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The following text is from "The Nine Ways of Bon: Excerpts from Gzi-brjid". Edited and Translated by D.L. Snellgrove, pp.1-23 London Oriental Series , Vol 18, Oxford University Press 1968.


D.L. Snellgrove: The Nine Ways of Bon


The bonpos

To practising bonpos - and nowadays it has become comparatively easy to meet them if one knows where to look among the many tens of thousands of Tibetans who have arrived as refugees in India and Nepal-BON simply means the true religion of Tibet. To the far greater number of other Tibetans, who are not Bonpos, BON refers to the false teachings and practices that were prevalent in Tibebet before Buddhism finally succeeded in gaining a firm hold on the country.

Bonpos are regarded as pagans -and as such they have suffered serious hostility in the past- and nowadays others take as little account of their existence as possible. By western scholars BON is gernarally understood as referring to the pre-Buddhist beliefs and practices of the Tibetans. Several scholars have discussed the actual meaning of this term. By the few Bonpos who know their texts well BON is explained as the Tibetan equivalent of the Zhang-Zhung term gYer which means 'chant'. Textual evidence can be shown for this in the titles of works said to be translated from the language of Zhang-Zhung into Tibetan. Here bon is regulary glossed by gYer. This is the original meaning they say, for they know that bon now covers all the meanings of the Tibetan Buddhist term chos .

As is well known, chos simply translates Sanskrit dharma in all its Buddhist meaning. There is no word for 'Buddhism' in Tibetan. Tibetans are either chos-pa (followers of chos) or bon-po (followers of bon). They both use the term sanyg-rgyas (literally:'amply purified') to define a perfected sage, a buddha. Thus in translation of bonpo texts there contunues to be such terms as 'buddha' and 'buddhahood'. Any readers who are new to the subject will therefore assume that BON is a form of Buddhism, and that it has certainly develeoped as such there is no doubt. In this work we are bound to understand BON in the full bonpo sense and that includes all their gradual adaptation of Buddhist doctrine and practice. They themselves do not acknowledge these Buddhist elements as adaptations. Lacking the necessary historical sense, they persist in claiming that all their teachings and doctrines are the true original BON, particularly promulgated directly in Tibet by gShen-rab , their founder, but mainly received the rough translations from the language of Zhang-Zhung of ancient western Tibet.

The ultimate souce of their teachings is sTag-gzigs , a country situated rather vaguely still further to the west. They would claim that it is the chos-pa, the 'Buddhists' of Tibet, who are the adapters and the plagiarists. Without accepting their claims, we are nevertheless bound to accept their interpretations of terms in presenting an account of their reachings and practices, and this is the primary intention of the present volume. In giving an account of any religion we cannot ignore what the practisers have to say about themselves. Thus in giving an historical accout of Buddhism itself, we cannot ignore, for example, the eighty-four Siddhas, however different their doctrines and practices may be from those of the early Buddhists. We cannot deny the term Buddhist to the Newars of the Nepal Valley, however much they seem to be influenced by Brahmanical practice. We can merely observe that their form of Buddhism represents a very special development of this religion. Likewise in the case of the Bonpos we have to accept them and understand them as they are, while still trying to unravel the historical developments of their religion. An understanding of them on their own terms is all the more important nowadays, because we need the assistance of their few remaining scholars in order to understand something of their early texts.

Tibetans who can help with these texts are now very rare indeed. Educated bonpo monks are brought up in the dGe-lugs-pa ('Yellow Hat') Way, trained in conventional Buddhist philosophy and logic and receiving after examination by debate the academic degree of dGe-bshe . They know their monastic liturgies and the names of their own bonpo gods, but very rarely indeed are they at all experienced in reading the sort of bonpo texts in which we most need assistance, namely material which represents 'pre-Buddhist' traditions. This lack of familiarity on the part of present-day bonpos with what Western scholars would regard as real bon material, may come as a dissappiontment. It also explains why there still remain terms and ideas not yet properly interpreted in this present work.

Among the three bonpo monks who accompanied me to England in 1961 was Tenzin Namdak, once Lopön ( slob-dpon ), best translated as 'Chief Teacher', at sManri (3). Tenzin Namdak, who has now returned to India after three years in England, is a devoted Bonpo, firm in his doctrines as well as his vows. Initiated primarily in a threefold bon tantra, the Ma-rgyud sngs-rgyas rgyud gsum , he was practised in the meditations and teachings of the VIIIth Way. Remaining celibate, he continued to adhere to the rules of the Vith Way, or rather he adhered to them as fas as possible in a foreign western setting. We have read through many texts together and it was on his suggestion that we set to work to produce a concise account of the 'Nine Ways on Bon', and it was he who selected the ectracts which serve as the substance of the present account.