The History of the Early Period
of Buddhism and Bon in Tibet
[Excerpts from The Historical Interaction between the Buddhist and Islamic Cultures before the Mongol Empire.]
1 From Emperor Songtsen-gampo up to Emperor Tri Songdetsen
The two main religious traditions of Tibet are Bon and Buddhism. The former was the native faith of Tibet, while the latter had been introduced by Tibet’s first emperor, Songtsen-gampo (Srong-btsan sgam-po, r. 617 – 649 C.E.). According to traditional Tibetan accounts, there was much rivalry between the two. Modern scholarship, however, presents a more complex situation.
Bon, however, did not become an organized religion until after the eleventh century C.E., at which time it shared many features in common with Buddhism. Before that, the pre-Buddhist native tradition of Tibet, sometimes confusingly also called “Bon,” consisted primarily of rituals for supporting an imperial cult, such as elaborate sacrifices for imperial funerals and for the signing of treaties. The tradition also included systems of divination, astrology, healing rituals to placate harmful spirits, and herbal medicine.
In its historical literature, the organized Bon religion traces itself from Shenrab (gShen-rab), a teacher from the fabled land of Olmo-lungring (‘ Ol-mo lung-ring) on the eastern edge of Tagzig (sTag-gzig), who brought it to Zhang-zhung (Zhang-zhung) in the remote, distant past. Zhang-zhung was an ancient kingdom with its capital in western Tibet near the sacred Mount Kailash. Some modern Russian scholars, basing themselves on linguistic analysis, identify Olmo-lungring with Elam in ancient western Iran and Tagzig with Tajik, referring to Bactria. Accepting the Bon assertion that its Buddhist-like aspects predate Songtsen-gampo, these scholars postulate that the original impetus for the system came from a Buddhist master from Bactria visiting Zhang-zhung, perhaps via Khotan or Gilgit and Kashmir, some time during the early first millennium C.E. Zhang-zhung traditionally had close economic and cultural relations with both these neighboring regions. Agreeing with the Bon account, they explain that this master, once in Zhang-zhung, combined many Buddhist-like features with indigenous ritual practices.
Songtsen-gampo was the thirty-second ruler of Yarlung (Yar-klungs), a small kingdom in central Tibet. In the course of expanding his territory and establishing a vast empire that stretched from the borders of Bactria to those of Han China and from Nepal to the borders of East Turkistan, he conquered Zhang-zhung. According to its historical records, Zhang-zhung at one time also spanned the entire Tibetan plateau. At the time of its defeat, however, it included only western Tibet.
Let us leave aside the issues of the furthest extent of Zhang-zhung’s borders, the presence of Buddhist-like features in Zhang-zhung at the height of its empire, and their possible origin. Still, we can reasonably assume from evidence found in the tombs of the Yarlung kings preceding Songtsen-gampo that at least the Zhang-zhung system of court rituals was common to both the Emperor’s home region as well as to the land that he conquered in western Tibet. Unlike Buddhism, the Zhang-zhung rituals were not a foreign system of practice and belief, but an integral part of the pan-Tibetan heritage.
In order to stabilize political alliances and his own position of power, Songtsen-gampo married princesses first from Zhang-zhung and then, late in his reign, from Tang China and Nepal. After wedding the Zhang-zhung princess, he had her father, Lig-nyihya (Lig-myi-rhya), the last Zhang-zhung king, assassinated. This allowed the focus of native ritual support of the imperial cult to shift to himself and his rapidly expanding state.
Emperor Songtsen-gampo introduced Buddhism to Tibet through the influence of his Han Chinese and Nepali wives. It did not take root, however, or spread to the general population at this time. Some modern scholars question the historicity of the Nepali wife, but architectural evidence from the period indicate at least a certain amount of cultural influence from Nepal at this time.
The main manifestation of the foreign faith was a set of thirteen Buddhist temples the Emperor had built on specially chosen geomantic sites around his realm, including Bhutan. With Tibet conceived as a demoness lying on her back and locations for the temples carefully selected according to the rules of Chinese acupuncture applied to the body of the demoness, Songtsen-gampo hoped to neutralize any opposition to his rule from local malevolent spirits.
Of the thirteen Buddhist temples, the major one was constructed eighty miles from the imperial capital, at the site that later became known as “Lhasa” (Lha-sa, The Place of the Gods). At the time, it was called “Rasa” (Ra-sa, The Place of the Goats). Western scholars speculate that the Emperor was persuaded to avoid building the temple at the capital so as not to offend the traditional gods. It is unclear who manned these Buddhist temples, but presumably they were foreign monks. The first Tibetan monastics did not ordain until nearly a century and a half later.
Although pious histories depict the Emperor as a paragon of the Buddhist faith and although Buddhist rituals were undoubtedly performed for his benefit, they were not the exclusive form of religious ceremony sponsored by the imperial court. Songtsen-gampo kept at his court priests of the native tradition and their supporting nobility, and commissioned statues of indigenous deities to be placed alongside Buddhist ones in the main temple in Rasa. Like his predecessors, he and his successors were all buried in Yarlung according to pre-Buddhist, ancient pan-Tibetan rites. Much like Chinggis Khan almost six centuries later, the Tibetan Emperor welcomed not only his native tradition, but a foreign religion as well, namely Buddhism, that could provide rituals to increase his power and benefit his empire.
Further evidence of Songtsen-gampo’s policy of using foreign invention to boost his political power is his adoption of a written script for the Tibetan language. Taking advantage of Zhang-zhung’s long history of cultural and economic relations with Khotan, Gilgit, and Kashmir, the Emperor sent a cultural mission, led by Tonmi Sambhota (Thon-mi sambhota) to the region. In Kashmir, it met with the Khotanese master, Li Chin (Li Byin) - Li, the Tibetan word for Khotan, clearly indicates this master’s country of origin. With his help, the mission devised an alphabet for writing the Tibetan language based on the Khotanese adaptation of the Indian Upright Gupta script. Tibetan historical accounts confuse the place of composition of the new script with the place of origin of its model, and thus explain that written Tibetan is based on the Kashmiri alphabet.
Modern Tibetan scholars have discovered that, prior to this development, Zhang-zhung already had a written script and that this was the basis for the Tibetan cursive letters. The model for the Zhang-zhung script, however, would also have been the Khotanese alphabet.
Songtsen-gampo purportedly used the new script for a translation he commissioned of a Sanskrit Buddhist text that had reached Yarlung as a gift from India two centuries earlier. The main translation activity at this time, however, was of Chinese astrological and both Chinese and Indian medical texts, and this was quite limited. The Emperor employed the system of writing primarily for sending secret military messages to his generals in the field. This followed the Zhang-zhung custom of using coded written messages (Tib. lde’u) for such purposes.
One faction in the Tibetan imperial court was against Emperor Songtsen-gampo’s patronage and reliance on Buddhism. They were undoubtedly behind his decision for not having the main Buddhist temple built at the imperial capital or even in the Yarlung Valley. Later Tibetan histories call them proponents of the “Bon” religion. For more than a century, they offered strong resistance to imperial policy. But, who were these followers of “Bon” who opposed Buddhism and, later, were no doubt responsible for the cool reception to Islam? And what were the reasons for their hostility?
According to Tibetan scholars, the word bon means an incantation used to control spiritual forces and refers to a twelve-part system that includes divination, astrology, healing rituals, and herbal medicine.
Prior to the late eleventh century C.E., Bon was not an organized religion. According to some scholars, the Tibetan word bon was not even used yet, at that time, for the pre-Buddhist indigenous system of beliefs and rituals that included the four traditional arts of divination, astrology, healing rites, and herbal medicine. It was applied only to a specific faction in the imperial court. Although this Bon faction included certain priests (Tib. gshen) of the native tradition and specific nobility associated with them, the defining characteristic of the group was not its religious belief, but primarily its political position. There were followers of the native traditions of divination and so on both inside and outside the court, even including the Emperor himself, who were not called “adherents of Bon.” There were “Bon” nobility at the court who did not necessarily rely on these four traditional arts. Not even every priest of the native tradition was part of this faction. For instance, inside the court there were those who performed rituals for supporting the imperial cult and, upon the Emperor’s death, would conduct the traditional imperial funeral rites. Outside the court, there were those who performed divination or healing rituals to overcome harmful spirits. None of them were considered “members of Bon.”
The “Bon” group, then, was limited to an anti-imperial, conservative and, above all, xenophobic faction of self-interested parties at court. They were an opposition faction that wished to take power themselves. Being against the Emperor, they were naturally opposed to anything that could boost imperial strength, particularly if it were a foreign invention. Thus, the hostility of this faction toward foreign rituals and beliefs was not simply a manifestation of religious intolerance, as later Tibetan Buddhist histories would imply. Although they might have used religious grounds to justify their anti-Buddhist policy recommendations - for instance, a Buddhist presence would anger the traditional gods and bring disaster - this does not imply that they necessarily supported the entire native religious tradition. The “Bon” faction, after all, did not include the priests who performed indigenous rituals to support the Emperor.
The anti-Buddhist sentiment of the so-called “Bon” faction was also not a sign of Zhang-zhung insurrection. The native priests and supporting aristocracy who formed the opposition were undoubtedly from central Tibet, not outsiders from Zhang-zhung. The latter was an occupied territory, not an integrated political district of the empire. It is unlikely that its leaders would have served as trusted members of the imperial court.
In short, the so-called anti-Buddhist “Bon” faction was neither a religiously nor a regionally defined group. It consisted of opponents to the imperial rule at Yarlung who were motivated by reasons of power politics. They resisted and obstructed any foreign links that might strengthen the Tibetan emperor’s political position, weaken their own status, and offend their traditional gods. Even after the death of Emperor Songtsen-gampo, the xenophobia of this faction continued to grow.
The foreboding of the xenophobic faction in the Tibetan court turned out to be well-founded when, during the first years of the reign of the next Tibetan emperor, Mangsong-mangtsen (Mang-srong mang-btsan, r. 649 – 676 C.E.), Tang China invaded Tibet. The Han Chinese forces reached as far as Rasa and caused great damage before they were finally repulsed and defeated.
During the ensuing years of his rule, Mangsong-mangtsen was dominated by a powerful minister from another faction who sought to expand the empire further. This minister conquered Tuyuhun, a Buddhist kingdom to the northeast of Tibet that followed the Khotanese style of Buddhism, and Kashgar, also within the Khotanese cultural sphere. In 670 C.E., he conquered Khotan itself and took control of the rest of the oasis states of the Tarim Basin other than Turfan. The Khotanese king fled to the Tang imperial court, where the Chinese emperor offered him support, commending him for his resistance to the Tibetans.
According to Khotanese accounts, the Tibetans caused much destruction during the conquest of the oasis state, including damaging Buddhist monasteries and shrines. Shortly afterward, however, they repented their actions and took great interest in the Buddhist faith. This pious account, however, may be an interpolation of the model of King Ashoka, the Indian Mauryan Emperor who destroyed many Buddhist temples and monuments before repenting and adopting Buddhism. Nevertheless, some Western scholars trace Tibet’s more serious involvement with Buddhism from this point. If Buddhism had already been strong among the Tibetans, they would have honored, not ravaged the Khotanese monasteries.
Adopting the Khotanese manner of rendering Buddhist technical vocabulary through an etymology of each syllable, the Tibetans now began to import and translate a few select Khotanese Buddhist texts. The cultural contact went both ways as scholars also translated an Indian medical work into Khotanese that had previously been rendered from Sanskrit into Tibetan. With the imperial court establishing such strong foreign links as these, the apprehension of the xenophobic opposition once more began to grow.
A power struggle between the subsequent Tibetan emperor, Tri Dusong-mangjey (Khri ‘Dus-srong mang-rje, r. 677 – 704 C.E.), and this previous minister’s clan seriously weakened the Yarlung court. Tibet lost its military and political hold over the Tarim states, though maintained a cultural presence in its southern oases. The Tibetan Empire, however, was still ambitious. In 703 C.E., Tibet allied itself with the Eastern Turks against Tang China.
During this period, Chinese Empress Wu (Wade-Giles: Wu, r. 684 – 705 C.E.) led a coup temporarily overthrowing the Tang Dynasty by declaring that she was Maitreya, the future Buddha. The Tibetan queen mother, Trima Lo (Khri-ma Lod), mother of Emperor Tri Dusong-mangjey, was from a powerful clan in northeastern Tibet that had not only Khotanese Buddhist sympathies due to Tuyuhun influence, but also close links with Tang China. She was in communication with Empress Wu, and when her son, the Tibetan emperor, died in 704 C.E., she deposed her own grandson and ruled as empress dowager until her death in 712 C.E. She arranged with Empress Wu for a Han Chinese princess, Jincheng (Wade-Giles: Chin-ch’eng), to come to Tibet as a bride for her great-grandson, Mey-agtsom (Mes ag-tshoms), also known as Tri Detsugten (Khri lDe-gtsug-brtan), who was a mere infant at the time. Princess Jincheng was a devout Buddhist and brought a Han Chinese monk with her to teach the ladies at the Tibetan court.
The xenophobic faction of native priests and nobility became extremely agitated at this development. Their influence at court was now challenged once more by Han Chinese Buddhist monks as in the days of Emperor Songtsen-gampo. This time, however, the threat was more serious since the foreigners were now present at the capital itself. With the supernatural forces of this alien religion invited again to boost imperial power, they feared a reprisal by their native gods as had manifested sixty years earlier with the Tang invasion of central Tibet. For the moment, however, the “Bon” faction could only bide its time.
Empress Dowager Trima Lo, being friendly with the Chinese court, now turned Tibet’s military ambitions away from that direction and formed an alliance in 705 C.E. with the Turki Shahis in Gandhara and Bactria, this time against the Umayyad Arabs. When the Empress Dowager passed away in 712 C.E. and Mey-agtsom ascended the Tibetan imperial throne (r. 712 – 755 C.E.), he was still a minor. Empress Jincheng, like the late Empress Dowager, subsequently exerted a strong influence on the Tibetan court.
Meanwhile, the power struggle over West Turkistan continued. In 715 C.E., after the Arab general, Qutaiba, had taken Bactria back from the Turki Shahis, Tibet switched sides and allied itself with the Umayyad forces they had just been fighting. The Tibetan troops then helped the Arab general take Ferghana from the Turgish and prepare for an advance against Turgish-held Kashgar. The Tibetans’ alliance with the Turki Shahis and then the Umayyads was undoubtedly an expediency for keeping a foothold in Bactria with the hope of reestablishing its military, economic, and political presence in the Tarim Basin. Tax from the lucrative Silk Route trade was the ever-present lure for their actions.
One might be tempted to speculate that the prior Tibetan alliance with the Turki Shahis to defend Bactria from the Umayyads was due to the so-called “Bon” faction identifying it with Tagzig, the homeland of Bon, and wishing to prevent the desecration of its main monastery, Nava Vihara. This conclusion, however, does not follow even if one were to allow its two fallacious premises that Bon at this time was an organized religion and that the Bon faction was a religiously defined group. Even if there might have been a Bactrian Buddhist origin to some aspects of the Bon faith, the followers of Bon did not identify these features as Buddhist. Later adherents of Bon, in fact, claimed that the Buddhists in Tibet had plagiarized many of their teachings from them.
Therefore, the Bon faction in the Tibetan court was not leading a “holy war” in Bactria. Furthermore, neither were the Buddhists, as is indicated by the fact that after the loss of Bactria and the devastation of Nava Vihara, the Tibetans did not continue to defend Buddhism in Bactria, but changed alliances and joined with the Muslim Arabs. The primary motivating force behind the Tibetans’ foreign policy was political and economic self-interest, not religion.
In order not to displease its Umayyad allies and jeopardize their relationship, the Tibetan court had agreed in 717 C.E. to invite a Muslim teacher at Caliph Umar II’s insistence. However, it had little to do with an actual interest in the doctrines of Islam. At best, Empress Jincheng might have viewed it as Emperor Songtsen-gampo had originally regarded Buddhism, namely as another source of supernatural power that might strengthen the imperial position. The conservative priests and nobility at the Tibetan court, on the other hand, would have been hostile toward the Arab cleric. They would have feared yet another foreign influence, the rituals of which might further strengthen the imperial cult, weaken their own power, and invite disaster upon Tibet.
The cool reception the Muslim teacher received in Tibet, then, was due primarily to the general atmosphere of xenophobia spread by the opposition faction at the Tibetan court. It was not an indication of an Islamic-Buddhist or Islamic-Bon religious conflict. For almost seventy years, this faction’s hostility had been directed toward Buddhism and it continued to be so directed. To appreciate how their attitude toward Islam fit into this pattern of xenophobia, let us look briefly at the events that followed in Tibet.
The Tang Dynasty had restored its rule in 705 C.E. with the abdication of Empress Wu. The situation had not stabilized, however, until the reign of the Empress’ grandson, Xuanzong (Wade-Giles: Hsüan-tsung, r. 713 – 756 C.E.). This powerful new emperor pursued an anti-Buddhist policy to try to weaken support for his grandmother’s movement. In 720 C.E., an anti-Buddhist sympathizer of the Tang Emperor deposed the local Buddhist king of Khotan and took the throne. Much religious persecution ensued and many Buddhists fled. Since a large influx of Bactrian monk refugees had arrived in Khotan five years earlier due to the Umayyad damage of Nava Vihara, it is not unreasonable to suspect that they would have been the first to flee Khotan, fearing a repeat of their traumatic experience in Bactria.
In 725 C.E., Empress Jincheng arranged for refugee Buddhist monks from Khotan and Han China to receive asylum in Tibet and had seven monasteries built for them, including one in Rasa. This step made the xenophobic ministers at court even more frantic. When the Empress died in 739 C.E. in a smallpox epidemic, they used the occasion to deport all foreign monks in the country to Gandhara, ruled by Tibet’s traditional Buddhist ally, the Turki Shahis. Convinced that their gods had once more been offended and had taken retribution, the ministers declared that the presence of the foreigners and their religious rites in Tibet had been the cause of the widespread epidemic. Gandhara was a reasonable destination for the monks since the Turki Shahis had also been the rulers of Bactria from which many of the monastics undoubtedly hailed. A large number finally settled in the mountainous region of Baltistan to the north of the Oddiyana portion of Gandhara.
The power of this xenophobic faction culminated sixteen years later when, in 755 C.E., they assassinated Emperor Mey-agtsom for his strong leanings toward Tang China and Buddhism. Four years earlier, the same year that the Tang forces were massively defeated and driven out of West Turkistan, the Emperor had sent a Tibetan mission to Han China to learn more about Buddhism. It was headed by Ba Sangshi (sBa Sang-shi), the son of a former Tibetan envoy to the Tang court. When the Tang Emperor Xuanzong was deposed in a rebellion in 755 C.E., the “Bon” faction was convinced that if they did not stop Mey-agtsom from continuing his folly and, as a follow-up to this mission, from undoubtedly inviting more Han Chinese monks to the Tibetan court, not only would they lose power, but disaster to the country would surely follow again as it just had to Tang China. Consequently, after having the Emperor murdered, they instituted a six-year persecution of Buddhism in Tibet.
Join us in trying to benefit others.
Support our work!
This website relies completely on donations. Its maintenance, preparation of the remaining 70% of our planned material, and further translating is costly. Although we currently have 80 volunteers, 23 essential team members require payment. Help us raise the 100,000 euros (US $150,000) required each year
to continue providing our website free of charge.
Reaching Our Goal (35%)