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The Three Pillars of Bon: Doctrine, ‘Location’ & Founder
Adherents of the Tibetan Bon religion (Bonpos) style their religion ‘Eternal Bon’ for a reason: they have outspoken ideas about the antiquity of their origins. In their view Bon traditions preserve and continue religious culture that predates the first official intro-duction of Buddhism into Tibetan cultural areas (7th–9th c. AD); Bonpos consider them-selves to be (more) indigenous to Tibet. Nowadays, they trace their origins even as far back as 16.016 BC (in the Palaeolithic!). Tibetan Buddhism is thus portrayed as a relatively new arrival on the scene, a foreign tradition at best.
There is an interesting paradox involved in this Bon historical endeavour. It resides precisely in the need felt by Bonpos to establish vis-à-vis Tibetan Buddhists the continuity of Bon from a period that, in actual fact, antedates the appearance of organised Bon and its written sources in Tibet. Due to the understandable scarcity of early (and relevant) written Tibetan and particularly Bon sources, these ‘indigenous’ antecedents of Bon largely elude (textual) historical verification. The aim of the project is to understand the process of formation of Bon religious identity in Tibet at the turn of the first millennium AD; this process is defined by the presence in the area of rather successfully competing Buddhist sects, at a time when these sects were arising and Tibetan Buddhism was undergoing a major renais-sance. Main working hypotheses
Ancient ‘indigenous’ origins are a major component in the narrativisation of Bon historical identity and form a relevant divide vis-à-vis Tibetan Buddhism.
- Bon religion, contrary to its claims (e.g., 16.016 BC), traced its sectarian con-tours no earlier than the 10th–11th c. AD.
- (Buddhist) Rhetorical imprints of that crucial formative period in Tibetan his-to-ry are visible in the Bon historical narratives that find their origins ‘there’.
- Tibetan religious historical data and narratives can only be assessed properly if it is clear why exactly traditional authors present and narrativise data the way they do, as it is with these vectors of narrative, rather than with the factuality of the data, that the primal concern of Tibetan religious historical writing lies.
Methodology and its implementation
Based on historical, philological methods, tools are developed for analysing religious historical narratives, both engaging history of ideas and submitting it to systematic reflection. The identifica-tion and analysis of Bon historio-graphical strategies allows us to move beyond the question of historici-ty to a fuller appreciation of the particulars of the internal ‘logic’ of specific narratives. This approach enables us to observe Bonpo historians at work, narrativising their data.
Through examination of the three main ‘pillars’ of Bon identity (doctrine, in an earlier project; ‘location’ of origin; and founder) in the light of the lacunal and paradoxical nature of Bon history, this project intends to contribute toward a deeper analytical understanding of the process of construction of Bon religious historical identity. Investigated are: the creation of the myth of the Zhang zhung Empire of the Bon po-s (the Zhang zhung (royal) myth and the ‘location’ of Zhang zhung culture) and the development of the myth of the founder of Bon, Ston pa gShen rab(s) mi bo.
The project will result in a series of three books (one pertains to an earlier project, Antecedents of Bon religion in Tibet, see below), each covering one pillar of Bon, and an edited volume based on papers presented at an international workshop, which will have substantial input from the disciplines covered by visiting fellows to the programme. The project will make a significant contribution toward putting Bon and Zhang zhung on the academic map and on future research agendas and also help opening the topic to a wider audience.
Blezer was trained in Indian, Buddhist and Tibetan Studies at the department for languages and cultures of South and Central Asia at Leiden University (MA 1992). His background and training is in philology or text-critical and text-historical work. His intellectual proclivities are toward ‘history of ideas’ and his present methodo-logical expertise, besides philology, lies in what he styles ‘textual archaeology’ and a narratological approach to history. In his writing he bears a distinctly European Buddhological fingerprint. In his research work he has increasingly sought communication with native scholarship and expertise and works in close collaboration with traditional scholars, monks and tantric (esoteric) specialists. This (mutual!) exchange he maintains by regular fieldwork trips and also by inviting informants to work (and students to study) with him at his institute of affiliation.
In 1997, he completed a four-year Ph.D. research project (also at the CNWS, Leiden University) on Tibetan tantric expertise regarding death, dying and so-called intermediate states. The results were published as Kar gling Zhi khro, A Tantric Buddhist Concept (Leiden 1997). His thesis traces developments in speculations regarding intermediate states (bar do) and descriptions of spectacular ‘visions’, supposedly experienced in a postmortem state of awareness. The descriptions of these visions can entail elaborate arrangements or mandalas of peaceful and wrathful deities (zhi khro), in this case the mandalas are laid out according to the tradition of Karma gling pa (and therefore are styled kar gling zhi khro). They are well known, also outside Tibet, from the so-called Tibetan Book of the Dead. The descriptions are to be understood from the theoretical (and practical) back-ground of Great Perfection (rDzogs chen) systems, which is a specific approach to tantric practice that is shared by the so-called old traditions in Tibetan Buddhism (the rNying ma pa) and ‘Bon’ traditions. His thesis develops a history of these ideas for the wider Indo-Tibetan cultural realm, covering more than two millennia.
Starting 1998, Blezer conducted postdoc research on The ‘Bon’-Origin of Tibetan Buddhist Speculations regarding a Post-Mortem State called ‘Reality as It Is’ at the International Institute for Asian Studies (IIAS, Leiden University). This project extended the Ph.D. research into new and uncharted terrain by examining related speculations in hitherto unexplored Bon material. Both Buddhist and ‘Bon’ traditions in Tibet share similar speculations regarding spontaneously arising ‘experiences’ of luminosity and more complex visions in a supposed early post-mortem state of aware-ness. The research concerned issues of inter-textuality (or rather inter-conceptuality) of Great Perfection expertise on postmortem states. It resulted in a history of (shared) ideas and a quest for origins of these fascinating Great Perfection concepts.
In this research period he also acted as a convener of the ninth seminar of the International Association for Tibetan Studies (IATS, held in Leiden from June 24th–30th, 2000). The IATS seminars are the largest international forum on Tibetan Studies.
From the end of 2000 until the beginning of 2002, Blezer labored on the proceedings of the ninth seminar of the IATS, which were published by Brill Academic Publishers in 2002 (Leiden) and cover ten edited volumes.
From 2002, in a new postdoc research project on the Antecedents of Bon religion in Tibet, Blezer started digging deeper into the early beginnings of Bon religion. This NWO-funded project deals with issues of continuity, migration and transformation of pivotal ideas (cultural markers) in Bon religious literature. The focus is on appreci-ating the (relative) continuity of culture through understanding the dynamics of its change and the logic of its temporally and spatially defined emic construction. It mainly deals with indirect evidence from texts on doctrine and ritual rather than with explicit and self-consciously historical narratives. What particularly comes under scrutiny in this project is the nature of the continuity of Bon traditions with earlier, pre-10th-century strata of ‘Tibetan’ culture. He works on the assumption that a limited degree of continuity of Bon ideas can indeed be established and investigates the flipside of the coin: the ways in which ideas change and migrate in literature, that is, the dynamics of continuity and transfor-ma-tion: the Bon tradition of reinvention.
- Kar gling Zhi khro, A Tantric Buddhist Concept, Ph.D.-Thesis, published in CNWS publications, Vol.56, Leiden 1997
- (Managing) editor of the proceedings of the International Association for Tibetan Studies, Leiden 2000, ten volumes.
Articles and reports
- "Karma Gling pa: Treasure Finder (gTer sTon), Creative Editor (gTer sTon?)—A Preliminary Comparison of the Man ngag snying gi dgongs pa rgyal ba'i bka' zhes bya ba'i rgyud and Two Bar do thos grol chen mo-Texts: The Chos nyid bar do'i gsal 'debs thos grol chen mo and the Srid pa bar do'i ngo sprod gsal 'debs thos grol chen mo", in East and West, vol.52, nos.1–4 (December 2002), pp.311–45; a scrambled version of this article appeared earlier in Reading Asia: New Research in Asian Studies, pp.292-338, Leiden 2001
- The ‘Bon’ dBal mo Nyer bdun(/brgyad) and the BuddhistdBang phyug ma Nyer brgyad, a Brief Comparison", in New Horizons in Bon Studies, pp.117–178, Osaka 2000. Blezer, H.W.A. (2003). Tibet. In Bor, Jan & Leeuw, Karel van der (Ed.), 25 Eeuwen Oosterse Filosofie. (pp. 191-272). Amsterdam: Boom.