Book Reviews

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Tibet’s Ancient Religion Bön

Christoph Baumer

(Translated from German by
Michael Kohn
2002, 200pp., colour plates throughout, 31 x 23 cm., Hardbound.

ISBN-10: 974-524-011-7 $60.00
ISBN-13: 978-974-524-011-7

Tibet’s Ancient Religion Bön

Book review by Ursula King, University of Bristol, UK

(Asian Philosophy, Vol. 14 No. 1, March 2004)

It is not easy for a western person to understand the complex religious traditions of Tibet with their rich ritual, symbolic and philosophical heritage. This is especially true of the ancient Bön religion, barely mentioned or at most given a brief chapter in books on Tibet. A clear definition of this religion is difficult if not impossible because of its long evolution over time and its close connection with different ancient clans and various localities in the large Tibetan region. It is therefore greatly to be welcomed to find a book such as Baumer’s with its clear exposition and excellent documentation to show the continuing presence and importance of Bön religious beliefs and practices.
   After returning recently from brief visits to Bhutan, Nepal and Tibet—which included Lhasa and some of its surrounding monasteries, but no other parts of this vast country the size of western Europe—I was truly delighted and much helped by this lucidly written, beautifully produced book with superb photographs and detailed historical and phenomenological accounts of the different layers of Tibetan religion and culture. Lavishly illustrated, this study integrates many historical, phenomenological, comparative and empirical data on Tibetan religion in a way not found anywhere else. Its Swiss author bases his account on extensive fieldwork and close personal knowledge of the entire Tibetan and Central Asian Chinese region, to which he, has made 16 research visits, and on which he has produced other books and documentary films. He writes for a wide readership but his study is meticulously grounded in the specialist scholarship of eminent ‘Tibetologists’, citing English, German, French and Italian sources in his notes and bibliography.
   In the introduction, the author clearly states the four goals of his research:
   1. He first wants to provide a chronological presentation of the myths and history of Tibet from the perspective of the Bonpo, the ‘people of Bön’ still existing today with their own monasteries, beliefs and practices. This account, enhanced by a long chronology at the end of the book, is most helpful since most books on Tibet describe Bon only briefly as ancient animistic and shamanistic beliefs without explaining their continuing and separate existence as well as their influence on Buddhism and the Buddhist influence on Bon.
   2. The second aim is precisely to show this mutually interdependent relationship between Bon and Buddhism, their similarities and differences. The origins of the ancient Bön nature religion are lost in time and are ascribed to the mythical figure Shenrab, whereas a reformed, systematised form of Bön religion developed in the 11th century under the influence of Buddhism, when ritual, doctrinal and philosophical ideas were more clearly articulated, codified and preserved in specific textual collections. The author traces the origin of prayer flags, of the circumambulation of shrines, of certain pilgrimage routes, of some of the death rituals, of the cultic dances with their shamanistic elements, and possibly even the specific form of Tibetan monastic debating, back to Bön. Interestingly, Bön circumambulation around sacred shrines is always anti-clockwise, contrary to the Buddhist clockwise direction. Special attention is given to the parallelism between Bön teachings and those of the Tibetan Nyingmapa school, the teachings of the ancients in contrast to newer developments of succeeding centuries, based on complex Tantra teachings with highly graded stages for adepts and their meditational and spiritual practices.
   3. The book also provides a photographic documentation of different Bön monasteries in central and eastern Tibet,and in Naxi Yunnan in China, but not of those in Nepal, Sikkim or India, although several photos of the new Bön Menri monastery near Dolanji in northern India are also included. Its abbot Tenpa’i Nyima is recognised as the contemporary head of all Bonpo, and much is made of the fact that in 1988 the Dalai Lama officially recognised Bön as the ‘fifth school’ of Tibet and thus brought about the definitive reconciliation between Tibetan Buddhism and Bon.
   4. The fourth concern of the author is his wish to convey something of the grandeur and fascination of the Tibetan landscape, of the primal power of nature, the majestic snow mountains, the elemental force of sun and rain, the magic beauty of its high mountain lakes and he has admirably succeeded in this. The stunning photographs which accompany the text throughout are superb. They document widely unknown and almost unresearched regions, although Baumer also refers back to the work of earlier western scholars and explorers, among others Sven Hedin, Jacques Bacot, and Guiseppe Tucci, and their visits to some of the same places.
   Small enclaves of Bön beliefs and practices exist also outside Tibet, especially in the Yunnan province of China where the author visited the small ethnic groups of the Naxi, Moso and Pumi. I found the description of the matriarchal practices of the Moso of particular interest. The book also deals with the complex historical relations between Tibetans and Mongolians, Manchurians and Chinese, and the developments since the Chinese occupation in the 1950s, including the destructive activities during the Chinese Cultural Revolution. It is mentioned that of the 330 active Bön monasteries at the beginning of the 12th century only five survived undamaged. All others were destroyed. By now about half of the destroyed monasteries have been rebuilt, the majority in East Tibetan provinces. The author seems to be of the view that the reason for the Chinese not being able to quash Tibetan religiosity, in spite of all brutal oppression, is ultimately due to the Tibetans’ deep nature religion, grounded in Bön that, if necessary, can go on living without institutions and buildings, for it is fed by the spirit of nature and the vivid natural environment that surrounds every part of Tibetan life.
   I learnt much from studying this book and will return to it again and again. Just looking at the unique photographs is a delight. The nuanced account of the text, enriched by interspersed passages from the author’s travel diary (inserted on differently coloured pages) conveys so much about the vast, yet intricate context of Tibetan religion, the power of its symbolism, the great wisdom of its beliefs about the nature of existence, human life and the universe, the variety of its deities, including its fascinating female deities and its unusual protector deities-what a vast pantheon on the roof of the world, what rich cross-cultural influences from India and China in a unique mixture with the ancient Bön religion from Tibet.
   The English edition of this book is a slightly revised version of the German original; its pagination, illustrations, annotations and slightly amended bibliography follow the earlier, 1999 publication in German. The volume also includes some maps, showing Buddhist and Bön monasteries, and also the routes travelled by the author on his field trips. The only criticisms I have is the absence of a glossary of all the Tibetan terms used in the text (although always carefully explained when first introduced, a list of these unfamiliar words would have been a helpful reference for readers), and the fact that the substantial bibliography includes some works in German when an English translation or even original of these exists and could have been listed instead.
   The back cover of the English edition reprints an assessment from the Frankfurter Aligemeine Zeitung worth quoting because it underlines the unique achievement of this publication: ‘This old belief of Bön has, due to the dominance of Buddhism, so far been ignored or has been seen as its mere plagiarism. It is the great merit of the author to have corrected this view with scientific precision and encyclopaedic enthusiasm, while avoiding the pitfall of academic dryness. Baumer describes in a thrilling way the history and myths of Bön, explains its fight and synthesis with Buddhism and demonstrates how alive this religion still is today’.
   This book is a real treasure. Written with the head as well as the heart, its great visual power conveys more than any words can do. At the same time its text traces the development of elementary ideas about the origin of the world, the evolution of life, forces of good and evil, and the destiny of human and superhuman beings into a complex system of mythological and philosophical speculations that profoundly challenge and engage both reason and imagination. Anyone seriously interested in the religious and cultural heritage of Tibet will be greatly rewarded by reading this excellent book.

[Read a review from the Oriental Art Magazine] [More Orchid Press Reviews]