36. Questions and Answers on the Black Sect (The Bon Religion)
Written by Living Buddha Lian-sheng, Sheng-yen Lu Translated by Janny Chow
36. Questions and Answers on the Black Sect (The Bon Religion)
An expert researching the field of world religions found my book Hei Jiao Hei Fa (The Black Sect and Black Magic) quite interesting and decided to pay me a special visit. During our meeting, he raised many questions on the Black (Bon) Sect. I have sorted out our conversations and present them below in a question and answer format. I believe the publishing of this article will provide a satisfactory and overall understanding to the origin and development of the Tibetan Black Sect.
Question: When and where did the Bon Religion originate? Answer: The Bon Religion was originally an animist-shamanist religion that developed in the Tibetan highlands. According to the Yung-drung Bon Chiao Shih (A History of the Yung-drung Bon Religion), the Bon Religion had been in existence as early as 400 B.C.. Originating in Zhang-zhung, it was later introduced into the Yar-klung Valley. The fact that the original Bon Religion was an animist-shamanist religion is undisputed.
Question: What is an animist-shamanist religion? Answer: An animist-shamanist religion arises when people harbor fears, suspiciousness, and hope towards objects found in nature and start to worship them. The most important tenet in the Bon Religion was that everything had a spirit; they therefore worshipped the heaven, the earth, the sun, the moon, mountains, rivers, thunder, lightning, hail, fog, and even birds and animals.
Question: Are there other religions similar to the Bon Religion? Answer: From my understanding, in northeastern China, Mongolia, and even the highland areas in Taiwan, other tribes practiced similar shamanism and sorcery. In fact, animist-shamanist religious practices have been found all over the earth, preceding the development of theology-based religions. Animist-shamanist religions form the earliest known religious practices.
Question: What did the Bon believers worship? Answer: According to chronicles of Tibet, Bon believers revered ghosts and sorcery and regarded the ibex, a high mountain goat, as god. They deified and worshipped yaks, goats, and sheep because these animals played intimate roles in their daily lives. The horns of yaks and goats were used in sacrificial rituals and especially treasured as precious vessels.
Question: How was the world divided according to the Bon Religion? Answer: Followers of the Bon Religion believed the world was divided into three spheres: the upper Heaven sphere, the middle Earth sphere, and the lower Underworld sphere, the latter of which was inhabited by demons. In heaven there lived six gods who were brothers. The greatest god `Samba`* was regarded as the creator of the universe. Bon followers also worshipped Dragon gods (kLu) who ruled over the human world. There were also mountain, water, and earth spirits collectively known by the name gNyan. The god of the powerful Thang-lha mountain chain was also known as `the Great gNyan.`
Question: Why was the Black Sect called the Bon Sect? Answer: Most religions have spokespersons. Otherwise known as priests, they serve as go-betweens among gods, humans, and demons. The priests of the Black Sect were therefore also called the Bon-po Religion, or Bon for short. The priests of the Black Sect were divided into three ranks: heavenly Bon-pos, earthly Bon-pos, and high Bon-pos.
Question: In your book, Hei Jiao Hei Fa, you pointed out that the Black Sect worshipped yaks. Do you have proof of this? Answer: Around the fourth century B.C., the Black Sect had already formed its own religious system. At the time, a tribal chief gNya-khri bTsan-po from the Yar-klung district became the first king of central Tibet. He had come from a tribe known as the Six Yak-bulls who worshipped yaks as gods. It was with the support of the Bon Religion that gNya-khri bTsan-po became king. This was why I mentioned the Black Sect worshipped the yak gods.
Question: How did the Bon priests make a living? Answer: The Black or Bon Religion in Tibet has had twenty-seven generations. In the past, the Bon priests were very powerful. They engaged in prayers and rituals to invoke blessings from heaven, to effect healing, to conduct divinations, to aid in business deals, and also to settle disputes. They also engaged in practices aimed to bring misfortune or punishment in the form of illnesses and deadly hail storms, and they called upon wicked ghosts to commit assaults and evil deeds on others. At that time, the Bon-pos had a great influence in many aspects of life, including fertility, marriage, healing, funerals, relocation, travel, agriculture, hunting, grazing, and the government. The Bon Religion was actually in control of the whole of Tibet, as everything had to be approved by the Bon-pos.
Question: Were there different factions in the Black or Bon Religion? Answer: Yes, there were more or less three factions. The first, Du-Bon*, was founded by Ni-sin*. This faction was popular in Eastern Tibet and reached its height during the reign of king Da-hri Tsan-po*. The second faction, Cha-Bon*, was founded by the three Bon priests from Kashmir. This group flourished during the reign of sPu-lde Gung-rgyal up until the establishment of the Tibetan Dynasty. The third faction, Chueh-Bon*, was founded by Ching-chun Pan-chih-ta* and flourished around the time Buddhist Tantrayana was introduced into Tibet.
Question: What were the responses of the Bon Religion when Buddhist Tantrayana was first brought into Tibet? Answer: When Tantrayana Buddhism was introduced into Tibet, it entered a long period of fighting with the Bon Religion ?this is the famous struggle between Buddhism and Bon. According to the annals of the Tibetan history of religions, as soon as Buddhism entered Tibet, it immediately met with resentment and resistance from the traditional Bon Religion. This is understandable. The intense and protracted rivalry between Tantrayana Buddhism and the Bon Religion lasted over two hundred years.
Questions: Did Tantrayana Buddhism finally win? Answer: Yes. That is the main reason why I advocate that we should not blur the distinction between Tantrayana Buddhism and the Tibetan Bon Religion.
Question: Does the Bon Religion have its own scriptures? Answer: The Bon Religion originally had no scriptures of its own. When Buddhism was introduced into Tibet, it brought many sutras and much literature. This caused great shock among the Bon Religion adherents. They attempted to defeat Buddhism with comparable weapons and took section II (chapters 51 to 80) of the Yogacara-bhumi and changed it to the Bon Sutra. They also appropriated the Great Dharani Sutra and changed it into their own White Dragon Sutra and Black Dragon Sutra. The Prajna Hundred Thousand Praises was changed into the Bon-po Kanjur. It is pitiful and laughable that, after stealing these Buddhist texts, the Bon-pos then claimed their texts had been copied by Buddhists authors.
Question: When was Buddhism introduced into the Tibetan area? Answer: Buddhism was first introduced around the seventh century, during the reign of the Tibetan King Srong-btsan sgam-po. Some records also claimed that, during the reign of Lha-tho-tho-ri, the fifth predecessor of the above-mentioned king, Buddhism had been introduced into Tibet. Buddhism was of course brought into Tibet from India, but there was also a myth alleging that a treasure trunk containing Buddhist writings, a stupa, and Buddhist statues had fallen from Heaven.
Question: Can you briefly describe the Bon Religion attempts to suppress Buddhism? Answer: According to Chronicles of the Tibetan Kings, there were the following events:
1) During the building of the Jo-khang Cathedral, construction accomplished during the day was sabotaged by Bon followers at night. 2) In order to alleviate the struggles between the Buddhist and Bon groups, the royal court compromised by adding Bon symbols around outside of the cathedral. 3) During the ministry of the powerful mGar family, Buddhist monks were expelled and Buddhist sutras were suppressed. Both large and small cathedrals were shut down, and an image of Shakyamuni Buddha brought by Princess Wen-chng was buried underground. 4) Tibetan ministers who were Bon followers interpreted an epidemic of smallpox as a sign of the wrath of ancient gods and attributed the outbreak to the Buddhist monks. They laid the blame on Princess Chin-cheng and instigated riots against the Tang Dynasty and Buddhism. 5) During the period when Na-lang-shi* assisted the king, Buddhist statues were buried underground, the Jo-khang became an execution ground, and a decree was issued suppressing Buddhism throughout the country. 6) Anti-Buddhist Bon ministers claimed Shantarakshita, the Indian Buddhist teacher, had induced the wrath of the Bon-po gods and brought famine to Tibet. They succeeded in securing a temporary expulsion of Shantarakshita to Nepal. 7) Padmasambhava fought and subjugated the Bon priests finally allowing Buddhism to thrive in Tibet.
This complicated struggle between Bon and Buddhism lasted for more than two hundred years. During the reign of King gLang-dar-mar, there was another upsurge to revive Bon and eliminate Buddhism and the Dharma. Apart from the destruction of temples and monasteries and the burning of Buddhist books, upper level monks were murdered, middle level monks were expelled, and ordinary monks were forced to return to secular life. During this period of oppression of the Dharma in Tibet, all overt Buddhist activities were suppressed.
It is a historical fact that Buddhism and the Bon Religion were two irreconcilable rivals, and this has been recorded throughout the whole of Tibetan history. Tantrayana Buddhism and the Bon Religion are two distinct religions and should not be confused as one.
Question: Can you talk about the struggle between Padmasambhava and the Bon priests? Answer: Shantarakshita suggested that the Tibetan King invite Padmasambhava to Tibet to subjugate the Bon sorcerers. Padmasambhava was the great Tantrayana master in Udyana, the modern city of Kashmir. On his journey, Padmasambhava started conquering the Bon shamans. The details are recorded in the biography of Padmasambhava. Of course, Padmasambhava was a true Tantrayana master, far more capable than the Bon-pos. This enabled him to finally gain the upper hand.
Padmasambhava also adopted a new strategy. After subduing the great mountain and water spirits of the Bon Religion, he turned them into the Dharma Protectors of Buddhism. Among the Bon spirits, there are `twelve Dan-mas`* who have all become Tantrayana Dharma Protectors. The following is a description of Padmasambhava in the religious history of Tibet. `Using his transcendental and miraculous powers, Padmasambhava subjugated the maras and non-humans who vowed from then on to turn to goodness and protect the righteous Dharma.`
Question: It was said that during the struggle between Buddhism and Bon, there was a great debate. What do you know about this? Answer: At the height of their antagonism against Buddhism, the Bon followers included in their prayers the following verse, `May the Bon ruler sTonpa gShenrab trample upon the lotus throne of Shakyamuni.` They aimed their insults directly at Shakyamuni Buddha. At the time, twenty-seven noblemen had requested the king abandon the Bon Religion to study Buddhism. King Khri-srong Ide-btsan therefore decided to organize a debate between Bon and Buddhism. The Bon doctrines were very shallow and no match for Buddhism profound philosophy and doctrines. The Bon-pos naturally lost the debate. As a result, the royal court announced that Bon was to become an illegal religion, and neither members of the military nor civilians were to practice it. Finally, the Bon followers had to go underground.
Question: Can you describe the development of exoteric and esoteric Buddhism in Tibet? Answer: Many people are aware that Buddhism was first introduced into Tibet primarily in the Sutrayana form. During the later period of introduction, people engaged in both exoteric and esoteric practices. When Tantrayana became popular in India, many famous Tantric teachers came to Tibet through Kashmir. As esoteric Tantrayana methods can greatly accelerate the process of Enlightenment, these methods became very popular in Tibet, a society that had long undergone upheavals and turbulence.
Question: Is Bon a sect of the Tantrayana Buddhism? Answer: Bon was originally an animist-shamanist religion in the Tibetan highlands and, from the beginning, was never Tantrayana. Buddhism and Bon have engaged in struggles for hundreds of years. Bon is fundamentally distinct from Buddhism and not a part of Tantrayana. As for Bon followers who became Buddhists, we can only regard them as converts from the Bon Religion to Buddhism. Tantrayana is Tantrayana, Bon is Bon, and the two should not be confused. Passing Bon off as Tantrayana is deceiving and confounding and serves no purpose at all!
Note: All names denoted by * are transliterations of Chinese terms.