Universiteit Leiden

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Research project

The Three Pillars of Bon: Doctrine, ‘Location’ & Founder

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.

2005 - 2010
Henk Blezer


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 introduction of Buddhism into Tibetan cultural areas (7th–9th c. AD); Bonpos consider themselves 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 renaissance.

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 identification and analysis of Bon historio-graphical strategies allows us to move beyond the question of historicity 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.

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