Buddhism and Bon IV: What is bon anyway?


In previous Buddhism and Bon posts I’ve tried to say something about the pre-Buddhist religion of Tibet by looking at the way certain key terms were used in the manuscripts (though of course I’m not the first to have done this). Recently I’ve been puzzling over another ancient manuscript which nobody seems to have noticed before, and which has propelled me towards that most key of key terms, “bon” itself.

When you read books on Tibet, you often come across statements that the Bon religion existed in Tibet before Buddhism arrived, and that afterwards there were various struggles between Buddhism and Bon. But the fact is it’s not at all clear that there was a religion in Tibet called “Bon” before the 11th century.

This may sound like an academic’s quibble, but it’s not. We”ve got to be careful about the words we use. Words like “Bon” are big, sometimes vague, and often misused. Imagine becoming so fond of the word “precipitation” that you forget that there’s a difference between rain and snow. The early religious practices of the Tibetans are not the same as the religion called Bon that we begin to see from the 11th century onwards.*

*  *  *

The two scholars who have made the most detailed studies of the pre-Buddhist religion of Tibet based on the Dunhuang manuscripts are the great Samten Karmay and the late, great Rolf Stein. There are of course many many more who have written about Bon, most of whom can be found in the mega-bibliography in Unearthing Bon Treasures by Dan Martin (who is also great). Karmay and Stein have quite different views on one question: was the pre-Buddhist religion of Tibet an organized religion that went by the name of Bon, or not? Karmay argues that it was, Stein that it wasn’t.

The word bon definitely does appear in a few Dunhuang manuscripts. (As Dan Martin says in the same book: “One is impressed by how little there is to work with, although this in no way minimizes the importance of the question.”) For Stein, the word bon in these manuscripts refers to a ritual or a priest. For Karmay, it refers to a religious system or community. Though both make a good case, it seems to me that the question has not been settled yet, and perhaps can’t be settled, when so many puzzle pieces have gone astray.

*  *  *

So without further ado let me introduce the “new” manuscript (Or.8210/S.12243). It’s actually two pieces of paper stitched together with string, very worn and greasy-looking, and obviously much handled. Both pieces of paper contain incomplete texts, so I wonder if this manuscript functioned as a personal amulet before it was deposited in the Dunhuang cave. One of the pieces of paper has a sādhana for the deity Vajrasattva, while the other is the one that interests me.

It’s a discussion, and apparently a criticism, of the pre-Buddhist funeral rituals in Tibet, something I wrote speculatively about a little while ago here. The manuscript is pretty difficult to read. In fact, I had to ask the IDP photographer for an infrared image before even making the attempt. And even with the infrared image to hand, the little text is fiendishly difficult to translate, for me at least. Still, it’s clear that it belongs to the genre of Buddhist polemics against non-Buddhist rituals, like the much better known Pelliot tibétain 239 (also the source of the appealing little tiger below).

Now, the author of this little tract says at one point: “Previously in Tibet, interment was practised according to the Bon religion.” What I’ve translated as “Bon religion” is bon chos in Tibetan. This might look a bit odd, as we’re accustomed to seeing chos being translated as dharma and meaning Buddhism. But actually chos has a far wider range of meanings, and often in the Dunhuang manuscripts indicates a general set of beliefs and practices. Another Dunhuang manuscript talks about the non-Buddhist beliefs as chos chung ngu, “the little religion”.

So I think it’s right to translate bon chos here as “the Bon religion” and say that yes, the author of this work did consider “Bon” a set of beliefs and practices (a “religion” if you will) centred on death and funerals. But  having made that slightly bold assertion I will quickly step back and remind you that this text was written by a Buddhist as a polemic against these Bon rites (he also says: “Even the ritual narratives of the Bonpos of Tibet don’t agree with each other.”) Remember too that the Dunhuang cave was sealed at the beginning of the 11th century, and this manuscript may have been popped in just before the sealing; in which case, it would represent a rather late view of the early religion.

*  *  *

The conclusion I’d like to draw is that at least some Buddhists, by the end of the 10th century and perhaps earlier, thought of the funeral rituals practised in earlier times by Tibetan ritual specialists as a religion called Bon. I suspect that this was not quite the same thing that Tibetans meant when they said “Bon” after the 10th century. As usual, I welcome the thoughts of those better qualified than myself. Below they will find the relevant Tibetan text and my unsatisfactory translation.


*  *  *

See also

Buddhism and Bon I: the religion of the gods
Buddhism and Bon II: what is tsuglag?
Buddhism and Bon III:What is yungdrung?

*  *  *


A complete edition and description of this manuscript (Or.8210/S.12243) will appear in the near future in the catalogue of Tibetan manuscripts in the British Library’s Or.8210/S. sequence (which, because this is the number of Chinese manuscripts, have previously gone unnoticed), edited by Tsuguhito Takeuchi, Kazushi Iwao and myself. Here’s the recto side of the leaf that’s stitched on to the Vajrasattva text:

rjes bcad cing dpyad na // mdad shid bon [cho]su bgyid//gzhung brtags na/ sngon cad bod kyi mdad (‘do la) bon chosu bgyis pa / thogs su (las) byung / shid btang na/ gnon gshin sman cing legs par ‘gyur ba’i gtan tshIgs ci mchis pa rjes bcad de nyid bcu ba brtags na/:/ bod kyi bon po rnams kyi smrang yang myI ‘thun te/ p[h]on gsas dang p[h]ang gi rabs las nI / pha ste [. . .] ba zhig/ bgres ste dgung du gshegs pa/ [. . .]

The text is full of technical terms that are found elsewhere in Dunhuang manuscripts, Bon ritual manuals and medical texts. One of the main problems with my translation is that it implies diagnosis and medical treatment of a corpse, which suggests that some of the terms are not quite what they seem here…

“…When eradicating (rjes bcad) and diagnosing (dpyad), interment (mdad) and entombment (shid) are performed according to the Bon religion. When we examine the texts, [it is clear that] previously in Tibet interment was performed according to the Bon religion. After some time had elapsed, the [corpse] was entombed. The instructions for the medical treatment (sman) and beautification (legs par ‘gyur) of the corpse can be examined in the ten rituals (de nyid bcu) for eradication. Even the ritual narratives of the Tibetan Bonpos are not in agreement. In the rituals of the sacred string and the spindle, the father and … grow old and pass away to the heavens….”

*  *  *

* note The Tibetans, both Bonpo and Buddhist, do appreciate the difference between the pre- and post- 11th century religions, and refer to these by different names (though always as forms of “Bon”).

*  *  *


Vincent Bellezza. 2008. Zhang-zhung: Foundations of Civilization in Tibet. Vienna: OAW. (I haven’t seen this work yet, but I’m assured that it is very good and highly relevant to the topic of early Tibetan funerary rites.)

Samten Karmay. 1998 (1983). “Early Evidence for the Existence of Bon as a Religion in the Royal Period”. The Arrow and the Spindle I. Kathmandu: Mandala. pp.157-168

Per Kvaerne. 1985. Tibet – Bon Religion: A Death Ritual of the Tibetan Bonpos. Leiden: Brill.

Dan Martin. 2001. Unearthing Bon Treasures. Leiden: Brill. (The quote above is from p.219, n.17.)

R.A. Stein. 2003 (1988). “The Indigenous Religion and the Bon-po in the Dunhuang Manuscripts”. In The History of Tibet I. London and New York: Routledge. pp.584–614. (This is a translation of the French article “Tibetica Antiqua V: La Religion Indigène et les Bon-po dans les Manuscrits de Touen-Houang”, BEFEO 77: 27-56.)

R.A. Stein. 1970. “Un document ancien relatif aux rites funeraires des bon-po tibétaines”. Journal Asiatique 258: 155-185.

12 thoughts on “Buddhism and Bon IV: What is bon anyway?

  1. It is great to see this kind of information and analysis appear on the internet. Thank you!

    Maybe sman was also used in a broader sense “to benefit,” thus generally improving [the condition of] the corpse? Also, what did you find for gtshen?

    Thanks again. I’ve really enjoyed your posts.

  2. Dear Jed,

    Thank you for the idea about sman. We also have rjes bcad which in the later medical tradition means “wiping away the traces”, as in (I think) completely eradicating a disease, but it could have a different significance here.

    As for gtshen, I’ve amended my reading of this syllable to gnon which at least is a recognizable word, though it’s significance in this context is still not clear to me.


  3. Pretty amazing discovery! I am particularly puzzled by the expression “rjes bcad de nyid bcu ba”. Do you have any idea what it can mean in this context? (ie not the de nyid bcu we know about)

  4. Hello dear readers,

    Please go to the above mentioned link to get more informations regarding Bon and the Bonpos

    Best wishes
    Kalden Yungdrung
    President foundation Yungdrung Rignga Ling / the netherlands

  5. Hi Sam:

    “rjes bcad” in medicine means “erasing the tracks” i.e. for example, the leftover heat after a fever. dpyad here means the treatments used for erasing the tracks, usually bloodletting or moxa.

    The reason medical terms are used, I would speculate, is that whole process refers to embalmment. So, the rjes bcad and dpyad would refer to the process of preparing the cadaver in some fashion, the sman is the substances used to preserve the cadaver once prepared and then of course the cadaver is gussied up.

    Just some speculations…


  6. Malcolm,

    Many thanks for your insights on *rjes bcad* in this text. I like your interpretation of this as an embalming process, and the connections with later medical literature are fascinating. It seems that the term *dpyad* really can’t mean diagnosis in this context. Any idea of how it might have been used here?


  7. How about bcu ba as the verb ‘chu ba, “to draw out (water,etc.)” (bcu is attested as future stem, bcus as past)? just a thought…

    Fits nicely with the embalming theory.

    Then again, at a glance these terms don’t overlap much with Pha bong ka’s short note on embalming (Uebach in Tibet Journal 30.2)

    On the form of this document, see Heather Stoddard’s article on stitched books in Chayet, et al, Edition, Editions. Stoddard suggests that stitched books, like those in Dga’ thang stupa, might have at one time been a largely bon/Bon form. (see p. 377.)

    What I find most interesting? The phrase bod kyi bon po rnams.

  8. BD,

    Thanks for that insight into bcu ba; it works very well. I think a new translation is in order, after your and Malcolm’s comments. I wouldn’t too concerned about the lack of overlap with Pha bong ka’s note, given the span of time between the two texts.

    And yes, “the bonpo-s of Tibet”… Perhaps relevant to the issue of to what extent the bonpo should be considered a ‘religion’ before the 10th/11th century. The author of this tract does seem to identify them as a group, even if only to point out that they have no coherent narrative to justify their rituals. And why the need to specify Tibet? Where were the other bonpo-s from? Perhaps relevant to this is the fact that “bon po” was used to translate terms for heretical teachers in Chinese sutras (as RA Stein pointed out), so – perhaps – for Buddhist writers, “bon po” could refer to any non-Buddhist ritualist. Thus the need to specify the Tibetan brand. Anyway, it is clear that the author links these Tibetan bonpo-s specifically with funeral rituals.


  9. Hi Sam,

    I really enjoy your blog posts and all of the wonderful information you’ve put out there for all of us to view for free. I know this is an old post, however I was wondering if you wouldn’t mind sharing your thoughts on this article again. I hope not to beat a dead horse, however given that one of the most prevalent themes in post-colonial critiques of Asian studies is the category of religion, do you have any other thoughts about translating “chos” into religion in such an old text? I know its a pretty standard convention, and you have reflected a bit on it here and elsewhere, however I was just wondering if in this context there are any other words that might fit the bill for delimiting these particular “sets of beliefs and practices”? I’m hoping to ask less on a theoretical plane of the effects of using the term, but rather from the perspective of a translator and a historian in reference to the aptness of it as a descriptor given that the use of “chos” spans seemingly over the entire history of Tibetan print and is one of the most multivalent words in the lexicon. I’m thinking specifically of your comment about being careful about using the word “Bön,” and whether making both Buddhism and Bön during that time period a subspecies of the genus of Tibetan religion does not mask their differences either from religion today or each other during that time period? I’m not entirely sure, just wanted to raise the question. Thanks so much!


  10. hi .. thanks for this precious information….. i am searching about buddhism root in tibet during 1 century ce or presence of christianity in tibet…… can you help me in this matter ?

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