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Tibetan unravels myth about founder of religion

Kalsang Gurung is the first Tibetan to obtain his PhD in Leiden. He carried out research into the accounts of Shenrab Miwo, the founder of the Bön religion. Gurung demonstrates that these accounts do not reflect historical reality. PhD defence: 31 May.

Hagiographic narratives

Kalsang Gurung
Kalsang Gurung

Gurung himself is a Bönpo, a member of a religious minitory in Tibet that claims their founder was born some 16 millennia before Christ.  Textual indications date back to the 10th and 11th centuries AD, some 17,000 years later. In this period different rival Buddhist sects came to prominence and the Bönpos developed hagiographic narratives about the founder of their religion. Later, these narratives were taken as authentic sources for the history of Bön, that were thought to demonstrate that their religion was much older than Buddhism.

Complex combination

Gurung examined the truth of this claim. He concluded that the stories about Shenrab Miwo were the result of a complex combination of different stories based on legends about the life of Buddha.

Mixed feelings

This message was received in Gurung' s own community with mixed feelings, he says. ' Some Bönpos still believe that Bön is older than early Buddhism, and that Shenrab Miwo was born long before Shakamuni Boeddha. Myself, I find it a problem that Shenrab Miwo is a muthical figure, and that the Bön religiion is rooted in Indian Buddhism.' 


Why is it so important for Bönpos that Bön should be older than Buddhism? Gurung: ‘Around the tenth century after Christ the Bönpos were marginalised as outcasts by the Tibetan Buddhists. I hear that this still happens in certain areas in Tibet. This claim strengthened the authenticity of Bön and the identity of the Bönpos, and helped them in their struggle for religious freedom.  For present-day Bönpos it is difficult not to believe in the stories that their masters told or committed to writing in the past. It is more important for them to respect these stories than to question their authenticity.'   

Own elements

How have the Bönpos adopted the Buddhist legends? ‘I think you have to talk about transforming the stories, a process that has taken generations. Comparison of different texts shows that the Bönpos have added their own elements to the Buddhist legends. In some cases they didn't know that the lifestory that they were telling about Shenrab Miwo was actually the story of Buddha's life.'

Derived but independent

The theory that Bön is a derived religious tradition without its own roots is too simplistic, in Gurung's view: 'The Yungdrung Bön, as we now call it, is derived from Buddhism. But, like all other Tibetan Buddhist sects, it has an independent status and identity. The fact that Bön – just like other Buddhist sects - is partly rooted in Indian Buddhism, does not detract from this.'

(27 May 2011)

PhD defence

Tuesday 31 May 2011, 16.15 hrs
Title: The Emergence of a Myth
Supervisor: Prof. A. Lubotsky

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