BON . 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 was only in the mid-1960s that a more accurate understanding of this religion 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 Rnying ma pa [Nyingma pa] 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 Bonpo, again using the Tibetan term. A Bonpo 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 bonpo s. It is possible that their religious practices were styled Bon (although scholars are divided on this point); certainly their practices 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 for 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 century onward and that still claims the adherence of many Tibetans. It is with the latter religion that this article is concerned. The Bonpos 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 Bonpo 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 perspective, 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 Kailash 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 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 Bonpos claim, lived Ston pa Gshen rab (Tonpa Shenrap), a fully enlightened being who was, in fact, nothing less than the true Buddha of our world age. The Bonpos 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 Śākyamuni, the Buddha on whose authority the Buddhists base their doctrines. Ston pa Gshen 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, Ston pa Gshen 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 Bonpos, 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 Bonpos 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 Gshen 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.) The Bka' 'gyur and Brten 'gyur have been reconstituted and printed editions have been published in Tibet.
A common division of the Bonpo Bka' 'gyur is the fourfold one into Sūtras (mdo ), Prajñāpāramitā texts (ʾbum ), 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 Sūtras; "Internal," comprising the commentaries on the Tantras and the rituals focusing on the major Tantric deities, as well as the cult of ḍākinī s, dharmapāla s, 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 Zhang-zhung and, ultimately, to Rtag gzigs.
As this review of Bonpo 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. Bonpos 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 Bonpos 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 Bonpo monastery, founded in 1405, is Sman ri (Menree) in central Tibet (in the province of Gtsang, north of the Brahmaputra River). Fully ordained monks, corresponding to the Buddhist dge slong (Gelong; Skt., bhikṣu ), are styled drang srong (a term that in Tibetan otherwise translates ṛṣi, 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 (Geluks pa) school, but the older tradition of Tantric yogins and hermits, constituting an important link between the Bonpos and the Rnying ma pas, has never been quite abandoned.
An important class of religious experts, which likewise finds its counterpart in the Rnying 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 ninth centuries, the Bonpos 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 gter ston ("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 Bkaʾ ʿgyur and Brten ʾgyur 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 Mahāyāna Buddhism—are different from the Buddhist ones. They have different names, iconographical characteristics, evocatory formulas (mantras), and myths. A systematic study of this pantheon has, however, only just begun, and likewise, our knowledge of the rituals of the Bonpos is still extremely incomplete.
The laypeople are confronted by many of these deities, impersonated by monks, in the course of mask dances. The lay Bonpos 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 Kailash in the western Himalayas, or Bon ri ("mountain of Bon"), in the southeastern province of Rkong po (Kong po).
The Diffusion of Bon
Both Buddhists and Bonpos 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 Western 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 Bonpos proceed counterclockwise rather than following the (Indian and Buddhist) tradition of pradakṣiṇā, 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 Bonpos 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 Bonpo 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 Gshen rab and Śākyamuni were really twin brothers.
It is difficult to assess just how large the Bonpo community of Tibet is. Certainly the Bonpos are a not insignificant minority. Particularly in eastern Tibet, whole districts are populated by Bonpos. 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 Bonpo villages, especially in the district of Dolpo. At a point in history that remains to be determined precisely, Bon exerted a strong influence on the religion of the Nakhi people in Yunnan Province in southwestern China; with this exception, the Bonpos do not seem to have engaged in missionary enterprises. In India, Bonpos 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 Bonpos 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 well-illustrated introduction to Bon for the nonspecialist is Christian Baumet, Tibet's Ancient Religion Bon (Bangkok/Trumbull, Conn., 2002). When it was published in 1950 and for many years thereafter, Helmut Hoffman's Quellen zur Geschichte der tibetischen Bon-Religion (Wiesbaden, 1950) was the most reliable and comprehensive study of Bon, based as it was on all sources available at the time. Since 1960, Tibetan Bonpo monks in exile have collaborated with Western scholars. The first major work to result from this entirely new situation was The Nine Ways of Bon: Excerpts from the gZi-brjid, edited and translated by David L. Snellgrove (1967; reprint, Boulder, 1980), in which doctrinal material from the important fourteenth-century Bon text Gzi brjid was presented for the first time. In the following year, David L. Snellgrove and Hugh E. Richardson presented a historical framework for the development of Bon in A Cultural History of Tibet (1968; reprint, Boulder, 1980) that has since been generally accepted. An excellent presentation of Bon was also given by Anne-Marie Blondeau in her article "Les religions du Tibet," in Histoire des religions, edited by Henri-Charles Puech, vol. 3 (Paris, 1976), pp. 233–329.
An important survey of the Bon religion is Samten G. Karmay's "A General Introduction to the History and Doctrines of Bon," Memoirs of the Research Department of the Tōyō Bunko, no. 33 (1975): 171–218 (also printed as a separate booklet, The M. T. B. Off-prints Series, no. 3; Tokyo, 1975). The same scholar has also translated a history of Bon written by the Bonpo scholar Shar rdza Bkra shīs Rgyal mtshan (1859–1935) in 1922 under the title The Treasury of Good Sayings: A Tibetan History of Bon (London, 1972).
On Bon literature, see Per Kvaerne's "The Canon of the Bonpos," Indo-Iranian Journal 16 (1975): 18–56, 96–144, and Samten G. Karmay's A Catalogue of Bonpo Publications (Tokyo, 1977). The monastic life of Bon (based on information from Sman-ri monastery) is outlined in Kvaerne's "Continuity and Change in Tibetan Monasticism," in Korean and Asian Religious Tradition, edited by Chai-shin Yu (Toronto, 1977), pp. 83–98. On meditational practices, see Kvaerne's "'The Great Perfection' in the Tradition of the Bonpos," in Early Ch'an in China and Tibet, edited by Whalen Lai and Lewis R. Lancaster (Berkeley, 1983), pp. 367–392.
A detailed description of a Bonpo ritual has been provided in Per Kvaerne's Tibet, Bon Religion: A Death Ritual of the Tibetan Bonpos (Leiden, 1984). The same book analyzes the extensive iconography connected with that particular ritual. The biography of Ston pa Gshen rab has been studied intensively on the basis of the Gzi-rjid and a series of paintings in Per Kvaerne's "Peintures tibétaines de la vie de sTon-pa-gçen-rab," Arts asiatiques 41 (1986).
A general survey of the iconography of Bon is provided in Per Kvaerne, The Bon Religion of Tibet. The Iconography of a Living Tradition (London, 1995; reprint, 2001).
Per Kvaerne (1987 and 2005)
Bon (pronounced pön) is often characterized as the indigenous, pre-Buddhist religion of Tibet. While not entirely untrue, such a description is misleading. There are clearly indigenous Tibetan elements in historical Bon, and some of these elements likely predate the arrival of Buddhism in Tibet. But because there was no effective Tibetan literary language before the introduction of Buddhism, there is scant evidence from which to reconstruct pre-Buddhist Bon. Moreover, because the Bon that is known from later sources (and exists to this day alongside Tibetan Buddhism) is a highly syncretic religious complex, deeply conditioned by its encounter with Indian (and probably other) forms of Buddhism, it cannot rightly be considered either indigenous or pre-Buddhist.
Historical Bon itself claims to be a direct descendant of—indeed identical with—a religion known as Bon that existed during the centuries before the introduction of Buddhism to Tibet in the eighth century. The few extant sources from the royal dynastic period in Tibet do suggest the existence during this period of a religious formation that may have been known as Bon, whose priests were called bon po, and perhaps also gshen. As reconstructed from these sources, this earlyor proto-Bon seems to have included a strong belief in an afterlife and to have involved a system of funerary rites, animal sacrifices, and royal consecration ceremonies as primary foci. It thus bears little resemblance to later Bon.
There seems to have been some friction between proto-Bon and Buddhism in the dynastic period. Later sources from both traditions tell of Buddhist persecutions of Bon, which the Buddhist king Khri srong lde btsan (pronounced Trisong Detsen; r. 755–797 c.e.) is said to have formally proscribed around 785. Buddhists tell of a subsequent Bon persecution of Buddhism. Both accounts share many similar features (banishing of priests, hiding of books for later recovery, etc.), so the historicity of many of the details is open to doubt, although nearly contemporaneous documents preserved in Dunhuang do indicate some tension between the traditions.
Later Bon considers its "founder" to have been the teacher Gshen rab mi bo (pronounced Shenrap Miwo), from the semimythical land of 'Ol mo lung ring. As in the MahĀyĀna account of Śakyamuni Buddha, Gshen rab is said to have been an enlightened being who emanated in this world as the preordained teacher of the present world-age. Yet, unlike Śakyamuni, accounts of whom emphasize early renunciation of his kingdom and married life, Gshen rab is said to have remained a layman until late in life, working to propagate Bon as a prince, together with his many wives and offspring.
The documented historical period of Bon begins with the "rediscovery" of many allegedly ancient Bon scriptures by Gshen chen klu dga' (pronounced Shenchen Lugah, 996–1035) around 1017; these texts make up a substantial part of the current Bon canon. Gshen chen klu dga' was a native of west-central Gtsang province, and the majority of early Bon institutions were centered in that area. He and his disciples created the scriptural and institutional base for Bon during the next four centuries. In 1405 Shes rab rgyal mtshan (pronounced Shayrap Gyeltsen, 1356–1415) founded the monastery of Sman ri (pronounced Menree), which was to become the most important Bon center until the twentieth century. The eminent scholar of Bon, Per Kværne, has suggested that the Bon canon was fixed in this period, likely no later than 1450.
Bon was reputedly persecuted again under the rule of the fifth Dalai Lama (1617–1682) and during the succeeding two centuries, during which time Bon monasteries were closed, destroyed, or converted, though some scholars downplay the extent of this persecution. The canon was subjected to further revision in the mid-eighteenth century by Kun grol grags pa (pronounced Kundrol Takpa, 1700–?), who prepared a detailed catalogue of its scriptures. Subsequently, in the nineteenth century, Bon experienced something of a resurgence. The primarily Buddhist Non-sectarian (ris med) Movement, in which the Bon teacher Shar rdza bkra shis rgyal mtshan (pronounced Shardza Tashi Gyeltsen, 1858–1935) collaborated, expressed collegial respect for Bon and vice versa. The importance of the great perfection (rdzogs chen) and rediscovered treasure (gter ma) teachings in both the Non-sectarian Movement and Bon provided the foundation for mutual recognition and cross-fertilization. From this time until the present, there have been some who speak of Bon as the "fifth school" of Tibetan Buddhism, in addition to the Rnying ma (Nyingma), Sa skya (Sakya), Bka' brgyud (Kagyu), and Dgelugs (Geluk).
There are in fact many similarities between Bon and the Tibetan Buddhist traditions, which make such an identification—while ultimately untenable—not entirely unreasonable. In fact, the basic teachings of Bon are virtually identical to those found in Tibetan Buddhism. Both traditions commonly refer to the ideal, enlightened being by the term sangs rgyas (Sanskrit, buddha) and to enlightenment itself by the term byang chub (Sanskrit, bodhi [awakening]). In addition to these exact correspondences, one also sometimes finds the use of alternative, but functionally equivalent, terms. For instance, the term bon is contrasted with chos (dharma), a key word in Buddhist thought. Yet, bon occurs in Bon literature in exactly the same contexts as chos does in Buddhism; Bon texts speak, for example, of a "bon body" (bon sku), which is essentially the same as the Buddhist "dharma body" (chos sku), both serving as the first of a triad that includes the beatific body (longs sku) and the emanation body (sprul sku). The structure of their canons is also similar. Like the Buddhists, the Bonpos divide their sacred scriptures into two classes—one containing scriptures of revealed word (in the case of Bon, those attributed to Gshen rab), the other the writings of later saints. In both traditions, the collection of revealed scriptures is known as the Bka' 'gyur (pronounced kanjur). The Buddhists refer to their collection of commentaries as the Bstan 'gyur (pronounced tanjur), while the Bonpos call theirs the Brten 'gyur (a homonym).
Although Bon appears in many respects to be a completely "buddhicized" tradition in its forms, doctrines, and practices, many old indigenous traditions remain in the core of Bon, especially with regard to cosmology, sacred narratives, and pantheon. Thus, though the Bon revealed in the sources available to scholars cannot be considered the indigenous, pre-Buddhist religion of Tibet, these distinctively Bon elements do provide a glimpse of what may have been some of the ancient religious forms of pre-Buddhist Tibet.
Karmay, Samten Gyaltsen, ed. and trans. The Treasury of Good Sayings: A Tibetan History of Bon. London: Oxford University Press, 1972.
Karmay, Samten Gyaltsen. The Arrow and the Spindle: Studies in History, Myths, Rituals, and Beliefs in Tibet. Kathmandu, Nepal: Mandala Book Point, 1998.
Kværne, Per. "The Canon of the Tibetan Bonpos." Indo-Iranian Journal 16 (1974): nr. 1, 18–56; nr. 2, 96–144.
Kværne, Per. "Śākyamuni in the Bon Religion." Temenos 25 (1989): 33–40.
Kværne, Per. "The Bon Religion of Tibet: A Survey of Research." In The Buddhist Forum, Vol. 3, ed. Tadeusz Skorupski and Ulrich Pagel. New Delhi: Heritage, 1995.
Kværne, Per. The Bon Religion of Tibet: The Iconography of a Living Tradition. London: Serindia, 1995. Reprint, Boston: Shambhala, 2001.
Martin, Dan. Unearthing Bon Treasures: Life and Contested Legacy of a Tibetan Scripture Revealer, with a General Bibliography of Bon. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2001.
Snellgrove, David, ed. and trans. The Nine Ways of Bon: Excerpts from the gZi-brjid. London: Oxford University Press, 1967. Reprint, Boulder, CO: Prajñā Press, 1980.
Christian K. Wedemeyer
The nature of original Bön—beyond probable animism and shamanism and definite non-literacy—is hard to determine, since all early descriptions of it are Buddhist and intended to discredit. Contrary to the popular misconception that Buddhism was significantly influenced by Bön when it entered Tibet, it is clear that what is known of Bön today is almost completely influenced by Mahāyāna Buddhism, which was itself transplanted from India into Tibet virtually unchanged.