Book Reviews

The Nine Ways of Bön:

Excerpts from gZi-brjid

Edited and translated by
David Snellgrove

2010, 318 pp, b & w plates, 24.5 x 17.5 cm., softcover.

ISBN-10: 974-524-111-3 $40.00
ISBN-13: 978-974-524-111-4




Book review by Marcello De Martino

(In East and West; IsIAO, Rome Vol. 59 - Nos. 1-4 December 2009)


   In February 2010 the Orchid Press of Bangkok, a publisher specializing in books on the culture, religions, art and societies of Asia took the praiseworthy step of producing a second edition of The Nine Ways of Bön, a collection of texts in Tibetan published in 1967 by the Oxford University Press of London, edited by Prof. David L. Snellgrove, an eminent tibetologist, in collaboration with three Bön monks—Löpon (slob-dpon) Tenzin Namdak, Geshey Sangye Tenzin Jongdong and Geshey Samten Gyaltsen Karmay.
   This book had long been unavailable on the normal book market, or hard to find and expensive in specialist or rare edition bookshops, and so copies could be found only in specialist libraries. Now a high quality anastatic reprint is available at a reasonable price, which differs from the first 1967 edition in the addition of a short introduction by Geshey Samten Gyaltsen Karmay, which was written, nevertheless, only in 2006. The anastatic edition has advantages and drawbacks, although on balance the former outweigh the latter. The various illustrations, originally on translucent paper, are darker in this edition. In the case of landscapes and portraits the aesthetic effect is not ideal, although greater emphasis is given to the sketches and the Tibetan script is easier to read for scholars desiring an autoptic view of the folia of a portion of texts transliterated in the body of the book (pp. 293- 300); compared with the preceding edition, the format of table xxi (depicting the lha sum-cu-sogsum gyi gzal-yas-khan, that is, the palaces of the 33 divinities, the khyun bird and the gardens) and that of table xxii (reproducing the Nine-Stage Swastika Mountain, symbolizing The Nine Ways of Bön) have been reduced to a single page instead of the original double page, although the result does not detract from the appeal of the images reproduced on it.
   The Nine Ways of Bön is an essential, hitherto irreplaceable, tool for anyone intending to approach the study of texts referring to the Bön religion, which, according to tradition, descends from the legendary Master gSen-rab. As Snellgrove states in the Introduction, it was vitally important to produce a critical edition of a substantial part of the autochthonous religious doctrinal corpus, involving the joint collaboration of Western philologists and Tibetan monks who are ‘followers of Bön’, i.e. Bonpo (po: ‘follower’), so as to have a complete overview of both the scientific and the ‘traditional’ aspects: the problems raised by ecdotic analysis were not limited to the textual variations, appearing as footnotes, but arose also from the interpretation of the data brought by oral tradition which were edited and then transcribed. The editor, a distinguished tibetologist and pupil of Prof. Giuseppe Tucci, concluded that the vexed question of the dogmatic influence by Bon on Tibetan Buddhism, or vice versa, is quite irrelevant and even impossible to resolve owing to the very close links between the two doctrinal currents, which continued to interact throughout the entire period of the religious history and prehistory of the Tibetan nation (p. 21).
   Therefore, in Snellgrove’s view, it is erroneous to rely on the common opinion still current among non-specialist Western scholars working in the sector, that Bon is a form of shamanic practice or animism and originally a pre-Buddhist legacy in Tibet: in actual fact, the Bonpo are merely one priestly category within the variegated and syncretic world of Tibetan religious worship, who engage in a complex relationship of completion-antagonism with the ‘followers of dharma’, the chos-pa, namely, that is, the believers in the Sakyamuni religion. In the editor’s view, it would thus be extremely difficult in The Nine Ways of Bön to separate what is exquisitely Buddhist from what is not, as ‘bön literature includes a very large amount of material that is normally regarded as Buddhist’ (p. 21).
   The Nine Ways of Bön, where ‘Ways’ is the theg-pa equivalent of the Sanskrit yana which is usually translated as ‘Vehicle’, is based on excerpts from an extensive literary work denoted as hdus-pa rin-po-che dri-ma med-pa gzi-brjid rab-tu hbar-bahi mdo, or ‘The Precious Compendium the Blazing Sutra Immaculate and Glorious’, a title that has been reduced to gZi-brjid, namely ‘The Glorious’: this text is based on ‘oral tradition’ (snanrgyud) and was apparently composed in the late 14th century of the modern era. The great size of the original text can be appreciated when it is realized that it consists of 12 volumes subdivided into 61 chapters, and that the manuscript totals 2791 folia. It is therefore obvious to the reader that this is a monumental work of a composite nature that embraces the whole of Bön religious practice. Because of this it was necessary for the publishers to select short extracts from the more representative of the 61 chapters (all of which are in any case listed with a concise summary of the content on pp. 5-8): Snellgrove on p. 8 of the Introduction informs us that the excerpta in his edition were taken from chapters 7-10, 12-16, and on pp. 9-11 he provides us with an exhaustive outline of the subject of the nine sections that the reader will find in extenso—with the transliterated Tibetan text and English translation in parallel—in the body of the book (pp. 24-255). The Nine Ways of Bön is thus subdivided into:

I. The Way of the Shen of Prediction (phyvagsen theg-pa) (pp. 24-41).
Here the four methods of prediction are described:
(a) sortilege (mo)
(b) astrological calculation (rtsis)
(c) ritual (gto)
(d) medical diagnosis (dpyad).

II. The Way of the Shen of the Visual World (snan-gsen theg-pa) (pp. 42-97).
According to Snellgrove, this was the largest and most difficult section of the edition. It explains how to defeat or to placate divinities and demons: the various ritual practices and the recognition of the various natures of the spiritual beings are subdivided into four parts, namely
1) lore of exorcism: description of various divinities (thug-khar, wer-ma, etc.);
2) nature and origin of demons (hdre) and vampires (sri): description of the methods for eliminating them;
3) this deals with all kinds of ransom;
4) this deals with fates (hdre), furies (hdre), local divinities (hdre) and offerings due to them.

III. The Way of the Shen of the Illusion (hprulgsen theg-pa) (pp. 98-115).
This section sets out the rites for disposing of enemies: these rites are the same as the Bon tantras and very similar to those of the Buddhist Hevajra-Tantra.

IV. The Way of the Shen of the Existence (sridgsen theg-pa) (pp. 116-23).
This section is dedicated to beings situated in the ‘Intermediate State’ (bar-do), that is, between death and rebirth, and shows how to lead them to salvation.

V. The Way of the Shen of the Virtuous Adheres (dge-bsnen theg-pa) (pp. 124-35).
This part refers to those who practice the ten virtues and the ten perfections, and to those who build and worship stupas.

VI. The Way of the Shen of the Great Ascetics (dran-sron theg-pa) (pp. 136-69).
This is the section dedicated to those practicing a rigorous ascetic discipline: even though the entire organization is based on Buddhism, many arguments seem to lead in a different direction.

VII. The Way of the Shen of the Pure Sound (A-dkar theg-pa) (pp. 170-89).
This part deals with the highest tantric practices; also the tantric theory of the ‘transformation’ through the mandala is illustrated.

VIII. The Way of the Primeval Shen (ye-gsen theg-pa) (pp. 190-225).
This prescribes what is necessary for a suitable teacher, partner and place; instructions are given on how to prepare the mandala and an account is provided of the process of meditation.

IX. The Supreme Way (bla-med theg-pa) (pp. 226-55).
In this section a description is given of the Absolute; the Way is described as the mind in its absolute state, as pure ‘Thought of Enlightenment’.

   These Nine Ways are internally classified into four ‘lower ways’ denoted as ‘cause bön’, and into five ‘higher ways’, defined as ‘effect bon’: this qualitative distinction refers respectively to more ancient magic-ritualistic practices and to the more recent new Ways referring to morality and meditation. There is no contradiction between them: indeed it is clear from the doctrinal teaching that for those having attained the Higher Ways it will be essential to pursue also the rites of the equivalent Lower Ways, and of course vice versa. From this stems the primary characteristic of the Bon religion: by taking on new and/or allogenic elements and by not eliminating the more specifically autochthonous ones, it ultimately appears as openly syncretic.
   The Nine Ways of Bön may without fear of contradiction be said to be a book that, as well as revealing to us a unique and arcane world may be considered a monument of poetic literature: the beauty that emerges from the simplicity of the heptasyllabic verses, facilitated in this by the monosyllabic structure of the Tibetan language, compares favourably with the padas of the Indian poems and is sometimes reminiscent of the Chinese lüshi poems. Snellgrove’s elegant English translation succeeds in helping us to understand and appreciate the wealth of wisdom and harmony expressed by the Tibetan stichoi. It is to be hoped that this new edition will be as successful as the first one and will be welcomed by a new generation of scholars of the ancient bön religion, and that this will give fresh impulse to the entire field of Tibetological studies, which had Giuseppe Tucci as their numen tutelare and David L. Snellgrove as their devoted and wise proselyte.

   * In order to ensure that this online version of Dr. De Martino’s review is legible by all, diacritics that were present in the original review have been removed. For readers who would like to view the article in original form, with all diacritics intact, please contact Orchid Press for a copy by Email.

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