In Search of Bon, the Pre-Buddhist Religion of Tibet and the Himalayas

Features Issue 75 Jul, 2010
Text by Don Messerschmidt / Photo: Thomas L. Kelly

A review of Sacred Landscape and Pilgrimage in Tibet: In Search of the Lost Kingdom of Bön, by Geshe Gelek Jinpa, Charles Ramble and Carroll Dunham, with photo-graphs by Thomas L. Kelly (New York & London: Abbeville Press, 2005)

Sacred Landscape and Pilgrimage in Tibet is a one-of-a-kind modern guidebook to the Bön religious geography of northwestern Nepal and western Tibet. It is what is sometimes called a ‘coffee-table’ book—full of magnificent photos and interesting text written in a very reader-friendly fashion by scholars of Tibetan life, culture and religion: Geshe Gelek Jinpa, Charles Ramble, and Carroll Dunham, and photographer Tom Kelly. Together, theirs is the story of a pilgrimage in search of the roots and remnants of the ancient Bön religion. It is about discovering some of the early roots of Bön, and its contemporary practice, that this book is all about.

To the casual observer, Tibet appears to have one religion–Buddhism, with its lamas and nuns and reincarnates, and its beautiful monasteries and reliquaries in towns and cities, and also in remote and isolated mountain locations. Actually,
Tibet and the adjacent Himalayas have two major religions, the other being Bön. The religious practices, dress and architecture of both religions look almost identical.

Tibetan Buddhism has four main schools, or sects: Gelugpa, Kagyupa, Nyingmapa and Sakyapa. (The Dalai Lama belongs to the Gelugpa sect.) The Bön religion, often regarded as just another sect of Buddhism, stands on its own. For example, where the origins of Buddhism are traced to Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha (born at Lumbini, in southern Nepal), the origins of Bön are traced to a founder named Tonpa Shenrab, of whom the Bönpo (followers of Bön) believe the Buddha was a later incarnation.

In practice, Bön appears almost indistinguishable from Tibetan Buddhism, quite like the Nyingmapa sect. That term ‘almost indistinguishable’, however, is crucial, for there are some outstanding differences. For example, where red is a common color in Tibetan Buddhism, blue is more prevalent in Bön, and where Buddhists circumambulate sacred sites (like stupas and monasteries) in a clockwise fashion, the Bönpo go counterclockwise. (I remember the first time I trekked with a mix of Bön and Buddhist companions, watching in awe as some went one way around prayer walls, while others went opposite.) There are other distinctions between the two religions especially in  doctrine, but in the end the attainment of Buddhahood is their mutual goal.

To Bönpo and Buddhists alike, the attainment of enlightenment is sought, in part, by going on a sacred pilgrimage. The authors of this book did just that, first (at the beginning of the book) to certain ancient Bön locations in western Nepal, then on into Western Tibet to the geographical religious holy-of-holies: Lake  Manasarovar and Mt Kailash. Near the end of the book, the authors describe their quest to find remnants of the 1500 year old Bön kingdom of Zhangzhung, one of the highest ancient civilizations ever recorded (at 14,000 to 18,000 feet above sea level).

All parts of this book are fascinating, starting with the lifestyles and rituals of the Bön-related shamanic Nyinba people of far northwest Nepal. There are some intriguing pictures from Humla of shaman priests and their ritual assistants, dhamis and dangres, in communication with the gods, as well as views of common village life in this remote area. Several Nepali priests from Humla accompanied the authors on the rest of their pilgrimage across the border into Tibet. Photos of parts of the pilgrimage route through the mountains reveal an old Nepal un-
affected by motor roads, modern bridges or mechanized farming.

The chapters on Lake Manasarovar and Mt Kailash stand out for their colorful depiction of the pilgrims’ journey to and around these sacred sites, and for the high relief geography that they passed through. At one point, the authors remark on the relationship between geography and culture: “One of the most obvious features of Tibetan geography... is its strikingly vertical character. The motif of height is constantly emphasized in popular celebrations of the landscape, a stock formula in the earliest literature, and a favorite theme in folksongs and prayers.” They go on to say that “Perhaps the most fundamental example is the layering of the world into three levels, with humans sandwiched between gods and serpent spirits...”

The book is as much a geography text as a religious and archaeological sourcebook, as well as Geshe Gelek Jinpa’s personal story about seeking the spiritual and historical origins of Bön.

The ‘Afterword’, ‘Bön in the Twenty-first Century’, is an insightful essay that puts the fate and future of Bön into modern perspective. It begins with this observation: “More than a thousand years after its eclipse, Zhangzhung is rising again. Its silent ruins and mute language are gradually giving up their secrets to archaeologists and linguists, while the idea of the forgotten country itself has become the refuge for a region and a religion that see themselves as distinct from the Buddhist dominion of central Tibet and the modern imperium of Communist China.”

Sacred Landscape and Pilgrimage in Tibet is distributed in Kathmandu by Vajra Books in Jyatha, near Thamel. Phone: 422.0562.