The Bon-Religion - An Introduction

The following Introduction to the Bon-Religion is based on a text from Per Kvaerne ( Bon. IN: Mircea Eliades (ed. ) The Encyclopedia of Religion, New York ( Macmillian ) 1987, 2: 277-281 ).

There are two organized religious traditions in Tibet: Buddhism and a faith that is referred to by its Tibetan name, Bon. Since its introduction into Tibet in the eighth century, Buddhism has been the dominant religion; in the person of the Dalai Lama, present-day Tibetan Buddhism has an articulate and internationally respected spokesman.

The Bon religion is much less well known, although the number of its adherents in Tibet is by all accounts considerable. In the West, the traditional view of Bon has been less than accurate. It has been characterized as "shamanism" or "animism," and as such regarded as a continuation of what supposedly were the religious practices prevalent in
Tibet before the coming of Buddhism. It has also been described in rather unfavorable terms as a perversion of Buddhism, a kind of marginal countercurrent in which elements of Buddhist doctrine and practice have either been shamelessly copied or inverted and distorted in a manner that has been somewhat imaginatively compared with satanic
cults. It is only since the mid-1960s that a more accurate understanding of this religion has emerged (first and foremost thanks to the efforts of David L. Snellgrove), so that Bon is now recognized as closely related to the various Buddhist schools in Tibet (in particular the Rningmapa order) and yet possessed of an identity of its own that justifies its status as a distinct religion.

Problems of Definition. An adherent of the Bon religion is called a Bon-po, again using the Tibetan term. A Bon-po is "a believer in bon," and for such a believer the word bon signifies "truth," "reality," or the eternal, unchanging doctrine in which truth and reality are expressed. Thus bon has the same range of connotations for its believers as the
Tibetan word chos (corresponding to the Indian word dharma) has for Buddhists.
A problem, however, arises when one is confronted with the fact that an important group of ritual experts in pre-Buddhist Tibet were likewise known as bon-pos. It is possible that their religious practices were styled Bon (although scholars are divided on this point); certainly they were so designated in the later, predominantly Buddhist historiographical Tradition. Be that as it may, their religious system was essentially different not only from Buddhism, but also, in certain important respects, from the Bon religious Tradition as practiced in later centuries. For example, the pre-Buddhist religion of Tibet gives the impression of being preoccupied with the continuation of life beyond death. It included elaborate rituals for ensuring that the soul of a dead person was conducted safely to a postmortem land of bliss by an appropriate animal-usually a yak, a horse, or a sheep-which was sacrificed in the course of the funerary rites.
Offerings of food, drink, and precious objects likewise accompanied the dead. These rites reached their highest level of elaboration and magnificence in connection with the death of a king or a high nobleman; as was the case in China, enormous funerary mounds were erected, and a large number of priests and court officials were involved in rites that lasted für several years. The purpose of These rites was twofold: on the one hand, to ensure the happiness of the deceased in the land of the dead, and on the other, to obtain their beneficial influence for the welfare and fertility of the living.
The term Bon refers not only to these and other religious practices of pre-Buddhist Tibet, but also to the religion that apparently developed in close interaction with Buddhism from the eighth centurv onward and that still claims the adherence of many'Tibetans. It is with the latter religion that this article is concerned. The Bon-pos claim that there is an unbroken continuity between the earlier and the later religion-a claim that, whatever its historical validity, is significant in itself.

The matter is further complicated by the fact that there has always existed a vast and somewhat amorphous body of popular beliefs in Tibet, including beliefs in various techniques of divination, the cult of local deities (connected, above all, with certain mountains), and conceptions of the soul. In Western literature, such beliefs are frequently styled "Bon," and reference is made to "Bon animism" and other supposedly typical Bon attributes. This has, however, no basis in Tibetan usage, and since this popular, unsystematized religion does not form an essential part of Buddhism or Bon (although it is, to a large extent, sanctioned by and integrated into both religions), an appropriate term for it is the one coined by Rolf A. Stein, " the nameless religion. "
The Bon-po Identity. Although limited to Tibet, Bon regards itself as a universal religion in the sense that its doctrines are true and valid for all humanity. For this reason it styles itself G'yung-drung Bon, "Eternal Bon." According to its own historical perspektive, it was introduced into Tibet many centuries before Buddhism and enjoyed royal patronage until it was supplanted and expelled by the "false religion" (Buddhism) coming from India.

Before reaching Tibet, however, it is claimed that Bon prospered in a land known as Zhang-Zhung and that this country remained the center of the religion until it was absorbed by the expanding Tibetan empire in the seventh century. There is no doubt as to the historical reality of Zhang-Zhung, although its exact extent and ethnic and cultural identity are far from clear. It does, however, seem to have been situated in what today is, roughly speaking, western Tibet, with Mount Kailasa as its center.
The ultimate homeland of Bon, is, however, to be sought farther to the west, beyond the borders of Zhang-Zhung. The Bonpos believe that their religion was first proclaimed in a land called Rtag-gzigs (Tazik) or ‘Ol-mo Lung-ring. Although the former name suggests the land of the Tajiks (in present-day Soviet Central Asia), it has so far not been possible to identify this holy land of Bon in a convincing manner.

In Rtag-gzigs, so the Bon-pos claim, lived Ston-pa Gsen-rab (Tönpa Shenrap), a fully enlightened being who was, in fact, nothing less than the true Buddha of our world age.
The Bon-pos possess a voluminous biographical literature in which his exploits are extolled. Without entering into details, or discussing the many problems connected with the historical genesis of this extraordinary figure, one may at least note that his biography is not closely related to the biographical traditions connected with Sakyamuni, the Buddha on whose authority the Buddhists base their doctrines. Ston-pa Gsen-rab was a layman, and it was as a prince that he incessantly journeyed from his capital in all directions to propagate Bon. It is remarkable that this propagation also included the institution of innumerable rituals, the supervision of the erection of temples and stupas, and the conversion of notorious sinners. His numerous wives, sons, daughters, and disciples also played a significant role (in a way for which there is no Buddhist parallel) in this soteriological activity. It was only late in his life that he was ordained as a monk, and at that point in his career he retired to a forest hermitage. On the other hand, Stonpa Gsen-rab is considered to have been a fully enlightened being from his very birth, endowed with numerous supernatural powers. His importance in the Bon religion is crucial; it is he who -directly or indirectly- lends authority to the religious literature of the Bon-pos, and he is the object of their intense devotion.

Religious Beliefs and Practices. In the same way as the Buddhists of Tibet divide their sacred scriptures into two vast collections, the Bon-pos also-probably since the middle of the fourteenth century CE-possess their own Bka'-'gyur (Kanjur, texts considered to have been actually expounded by Ston-pa Gsen-rab) and Brten-'gyur (Tenjur, later
commentaries and treatises), comprising in all approximately three hundred volumes.
Since the middle of the nineteenth century wooden blocks for printing the entire collection have been available in the principality of Khro-bcu in the extreme east of Tibet, and printed copies of the canon were produced until the 1950s. (The blocks were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution). Large portions of the Bka'-'gyur and Brten- 'gyur may be reconstituted on the basis of texts published by Bon-po exiles living in India, and it seems that a complete set of the printed edition has survived the ravages of war and of the Cultural Revolution in Tibet itself.

A common division of the Bon-po Bka'-'gyur is the fourfold one into Sütras (mdo), Prajnaparamita texts ('bum), Tantras (rgyud), and texts dealing with the higher forms of meditation (mdzod, lit. "treasurehouse"). The Brten-'gyur is divided into three basic textual categories: "External," including commentaries on the Vinaya, the Abhidharma, and the Sutras; "Internal," comprising the commentaries on the Tantras and the rituals focusing on the major Tantric deities, as well as the cult of dakinis, dharmapalas, and worldly rituals of magic and divination; and finally, "Secret," a section that treats
meditation practices. A section containing treatises on grammar, architecture, and medicine is appended.

For the sake of convenience, the Indian (Buddhist) terms corresponding to the Tibetan have been used here, but it must be kept in mind that although the Bonpos employ the same Tibetan terms as the Buddhists, they do not accept their Indian origin, since they trace, as explained above, their entire religious terminology to Zang-Zung and, ultimately, to Rtag-gzigs.

As this review of Bon-po religious literature indicates, the doctrines they contain are basically the same as those of Buddhism. The concepts of the world as suffering, of moral causality and rebirth in the six states of existence, and of enlightenment and Buddhahood are basic doctrinal elements of Bon. Bon-pos follow the same path of virtue and have recourse to the same meditational practices as do Buddhist Tibetans.
In the early fifteenth century-and indeed even earlier-the Bon-pos began to establish monasteries that were organized along the same lines as those of the Buddhists, and several of these monasteries developed into large institutions with hundreds of monks and novices. The most prestigious Bon-po monasterv, founded in 1405, is Sman-ri in central Tibet (in the province of Gtsan, north of the Brahmaputra River). Fully ordained monks, corresponding to the Buddhist dge-slon , (Skt., bhiksu), are styled dran-srong (a term that in Tibetan otherwise translates rsi, the semidivine "seers" of the Vedas).
They are bound by all the rules of monastic discipline, including strict celibacy.

Over the centuries the monastic life of Bon has come increasingly under the influence of the Tradition of academic learning and scholastic debate that characterize the dominant Dge-lugs-pa school, but the older tradition of Tantric yogins and hermits, constituting an important link between the Bon-pos and the Rning-ma-pas, has never been quite
abandoned. [See Dge-lugs-pa.] An important class of religious experts, which likewise finds its counterpart in the Rnin-ma-pa Tradition, consists of the visionaries-both monks and laymen who reveal "hidden texts." During the Buddhist persecution of Bon in the eighth and nineth centuries, the Bon-pos claim, their sacred texts were hidden in caves, buried underground, or walled up in certain temples. Later (apparently from the tenth century onward) the texts were rediscovered -at first, it would seem, by chance, and subsequently through the intervention of supernatural beings who would direct the chosen gterston ("treasure finder") to the site. Later still, texts would be revealed in visions or through purely mental transference from divine beings. The greater part of the Bon-po Bka'-'gyur and Brten-'gyur consists of such "rediscovered" or supernaturally inspired texts. "Treasure finders" have been active until the present, and indeed may be said to play an important role in the revival of religious activities in Tibet today, as texts that were hidden for safekeeping during the systematic destruction of the 1960s and 1970s are once more being removed from their hiding places.

As is the case in Tibetan religion generally, these texts are particularly important in that they serve, in an almost literal sense, as liturgical scores for the innumerable and extremely complex rituals, the performance of which occupies much of the time and attention of the monks. Many of these rituals do not differ significantly from those performed by the Buddhists, except that the deities invoked-although falling into the same general categories as those that apply to the deities of Mahayana Buddhism -are different from the Buddhist ones. They have different names, iconographical
characteristics, evocatory formulas (mantras), and myths. A systematic study of this pantheon remains, however, to be undertaken, and likewise, our knowledge of the rituals of the Bon-pos is still extremely incomplete.

The laypeople are confronted by many of these deities, impersonated by monks, in the course of mask dances. The lay Bon-pos have the same range of religious activities as Tibetan Buddhist laypeople: the practice of liberality toward monks and monasteries (in exchange for the performance of rituals); the mechanical multiplication of prayers by
means of prayer flags and prayer wheels; and journeys of pilgrimage to the holy places of Bon, such as Mount Kailasa in the western Himalayas, or Bon-ri ("mountain of Bon"), in the southeastem province of Rkong-po.

The Diffusion of Bon. Both Buddhists and Bon-pos agree that when Buddhism succeeded in gaining royal patronage in Tibet in the eighth and ninth centuries, Bon suffered a serious setback. By the eleventh century, however, an organized religious Tradition, styling itself Bon and claiming continuity with the earlier, pre Buddhist religion, appeared in central Tibet. It is this religion of Bon that has persisted to our own times, absorbing doctrines and practices from the dominant Buddhist religion but always adapting what it learned to its own needs and its own perspectives. This is, of course, not just plagiarism, but a dynamic and flexible strategy that has ensured the survival, indeed the vitality, of a religious minority.

Until recent years, much has been made in Westem literature of the fact that the Bonpos perform certain basic ritual acts in a manner opposite to that practiced by the Buddhists. Thus, when circumambulating sacred places and objects or when spinning their prayerwheels, the Bon-pos proceed counterclockwise rather than following the (Indian and Buddhist) Tradition of pradaksina, or circumambulation "toward the right."
For this reason, it has been said of Bon that "its essence lay largely in contradiction and negation," and Bon's "willful perversions and distortions" have been pointed out. The error of such views cannot be too strongly emphasized. The Bon-pos are conscious of no element of "contradiction and negation" in their beliefs and practices but regard their
religion as the pure path to liberation from suffering and rebirth. It is true that down through the centuries Bon-po historiographers have generally regarded the introduction of Buddhism into Tibet as a catastrophe, which they have ascribed to the accumulated collective "evil karma" of the Tibetans. On the other hand, conciliatory efforts have not
been lacking; thus one source suggests that Ston-pa Gsen-rab and Sakyamuni were really twin brothers.

It is difficult to assess just how large the Bon-po community of Tibet is. Certainly the Bon-pos are a not insignificant minority. Particularly in eastern Tibet, whole districts are populated by Bon-pos. Scattered communities are also to be found in central and western Tibet, particularly in the Chumbi Valley (bordering Sikkim) and among nomads.
In the north of Nepal, too, there are Bon-po villages, especially in the district of Dol-po.
At a point in history that remains to be determined precisely, Bon exerted a streng influence on the religion of the Na-khi peopie in Yunnan Province in southwestern China; with this exception, the Bon-pos do not seem to have engaged in missionary enterprises. In India, Bon-pos belonging to the Tibetan refugee community have established (since 1968) a large and well-organized monastery in which traditional scholarship, rituals, and sacred dances are carried on with great vigor. Since 1980, when religious life was revived in Tibet itself, the Bon-pos there have rebuilt several monasteries (albeit on a reduced scale), installed monks, and resumed-to the extent that prevailing conditions permit-many aspects of traditional religious life. It would thus seem that there is good reason to believe that Bon will continue to exist, and even, with certain limits, to flourish.

A Collection of Studies on the Tibetan Bon Tradition

Main Library