Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Tibet's Other Religion

The Curious Case of Bon, The Everlasting Truth

Bon was the second most important religious tradition of Tibet prior to Tibet's invasion by China in 1949. In many popular texts on Tibetan Buddhism it is referred to as the indigenous religion of Tibet which was superseded by Buddhism after Buddhism's arrival in Tibet in the 8th century. The true story of Bon is more complex and ambiguous however, and is an interesting case study in the formation of religious identities and narratives.

Views of Bon
The identity of Bon is contested and controversial. Superficial introductions to Tibetan culture often refer to it as “the indigenous tradition of Tibet” and it is sometimes referred to as animistic or shamanistic in a way that conveys images of a “typical” “primitive” indigenous tradition consisting of superstitious rites and folk beliefs. Buddhism is commonly presented as having battled Bon for supremacy in the 8th century and ultimately won despite a setback in the 9th and 10th century due to a Bon counter-attack. Stories of this process have been immortalized in the life story of Padmasambhava, who reportedly engaged in magic battle with the Bon-connected spirits of Tibet and either subdued them or converted them to Buddhism. Bon is viewed as living on in Tibet in the form of folk religions who have adapted to Buddhist cultural and political dominance.
It might come as quite a surprise to someone who had received this superficial understanding of Bon to discover that Bon is a complex, highly systematized religious tradition with its own seminaries, monasteries, and religious canon, and that its view of itself is quite at odds with the picture in the paragraph above. They might be further surprised to find that Bon, in common with the Nyingmapa tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, holds the highest spiritual practice to be the Great Perfection (dzogchen), a sophisticated nondual Zen-like sudden enlightenment teaching now popular in the West. A look into references to Bon in the works of Tibetan lamas might lead to even further confusion.
One popular lamrim text1 translated into English, Liberation In The Palm of Your Hand, by the early 20th century Gelugpa lama Pabongka Rinpoche (1878-1941), paints a dark picture of Bon. Pabongka Rinpoche warns Buddhists to have nothing to do with Bon teachings, saying they cannot lead to liberation or even reduce delusions. They plagiarize Buddhist teachings but are corrupted by non-Buddhist teachings and borrowings from the “tirthikas”2. It is an “evil system” of “false dharmas” (372). Pabongka Rinpoche quotes a verse ascribed to the great Kagyupa Yogin Je Milarepa (c.1052-1135):
The source of Boen is perverted Dharma.
A creation of nagas and powerful elementals.
It does not take one to the ultimate path.
Boen is a most inferior lineage (373).

Pabongka further considers a view that he says some people entertain: that Bon gods are compassionate emanations of Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva for beings benefit, and therefore following Bon is not harmful but even beneficial (374). Pabongka disagrees, arguing that by this logic one could justify “imitating the actions of dogs and pigs” since these too might be Buddha-emanations. Rather one should “completely abandon such nauseating and evil sytems as they would discard the stones they use to wipe their arses” (374)3.
Such views of Bon are not universal in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, however. Jamyong Khyentse Wangpo (1820-1892), the great Sakyapa scholar-practitioner, honoured Bon teachings and even himself wrote down for posterity a Bon account of Padmasambhava's life. This is even more remarkable considering that this version depicts Padmasambhava as being born in Tibet of two Bon masters!4 His disciple Jamgon Kongtrul the Great (1813-1899), a Kagyupa lama important in the Ri-me (No Boundaries) Pluralist movement, included Bon works in the collection of sacred texts he compiled, The Treasury of Rediscovered Teachings, thus insuring they would be officially transmitted along with Buddhist texts when the Treasury was ritually transmitted in the traditional manner. Kongtrul was aware this might be controversial, and defends it with the exact argument Pabongka rejects above:
For the benefit of ordinary persons who harbor conceptual partiality toward specific schools of spiritual philosophy, such as theist or non-theist, Buddhist or Bon, the buddhas' compassion is impartial and immeasurable. For example, [buddhas] manifest to guide theists as gods with forms and attributes that correspond to their religions. In fact, in the three worlds, the victors enlightened activity is present in even the most minor forms of virtous spiritual paths (189).

He further cites to back himself up several great Buddhist lamas of the past who engaged in Bon practices (Ibid.), founders of Nyingma lineages that are important to this day. Contemporarily most Tibetan lamas of importance speak of Bon in friendly terms. The Nyingmapa lama Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche has criticized fellow Tibetan Buddhists who reject Bon teachings (1984:14-17) and HH the Dalai Lama (a Gelugpa) recently wrote a supportive foreword to a book of Bon Dzogchen teachings (Rinpoche 2000). The situation becomes even more interesting when one turns to read how Bon masters themselves describe their tradition.
According to Tenzin Wangyal, the most well-known Bon teacher active in the West, Bon is an ancient pre-Buddhist tradition of Tibet which was first taught “in the human world” by Lord Tonpa Shenrab Miwoche (2000:41). Tonpa Shenrab manifested in this world, at the foot of Mt Meru, in 1857 BCE. He married and had children, then renounced the world at age 31 to practice austerities and teach Bon. He originally taught in the land of Taksig, which some cholars speculate might be Persia or Tazhikistan. He entered southern Tibet through Zhangzhung and taught widely there according to people's capacities, emphasizing the lower teachings of “cause” since people were unready for the teachings of “fruition”. These teachings emphasized “reinforcing relationships with the guardian spirits and natural environment, exorcising demons and eliminating negativities” as well as “practices of purification” for “reinforcing fortune and positive energy.” He prophecied that in time the full scope of his teachings would flourish in Tibet (2000:42). The higher teachings of Bon, those of “fruition”, closely resemble the Nyingmapa yoga, mahayoga, anuyoga and atiyoga teachings (Powers 2007: 508-511). These comprise Tantric sadhanas very similar to Buddhist tantras, and hold the Great Perfection to be the ultimate teaching and view of spiritual practice. Although the deities, mantras and symbols are similar in function to Buddhist versions, they reflect Bon religious culture and differ linguistically and iconographically.
Wangyal goes on to explain that Bon was the dominant tradition in Tibet until Buddhism entered in the 8th century, when King Trisong Detsen instigated a “harsh repression of Bon”. The great 8th century Bon Master Dranpa Namkha, the father of Padmasambhava5, embraced Buddhism publicly but secretly continued to practice Bon. He confronted the King Trisong Detsen, asking him, “Why do you make a dinstinction between bon and chos (dharma)?”6 To save them from destruction, many Bon texts were hidden to be discovered later as Treasures. In the 11th century there was a Bon revival precipitated by the rediscovery of Bon Treasure Texts, and Bon monasteries were established shortly afterwards. With regards to the relationship between Bon and Buddhist teachings, Wangyal views Buddhist teachings as legitimate. This is because Shakyamuni Buddha was in fact a disciple of Tonpa Shenrab. Thus “all Buddhist teachings, whether arising in India or elsewhere, are in fact teachings of everlasting Bon” (54).
Our imaginary explorer of the truth of Bon might at this point find themselves bewildered. Is Bon indigenous to Tibet, or did it enter from Tajik in prehistoric times? Did Bonpos plagiarize Buddhist teachings, or are Buddhist teachings derived from the Bon teachings of Tonpa Shenrab?

Everlasting Bon
In contrast to Mainstream Buddhist and Bon views, the eminent Tibetanist John Powers has recently argued in agreement with most Western scholars that Bon is neither the indigenous pre-Buddhist tradition of Tibet, nor is it the ancient mother tradition from which Buddhism sprang. Records of pre-Buddhist religion in Tibet do not appear to resemble post-Buddhist Bon traditions. Further, there is no evidence of many aspects of the fully developed Bon tradition prior to the 11th century, suggesting that these traditions, which closely resemble Nyingmapa Buddhist traditions, are in fact derived from Buddhist sources.
As Powers notes, David Snellgrove has argued that Bon narratives of origin still may not be without a grain of truth. Snellgrove argues that it is unlikely that Buddhist traditions did not penetrate the Tibetan cultural sphere previous to the adoption of Buddhism by the royal family in the 8th century, and it is quite possible that an older Buddhist tradition had found its way into Tibetan folk traditions centuries before that. Reynolds has argued that the fact that Dzogchen can be found in both Nyingmapa and Bon sources may be connected to the presence of wandering siddhas in the Himalayan regions centuries before Tibet`s official adoption of Buddhism, or in the close connections between ancient pre-Empire western Tibet and the Ìndo-Iranian borderlands, where Tantric traditions are known to have existed. These siddhas may have brought over a meditation tradition based in the nondual sahaja or “natural” yoga of India (226-227). Thus it is conceivable that Bon tradition as we know it, a hybrid of Tibetan, Hindu Buddhist, and perhaps Zoroastrian traditions7, may indeed predate the official adoption of Buddhism in Tibet. Although Bon as it exists now does not resemble records of pre-Buddhist Bon, it should be remembered that those records reflect the rituals of the royal family and its ministers, and cannot be taken as representative of folk traditions far from the centers of power. If Snellgrove`s theory is true the simple classification of Bon as “the indigenous tradition of Tibet” will not hold. It is in fact a competing blend of Tibetan and South and Central Asian religious traditions with a counter-narrative formed defensively against the overwhelming success of the Indian Buddhist traditions introduced in the 8th century. As Per Kvearne wrote:
Both Buddhists and Bon-pos 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 from the dominant Buddhist religion but always adapting what it learned to its own needs and perspectives. This is ...not just plagiarism, but a dynamic and flexible strategy that has ensured the survival, indeed the vitality, of a religious minority (quoted in Powers 2007: 504).

The Nyingma Connection

The history of Bon is further illuminated by considering the history of the Nyingmapas, with whom they have much in common. The Nyingma school became a self-conscious movement in the 11th century as did Bon. The Nyingmapas consisted of the surviving traditions of Buddhism that were introduced in the 8th century, before a resurgence of anti-Buddhist forces at court disenfranchised them and forced them away from the centers of power. When new Buddhist movements came to the fore in the 11th century and began amassing political power and popular acclaim the Nyingmapas articulated a self understanding which stressed their connection to Padmasambhava, a little known Tantric teacher connected to Trisong Detsen, the greatest of the Buddhist Kings of the early Tibetan Imperium. They claimed Padmasambhava had hallowed all of Tibet for Buddhism, and had buried Treasure Texts to be found by later reincarnations of his disciples. The Nyingmapas thus stressed the non-localized nature of spiritual power in Tibet and were able to continually “rediscover” new texts of practices and doctrines which had full canonical authority. This allowed them to maintain their vitality and authority in the face of the growing power of the Sakyapa and Kagyupa sects in the 11th through 13th centuries. These sects were strongly localized in monastic establishments and drew their authority from new translations of the Indian Buddhist canon. Thus the way the Nyingmapas understood themselves, their sources of authority, and Tibetan history, can be seen to be a way of defending their own legitimacy.
In light of the above it is tempting to view Bon as simply imitating Nyingma practices, but the situation is not so simple. The Bon treasure tradition, for instance, appears to be older than the Nyingmapa treasure tradition8. If we assume that one tradition borrowed the idea from the other, than the evidence suggests that the Nyingmapas may have gotten the idea from the Bonpos, and not the other way around. It is also the case that the Nyingmapas have a strong debating tradition, something the Nyingmapas do not have but the Gelugpas do. Like the Gelugpas, the Bonpos train their monastics to become Geshes, an advanced attainment that is scholastically very rigorous and is based on scholarship and debating skills. This suggests that the Bonpos are not merely Nyingmapas under another name, but have had a more complex genesis9. Another interesting fact is that in some matters the Bonpo monastic rules are more stringent than the Buddhist code, and contain rules one might expect the Buddhist code to have although it doesn't. One example is that the Bon monastic code requires vegetarianism, which is not true of the Buddhist monastic code in Tibet10. This shows that the Bonpos are not merely artful emulators of their Buddhist sibling, but an independent tradition that has drawn its own moral conclusions.


When HH The Dalai Lama speaks of the traditions of Tibet, he now lists five: Gelug, Sakya, Kagyu, Nyingma and Bon. This seems to suggest that Bon is a form of Tibetan Buddhim. That is not what is intended by His Holiness, but it may contain some degree of truth. It is no doubt fair to say that the ultimate definers of a religion should be its adherents however, and Bonpos do not generally identify as Buddhists. They view themselves as a seperate tradition, older in Tibet than Buddhism but likewise an import from outside. They view Bon as an expression of the “Everlasting Bon”, or eternal truth, revealed into this world over 30,000 years ago by Tonpa Shenrab out of his great compassion.

Works Cited

Powers, John. Introduction to Tibetan Buddhism. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion 2007.

Reynolds, John Myrdhin. The Golden Letters. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion 1996.

Rinpoche, Pabongka. Liberation In The Palm of Your Hand: A Concise Discourse On The Path To Enlightenment. ed. Rinpoche, Trijang; tr. Mathieu Ricard. Boston: Wisdom 2006.

Rinpoche, Tenzin Wangyal. Wonders of The Natural Mind: The Essence of Dzogchen in the Native Bon Tradition of Tibet. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion 2000.
Zangpo, Ngawang. Guru Rinpoche: His Life and Times. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion 2002.
1Lamrim texts are practice guides based on the Lamrim Chenmo, Great Treatise on The Stages of The Path, by Je Tsongkhapa, the founder of the Gelug tradition.
2Tirthika is a Jain term for a liberated sage mentioned in early Buddhist texts. It later came to refer to Hindu yogis in general.
3When I mentioned to Dakshong Tulku Rinpoche, a Nyingmapa lama, he commented in a tone of warning that “Pabongka Rinpoche wrote some strange things. He criticised other religions, which is not good. All religions have value, and one should not condemn the religions of others.”
4In Buddhist accounts Padmasambhava is born in the country of Uddiyana in a lotus, a spontaneous Buddha-manifestation. The Bonpos regard Padmasambhava as a subduer of spirits but not a subduer of Bon.
5Acording to Buddhist tradition he was a disciple of Padmasambhava (Reynolds 1996: 226)
6This question plays on the ambiguity of these terms. Chos originally referred to both Buddhist and non-Buddhist religions in Tibet. Later chos came to translate Dharma, and bon, the name for the priests who ministered to pre-Buddhist Kings, came to be applied to the old religous traditions. For Bonpos, however, the word bon means Truth as the word chos, Dharma, means truth for Buddhists. From a Bonpo perspective the question would translate as “Why do you make a distinction between “truth” and “truth”?”
7Some aspects of Bon cosmology, architecture, and language have similarities to Zoroastrian culture, and Zoroastrian beliefs could have entered Tibet through the Persian cultural area. See Berzin, Alexander. Bon and Tibetan Buddhism. http://www.berzinarchives.com/web/en/archives/study/comparison_buddhist_traditions/tibetan_traditions/bon_tibetan_buddhism.html. Accessed March 25 2008. Tenpa Shenrab is in fact very roughly contemporaneous to the dates some scholars suggest for Zarathustra.

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