page 1
  page 2
  page 3
  page 4
  page 5


Page 4


When Buddhism was introduced into Tibet in the seventh century under King Songtsen Gampo, it was apparently centered in the royal court and did not, at first, put down deep roots. Almost a century passed until it found favor again under King Trisong Detsen, who with the aid of Padmasambhava strengthened its position. But even after that "first diffusion," the new religion lost ground, and it was not until the "second diffusion" of Buddhism in the ninth and tenth centuries that it became firmly and finally established as the majority religion of Tibet.

While this basic outline is not disputed, scholars have disagreed about precisely what it was that Buddhism replaced. Certainly, indigenous religious beliefs and practices dominated Tibet before even the first introduction of Buddhism in the seventh century, and during the subsequent stages of its history there. But with what did Buddhism struggle during that period between the "first" and "second" diffusions? And what were the influences that led Tibetan Buddhism to diverge so markedly from Indian Buddhism that later observers attached to it a new name -- Lamaism -- as to a separate, distinct cult?

The great Tibetologist, Giuseppe Tucci, called Tibet's indigenous religious beliefs and practices "the folk religion," for which R.A. Stein adopted the
telling designation, "the nameless religion." Just as various Middle-Eastern and European "pagan" beliefs, deities, customs and practices were absorbed into Christianity, so in Tibet many traces of the folk religion still exist, interwoven into Buddhist practices. But besides those popular beliefs, with their local cults and magical rites, another belief system either pre-dated Buddhism in Tibet or co-existed with it, and the relation of those two has been the subject of research and controversy.

That other religion is Bon. Giuseppe Tucci, David Snellgrove, and other scholars have worked to reconstruct the theology and iconography of early Bon, and have researched the question of Bon's origins, its history, and the extent of its relation to Buddhism. Tucci and other scholars believe that Bon preceded the introduction of Buddhism into Tibet. They identify divination and exorcism as central elements of the indigenous folk religion but also of Bon, and believe that both the folk religion and the more structured Bon contributed to the undeniably shamanistic aspect of Tibetan religious practice and customs. In this view, Bon brought a multiplicity of gods, demons, and spirits of nature into the Tibetan Buddhist pantheon, where they joined the gods absorbed from Indian tantrism. Tucci attributed Bon's formal doctrinal structure to a later borrowing from Buddhism. According to the standard history, Bon vied with Buddhism for dominance during the early centuries after the introduction of the new religion, and during the period between the first and second diffusions. In any case, Buddhism prevailed, but Bon, or some form of it, has survived in parts of Tibet as well as in remote Himalayan areas, such as Dolpo in northwestern Nepal, and there has recently been a Bon revival in the West.

According to this line of thought, the Bon that has survived was so heavily influenced and infused with later adaptations and borrowings from Buddhism that its original form can no longer be definitively distinguished from what is now the majority religion. Yet Buddhism was also heavily influenced by Bon: both shared traditions of magic and exorcism, and both were influenced by the still potent "folk religion." (Tucci considers that Bon was also influenced by Persian Zoroastrianism and by Shaivism, the cult of Shiva, which reached Tibet from the states on the western edge of the Himalayas.)

David Snellgrove, in contradiction, argues that Bon is not the old indigenous religion of Tibet. He agrees with the claim of present-day Bonpos (adherents of Bon) that their religion was, from the beginning, a form of Buddhism, however heterodox. Snellgrove maintains that before the famous introduction of Buddhism to Tibet in the seventh century under royal sponsorship, forms of Buddhism that had reached Central Asia were actually familiar to some Tibetans, and that Bon developed in Western or Central Asia earlier than its arrival, as traditionally understood, in Tibet. He points out that the Bonpos, like the orthodox sects, believe in an enlightened being, Shen-rab, analogous to Buddha, and that Shen-rab, like Shakyamuni, had previous incarnations and appears in various manifestations; he maintains, moreover, that the Bonpos also have a fully developed theology and a set of tantras that he finds corresponds with Buddhist practice. Snellgrove considers Bon much closer to the Nyingma-pa, known among the recognized orthodox Buddhist sects as the "old" school, than it is to the popular folk religion with its multitude of spirits, magical rites, divination, exorcism, auguries, etc. He argues that those supernatural aspects of the indigenous cult were accepted perforce by both Bonpos as well as Buddhists, as old, deeply ingrained customs against which it was futile to contend, however irrelevant or alien to their own beliefs.

To complicate matters, some Bonpos of the present time identify Bon as the religion that prevailed in Tibet prior to the introduction of Buddhism, a position that contradicts those who argue that Bon is merely another form of Buddhism, having developed at about the same time as Buddhism reached Tibet, if not somewhat earlier. And while Bonpos consider their religion as a form of Buddhism, present-day Tibetan Buddhists regard Bon as a distinct, different religion, not as a heterodox form of Buddhism.

In light of these contending, disparate views about the origin, history, and nature of Bon, and its disputed relation to Buddhism, Per Kvaerne has thus defined the three main theories:

  1. Bon was the pre-Buddhist religion of Tibet, its central figure a king with sacred powers;
  2. Bon was a form of Buddhism that developed in western Tibet at least as early as the period in which Buddhism was introduced into Tibet, and was similar in many respects to orthodox Buddhism;
  3. Bon, so-called, was not a religion in its own right, but the sum of all the indigenous beliefs, cults of local gods, popular rites, etc., that were once prevalent across Tibet.

Whatever the true origin, history, and nature of Bon, Tibetan Buddhist monastic orders are broadly tolerant of the old practices, some of which have almost no recognizable affinity with Buddhist belief. These native elements, whether they derive from Bon or from a folk religion, were strongly concerned with defence against hostile or ambivalent powers, ensuring that the dead do no harm to the living.

Many of the rites and practices meant to defeat such hostile powers have survived not only in the folk religion, but were even, in Buddhist guise, absorbed into orthodox Buddhist ritual. The people of the Tibetan cultural world are profoundly, devoutly Buddhist, yet the ancient traditions of folk religion not only remain vital, but have left their indelible stamp on Tibetan Buddhism, contributing to its distinctive nature. Basically, Tibetan Buddhism is the intersection of Mahayana and of Vajrayana Buddhism, with its component of Indian Tantrism, along with traditional, pre-Buddhist beliefs, whether Bon or not. And it is clear that in Tibet, rather than opposing the folk tradition, Buddhism accepted and absorbed it -- and in so doing, allowed its borders to stretch. Buddhism has never concerned itself with extirpating heresy, and has no concept of excommunication.

go to Buddhism page 5

[Contents] [Introduction] [Jampa] [Thubchen] [Luri] [Site Index] [Home]

Copyright © 2003 Philip and Marcia R. Lieberman
Use Limited to Non-Commercial Purposes