Tibet and Mongolia, Bon and Buddhism, closely linked by Ancient Religion,Traditions and Culture

Tibet and Mongolia, Bon and Buddhism, closely linked by Ancient Religion,Traditions and Culture

The roots of Tibet’s Mythology lie in shamanistic pagan traditions of the distant past that gradually codified into the indigenous Bon religion. Bon had a crowded pantheon of gods and spirits, and its own sacred texts, notably the Klu-bum or “100,000 Water Serpents”.

It also enshrined creation myths featuring a divinity named Sangpo Bumtri. The legendary founder of the faith, Tonpa Shenrab, was said to have brought Bon to Tibet from the land of Tazig, far to the West, perhaps in what is now Tajikistan.


His life was the subject of two 11th-century texts, and stories of his doings have also been passed down orally by Bon priests, known as bonpos. One legend claimed that Tonpa originally came to Tibet, not to proselytise his beliefs, but rather to recover horses stolen by demons. Another legend described the magic rituals he employed to pacify hostile spirits.

Buddhism reached Tibet in the 7th Century, during the reign of the Conquering King Songtsen Gampo. This was a time when the nation was building an empire that for a brief period rivaled that of China, its larger neighbor. Princess brides from China and Nepal brought the new faith with them to the Tibetan Royal Court, from which it quickly spread outward.

In the following century, another strong King, Trisong Detsen, made an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to suppress the rival Bon Creed. In his Reign the holy man Padmasambhava, known to later Tibetans as Guru Rinpoche, came to Tibet from India, bringing with him the disciplines of Tantric yoga to drive out demons. Legend told of the yogi’s miraculous birth in a lotus flower and his rebirth when an angry king sought to have him burned alive.

In later centuries the struggle with the demons was taken up by Avalokiteshvara. Well known also in China and India, where scholars think he may have taken on some of the attributes of the Hindu god Vishnu, Avalokiteshvara was a bodhisattva, a Buddhist holy man who had delayed his own attainment of Enlightenment to aid other people. In Tibet, he manifested himself with multiple heads and many arms, the better to help the needy.

Another Buddhist hero was the sage Milarepa, a historical figure whose life spanned the late 11th and early 12th centuries. Known for his writings, the Songs of Milarepa, as well as for his holiness, he retired to meditate in a cave near the Nepalese border, where he is said uniquely to have achieved complete Enlightenment within a single lifetime. One legend described his struggle with a shaman for control of the Holy Mount Kailash, a real life Himalayan peak.

Mongolia shared with Tibet a nomadic lifestyle, a commitment to the Mahayana brand of Buddhism (also known as The Great Vehicle), and an interlocking history that began when Genghis Khan’s successor sent troops to conquer the mountainous land in the mid 13th century. Even though Tibet eventually re-established its political independence, the two nations remained closely linked by religion and culture. Mongolia accepted Tibet’s own lamaist model of Buddhism in the 16th century, and in 1642 the Mongol leader Gushri Khan was instrumental in establishing the fifth Dalai Lama as Tibet’s ruler.

Mongolia also had its own Pagan faith with a host of “tengri” or gods, who were either overthrown or else converted to new roles after the coming of Buddhism. Mongol shamans claimed to be able to foretell the future through scapulomancy. A myth expounded the origins of this practice, which involved reading the shoulder blades of sheep. One distinctive feature of Mongolian myth was its taste for animal fables. Examples include a story explaining why eagles eat snakes, and a local version of the widespread legend of swan maidens, best known in the west through Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake.

The Tibetan Myth of the King’s Stolen Horses

Shenrab had a great enemy, the Demon Lord Khyapa Laring – roughly translated to “penetrating long hand”- who blamed the great teacher for cheating him of Souls, and for using prayers to dry up the four rivers in his domain, the Land of the Devils. One day Khyapa decided to take Shenrap’s horses, the finest in the world, in the hope that their loss would distract him from his task of saving Souls.

Khyapa sent seven of his best demon Horsemen into Shenrab’s Kingdom Wolmo Lungring in the land of Tazig. There they mounted the animals and beating them mercilessly, forced them into Southeastern Tibet.

Shenrab pursued the rustlers, and although the demons threw a snowstorm, a Valley of Fire, an ocean, a sandstorm and a mountain in his path, he dismissed all obstacles with a wave of his hand. As he traveled through Tibet, he converted hundreds of demons and humans to the Bon religion, but seeing how many more needed to be saved, and how they were not yet ready to receive the doctrine, he vowed that in future generations his disciples would convert the entire country.

When Shenrab found his horses, they were guarded by Khyapa’s mother and a hundred demonesses in the form of beautiful young girls, who tried to entice Shenrap, offering him golden bowls from which to drink that contained poison. Shenrab turned the poison into medicine, and the girls into hags, and reclaimed his horses, although it seems that the animals must have bred in the meantime, because for centuries afterwards that part of Tibet was famous for the quality of its steeds.

Bon and Buddhism in Tibet

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