The swastika attribute and meditation pose—with soles of the four feet facing upward—identify this very rare Bön image, the first artifact of this religion to be acquired by the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco.
What is Bön?
Bön, an indigenous Tibetan practice, is thought to have predated Buddhism and has coexisted with it through the centuries. Bön emphasizes the divine nature of kings and natural phenomena, and practices elaborate rituals for the dead and ancestors. Though its followers, called Bonpo, were persecuted by Buddhists in the eighth century, Bön continued to flourish in outlying regions and was especially popular among nomads of northern Tibet.
Bön returned full force in the eleventh century, absorbing many facets of Buddhism. Buddhism also assimilated some Bön beliefs and practices; converted native Bön gods and subduing demons who were then entered the Buddhist pantheon as worldly protectors.
Bönpos believe their religion was once a universal faith practiced all over the world. Thus they call their religion yungdrung bon, meaning eternal, unchanging. On the surface, many Bönpo practices are indistinguishable from Buddhist ones, because they both share the same cultural heritage—they both use prayer wheels and flags, they both circumambulate sacred places, they both employ sacred phrases or mantras. They differ in their sacred history, their founding mythology, and texts.
Which Bön deity does this represent?
This statue represents the Bön god of wisdom, a tranquil divinity who is always invoked first in formal rituals. This image came from western Tibet or northwestern Nepal. He has five faces and ten arms. Two of his hands are in front of his feet, and the two main hands hold disks inscribed with the Tibetan characters ah and ma, which represent skillful means and wisdom. The remaining six carry the wheel, swastika (a Bön symbol of indestructibility), umbrella, bow and arrow, noose, and what seems to be a flower. Like Buddhist images, he sits in meditation upon a lotus throne supported by a square pedestal and is guarded by a dragon, garuda (bird), elephant, lion, horse, and peacock; the last four are the Bön animals that symbolize the four directions.