Bon In The Blue Annals

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Bön in the Blue Annals from the Tibetan Renaissance Seminar

Though Bön does not feature prominently in the Blue Annals, Gö Lotsawa Zhönnupel ('gos lo tsa ba gzhon nu dpal, 1392-1481) references the tradition and a few of its adherents, named and unnamed, at various points in the narrative. It is difficult to draw any conclusions about the history or dynamics of Bön and its relationship to Buddhism with such a small sample of data in so biased a work, relatively objective though it may claim to be. Nevertheless, Gö Lotsawa's treatment of the subject provides an illuminating glimpse into perspectives on Bön in the 15th century, from the perspective of a contemporaneous Buddhist tradition. Given the anti-Bön polemics of the previous and following centuries, it is perhaps most interesting to note the subtly respectful, even deferential and envious, attitudes towards Bön in many of the references. Overall, the various treatments of Bön in the Blue Annals can be categorized across a full spectrum of attitudes, from objective/indifferent, to deferential, to belittling. The end result is an ambivalence that equally could be vitriol tempered by literary strategies of moral responsibility or of equanimity for the sake of enduring posterity, a reflection of genuinely ambivalent attitudes towards Bön at the time, the influence of multiple authors or events during the period of writing, or the objective reporting of stories in which biases inhere.

Before analyzing the examples individually, it is important to make note of the methodology used to collect references to Bön. A portion of the information came from direct reading of George Roerich's translation of the Blue Annals (1996, Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Pub), but the majority stems from searches of the Tibetan input version of the Blue Annals available on the UVA Collab Tibetan Texts Worksite. The searches performed were བོན (bon), ཞང་ཞུང (zhang zhung), སྟག་གཟིག (stag gzig), གཤེན་རབ (gshen rab), and ཀླུ་དགའ (klu dga'). Note the absence of the tsag at the end of each term, in order to allow for shad endings or particle variations. བོན་ (and its adjective) was the most obvious choice, of course, but ཞང་ཞུང་ and སྟག་གཟིག་ are such seminal entailments of the Bönpo identity that references to both seemed likely to represent valuable perspectives on the greater category of Bön. གཤེན་རབ་ and ཀླུ་དགའ་ are the atomic syllabic constituents of Bön's most notorious personalities, Shenrab Miwo (gshen rab mi bo), the alleged founder and lord of Bön, and Shenchen Luga (gshen chen klu dga'), the greatest treasure revealer and institutional foundation of Bön. There are admittedly many other keywords that can and should be used in order to extract data for such an endeavor, but given the relatively short timeframe of this essay's preparation, these seemed to be the most critical.

The results of the extraction of Bön references, according to the categories outlined above, are listed below. In reality, many of the references are ambiguous in attitude and cannot be so readily broken across black-and-white boundaries, but tallying in this manner helps to get a picture of the overall tenor of the text. In cases where the ambivalence is too well-balanced to break apart, or the emotional tenor is unclear, the instance gets categorized as "Ambivalent", or, in cases where it is difficult even to contrive an attitude, "Objective".

Objective: 4
Deferential: 4
Belittling: 2
Ambivalent: 8

The ambivalent examples, as noted below, are almost uniformly ambivalent in the sense of vacillating between objective and belittling, though the conceivability of the latter may be the result of a legacy of somewhat recent anti-Bön polemic in the public sphere (19th century). It has been natural, though lazy, in recent Tibetology, to contrive anti-Bön attitudes for many of the Tibetan Buddhist circles of the last 1,500 years. If ever a publication should deter us from making such assumptions, it is the Blue Annals, which, as the numbers above and analysis below show, is fairly even-keeled. It should be further noted that neither Takzik (stag gzig) nor Luga (klu dga') was ever mentioned in the entirety of the Blue Annals. Given the slipperiness of the actuality of Takzik in Bön's history, and the highly targetable prominence of Shenchen Luga in the modern history of Bön, the absence of these terms in the Blue Annals, along with the overall sparsity of references to Bön, is strong evidence for the lack of any real pro- or anti-Bön agenda. One might argue that this betrays an attitude of dismissiveness towards the Bönpos, but Bön is not the only tradition or group notably absent from much of the narrative. Gö Lotsawa is tracing a history of the mostly mainstream lineages in Tibet during the previous 600 years or so, and Bön was still rising to prominence at the time of his authorship.

Examples in the OBJECTIVE category

  • "The siddha nying phug pa obtained from him (Candradhvaja) the sādhana of Avalokiteśvara. His parents were natives of Zhang Zhung. He was born in the year Wood Male Dog ('sing pho khyi 1094 A.D.)…" (R:1008, Chapter 14)

In most cases, references to Zhang Zhung are presented objectively. The text that follows the above quote does not exhibit detail different in tenor or implication from similar references to individuals whose parents were born elsewhere in Tibet. There may be a subtle hint, as there is in many of the examples, that residents of Zhang Zhung moved away from the area or were forced away, and now have become Buddhists, or at least their children have, because it is a superior tradition. This valorization of Buddhism is not at all explicit, however, and it would not be responsible to read such a judgment into a narrative segment that may merely be describing the geographical provenance of someone's family. It could be just as likely, for example, that there is a subtle sympathy for the subjects of the Zhang Zhung kingdom who were conquered and possibly banished from regions of Tibet during the reign of Trisong Detsen (khri srong lde btsan). There is just no explicit evidence in the narrative. On the other hand, it is significant to note that many of the individuals coming from Zhang Zhung in the Blue Annals are called "siddhas," one of whom is actually named "Zhang Zhung". Not all siddhas are Zhang Zhungpos, of course, but it's a noteworthy connection of ethnicity and a particular spiritual orientation, whether by coincidence, bias on the author's part, or an observed cultural phenomenon.

  • "smra ba'i seng ge rong ston chen po: He was a Bodhisattva endowed with the power of solemn wish (smon lam gyi mthu can). He was born as son of a bon po family at the rgyal mo rong in the year Fire Female Sheep (me mo lug 1367 A.D.)." (R:1080, Chapter 15)

According to the Blue Annals narrative, there is nothing peculiar about this son of a Bönpo family, but investigation of Mawé Senggé (smra ba'i seng ge), master of the Abhidharmakosakarika and founder of Nalendra monastery, reveals that he sat in stark opposition to the Gelukpa school of Tibetan Buddhism, which was on the rise during this time period. The Bönpos and Gelukpas have a long history of conflict and sharing, to the extent that one wonders if reference to a Bön ancestry here is meant to elucidate Mawé Senggé's anti-Geluk stance. Again, however, there is no mention of such tension in the Blue Annals, and if the mention of Bön is serving such an end, it is a subtle service, at least in our modern milieu of distant detachment from these events and personalities.

  • "In this country of Snows there exist three lineages of ordination : The first lineage: Ācārya Nāgarjuna, Bhavya, Śrīgupta (dpal sbas), Jñānagarbha (ye shes snying po), Śāntarakṣita (zhi ba 'tsho), and then (transmitted) through sba ratna. This lineage of bla chen dgongs pa rab gsal and other great teachers, has been transmitted in khams. In dbus and gtsang it has been handed down through klu mes and others. The second lineage: the lineage of rgyal ba'i shes rab of zhang zhung, the disciple of the three Pālas, who had been the disciples of Paṇḍita Dharmapāla. This line was called the 'Line of the Upper Vinaya' (stod 'dul ba)." (R:34, Chapter 1)

This is another case of the seemingly objective mention of Zhang Zhung as an individual's homeland. On the other hand, each of the three lineages is described as having been transmitted in a specific area, Kham (khams) for the first, Wü (dbus) and Tsang (gtsang) for the second, and Zhang Zhung for the third, despite the lattermost ambiguously communicating the place as a quality of the individual instead of the transmission. It's likely that Zhang Zhung is being used synonymously with "West Tibet", and is merely a geographical designation, but it does not stand that Zhang Zhung would have been used so objectively in the time of Gyelwa Sherap (rgyal ba'i shes rab, corrected to rgyal ba shes rab), the lineage holder mentioned above, who lived in the 9th century. One thing that Bönpos admit in discourse regarding their relationship to the other schools of Buddhism is that they all share a common Vinaya lineage. This reference in the Blue Annals concords with the Bönpo position, and though presenting the information objectively, offers a slight validation of Bön in its inclusivity.

  • "The eldest son ruled in mar yul. The middle son ruled in spu hrangs. The youngest in zhang zhung, which region forms part of gu ge." (R:37, Chapter 1)

Another objective reference to Zhang Zhung, defining Zhang Zhung as part of Gugé, though, like the previous example, there is a subtle sense of inclusivity and equanimity, the symmetry of which suggests an agenda, on the part of the author or elsewhere, beyond objectivity. Then again, this could hint at a story of the Buddhist subjugation of Zhang Zhung. It's impossible to say from the limited information.

  • "The seventh successor known as sangs rgyas ston pa, who became the vicar of sangs rgyas gnyan ston : He was born in the year of the Hare (yos lo) in the family of the bon po ya ngal dkar po at sil ma…" (R:733, Chapter 9)

As with Mawé Senggé, Sanggyé Tönpa (sangs rgyas ston pa, aka: brtson 'grus seng+ge) was born to a Bönpo family. There is no evidence of bias about this figure in the preceding or succeeding narrative. Again, one could infer from the negligence of his family's tradition and his pursuant rise to prominence as a Kagyu scholar that Bön is inferior to Buddhism, but more explicit evidence for such a perspective is entirely absent.

Examples in the DEFERENTIAL category

  • "Some said that a monk should be asked. Again some said that a bon po should be invited. Because they could not agree, they said to ma ma g.yung drung bkra shis: 'We are unable to agree, you should make the choice.' The woman said: 'Well, my means being sufficient, let us invite all three!' Three respectable priests were accordingly invited…The bon po priest said that it should be dedicated to gshen rab mi bo. So they built separate temples. lha rje ‘ug pa lung pa laid the foundation [of the temple] at a place situated below sgro phug, and built the temple jointly with the bon po priest. The bon po priest said: 'When I shall erect the image, will your god be the principal deity, and mine his retinue, or will my god be the principal deity, and yours his retinue?' Because neither of the two propositions were acceptable to ‘ug pa lung pa, he gave the temple to the bon po priest. Then the alms giver gnyan sde gsum said: 'Whoever will place the roof on the temple, should pay the expenses (this is possibly a bad translation, and should be corrected to whoever puts the roof on the temple collects the alms).' The Tantric and the bon po priest built the roof, but the monk did not. Since the Tantric and the bon po priest have been collecting offerings each year, the monk said: 'Though we did fail in the building of the roof, let us collect money also.'" (R:112-113, Chapter 3)

There is definitely some ambivalence in this example, but the overall tenor is positive. People are insistent about including a Bönpo in this opportunity for patronage, and the patroness ultimately decides that "respectable priests" from all three traditions are to be invited. The unwillingness of the group to recommend one tradition over another, even at a subliminal level, is a strong endorsement of Bön in a narrative such as this. From there, it might be tempting to say that it was conceited of the Bönpo to brazenly declare that the temple should be dedicated to his lord, but the response from the others is decidedly peaceable, with all three agreeing immediately to build separate temples. The Tantric and Bönpo then built a temple together (portending much pairing between these two traditions as the Blue Annals unfolds), and the Bönpo is portrayed reasonably in his neutral presentation of the issue of whose lord will be the principal deity. Ukpa Lungpa ('ug pa lung pa)'s decision to give the temple to the Bönpo may be viewed as a magnanimous act on his part, or as a concession, but it also suggests a respect for the Bönpo and his tradition, or, at the very least, the absence of any animosity or opposition. Finally, the Tantric and Bönpo come through with the roof while the monk scrambles to catch up.

  • "His great grandfather rta bon dbang brags, who followed both the Doctrine and the Bon, possessed sons, wealth and authority." (R:141, Chapter 3)

This is the primary example that led to the statement above that there is a hint of envy towards Bön. Presumably by means of the greater lay orientation of Bön, Tawön Wangdrak (rta bon dbang brags) was able to have children, and then, by means of Bön or Buddhism or both, amassed great wealth and authority. Though the monastic ideal ostensibly had less to do with any of these things, the presentation of such individuals is very positive indeed. There is no hint of condemnation for following Bön, for being concerned with wealth, and so on, and it appears that the influence of Bön enables or at least contributes to such a positive state of affairs.

  • "At that time Dampa was residing at the zur khang of Dingri (ding ri). Dampa said: 'Fetch here my gold! Prepare food! Then haste will come to us two!' Then they hurriedly ate their food, and grasping Tsünchungma’s hand, Dampa said: 'We shall entrust (our property) to a bon po elder and his wife, O yoginī! We two let us go!'" (R:225, Chapter 4)

While there is nothing overtly positive here, it is telling that the narrative includes a specifically Bönpo elder. Such an inclusion in an otherwise embellished segment can only be communicative of sentiment. A capricious act is made possible through the trustworthiness of a Bönpo couple. It's possible that this is a person that Dampa knows, or that it conveys the notion that Bön was an older tradition, practiced in contemporary times only by the elderly. Such an interpretation, however, enfolds a decontextualized bias about minority culture being on the perpetual egress, dominated from within by people who were around when it wasn't the minority. Bön was only gaining in popularity throughout the relevant periods, both in the lifetime of Padampa Sanggyé (pha dam pa sangs rgyas, 11th century, the same time that Shenchen Luga is undertaking his massive revelation) and at the time of the writing of the Blue Annals. It's also possible that it is meant to convey a lack of dynamism on the part of the Bönpos, but that would be much more reasonable if he had suggested they give their property to a young Bönpo couple. In all likelihood, the sentiment is one of mild admiration for the Bönpos, who could be trusted to be honest and steady.

  • "After that he [rgod tshang pa] again returned to Tibet. While he was crossing the dpal mo dpal thang, he ran short of provisions, and felt weak. He came across a bon po and asked him '0 incarnation of gshen rab mi bo! Have you anything to eat?' The bon po replied: 'You, Buddhist men, often do such things and practise penance out of time!' He gave him some barley flour and some pieces of intestines. rgod tshang pa chewed them, and continued his journey. Later, he used to relate this story, adding: 'This present of a bon po was greater than a hundred offerings of the present time.'" (R:682-683, Chapter 8)

Though the Bönpo scolds the Buddhist here, it is clear that the prevailing sentiment is one of great gratitude and respect. It's interesting to note, in a few of the Blue Annals examples, that the Bönpos routinely seem to have more food and resources than the Buddhists. There is some ambivalence surrounding these issues, to be discussed below, but the implicit assessment of these cirumstances is positive.

Examples in the BELITTLING category

These examples are by no means concrete. Whereas positivity is abundant and recognizable in the Blue Annals, negativity is much more absent or veiled. Some of the examples below perhaps deserve to be in the "Ambivalent" category, but the explicit content or implicit context made them reasonable candidates for this section.

  • "In the reign of lha tho tho ri gnyan btsan the Cintāmaṇi-dhāraṇī (tsinta ma ni'i gzungs) and the spang bkong phyag rgya ma fell from Heaven, and were worshipped. Because of this, the life span of the king and that of the kingdom increased. This became known as the 'Beginning of the Holy Doctrine'. nel pa paṇḍita said: [C:64] 'Because the bon pos adored Heaven, it was said that (these books) had fallen from Heaven.' Instead of this bon po tradition, it is said that (these) books had been brought (to Tibet) by the Paṇḍita Buddhirakṣita (blo sems 'tsho) and the translator (lo sā ba) li the se. Since the (Tibetan) king could not read, and did not understand the meaning (of the books) the paṇḍita and the translator returned. This (account) seems to me to be true." (R:38, Chapter 1)

First, this is a slightly awkward translation. It should be more like this: “'Since the Bönpos love the sky, they say [the books] fell from the sky.' This is the Bön discourse. In reality, it is said that the Paṇḍita Buddhirakṣita (blo sems 'tsho) and the translator (lo sā ba) li the se came and brought those dharmas. Since the king couldn’t read or understand (these books), however, they returned (whence they came)."

This is clearly a cut at Bönpos for being so clueless as to think books fall from the sky. It would have been easy to omit the Bönpo part altogether, or to trim the example down to a statement opposing the Bönpo traditional view on the subject. Instead, the Bönpo position is contrasted against the much more sober reality in order to make them seem frivolous or condescendingly quaint.

  • "There was a bon po adept who had mounted a drum, and was about to proceed to the snowy summit. The Venerable One reached the snowy summit within a single moment, and then having spread his linen garment, he sent the bon po adept down with his drum, and showed many other similar miracles. After that he came down (from the summit) and numerous supporters, such as rdor mo and others attended on him." (R:434, Chapter 8)

While this narrative of the alleged defeat of Bön remains admirably light on embellishment and prejudice, the fact remains that Bönpos claim to have won this competition, and pitting "The Venerable One" against "the bon po" adept, rhetorically diminishes the latter to the status of an anonymous midge.

Examples in the AMBIVALENT category

  • "yang khye then offered him some food and drink which he had stored away after a bon po festival." (R:113, Chapter 3)

Here again is the connection of Bönpos and food. There is no explicit bias one way or the other here, but the ambivalence comes from the duality of Bönpo festivals both providing food for people who may be in need, but also being so extravagant as to provide enough for those in need not only to eat, but to store. There are some inherent biases in interpretation here, but there isn't any praise for the Bönpos here. More than anything, this may communicate the relative lifestyles of each, wherein Bönpos are more likely to be lay and thus better equipped for the procurement of goods than the predominantly begging Buddhist communities.

  • "A man named snang sgom who had practised meditation on the Buddhist Doctrine, but who used to assume in his ordinary life the manner of a bon po, and was known to possess the faculty of prescience, saw the gods of gnyan thang lha receive [F:80b] His Holiness (spyan snga nas)." (R:587, Chapter 8)

It's not clear what "in his ordinary life the manner of a bon po" may mean, but it has subtly negative connotations considering that it is contrasted against the undoubtedly nobler endeavor of "practicing meditation on the Buddhist doctrine". On the other hand, it may be this manner that endowed him with the faculty of prescience, so it is difficult to interpret.

  • "the siddha khyung po rnal 'byor. He belonged to the khyungpo clan, and was born at snye mo ra mangs% in the Tiger year (stag lo 1086 A.D.) as son of father stag skye and mother bkra shis skyid. Soon after his birth, the Indian siddha Amogha came there, and uttered an auspicious prophecy about him. At the age of ten, he mastered reading, and the Indian and Tibetan alphabets. He became proficient in the Kalacakra. At the age of 13, he studied with the ācārya g.yung drung rgyal ba the Bon doctrine, and preached it to others, and about 700 scholars (possessing manuscripts of the text) attended his class." (R:728, Chapter 9)

This is another connection of a prominent siddha with Bön, though the narrative is ambivalent about the role of the tradition in a biography such as this. A number of the other examples in this category exhibit this same kind of treatment. Is it merely factual? Khyungpo Neljor (khyung po rnal 'byor) learns Bön and teaches it, among other traditions? Did he teach it as a Bönpo or as a Buddhist, teaching it in a more informative manner to others? Is there a statement here about Bön being one of many traditions that are important to learn, that there is enough interest in it to attract a class of 700 scholars? Or is it merely something you learn at the age of 13 and move on from? In this case, it sounds more like a feat than a requirement, so the implication may be that Bön can be difficult and thus the overall valence may be positive, but it is difficult to tell.

  • "At North la stod he (bsod nams rgya mtsho) preached the initiation of zhi khro, etc., and the exposition of the Guhyagarbha to numerous Tantrics and bon pos, including the official (master, bdag po) chud kha pa." (R:830, Chapter 10)

Similar to the other examples in the "ambivalent" category, this segment shows a prominent Buddhist teacher teaching to Bönpos. It is impossible to know if there is some kind of slight against Bönpos here, or if it merely expresses the wide appeal and diligence of the teaching. In any event, examples such as these show the great cross-pollination of traditions (or at least the pollination of Bön by Buddhism) during these time periods.

  • "The second (visit): having left Kāśmīra, he (dam pa sangs rgyas) proceeded towards mnga’ ris and bestowed several precepts on zhang zhung gling kha pa and on the bon po khra tshar 'brug bla." (R:871, Chapter 12)

This issue is the same as the last.

  • "Prajñāpāla's disciple was the Vinayadhara of the country of zhang zhung (rgyal ba’i shes rab)…" (R:84, Chapter 2)

This whole section is a panegyric on Gyelwa Sherap, and has the same issues as the example involving Gyelwa Sherap above. He is not a Bönpo, according to the narrative, but he is operating in Zhang Zhung during the 9th century, a critical time and place for Bön. Is he part of the subjugating force or the one responsible for bringing the Vinaya to the Bönpos or? More research will need to be done on this figure to make any judgments about how his treatment in the Blue Annals reflects on Bön.


Overall, the presentation of Bön in the Blue Annals tends very much towards the middle. There can be no doubt that Gö Lotsawa's agenda with Bön, if pointed, was a dull point indeed, free from explicit polemic or bias, occasionally slanting towards a pro-Bön viewpoint. Perhaps most telling is the absence of any consistency in the subtle characterizations, from example to example, chapter to chapter, throughout the Blue Annals. No identifiable pattern exists. It is just as likely that there would be a belittlement of Bön in the first chapter as the middle, and such is the case as well for deferential treatment.

It is worth contrasting the Blue Annals with a famous history of Bön such as The Treasury of Good Sayings (edited and translated by Samten G. Karmay, 1972, New York: Oxford University Press), the results of which show the 20th century work of Bön, a tradition historically claiming to be far more embracing and tolerant of Buddhism than vice versa, to be far more unbalanced and careless in its treatment of "the other." In all fairness, however, the Blue Annals is a towering work that stands above thousands of examined texts within a tradition that reigned in its homeland for over a millennium and that continues to receive a great deal of attention and resources. The polished evenness and balance of perspectives in the Blue Annals, especially as they pertain to Bön, can only be the product of a mature and prolific tradition operating in a period of relative calm.