Buddhism and Bön I: The religion of the gods

IOL Tib J 990 (detail)Here is a fascinating manuscript that has previously gone unnoticed: a treatise on how to combine the pre-Buddhist religious practice of Tibet with Buddhism. The manuscript (IOL Tib J 990) is a fragment of a scroll, which may date to the 9th century. The pre-Buddhist religion of Tibet is often (and perhaps erroneously) called Bon, but here it is referred to as the religion of men (myi chos) and the religion of the gods (lha chos).

Though the manuscript is fragmentary, there is enough here to gain a sense of the argument. The religion of men is summarized as the practice of virtue. The religion of the gods is a series of behavioural rules that are said to avert the emnity of the gods. The rules mentioned here are:

  1. Do not perform sexual intercourse with relatives.
  2. Do not kill any sentient being.
  3. Avoid quarrels with the malicious, the angry and the stupid.
  4. Rely on spells for a multitude of joys.

The first three of these are fairly normative social injunctions which would not have been problematic for those attempting to combine the religion of the gods with Buddhism. However the last obviously relates to the ritual practices associated with the religion of the gods, and the treatise goes on to ask the question of whether the rituals for worshipping the gods, which involve killing, are contrary to the rituals of Buddhism.

Unfortunately the manuscript ends before the question is answered, but it seems that the author of this treatise is trying to reconcile pre-Buddhist Tibetan rituals with Buddhism. This process continued right through to the 20th century (see Eva Dargyay’s article below), but after the triumph of Buddhism in Tibet such reconciliations were rarely discussed openly in the literary tradition. Therefore this fragment is probably the most explicit attempt (that we know of) to bring the two ritual worlds together

1. Dargyay, Eva K. 1988. “Buddhism in Adaptation: Ancestor Gods and Their Tantric Counterparts in the Religious Life of Zanskar”. History of Religions 28.2: 123–134.
2. Karmay, Samten: 1998 (1983). “Early Evidence for the Existence of Bon as a Religion in the Royal Period”. In The Arrow and the Spindle. Kathmandu: Mandala Book Point. 157–168.
3. Stein, Rolf A. 1970. “Un document ancien relatif aux rites funéraires des Bon-po tibétains. Journal Asiatique 258: 155–185.

Also in this series
Buddhism and Bon II: what is tsuglag?
Buddhism and Bon III: what is yungdrung?

2 thoughts on “Buddhism and Bön I: The religion of the gods

  1. Actually, I am belong to nepal and inhabitant of Gurung village which is located in mountain belt. There are two types of religion conflict in my region; Buddhism and Bonism. Although there is no any scientific proof therein. Hence, I would like clear my self what is the main different between the Buddhism and the Bonism?
    Indeedly, the religion is only thy self and self relization, its a way of life.

  2. Dear Jeet,

    I am not qualified to say anything about the different between Buddhism and Bon as they are practised in your village — or in Nepal in general. Perhaps I can just say this: at first the Buddhists criticised the Bon priests for relying on the gods, and ignoring the laws of cause and effect — karma. They argued that it was not the gods, or the priests that have the power to make one’s life better, but one’s own actions and mentality. Later, when Bon became an organized religion, the Bonpos also stressed the importance of karma, rebirth and of reliance on one’s own mind as the path to liberation. Therefore both Buddhism and Bon now contain similar paths to liberation. Equally, throughout history neither Buddhists nor Bonpos have thought it wise to ignore the local gods and spirits. So perhaps there need not be too much conflict between these traditions.

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