Bon Background Research

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Bon Background Research from the Tibetan Renaissance Seminar

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Bonpo Beliefs

According to the Bonpos, the founder of their tradition, Tönpa Shenrab Miwo (ston pa gshen rab mi bo), lived from 16,016 B.C.E. until approximately 7,816 B.C.E. He was born in the land of Ölmo Lungring, both an allegedly historical place somewhere to the west of Tibet in present-day Kashmir, Afghanistan, and/or Iran, known to Bonpos as Takzik (stag gzig), and a mythical place of origin and destination, somewhat equivalent to the Buddhist notion of Pure Land. At the center of this land was a great mountain called Yungdrung Gutsek (g.yung drung dgu brtsegs). There are a number of stories about Shenrab Miwo’s early exploits, but the most significant myth, and the one that provides the alleged foundation for the story of Padmasambhava’s subjugation of Tibetan spirits, tells of a demon who stole horses from Shenrab Miwo, an act that led the latter into Tibet. In Tibet and along the way, Shenrab Miwo subjugated the local deities and ultimately the demon himself, demanding an end to blood sacrifices and converting all in his path to Bon. Shenrab Miwo’s teachings vary across sources, but two sources provide the most succinct and popular systems attributed to him: the Zermik (gzer mig) terma and the Ziji (gzi brjid) text based on oral tradition. The former describes the “Four gates with the treasure chamber as the fifth”, which includes instructions for rituals, purification, divination, demon ransoming, high tantric teachings, monastic regulations, philosophy, path, and rdzogs chen, while the latter describes the “Nine ways of Bon”, and goes into greater detail about and builds on top of the same basic elements as the Zermik. Its main focus is clearly rdzogs chen, with which it concerns itself for the entirety of its final third. The Bonpo canon is comprised of similar texts, including biographies of Shenrab Miwo, termas - most of which were allegedly buried by Drenpa Namkha in the 8th century, oral traditions, and oral “revelations” that visited scholars in sleep or visions.

Bon ritual consists of many of the elements that Tibetan Buddhism exhibits. Death ritual was and is paramount, and Bonpos attribute the practices and ritual implements of weathermaking, spirit traps, amulets, cham dances, ransoming, prayer flags, and torma to Shenrab Miwo or other pre-historical events and innovators. Otherwise, as Per Kvaerne claims, the doctrine, practices, metaphysics, and meditation of Bon are nearly identical to Nyingma Buddhism. What’s different is the sacred history and religious authority.

In terms of mythology, the Bon cosmogony is dramatically different from Buddhist versions. Though sources and stories differ, there is an almost uniform emphasis on the emergence of gods and demons from eggs created either by a primordial goddess (Sipé Gyelmo, srid pa’I rgyal mo) on her own or in congress with a primordial male figure of her own creation. Most stories are marked by this emphasis on the feminine, on eggs , and on water as the primordial crucible for the lands of Tibet and Ölmo Lungring.

Beliefs About Bon

Until the 1960’s, the majority of even the most astute scholars in the field of Tibetan studies considered Bon a mere amalgam of indigenous Tibetan shamanism, ancestor worship, and folk practices, which, at its best, plagiarized Buddhism. The story goes that Bon existed as an unnamed, incoherent, and loosely associated set of beliefs and practices across the Tibetan plateau until Buddhism started becoming prominent in the 8th to 10th centuries. In order to maintain their religion in the face of Buddhist hegemony, these folk practitioners organized themselves, surreptitiously adopted Buddhism, injected their own practices and cosmology, and called themselves Bonpos. This is actually a more generous assessment from early scholars, who were reacting to the myopic and pejorative assessments of even earlier scholars, who characterized the Bonpos as madmen and demon-worshipers and witch doctors. Zeff Bjerken, in his unbalanced but insightful essay titled “Exercising the Illusion of Bon ‘Shamanism’: A Critical Genealogy of Shamanism in Tibetan Religions” , suggests that the early expositions of Bon by scholars such as Augustine Waddell and Sarat Chandra Das were plagued by western prejudices and Tibetan Buddhist polemics , and that their legacy was nevertheless maintained for nearly three-quarters of a century. In the mid-20th century, slightly more responsible analyses of Bon and shamanism appeared in the work of Mircea Eliade, Helmut Hoffmann, and Réne de Nebesky-Wojkowitz, but their enchantment with mysticism and shamanic charisma, and their perpetuation of myths about Bon, according to Bjerken, revealed a bias and romanticism that simply could not maintain on the ground. Only Giuseppe Tucci, David Snellgrove, and Per Kvaerne, to name a few of the most significant scholars, have undertaken responsible and ultimately accurate investigations into the character of Bon, a pursuit made possible by Snellgrove’s groundbreaking 1967 collaboration with Bonpo monks to write and translate The Nine Ways of Bon.

While Bjerken’s analysis points some real errors and cruelties of historical methods and records, he goes too far in his claim that shamanism exists in the places where we expected to find it only by virtue of its reflecting our interests as investigators. It is true that the term “shamanism” may be too general or may not be appropriate for describing the intercultural set of characteristics that it purports to describe, but the divination and mysticism and other traits that we use to define shamanism are clearly evident in Bon, and have been throughout its history, to an extent that Bjerken refuses to admit.

What is the responsible and accurate portrayal of Bon? By modern standards, Bon is related less to shamanism, animism, and folk practices, and more to Nyingma Buddhism, though, given the great cross-pollination with elements from all traditions, it is impossible to divorce them entirely. Though some anti-Bon Buddhist polemics describe a three-fold evolution of Bon -- “outbreak Bon” (rdol Bon), “erring Bon” (‘khyar ba’i Bon), “transformed Bon” (bsgyur Bon) – the Bonpos have never accepted this distinction, and instead maintain that their founder, Shenrab Miwo, lived in the 170th century B.C.E. and propagated the teachings in Tibet more recently.

Needless to say, it is difficult to prove that Shenrab Miwo lived in such a distant past, and the absence of documentation (and, possibly, of a Tibetan writing system) prior to the time of Songsten Gampo, makes it difficult to trace any of the Bonpo claims about Zhangzhung (both the kingdom and the language), Takzik, and its traditions to any concrete date before the 7th century. But it is clear that Bon was alive and well and unearthing its own treasure texts at least as early as the first few decades of the 11th century. Samten Karmay (1998) also finds evidence of Bon in the 6th to 7th century, in the form of king worship and rituals, and claims that, in the latter century, Bon was a combination of the worship of kings and mountain deities, Iranian origin myths, and Indian notions of karma and rebirth. He doesn’t provide much evidence, especially in regards to whether there has been an independent confirmation of the existence of an organized system called Bon during this period, but there is evidence of a legendary figure named Shenrab Miwo in the 10th century Dunhuang manuscripts. Karmay suggests that this figure, a priest who mediated between the living and the dead, must have actually lived in the 8th-9th century in order to have become mythologized by the 10th. Again, it isn’t clear if this mythology reflects a burgeoning systematization or one that had been in place for centuries (at least), but, based on current evidence, the former is likely.

In the 11th century, Shenchen Luga (gshen chen klu dga’) began the concretization of Bon through the discovery of numerous treasure texts that spoke to specifically Bon sensibilities and its existing traditions, whatever they may actually have been. He was not the first Bonpo treasure revealer, but it was around his exceptional work that Bon literally became concrete, erecting monasteries and other institutions and filling them with self-avowed Bon adherents. According to some sources – mainly Karmay (1998) – Shenchen Luga merely instigated the “latter” propagation of Bon, and by no means participated in its founding, but there is no question that he and his disciples were the first modern Bonpos.

Still, Bon did not receive much attention in the published non-treasure literature until the 12th to 13th century, when Chak Lotsawa (chag lo tsa ba) mentioned it by name for the first time in such literature, declaring that Bonpos had texts of their own and miraculous abilities (Martin 2001). By the end of the 13th century, Bon was surfacing in numerous polemical texts, foremost among which was the dgongs cig yig cha by Wönsherchung (dBon sher ‘byung) and Dorshé (rdor shes). The authors dismissed Bon as a collection of divinatory practices and essentially called it a waste of time. Interestingly, their polemics are often directed more to Shenchen than to Bon as a whole. Also, it would appear that Bon had less of an impact over the course of the many centuries leading up to this time period in part because Buddhists uniformly dominated and condemned Bon. As Buddhism stratified, however, liberal viewpoints came to prominence and figures such as Zhang Rinpoche (zhang rin po che) began to suggest that the Bonpos were to be respected and admitted as valid religious practitioners and possibly even Buddhists, despite their beliefs not matching perfectly with the dominant Buddhist traditions of the time (Martin). Such rhetoric fanned the flames of sectarianism, and the distance between Buddhism and Bon ironically diminished as pundits analyzed the most minute details in order to draw ever finer lines.

After the Crystal Mirror polemic, Bon entered its modern phase of greater recognition as an independent tradition that is otherwise Buddhist in character. Baumer notes on multiple occasions that the Dalai Lama has taken to calling Bon the fifth school of Buddhism in Tibet, and has admitted a Bonpo to the parliament of the Tibetan government in exile. Though most Bonpos were driven out of central Tibet during the periods of their persecution, and have long since vacated the areas of their alleged foundation in the Zhangzhung of far western Tibet, relatively large Bon communities still thrive in the areas of Kham and Amdo, as well as in exile in India.

Given the clan basis of Bon communities, even as Buddhism weaned religious institutions off of the clan paradigm by means of celibacy and incarnate lamas, it is interesting to note the historical development of lay Bon monasteries established by clans. In time, these monasteries developed into full-fledged institutions resembling their Buddhist counterparts, but the clan influence has remained stronger than it has in Buddhism. A good summary of the main Bonpo clans can be found in Dondrup Lhagyal’s essay "Bonpo family lineages in Central Tibet," in Karmay, New Horizons in Bon Studies. A good discussion of historical and extant Bonpo monasteries can be found in Baumer.

Primary Differences Between Buddhism and Bon

Many of the most significant differences have been listed already above, but a few more warrant highlighting. To facilitate reference, I will list them in bullet form:

  • small differences such as counter-clockwise circumambulation and eight-syllable mantra instead of six.
  • karma not as important in Bon, events still occasionally explained by acts of deities and spirits and such.
  • feminine deities play a bigger role, especially in cosmogony. Interestingly, however, the relationship between nuns and monks, and the treatment of the former overall, is less progressive than in Buddhism (Baumer, p. 158).
  • clans still important, and mitigate the adoption of the incarnate lama strategy.
  • Bon rituals established in the canon.
  • during the propagation of Bon, temples and stupas were built, but not monasteries, and the propagation was carried out by women and children nearly as much as by men (Kvaerne, p. 17).
  • marriage rituals are more prominent (Karmay, 1998)

There are many other subtleties in the doctrines, practices, and traditions that are shared by Bon and the other schools of Buddhism, but there isn’t room or time enough to go into all of them here. Suffice it to say that the rdzogs chen and terma traditions, for example, are not exactly the same in Bon and Nyingma, though they share the vast majority of elements in common, and clearly influenced each other in a way that prohibits the assignment of primacy to one over the other.