Just out — the first number of a new online journal, the Journal of the International Association for Bon Research, in which is an article I wrote on the puzzling subject of Bon in early Tibet. The puzzle is whether the Tibetans followed a religion which they called “Bon”, or whether this is just something that we attribute to them with the benefit of hindsight. In the article I do three things:
(1) I look at the Dunhuang manuscript IOL Tib J 1746, in which a Buddhist author criticizes the non-Buddhist Tibetan religion. But at no point does he call it “Bon”, instead referring to “the bad religion” (chos ngan pa) or “the little religion” (chos chung ngu). For example: “Those who are attached to the little religion propitiate the deities and the sky, and if even a single good thing occurs, they say that they don’t need the excellent religion.” This manuscript is among the earlier Dunhuang manuscripts (mid-9th century) and the text it contains may well be earlier than that.
(2) I look at the wood slips dug out of the Tibetan fort of Miran in the Lop Nor desert, dating from the early to mid-9th century. Some of these are records of funerals and other rituals. Among the officiants of these rituals mentioned in the woodslips, we find people identified as “Bonpo”. Thus a “Bonpo” seems to have been a type of ritualist, and not the only type, as the wood slips also mention ritualists called Ku Shen (sku gshen). This of course is not the same as there being a Bon religion per se.
(3) Finally I look at some later Dunhuang manuscripts containing texts criticizing funerary rituals, where we do find reference to Bon as a religion. Specifically, from Or.8210/S.12243 we have the statement: “In the past, Tibetan interment was practised according to the Bon religion.” So some Buddhist authors were beginning to talk about a Bon religion, though probably only with reference to funerary rituals.
I conclusion, I suggest that the idea of a non-Buddhist Tibetan religion as an entity came from the Buddhist missionaries in Tibet, in their criticism of Tibetan beliefs and rituals. It was the Buddhists who brought together this variety of Tibetan rituals and beliefs as an entity that can be identified, named and discussed. Some of the ritualists involved in these non-Buddhist practices were known as “Bonpo” and later Buddhist polemicists increasingly used this term for non-Buddhist ritual in general (though usually specifically for funeral rituals). Though I don’t go this far in the article, I would suggest that what happens after the tenth century is that this generalized use of the term Bonpo is reclaimed from the Buddhist polemicists by those who are reconfiguring the old rituals in a Buddhist-inspired framework, gradually evolving into what we mean nowadays by “the Bonpo school”.