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Bön, Tibet’s Indigenous Belief System

The Bonpo deity Kungsang Galwa Dupa, approx. 1300

The Bonpo deity Kungsang Galwa Dupa, approx. 1300. Western Tibet. Bronze with silver inlay. Museum purchase, B84B1.

Bön, Tibet’s indigenous belief system, is a high form of religious ritualism primarily concerned with righting the causes of human ailment and misfortune and coexisting with the underlying forces of the universe. It focuses on the living, but has a clear sense of an afterlife and seeks to bring benefits and hap- piness in both this world and the world to come. The Bön outlook is basically one where humans are beset by a variety of spiteful demons and temperamental local gods, who are the major cause of disease and strife in this world and danger in the next. Some of the Bön practices of exorcism have been bor- rowed from Tibetan Buddhism, while some of its terrifying deities and mighty demons were converted and tamed to serve as guardians of Buddhism. Bön assimilated a great deal of Buddhism’s profound doc- trines and powerful rituals and has come to emulate many fundamental Buddhist theories and practices, but it also influenced Tibetan Buddhism.

In the Bön view, mountain gods are particularly important. It is through them that many clan leaders trace their ancestry from mythic god-heroes, to the first kings of Tibet, and down to the present day. It is not that they themselves were gods, but that the deity of a local mountain sent a hero to lead its clan, giving divine legitimacy to their dynasty.

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