Week 7

Week 7: Bon


The early renaissance period is marked by the co-emergence of three different broad movements - the Ancients (Nyingmas), the Reciters (Bonpos), and the Modernists (Sarma). While the first two both look back in past and claim to be continuances of earlier traditions several centuries earlier, in very important ways they newly emerge in the early renaissance period with complex relationships to previous traditions and groups. The Bonpos are particularly interesting for their distinctive historiographical traditions, both in their anti-Tibetan imperial claims of belonging to the Zhangzhung Kingdom and ethnicity, and in their counter-Buddhist lineages going back to Shenrab Miwo (gshen rab mi bo). Thus we find in the eleventh century the interesting phenomena of Tibetan communities who speak Tibetan, appear to be Tibetan in their cultural practices, and live distributed across the plateau, yet claim to descend from a totally different ethnicity with its own no longer extant language and a historical memory at complete odds with that of their own apparent culture. The other highly distinctive aspect of the Bonpo tradition is the extensive role they give to practices and belief systems that are non-Buddhist, and which have been referred to in scholarly literature as "pre-Buddhist" or "folk". These traditions occupy an extensive portion of their formal doxographical scheme of "nine vehicles" of practice and belief. This is also linked to their claim to be non-Buddhist and descend from Zhangzhung priests who presided over non-Buddhist Imperial rituals in the Zhangzhung and later Tibetan courts. However, despite the unusual historical claims and religious practices/beliefs, in fact, it is clear that the many Bonpos are deeply Buddhist in their institutions, practices, philosophies, and literature in most ways. However, it remains unclear as to what extent there may have been two strands of Bon - one deeply Buddhist, and the other perhaps a far more loosely knit and far flung set of practitioners of older arts. The Bonpos were closely related to the Nyingma in that they did not participate in the Renaissance love affair with Translators, but rather embraced the emergent Treasure (gter ma) movement, though its romantic cult of the past focused on the Zhangzhung Empire rather than the Tibetan one. It is clear that in many cases there was extensive intertextuality between Nyingma and Bon treasures, and that the Bonpo Terma was in many ways a highly interpretative reading of the religious environment, literature and practices of eleventh century India and Tibet, and beyond.

Required Readings

  • Karmay, Samten G., ‘A General Introduction to the History and Doctrines of Bon.’ Memoirs of the Research Department of the Tôyô Bunko, vol. 33 (1975), pp. 171-218. A good general discussion of Bon.
  • Martin, Dan, Unearthing Bon Treasures: Life and Contested Legacy of a Tibetan Scripture Revealer, with a General Bibliography of Bon, Leiden: Brill, * 2001. Chapters 1-4, pp. 1-39. Chapter 6, pp. 56-70, Chapter 10, pp. 105-116 and Chapter 12, pp. 124-147
  • Snellgrove, David (1980). external link: The Nine Ways of Bon: Excerpts from Gzi-brjid. Boulder: Prajñâ Press. Pp. 11-21.
  • Kvaerne, Per, external link: The Bon Religion of Tibet, London: Serindia, 1995. Introduction, pp. 9-23.

Additional Bibliographical Resources

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