Tibetan and Himalayan Library - THL

THL Title Text
A Survey of Bonpo Monasteries
by Dondrup Lhagyal, Phuntso Tsering Sharyul, Tsering Thar, Charles Ramble and Marietta Kind
Edited by Samten G. Karmay and Yasuhiko Nagano
National Museum of Ethnology and THL
Reproduced with permission from the authors
under the THL Digital Text License.


Persecution and destruction

The history of Bon monasteries is of a history of either sectarian persecution or wanton destruction by a foreign invader. The Bonpo religious establishments never had any political ambition and consequently there is no record of their holding any position that had a political significance. This might explain in part why the Bon religion and its monastic tradition somehow survived through the centuries in Tibet in spite of the Bon religion being a non-Buddhist creed among the 80% Buddhist population in Central Tibet.

From the eleventh to the fourteenth centuries, no record of general persecution is found apart from a few disputes between two individuals or two religious communities. On the contrary, there are a number of examples of showing good will towards one another. Even after the fourteenth century, a certain number of Bonpo monks of sMan ri Monastery went to study philosophy at Sa skya pa monasteries till gYung drung gling Monastery managed to establish its own mtshan hyid studies in the eighteenth century.

In the seventeenth century, Tibet was seething with religio-politcal conflicts. The rise to political power of the Fifth Dalai Lama (1617-1682) in 1642 calmed down the turmoil in the country. His reign was marked by a remarkable period of peace and tolerance. In 1664, the Fifth Dalai Lama issued a decree appointing sDe srid Sangs rgyas rgya mtsho (1658-1705) as the Regent of Tibet and in the decree the Fifth Dalai Lama recognised Bon as one of Tibet’s official religions (Richardson 1998: 441). This tradition was belatedly revived by the Fourteenth Dalai Lama in India only at the beginning of 1980s. There was therefore no notable persecution during the reign of the Fifth Dalai Lama. On the contrary, the fact that he was deeply interested in the Bon religion is proved by the abundant references to Bon in his autobiography, the Dukula’i gos bzang.

The Regent gives a list of monasteries that were founded by the Fifth Dalai Lama. Amongst these is Sog Tsan dan dgon which he mentions rather obliquely saying that it was originally Karma bka’ brgyud pa, but no mention is made regarding whether it had any connection with Bon (Vaidurya ser po, p.405). However, according to the Nag chu sa khul gyi dgon sde khag gi lo rgyus (p.351), in 1640, during the military campaign of Gushri Khan in Khams, a number of Bonpo and bKa’ brgyud pa monasteries suffered destruction. Later in 1668, the Fifth Dalai Lama ordered a dGe lugs pa monastery to be built for the people of the Sog district, east of Nag chu kha, as compensation for the large Bonpo monastery called Sog gYung drung gling, four small bKa’ brgyud pa monasteries and one small convent called Tsan dan dgon that had been destroyed by the Gushri Khan’s troops. The new dGe lugs pa monastery was called Sog dGa’ ldan ’phel rgyas gling, but it was normally known as Sog Tsan dan dgon which, however, was not built on the ruins of Sog gYung drung gling as the Bonpo often imply.

However, the Regent seems to have forgotten the very tolerant religious policy that his master maintained throughout his reign. In 1686 under his order, all the Bon religious establishments in the Ser tsha district in Khyung po, Khams, converted to dGe lugs pa. Four dGe lugs pa monasteries were then founded for the Ser tsha people in four different places: dGa’ ldan bkra shis gling in ’Bro rdzong; dGa’ ldan thar ’dod gling in Ga ngal; dGa’ ldan skabs gsum gling in Ri dmar and dGa’ ldan dpal ’byor gling in Phu dmar. A Lama from Rong po dGa’ ldan rab brtan dgon founded by the Fifth Dalai Lama in 1668, was appointed to be in charge of the new monasteries (Vaidurya ser po, p. 459). Rong po dGa’ ldan rab brtan dgon is usually known as Rong po Rab brtan dgon. Rong po is a place in the Sog district. The Regent does not mention the names of the Bon religious establishments that he had converted and I have seen no other records mentioning them. It is not clear why the Regent had implemented such a drastic policy of religious conversion by force in this particular place. There were so many other places in the same region where the Bon religion was followed, but no similar action seems to have been taken.

He states: “in Khyung po gSer tsha people believe strongly in Bon (khyung po gser tsha khul du bon lugs la dad ’dun che ba..) and if the gYung drung Bon religion is practised properly,... (citation of a sutra) one cannot stop them, but during the day the practitioners stay in monasteries. There they fight over the offerings that were made by the faithful just like vultures over corpses. During the night they go to villages and sleep with women. So what they do is very serious sin...(citation of texts). Thinking for the benefit of myself and them, - since they are Bonpo just in name, in reality they behave like laymen - , I had them converted to dGe lugs pa” (Vaidurya ser po, p. 459).

It is hard to believe that such was the real reason for which the Regent caused the people of gSer tsha to change their faith. It seems that he was not against the religion itself as such, but rather against the gSer tsha people who probably resisted the policies of his dGe lugs pa dominated government in the area. Whatever it may be, this had set a precedent of forced conversion of monasteries belonging not only to the Bon tradition but also to other Buddhist orders. Each time there was a forced conversion the name of the new dGe lugs pa monastery began with the word dga’ ldan or dge ldan following the example of the names of the new monasteries founded by the Fifth Dalai Lama.

Apart from the method of forced conversion, other strategies were used to gain a foothold among a people whose religious tradition was not dGe lugs pa. This consisted of recognizing a child as a reincarnation in a non-dGe lugs pa family. That was what happened to the Bru family which was very prestigious and a strong bastion of Bon as mentioned earlier. The family seat was located to the north of gTsang po and a few kilometers to the east of Shigatse. It was the Fifth Dalai Lama, who in order to institute the reincarnation series of Panchen Lamas, chose a child of the Bru family as the reincarnation of his spiritual master Panchen Blo bzang chos rgyan (1567-1662). The child became the Panchen Blo bzang ye shes (1663-1737), but the Fifth Dalai Lama made sure that the family continued to adhere to its own religion. However, another Panchen Lama, bsTan pa’i dbang phyug (1854-1882) was born again in the family. This time, it was the end of the family’s own religion. Its seat became known as ’Khrungs gzhi, the “Base of births” and was made as an estate of bKra shis lhun po Monastery.

Another underhand method was used for enriching one’s own establishments. In the nineteenth century, it was the intervention by bKra shis lhun po Monastery in a dispute between two branches of the gShen family located in the Dar lding village, a few kilometers to the west of Shigatse. The intervention resulted in properties of one of the two families being confiscated and givin to a dGe lugs pa monastery nearby (Dondrup Lhagyal, 2000: 444). These are just a few examples of religio-political persecution of a sort under the domination of the dGe lugs pa government. The Bonpo themselves unfortunately have rarely committed these invents to writing.

However, the tendency for non-dGe lugs pa religious orders to come under persecution was further intensified due to two developments: foreign interference in the internal affairs of Tibet and the gaining of the upper hand by an ultra fundamentalist section among the dGe lugs pa monasteries and in government clerical circles.


Note Citation for Page

Dondrup Lhagyal, Phuntso Tsering Sharyul, Tsering Thar, Charles Ramble, and Marietta Kind, A Survey of Bonpo Monasteries and Temples in Tibet and the Himalaya (Osaka: National Museum of Ethnology, 2003), .

Bibliographic Citation

Dondrup Lhagyal, Phuntso Tsering Sharyul, Tsering Thar, Charles Ramble, and Marietta Kind. A Survey of Bonpo Monasteries and Temples in Tibet and the Himalaya. Osaka: National Museum of Ethnology, 2003.