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.


Sectarian persecution

The dGe lugs pa government in Tibet had a powerful supporter. Since 1720 till 1911 the Manchu influence over Tibet was firmly established and the dGe lugs pa saw this foreign power as their cherished patron which it was. At the same time, a certain segment among the dGe lugs pa began to claim that they were the upholders of the dGe lugs pa teachings as being the most authentic ones as taught by the Buddha. This of course implied that other Buddhist schools in Tibet and not to mention the Bonpo held false views. The movement came often to be closely associated with the Shugs ldan cult. The deity’s antipathy to non-dGe lugs pa teachings is all the more the object of praise in the ritual texts devoted to this deity.

Amongst other places I should mention here are two areas where this particular movement was very active and where conflicts between the Bonpo and the dGe lugs pa establishments were particularly fierce. The Sog district contained two important dGe lugs pa monasteries, Sog Tsan dan dgon and Rong po Rab brtan dgon as referred to earlier. It was in this area that Pha bong kha ba bDe chen snying po (1878-1941) of Se ra Monastery was active early the twentieth century. It was he who revived the cult of Shugs ldan in spite of opposition to it by the Thirteenth Dalai Lama. In an forthcoming article I have dealt in some detail with his activities in this area and the revolt of the so-called “Thirty-nine Tribes of Hor” of Bonpo obedience against the Tibetan government.

The other place, where the relations between the two faiths were similarly strained, was Gro mo (Chumbi Valley) in southern Tibet. Around 1897 the most active dGe lugs pa master in this area was Ngag dbang skal bzang, also of Se ra Monastery. He was commonly known as Gro mo dGe bshes Rinpoche and was a disciple and friend of Pha bong kha ba bDe chen snying po. The cult of Shugs ldan which he set up in this place was based in Dung dkar Monastery. The Bonpo monastery in Gro mo known as Pus mo sgang (No.8) had a perpetual struggle with Dung dkar for its existence. The conflict between the two monasteries had inspired the composition of a four-line praise to the deity in the propitiatory text by Pha bong kha ba bDe chen snying po as follows:

“In the barbarous land where the bad tradition of gShen rab is upheld,

You made flourish the good path that is complete and faultless

With your rapid action of four kinds and many other omens,

I praise you who are the guide of living beings!”

(gshen rabs(rab) lugs ngan ’dzin pa’i mtha’ ’khob tu/

las bzhi’i rtags mtshan rno myur du ma yis/

tshang la ma nor lam bzang rgyas mdzad pa’i/

skye rgu’i ’dren par gyur pa khyod la bstod/).

In 1967 Yongs ’dzin Khri byang Blo bzang ye shes, the late tutor of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, wrote a commentary on the propitiatory eulogy to the deity just quoted entitled rGyal chen bstod ’grel (folio 138b). In this work he explains that the phrase “barbarous land” refers to Gro mo and thanks to the “four actions of the deity” the dGe lugs pa tradition was firmly established there. The region was mainly inhabited by a Bonpo population until the dGe lugs pa penetrated there only in the nineteenth century. Dung dkar Monastery was tacitly supported by the Tibetan government in its hostility, but Pus mo sgang seemed to have miraculously survived till the days of the Cultural Revolution.

However, there is yet another region, rGyal rong where relations between the two faiths were in constant struggle. The exact date of the Buddhist penetration there is not known. Vairocana, a Tibetan Buddhist monk of the eighth century is said to have resided there, but this is more of a myth than history. In the fifteenth century, Tsha kho Ngag dbang grags pa, a disciple of Tsong kha pa (1357-1519) and a native of the Tsha kho district, north of rGyal rong, returned to his native country after studying in Central Tibet. He is said to have made a vow to erect 108 monasteries in his native land in the presence of his master. He certainly founded some dGe lugs pa monasteries in Tsha kho and he is said to have used magic against the Bonpo to overcome the latter’s opposition to his efforts in conversion (mDo smad chos ’byung, pp.774). The dGe lugs pa expansion in the area was slow and difficult. However, in the second half of the 19th century, a child in the family of the local chief, Cog tse, was chosen to be the reincarnation of Byang rtse Blo bzang lhun grub, the 74th Throne-holder of Tsong kha pa in dGa’ ldan Monastery. The local chief, the Cog tse rgyal po, “king of Cog tse” was powerful in his own right in the place. As the child grew up, the dGe lugs pa influence in the family increased, too. In 1874, he converted ’Bar kham gYung drung gling, one of the oldest Bon monasteries in the area, to dGe lugs pa and went so far as to erase its old Bon mural paintings and paint them over with the deities of the dGe lugs pa school. This conversion of the monastery provoked a strong reaction from the people of Shar khog, the next easterly region of the Tsha kho district. A local religious war was fought between a section of the people in Cog tse who supported the conversion and the people of Shar khog who wanted to save the monastery as Bonpo. The people of Shar khog were ultimately defeated, but they took the lama of the monastery to Shar khog where he is said to have settled down. Barkham ('Bar khams) is now the administrative seat of the 'Autonomous Prefecture' of Aba (rNga ba) in Sichuan.

However, the Bonpo people in rGyal rong, had to face much more serious hostility in the 18th century. Not only had they to fight on a religious front but also a political one. They resisted for nearly thirty years against the Manchu invasion, supported and encouraged by the influential dGe lugs pa lama sKyang skya Rol pa’i rdo rje (1717-1786) who had then a high position at the Manchu imperial court of Qianlong. In 1760 the Manchu army finally won the war capturing bSod nams dbang ’dus, the king of Rab brtan. He was led to Beijing together with more than one thousand people as war prisoners. The king was finally executed. Five horses were attached to his head, hands and feet and then let pull in different directions, a privilege kept for kings in Manchu punishment customs. gYung drung lha steng, the royal monastery was partially destroyed and converted to dGe lugs pa and was given the name dGa’ ldan bstan ’phel gling. dGe lugs pa monks were summoned from ’Bras spungs Monastery to administer it. Qianlong issued an edict forbidding the practice of the Bon religion in the area. What is peculiar about this piece of history is that the monastery was totally destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. However, around 1980 the Sichuan government decided to reinstate it for a reason not known to me and even provided funds so that the local Bonpo people could begin to rebuild it as one of their own monasteries (No.187).


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.