Analysis Of The Treasury Of Good Sayings

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Analysis of The Treasury of Good Sayings

It would be impossible, in a short essay such as this, to do analytical justice to a text as rich in detail and controversy as The Treasury of Good Sayings (legs bshad rin po che'i mdzod dypod ldan dga' ba'i char, hereafter referred to as the Treasury, authored by grub dbang bkra shis rgyal mtshan dri med snying po (1859-1935) in 1922, edited and translated by Samten G. Karmay, 1972, New York: Oxford University Press). As a companion text to The Blue Annals, it is a fascinating counterpoint and corroborator of events and attitudes in Tibet during the Renaissance period (10th-13th centuries A.D.) and beyond, but the number of contentious overlaps, subtle and overt provocations of Buddhism, and strong rhetorical posturings, along with its prominent status as a true history within the Bön community, render it impossible to read merely as a source of supplementary information. It is impossible to ignore the emotional character, often ferocious and vengeful, of many of the narratives and other forms of discourse. Nor can one who has read the Blue Annals or other Buddhist publications that more explicitly address Bön or the Tibetan Renaissance time period ignore the obvious agenda of self-aggrandizement, the different treatment of supernatural prowess, and, to a more trivial extent, the unique role that animals play in narrative dramas, both cosmic and earthly.

Trashi Gyeltsen, the author of the Treasury, was born in Shardza (shar rdza) in Kham in 1859, and it was here that he wrote and published his five main treatises, collectively called the Zönga (mdzod lnga), of which the Treasury is one. According to Karmay (xv), he is also known as Jalüpa ('ja' lus pa, "rainbow body"), a Dzokchen name that conveys the idea that he left no body behind when he died, a physical (de-)manifestation of the Bönpo soteriological ideal. Aside from being one of the great scholars of recent, or so-called "New", Bön, he is allegedly the only Bönpo scholar ever to have Gelukpa pupils (xvi). Though Karmay does not construct a biography of Trashi Gyeltsen that can extract the latter's motivations for writing the Treasury, it is clear that the text attempts a complete history of Bön, without going too deeply into cosmogony or other events in the cosmos, by means of a creative integration of as many sources as are presumably available to modern scholars.

Though the text itself is oriented around the two primary persecutions that form the broken backbone of the Bönpo historical narrative, the first instigated by king Drigum Tsenpo (gri gum btsan po) in the 7th century C.E. and the second by Trisong Detsen (khri srong lde btsan) in the 8th century C.E., the majority of detail concerns two other subjects of great importance to the Bönpos: clans and treasure texts. Early in the text, Trashi Gyeltsen outlines the lineages of the five great and many minor clans that have fostered or participated in the upbringing of Bön. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of valuable references to and sketches of clan members, origin locations, diffusion locations, descent narratives, clan membership in greater Bön mythologies and narratives, monastic affiliations, doctrinal orientations, and so on. He does the most structured presentation of clans in the first dozen or so pages, but crucial information on these subjects is spread throughout the text.

As the persecutions come into focus, the issue of treasure texts becomes prominent. Trashi Gyeltsen explains how the earlier persecutions led to the concealment of texts that were revealed after Bön's status improved in Tibet. One of the most interesting aspects of all of the Treasury is the portrayal of the relationship between Bönpo and Buddhist treasure revealers, to be discussed in greater detail below. The latter half of the text, and especially the final quarter, is dedicated almost exclusively to outlining brief histories of specific treasure revelations, locations, agents, and their classification by modern standards. Overall, the macro- and micro-structure of the text communicates three important points: the author intended no great narrative arc - the final section is listed out almost in bullet points and the text ends quite abruptly in the categorization of the Bönpo canon; modern Bön exists not in spite of but because of the great persecutions - this "complete" history focuses a great deal on the persecutions and the renewals that followed; and treasure texts, and oral traditions to a lesser extent, have created modern Bön - the section outlining treasure culture bridges the somewhat mythic and spotty past to the highly systematized and established present.

Upon reading the Treasury, one of the first things that strikes a reader who is familiar with Bönpo literature and recent strategies for its study is the imbalance of historical recording for certain of the sources that are typically considered crucial constituents of the Bönpo corpus. The most notable example of this is the Zermik (gzer mig, pp. 163-165 in the Treasury), a treasure text allegedly discovered in the 11th century by Drangjé Tsünpa Sermik (drang rje btsun pa gser mig, 1024-1091) at Samyé (bsam yas). Ostensibly a biography of Shenrab Miwo (gshen rab mi bo), Bön's lord and founder, it also contains many of the most important Bönpo teachings for modern practitioners. Trashi Gyeltsen uses it as a reference but has very little to say about its origins, while a number of other seemingly obscure texts receive substantial narrative treatment by comparison. This could possibly be the result of a dearth of information on the text, but it seems unlikely that so prominent a text would have failed to adopt, over nearly 1,000 years, even a contrived mythology worthy of inclusion in the Treasury. So why would Trashi Gyeltsen give it such meager treatment? It's difficult to say for sure, with possible explanations ranging from an assumed audience awareness (Trashi Gyeltsen also doesn't include some of the more famous stories about Shenrab Miwo, for example) to a relative insignificance of the Zermik at the time of the Treasury's authorship. Given the lack of information on Bönpo scholarship, it's difficult to know whether the prominence that the Zermik currently enjoys is a relatively recent phenomenon, though this seems unlikely given August Hermann Franke's translations of the years immediately following the Treasury's publication and the references to the Zermik in many other Bönpo texts. Regardless, this omission or lack of information about so crucial a text is an important consideration when searching within the pages of the Treasury for legitimation or corroboration.

Another limitation to look for in the Treasury is that of clan bias. One might expect an opinionated history such as this to be marked by an emphasis on the author's clan or on one that is widely lauded and thus passively insistent on emphasis in order to bestow legitimacy on the writing. The reality, however, is that the Treasury is surprisingly impartial in this regard. There is less information on the Meu (rme'u) clan than the others of the six main clans (gshen, bru, spa, zhu, and khyung are the others, though gshen is often treated as its own entity with the others comprising "the great five"), but this seems to be consistent across sources and perhaps does not reflect the author's biases. The Khyung clan is implicitly presented as the royal clan (11), the Shen (gshen) clan naturally scintillates as the pool from which some of the greatest Bönpos emerged, and the others are stacked against each other based on famous members from various periods, but nowhere is there a clear favoritism.

To the modern reader, it may be perfectly predictable that a work with such lofty aspirations for posterity would not express biases so explicitly, but the relative equanimity found in the treatment of such intrarelations is not to be found in the rhetoric of interrelations. Indeed, it is likely the stark opposition to Buddhism that permits a text of such alleged comprehensiveness to be blind to conflict within its own tradition. It is no surprise that Trashi Gyeltsen would adopt a piously pro-Bön tact in recounting its history, but the polemical language dips into vitriol to an extent unmatched by comparable histories such as the Blue Annals (though other explicitly polemical works match and exceed it in rhetoric).

One encounters fair warning of what is to come early in the text when Trashi Gyeltsen warns: "It would be very foolish to regard the opinion of ordinary people as rational unless it conforms to the authority of the Enlightened One" (35). It isn't clear what the boundaries of "rational" are, or how much one is allowed to waver from the explicit teachings of the Enlightened One (gshen rab mi bo) before he or she is no longer conforming to his authority, but the author here is making a clear statement that this is the truth and nothing but, and what other people may claim is on high suspicion of being irrational.

The Treasury routinely refers to Buddhists as "the Others," being charitably capitalized by Karmay in translation but simply "other group/section" in Tibetan (gzhan sde). This is a modified version of an expression typically employed by Tibetan Buddhists (nang pa, "inside one") to describe Hindus ("phyi pa", "outside one") or others who are not Buddhists. The Treasury clearly employs the term for the construction of Bön as its own cultural identity by means of opposition and distancing, but it should also be noted that this is not as dismissive as it sounds in English usage, where refusing to name a group in favor of calling them "the other" would be offensively diminutive. More formal names were not used in Tibet until recent times, and Bönpos referring to Buddhists as "nang pas" and themselves as "phyi pas" would be similar (but not identical) to North Americans referring to Latin Americans as Americans and themselves as "gringos." Such self-designations are inter-culturally relative and imbued with cultural pride.

The far more damning rhetoric comes in the form of narratives of retribution. The majority of narratives regarding the persecutions, in fact, rely on vengeance, usually supernatural in character, to supply the literary qualities of motivation and emotional engagement. For example, the destruction of monasteries by floods due to the "jealousy of the Buddhists" (142), rituals causing temples to be struck by lightning and the king to become ill (100), people dying from leprosy for having tried to use Bönpo texts in Buddhism (154), and the murder of Trisong Detsen (khri srong lde btsan) by Longam (lo ngam) because of the former's opposition to Bön, with all the retribution that ensued (see such examples on page 98). The whole cycle of persecution and redemption in the Treasury, for both the Buddhists and Bönpos, is fueled by blame and retribution.

A number of origin stories are laced with antagonizing rhetoric to explain or belittle the relative dominance of Buddhism. For example, in a story explaining the second persecution of Bön on pages 83-85, the king Trisong Detsen was secretly following Buddhism instead of Bön, which displeased the gods and led to widespread disease and calamity. A diviner was called in and told the king that the cause was a "fatherless and incestuous child," who was then banished to India, where he became a great Buddhist scholar called Anḍa Bodhi Sattva (possibly Śāntarakṣita?). Because of previous ill wishes againt Bön, the thought arrived again in his mind and he wrote Trisong Detsen, advising him to destroy Bön.

The persecutions, especially the second major persecution, are commonly decried as Indian in origin. Anḍa Bodhi Sattva wielded his anti-Bön sentiments from India, and another narrative (82-83) describes three beggars of long ago who wished, for unknown reasons but presumably just because they were Buddhist, to be born in Tibet so that they could suppress Bön and install Buddhism. Eventually, their wishes came true. Though there is nothing explicit about this in the text, it is interesting to contrast this anti-Indian attitude with the Sarma (gsar ma) movement in Tibet during the ensuing centuries, which looked to India for religious authority. The Bönpo valorization of "West" (i.e. stag gzig, 'ol mo lung ring, and zhang zhung) could very well be seen as a way to subscribe to the extra-cultural sensibility of the time while steering it away from India, thus creating a distinct cultural and religious identity somewhere between Sarma and Nyingma (rnying ma).

Much of the other rhetoric is less condemning of the "Others" and more reinforcing of the self. Trashi Gyeltsen explains (34) that the four secular vehicles of Bön, aka the "Bön of Cause", existed prior to the time of Songtsen Gampo (srong btsan dgam po); earlier and later Bön are the same in terms of profundity (187); many Buddhists recognize the profundity of Bön because so many Bönpos became 'ja' lus pa (56) and many people said the Bönpos beat the Buddhists at the competition sponsored by Trisong Detsen (89-90); the famous Bönpo Sherap Gyeltsen (shes rab rgyal mtshan) and Tsongkhapa (tsong kha pa) exchanged compliments (141); and, at the height of the author's equanimity, there is no difference between Bön and Chö (chos) because both are just names (186). Trashi Gyeltsen also seeks to establish (28) the primacy of the Zhang Zhung language over Tibetan by means of tracing the exact evolution from the Takzik language of the gods, called Pungyik (spung yik), through Zhang Zhung Yikgen (yig rgan), up to the Tibetan Wuchen (dbu chen), and by the recounting of many treasure revelations that required translation from "the language of the gods" into Tibetan (175). Finally, perhaps in a ploy to draw definitive boundaries for cultural Bön, he concedes Buddhist victory after the second persecution, but claims that the Tibetans gave the Bönpos three countries: Ölmo Lungring in the "Upper Land" (including dominion over the tribes of so, so ngan, and klo bo), Kongyül Drena (kong yul bre sna) in the "Lower Land", and Yardrok Tünsum (yar 'brog thun gsum) in the center. All of these are examples of pro-Bön, pro-cultural constructions backed up with minimal or no cited sources.

Perhaps the most subtle and complex dynamic under the umbrella of rhetoric and propaganda, however, is that of the relationship between Bönpo and Buddhist terma (gter ma). In situations where Buddhists find Bönpo treasures, or in the interesting case of a Buddhist jovially suggesting that he and a Bönpo go together "and find some textual treasures. If we find Bön texts you shall take them, if we find Buddhist texts I will take them, and if we find a treasure we will divide it” (146), there is a palpable sense of mutual respect. Buddhists hand over Bönpo treasures (151) and vice versa, though it is interesting that, in the latter case, examples are more likely to involve Bönpos simply putting the text back where it came from if it was a Buddhist treasure (155), as opposed to physically handing them over as the Buddhists do. Whether this reflects a subtle disrespect for the Buddhists or is merely idiosyncratic to the narrative is impossible to say, but I suspect the latter. In the end, it appears that the Treasury makes no issue out of Buddhists and Bönpos being on equal footing when it comes to treasure revelation. There is mutual effort and recognition, and they face the same explicit challenges, as, for example, on page 190: "Thus there are not only demons who pretend to be text-discoverers in order to undermine the Doctrine, but, because of the ineffable karmic forces which govern sentient beings, false textual treasures, which bring their ill-wishing to fruition, are numerous among ourselves and 'The Others'."

Overall, one cannot help but notice that the recounting of narratives almost always finds Buddhists and Bönpos on more equal ground than the author's commentaries would have us believe. On the one hand, the author implicitly matches the traditions one to the other through similar wins and losses in their retributions and competitions against each other, but he cannot achieve the magnanimity of the famous Bönpo treasure revealer, Gyermi Nyiö (gyer mi nyi 'od), an alleged emanation of one of the most famous Bönpos of the Imperial period, Drenpa Namkha (dran pa nam mkha’), who answers the question of whether he is a Bönpo or Buddhist with the following: "When the sun shines on a golden mountain, the mountain and the gold are identical. If you take the dual view of things you may fall into extremism" (156-157). It seems as though Trashi Gyeltsen aspires to this level of equitable rhetoric - he is citing and recounting these narratives, after all - but the rest of the text is too filled with acerbic claims of Buddhists persecuting Bön, and then having the gall to copy Bönpo texts (92), for us to believe that he abides by Gyermi Nyiö's nondualistic and compassionate view.

As for the reasons for the discrepancy between the narrative equanimity and the commentarial prejudice, it would be easy to blame author idiosyncracy or the long-standing rivalrous dynamics between Bön and Buddhism, but it is also important to keep in mind the relatively recent anti-Bön polemic published in 1801 that perhaps changed those long-standing dynamics for the worse. At the time those earlier narratives were written, at about the same time the relatively tame Blue Annals was written, the anti-Bön polemics were still sparse and inchoate. Based on current information, it is likely that the period starting with the re-establishment of Bön after the second persecution, up to the beginning of the 19th century, was one of relative equanimity and tolerance (which is not to discount the number of polemics and conflicts that came about in the course of those centuries).

Other issues worth noting in the Treasury are the emphasis on supernatural prowess and the abundant participation of animals in so many of the narratives. With regards to the former, there are numerous instances of adepts seeking or achieving the dissolution or translucence of the physical body, constant reference to ritually enacted supernatural terrorism, usually for the purposes of revenge (as on page 100), and much rhetoric about successful Bönpos having achieved "power over life" and living to a very old age (one wonders here about the influence of Taoism on Bön, to be explored in another essay). Many histories and epic narratives from Tibet emphasize an individual's spiritual prowess as a function of supernatural abilities, but it is taken to an extreme in the Treasury, going into detail about the types of rituals that can wreak retributional havoc, their names and results. While admitting defeat during the persecutions, too, the text is proud to say that many Bönpos were nevertheless kept around to act as bodyguards, because of their great powers (102-104).

Given the long pedigree of Bönpos defining themselves and being defined by Buddhists in terms of their greater capacity for magic and other supernatural feats, it is not surprising to find these narratives in the Treasury. The degree to which they're present here, however, begs further investigation. It raises questions about how much Bön has clung to this identity in modern times to further remove itself from Buddhism, how much it might be overcompensating for its historical losses in the face of Buddhist supremacy by building up its supernatural repetoire, and especially, given the retributional character of the text, what it might bear on the question of Bön's possible shamanic origins (see Bjerken 2004 for a further discussion of this topic).

Having very much to do with this same theme is the issue of animals in the Treasury's narratives. This may seem a random topic to tack on to the end of an analysis such as this, but the great role of animals raises a number of relevant questions. It would be impractical to list all of the instances of animal participation, but opening to nearly any 4-5 pages of the Treasury is likely to reveal a worthy example. Many of the containers with which the Bönpos transport important texts and other valuable goods from place to place are made from tiger or leopard or other animal skins, and such references are made not casually, but with a sense of great significance and reverence for the materials. More importantly, everything is then transported on the backs of animals of all varieties, but more often than not on the backs of birds. A huge portion of narratives involve birds in some capacity, usually as carriers of important documents.

It is common among Tibetan Buddhist texts to draw lines in ritual, mythology, and other forms of cultural identity based on the abundance of animal elements in all things Bönpo, especially animal heads in iconography and ritual costume (Baumer 2002). It is possible that Trashi Gyeltsen is saturating the Treasury with such references, as with the supernatural elements, to draw deeper lines between Buddhism and Bön, especially given the implicit killing of animals in all of the skin-based containers and garb, but there is a decidedly more animalistic character to much of the text that, due to its subtlety in an otherwise not especially subtle text, probably was not intentional. The narratives are often physical, with spiritual adepts proving themselves by ripping open their chests to show a god at their heart (one such example is on page 135), ferocious retribution, and strong associations with animals. Again, how much this is driven by the idiosyncrasies of the author versus revealing a shamanic or simply unique character of the tradition as a whole is hard to say, but the overall tenor fits with an agenda of lashing out at Buddhism, asserting dominance or at least mutual establishment, and proving the formidability of Bön in any context.

Upon the completion of a reading of the Treasury, one cannot help but notice its confidence verging on aggressiveness (supernatural power and retribution), its pride (emphasis on persecution and recovery), and its agenda of identity construction (drawing lines between itself and Buddhism). While its style imitates those of other Tibetan histories, and it does a thorough job schematizing lineages and texts, there are gaping holes that otherwise should have been filled by, in Karmay's words, so comprehensive a history. There are only the shadowiest of details about Bön prior to its first persecution at the hands of Drigum Tsenpo, we know very little about the crucial figure of Drenpa Namkha, and details are sparse about Bön after its second persecution. The great focus on Buddhism as "the Other" prevented Trashi Gyeltsen from relaying the hypothetical nuanced history of Bön as it evolved internally, which would have filled in many of these other details. As a result, it is difficult not to see Bön in the context of the Treasury as a response to or product of Buddhism instead of the intended view of it as a pre-existing tradition that survived Buddhism. Having said that, an important dynamic that presents itself repeatedly throughout the Treasury is that of primitivism and shamanism. Bjerken's assessments aside, the abundance of vengeful, magical, and animalistic elements in a 1922 work of history, I would argue, goes beyond hurt feelings and an agenda of self-aggrandizement or self-distinction to a more primitive orientation, very much in line with the definition of our admittedly inappropriate term "shamanism," that, at the time of writing, had not yet been fully anesthetized by modern, civil sensibilities. The rhetoric of today's Bön, such as that of the published work of Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoché (bstan 'dzin dbang rgyal rin po che) tends to include but minimize such qualities and attitudes. Indeed, the Treasury stands as a fascinating and informative, though surprisingly incomplete, snapshot of modern Bön as conceived by an author working in the first half of the 20th century.


Bjerken, Zeff. 2004. "Exorcising the Illusion of Bön ‘Shamanism’: A Critical Genealogy of Shamanism in Tibetan Religions." Revue d’Etudes Tibétaines, 6:4-59.

Baumer, Christopher. 2002. Bon: Tibet’s Ancient Religion. Trumbull, CT: Weatherhill.

Karmay, Samten G., ed. 1972. The Treasury of Good Sayings: A Tibetan History of Bon. London: Oxford University Press.

Martin, Dan. 2001. Unearthing Bön Treasures. Boston: Brill.