, and yogatantra, and finally, the mahayogatantra, anuyogatantra and atiyogatantra. Thu the rNyingma-pas , recognizing their connections with the newly established official religion, were content to organize
themselves as tantric adepts of Buddhism. The bonpos, despite their ever increasing cultural and literary contacts with the official religion, persisted in claiming that this religion had really been theirs from the start.
Drawn very early, cerainly already in the eight century, into a position of opposition, they set to work to organize a full-scale religion of their own, using all their own remembered indigenous resources and all they could acquire from their opponents The magnitude of the task was really astounding, if judged only by the vast bulk of literature which they so speedily accumulated. The 'Nine Ways of BON' is a mere summary of their achievements.
The four Portals and the Treasury as Fifth
The bonpos often refer to their full complement of doctrines and practices not only as the 'BON of the Nine Stage Way', but also as the BON of the 'Four BON Portals and the Treasury as Fifth':
bon sgo bzhi mdzod lnja dang theg pa rim dguhi bon.
This term sgo bzhi mdzod lnja has no easy explanation . The four 'portals' are dpon gsas, chab-nag, chab-dkar, and hphan-yul. The first , dpon-gsas , may be safely translated as 'Master-Sage'. It is the term used for the hermit sages of the Zhang-Zhung snyan-rgyud . As one of the four 'portals' of bon it refers to their teachings of the 'Great Perfection'
( rdzog-chen ).
As for chab-dkar and chab-nag , chab remains uncertain in meaning. Tenzin Namdak accepts these names as technical terms without any proper meaning, and so, while he and other educated bonpo know what the terms refer to, they remain quite uninterested in the origin of the terms themselves.
Chab has two meanings: (i) royal sway of power and (ii) the honorific term for water.
The compound chab-sgo means an 'imperial portal' and perhaps this might encourage us to choose the first meaning. The 'White Sway' and the 'Black Sway' would make quite good translations. But in our selected texts chab is clearly interpreted as though it meant 'water'. I have therefore taken the term provisionally in this meaning. The term is used only as a label in any case. The 'White Waters' refer to higher tantric practice and the 'Black Waters' to magic rites of all kinds.
European writers have often referred to 'White Bon' and 'Black Bon', but clearly without any intended reference to chab-dkar and chab-nag.
hPhan-yul is a well-known place-name in Central Tibet, but once again my bonpo helpers insist that this term which regers to their 'Perfection of Wisdom' teachings, has nothing to do with the hPhan-yul Valley. But I think they are mistaken. The name hPhan-yul often occurs in bonpo texts both as a place name and as a term referring to particular doctrines. Before the 'Teacher gShen-rab' spread the teachings in the world of men he is supposed to have taught hPhan-yul texts in the realms of the serpents ( klu ), furies ( gnyan ), mountain-gods ( sa-bdag ), and rock-gods ( gtod ). One wonders if there is some connection here with the well-knwon story of Nagarjuna's visit to the nagas
(=Tibetan klu ) to obtain his 'Perfection of Wisdom' teachings.
There is no doubt that in bonpo usage hPhan-yul means 'Perfection of Wisdom' texts and therefore it might have seemed suitable to give this name to texts which gShen-rab was suppsed to teach to seprents and others. I mention this possibility merely since I suspect that it is just such a haphazard association of ideas that often accounts for the use of many terms in bonpo material, and we may well be wasting our time looking for more scholary associations.
As for the special meaning that the bonpos gve to hPhan-yul , perhaps it was here in this place, which was cerainly important in the early spread of Buddhism in Tibet, that they first learned and studied 'Perfection of Wisdom' literature. It is perhaps fair to add that Tenzin Namdak discounts such an idea altogether. As for the special bonpo menaings of these terms, he has kindly drawn my attention to some very good definitions occuring in gZer-mig :
The 'Master Sage' belongs to the BON of precepts and inspired teachings. It purifies the stream of knowledge, avoids word and concentrates on the meaning.
The 'Black Waters' belong to the Bon of the stream of existence. It purifies the stream of knowledge. By means of many verbal accounts which arise there, much is accumulated for the good of living beings under three (headings): the outer stream of death rites and funural rites , the inner stream of sickness rites and ransom rites, and the middle stream of diagnosis rites and rituals.
The vast hPhan-yul belongs to the BON of the Hundred Thousand (Verse Text) in the Sutras. It purifies the stream of knowledge. It tells of monastic disipline and vows. This BON has two aspects, as a series (Sanskrit: parivarta) and as recitation. Again the series has two aspects, the series of the phenomenal world and the series of passing from sorrow (Skr. Nirvana). The recitation is of two kinds again, recitation that enunciates and originates in the words of enunciation, and enunciation that is consecrated to the food of living beings and serves for ceremonies. Being read and
recited, it accumulates much (merit) for living beings, and it should be be used only for ceremonies.
The 'White Waters' belong to the BON of potent precepts and spells. It purifies the deep stream of knowledge. It embraces the profound 'reliance' and 'performance'. As for this BON, when one has been consecrated, one becomes of the self-nature of fivefold buddhahood. As effect one has in the Body the five symbolic gestures of the self-nature
(of buddhahood): as effect in the Speech one recites spells continuously: as effect in the Mind one practises the profound meditation of the 'Process of Emanation' and the 'Process of Realization'. As effect in one's Accomplishments, one accumulates and delights in ritual items. As effect in one's acts one praises the buddha-names in recitation.
Defined in this way, the 'Four Portals' cover all the types of religious practice included in the 'Nine Ways'.
• The 'Master Sage' Portal represents the Ninth Way.
• The 'Black Waters' Portal represents the First, Second and Fourth Ways.
• The hPhan-yul Portal represents the Fith and Sixth Ways.
• The 'White Waters' Portal represents the Seventh and Eight Ways. It also includes
the Third Way in so far as this is directed towards the 'Bon of effect'.
Thus these 'Four Portals' seem to represent an earlier and quite coherent attempt by the bonpos to arrange their accumulated religious materials into four groups:
I.Precepts and teachings of sages and hermits, e.g. Zhang-Zhung snyan-rgyud and
other rdzog-chen literature.
II.Ways of predicition, death ceremonies and magical rites of all kinds (viz. The
'original bonpo material')
III.Texts and practices connected with monastic religion. (One may observe that the
reading of 'Perfection of Wisdom' literature as a meritorious rite was as poular
then as now).
IV.Text and practices of the tantras.
As for the 'Treasury which makes the Fifth' , this is the 'Pure Summit' (gtsang mtho thog ), which once again is best defined by a quotation from gZer-mig:
As for the 'Pure Summit', it goes everywhere. As insight it belongs to the BON which is a universal cutting off. It purifies the stream of knowledge in all the 'Four Portals'. It simply involves that insight into the non-substantiality of appearances. It understands the deluding nature of the 'inner essences'. In terms of absolute truth non-substance, too, is an absurdity.