A Survey of Bonpo Monasteries and Temples in Tibet and the Himalaya

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Item Code: NAC344
Author: Samten G. KarmayYasuhiko Nagano
Publisher: Saujanya Publications, Delhi
Edition: 2008
ISBN: 818656103X
Pages: 884 (Illustrated In B/W)
Cover: Hardcover
Other Details 9.9 Inch X 7.7 Inch
Weight 2.07 kg
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Book Description

From the Jacket

This book is an outcome of General Survey of Monasteries, Temple and Hermitages of the Bon religion, known as gYung drung Bon. It contains the result of the field work done by the tem of scholars of National Museum of Ethnology, Osaka Japan headed by Dr. Yasuhiko Nagano & Dr. Samten G.Karmay.

Such concrete & detailed description of the Bonpo Monasteries & people, based on extensive field work, has never before appeared since the beginning of Tibetology. The field survey of actual conditions of Bon Culture was conducted in TAR, Tibet areas in China, India & Nepal. The four scholars who surveyed the monasteries temples and hermitage reached at the conclusion that the Monastic System in the Bon tradition goes back upto the eleventh century, when the Buddhists began to re-establish their monasteries. This publication will prove to be significant milestone for future studies of Tibetan Culture.

Samten C. Karmay was born in Amdo, north-eastern Tibet. He attended Bonpo monasteries first and then studied in Drepung, a Buddhist monastery in Central Tibet. In 1959, he left Tibet for India where he began to print Tibetan texts. In 1961 he took up a research post at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London University from where he obtained his M.Phil and Ph.D degrees. In 1980 he entered the National Centre of Scientific Research (CNRS), Paris where he occupies the post of Director of Research in history and anthropology. In 1996 he was elected president of the International Association of Tibetan Studies (IATS). He has written number of books including The Great Perfection, J. Brill 1989; Secret Visions of the Fifth Dalai Lama, London Serindia 1989; The Diamond Isle: A Catalogue of Buddhist Writings in the Library of Ogyen Choling, Bhutan; Treasury of Good Sayings: A Tibetan History of Ron, Delhi (India) 2001 and about sixty articles on Tibetan religion, history and ethnology.

Born in 1946 in Saitama, Japan. He studied French linguistics at the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies and continued his study at the Graduate School, University of Tokyo until he was nominated as a fellow of the Tibetan Seminar at the Toyo Bunko (Oriental Library). He left that in 1977 when he joined the Ph.D. Program in linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley. In 1983, he obtained his doctoral degree. His major research is on Tibeto-Burman historical linguistics, with special focus on Tibetan and Gyalrong. His main publications are:

A Historical Study of the rGyarong Verb System. A Morphological Index of Classical Tibetan, New Horizons in Tibeto-Burman Morph syntax and Time, Language and Cognition. He is a professor of linguistics at the National Museum of Ethnology, Osaka, Japan and has been pioneering an international project on Bon studies in partnership with Dr. Samten G. Karmay of CNRS, Paris, France.



As many scholars have long noticed, Bon is one of the basic cultural strata of Tibet, without which a well-balanced understanding of Tibet cannot be expected. Unfortunately, however, the study of Don Culture has lagged far behind that of Buddhism. Although several outstanding studies have been published in Europe, far fewer researchers have been engaged in the study of Don than in the study of Buddhism. This tendency is salient particularly in Japan. Japan boasts a long tradition and high standard in the study of Tibetan Buddhism, but other areas of Tibetan studies remain neglected, with the exception 6f a few superior linguistic and historical achievements.

To improve this situation, a Bon culture research project was launched in 1996, extending through 2001, with funding for an international field research project supported by the Ministry of Education, Japan. Because the project started virtually from scratch, most of these finds were allocated to a survey of the actual conditions of Don Culture and to the development of the groundwork for research.

Since the general editors of “Don studies” series, Samten G. Karmay (CNRS, Paris) and I, Yasuhiko Nagano (National Museum of Ethnology, Osaka), began to have the fruits of this project published in 1999, we have received many inquiries concerning the series. Most of these were complaints about the lack of availability of our publications. Because the series appeared as part of the Senri Ethnological Reports from the National Museum of Ethnology, Osaka, on a non-commercial basis, our volumes were distributed only to a limited number of related researchers and libraries.

Fortunately, several publishers were interested in a reprint of the “Bon Studies” series. After comparing the various proposals carefully, the general editors of the series chose Saujanya Publications, Delhi. This publisher generously offered to reprint all our Don Studies series including future publications, for which we would like to express our warmest gratitude.

We hope that the reprint is helpful for its wider availability and that it will accelerate Don Studies in general.



This volume contains the results of our field research concerning Bonpo monasteries, hermitages and people in Tibet and the Himalayas, supported by Ministry of Education, Japan.

Bon is one of the pre-Buddhist religions in Tibet. By the term ‘pre-Buddhist’ here I mean that it existed in Tibet before Buddhism was imported into the area and that it has survived till the present time. Although various definitions of Bon have been proposed, it could be properly said that, in Bonpo culture, we perceive something essential or basic that has pervaded Tibetan culture from ancient times to the present day. Bon is therefore an important cultural substratum in Tibet.

Unfortunately, however, the study of Bon culture has lagged far behind that of Buddhism. This tendency is salient all over the world, especially in Japan. To improve this situation, a Bon culture research project was launched in 1996 with funding for joint research from the National Museum of Ethnology Japan, and a subsidy from the Ministry of Education for overseas survey. Most of these finds were allocated to the development of the groundwork for research, to the field survey of the actual conditions of Bon culture, to the interim symposium and to publication of our fruits.

The development of groundwork for research includes Bonpo Canon (Kangyur and Katen texts, rare texts which are not included in Kangyur nor in Katen), iconographical materials, F. W. Thomas’ research notes on Zhangzhung language kept in the British Library, and soon. An interdisciplinary symposium was held in the summer of 1999 at the National Museum of Ethnology, Osaka, and leading scholars from wide range of fields attended it presenting papers on various topics related to Bon religion. Those who participated in doing fieldwork for the research project were also invited to attend the symposium so that they could present their findings. Most of the papers read at the symposium were published in 2000. It is my hope that the publication of papers has set a new standard in the study of Bon.

The results of field survey of the actual conditions of Bon culture are presented in this volume. The concrete and detailed descriptions of the Bonpo monasteries and people, based on extensive fieldwork, have never appeared since the beginning of Tibetology, and it is my belief that this publication will prove to be a significant milestone for future studies of Tibetan culture.

In the autumn of 1995, Dr. Samten G. Karmay and I discussed together concerning how to carry out a field research into the Bon religious establishments and drew up a questionnaire carefully. That framework is described in Dr. Samten Karmay’s “Introduction”. Needless to say, the history and present conditions of monasteries, temples and hermitages are included. The framework also includes the exact location of each monastery and its economic states as well as relationship to local society. Many of monasteries involved in fact do not appear on maps and, even if they do, we often find discrepancy between actual location and their names. We wished, therefore, to locate the places by GPS measurement. Actual economic states of monastery and its ties with locality and/or with lay world have keenly interested scholars, but these matters are extremely difficult for non-Bonpos to approach.

Four authors spent a lot of time and exerted themselves both academically and physically in doing fieldwork on each monastery. Many of monasteries are not easily reachable because of poor transportation; others are not constantly occupied by anyone and the authors had to make several trips to complete their fieldwork and to get information. Almost all the areas have been covered, but particular parts of the southeastern TAR are left unstudied.

The field survey of actual conditions of Bon culture was conducted in TAR, Tibetan areas in China, India and Nepal. Thanks to the positive support of China Center for Tibetan Studies, Beijing, Tibet Academy of Social Sciences, Lhasa, and Triten Norbutse Bonpo Educational Centre, Kathmandu, many valuable descriptions were collected, which were previously unknown to scholars. Without their generous consideration, this volume would never have seen the light of day.

After several rounds of editing, the descriptions included in this volume have come to be of great use for students of Tibetan culture.

I would like to offer my deepest gratitude to the Ministry of Education, Japan and the National Museum of Ethnology, my present working place, for their continued support of this project.



This volume is concerned with a general survey of monasteries, temples, hermitages of the Hon religion, known as gYung drung Bon, that have survived or recently been rebuilt in Tibet, Tibetan inhabited regions in China proper as well as the Himalayan regions.

The monastic system in the Ron tradition has a long history. It goes back at least to the eleventh century A.D. However, Ron tradition itself traces it back to a period beyond the eleventh century, but this claim remains to be proved.

Although the monasticism of the Bon tradition owns its inspiration to Buddhism, the Bonpo already had established it when the Buddhists began to re-establish their monasteries in the eleventh century. This begins with the six Buddhist monks who returned to Central Tibet from Amdo where they were ordained by Bla chen dGe ba gsal (891-975) according to the Deb ther sngon po by ‘Gos Lo tsa ba gZhon nu dpal (1392-1481).

In the case of the Hon tradition it started with the disciples of gShen chen Klu dga’. Bonpo chronology ascribes this master to 996-1035. He is also thought to be contemporary with Lo tsa ba Rin chen bzang po (958-1055). The disciples of gShen chen Klu dga’ established various religious centers, such as temples, hermitages and monasteries.

One of the disciples of this master, Bru chen Nam mkha’ g-yung drung, is credited with founding a temple in 1072 near the estate of his own family called Bru, a few kilometers to the east of Shigatse and north of the gTsang p0 river, Central Tibet. It soon developed into a monastery called gYas ni dBen sa kha. The monastery was mainly maintained by the family by providing its abbots. While one brother ensured the line of the family, another would devote himself to religious life and often became the abbot of the monastery. In such an establishment, the monastery is usually considered as belonging to the family as the term dgon bdag, the ‘owner of the monastery” indicates. The ownership always remained the same even when the abbot was not a member of the family.

dBen sa kha came to be considered as the primary source of the monastic tradition among the Bonpo until the fourteenth century. It was an important centre of learning and produced a number of noted writers. Their works became classics for monastic learning in later centuries. The monastery, however, was destroyed by flood in 1386. With the disappearance of this monastery a period of monastic culture of the Hon tradition came to an end.

A new era began with the foundation of two monasteries also in Central Tibet. These will be briefly described here as they had a tremendous influence over other monastic establishments that are surveyed by the four authors in this volume.

One of the monks of dBen sa kha Monastery just referred to was Shes tab rgyal mtshan. He was the head of the one of the colleges of the monastery, but he was absent from the monastery when it was washed away by flood. He was on a visit to his mother in rGyal rong, eastern Tibet.

On the way back to Central Tibet, news of the flood reached him when he was in Dar rtse mdo. Discouraged, he withdrew himself into a retreat, but there he received good signs that encouraged him to resume hisjourney on foot back to Central Tibet. He is said to have found various objects in the ruins such as books and musical instruments that belonged to the destroyed monastery. With these objects, taken as an auspicious sign, he founded a monastery on the southern slope of Mount sMan ri in 1405. The monastery was called bKra shis sman ri (No.1). It is located in a rather secluded place, up the same valley where dBen sa kha Monastery was located.

With the help of his disciple Rin chen rgyal mtshan, a whole system in accordance with the Hi-u tradition of dEen sa kha Monastery was re-established with a strong emphasis on the need for abstention from alcoholic drink and the observance of celibacy as the principal guideline of the monastic discipline. These rules are laid out in the bca ‘yig, the monastic code and it was read out to the assembly in a solemn ceremony by the disciplinarian once a year. The discipline of the new monastery thus became the model for most Bonpo monasteries in later centuries. It was hard to stick to the rules set out in the bea’ yig of sMan ri Monastery, but it became an established tradition and most monasteries that were founded later were expected to follow its tradition.

However, there were other monasteries which practised different ritual traditions such as the gShen lugs, the “Tradition of gShen” or Thu lugs, the ‘7radition of Zbu”, but all were expected to follow the same monastic discipline.

The Bonpo were often characterized as being lovers of women and wine (chang nag Ia dga’ ba) by the Buddhists, especially the dGe lugs monastics. inn fact, in certain places the members of a monastery or temple were of what one calls ser khyim, that is a kind of “semi-monk” who observes only a few out of the many monastic vows. They usually spent a certain amount of time in the year in the monastery and the rest of the time at home in the village helping do household work. The ser khyim were not necessarily married men nor sngags pa.

The founder of sMan ri Monastery bears the title mNyam med, the “Incomparable One”, but in the colophons ofbooks he wrote he describes himself as gShen gyi drang srong, the “monk who follows the gShen”, i.e. gShen rab Mi ho. Amongst his writings there is a detailed commentary of the ‘Dul ba kun b/us. It is entitled ‘Dul ‘grel ‘phrul gyi sgron me. The ‘Dul ba kun btus (Kvaerne 1974: T. 7) is a classic text devoted to the monastic discipline composed in verse by Me ston Shes rab ‘od zer (1058-1132). It is these two works that serve as the textual basis of Bonpo monasticism.

sMan ri Monastery remained small and modest in its development as its founder had wished. Before he died, he appointed his disciple Rin chen rgyal mtshan as the abbot of the monastery. Thus Rin chen rgyal mtshan bears the title rGyal tshab, the “Apostle”. However, the successors of Rin chen rgyal mtshan were elected by secret lot from among the qualified monks. There were thirty-two abbots spanning over five hundred and sixty years till around 1966. Its uneasy access did not help it become a great centre, but it was highly esteemed for its strict practice of monastic rules. Per Kvaerne (1970) was the first Western scholar to devote an article to the administration of this monastery. The Monastery was plundered and finally totally destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, 1966-1976. As of 2002, it still has not been rebuilt.

gYung drung gling Monastery (No.2) was the second in importance to sMan ii Monastery in Central Tibet. It was founded by sNang ston ZIa ba rgyal mtshan (b.1796) of Amdo origin in 1834. Although the monastery was a relatively recent establishment in comparison with sMan ri, it became more prosperous and influential particularly in north-eastern Tibet. The monastery is located on a small plateau at the foot of Mount ‘O Iha rGyal bzang to the north of the gTsang po river facing the sTag gru kha ferry. It is on the axis of routes leading to Lhasa, Shigatse, Gyantse and Byang thang, the northern plateau. This explains in part the monastery’s rapid development. For this strategic reason, the monastery was used as the base of a large People’s Liberation Army garrison in the area during the Cultural Revolution. It therefore remained intact till the very last days of the revolution. At the beginning of l9SOs, permision was given with funding to rebuild it, but itremains largely symbolic and the temples that have been rebuilt were totally empty when I visited them in 1997.




  Preface – Yasuhiko Nagano  
  Introduction – Samten G. Karmay 1
  List of the monasteries surveyed 17
  Bonpo monasteries and temples in Central Tibet- Dondrup Lhagyal 27
  Bonpo monasteries and temples in Nagchu, Chamdo and Nagari regions – Phuntso Tsering Sharyul 67
  Bonpo monasteries and temples in Tibetan regions in Qinghai, Gansu and Sichuan – Tsering Thar 247
  Bonpo monasteries and temples of the Himalayan region – Charles Ramble and Marietta Kind 669
  Terms of governing system and duties in monasteries 753
  Index 759

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