Rituals of the Bön Religion

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Until relatively recent times the Bon religion of Tibet was poorly understood by the majority of Tibetans and Westerners alike. Although our general knowledge has advanced greatly in the past few decades thanks to the work of a few pioneering scholars, misconceptions still abound, and many areas of this fascinating religion remain obscure. While most of the secondary literature on Bon has dealt with the history, philosophy and meditative systems of the religion, the domain of ritual is still substantially unexplored.

Understandably, students of Bon ritual have tended to favour the literary component: after all, where the rituals in question are obsolete, this is the only option available, except in the rather unusual cases where the surviving texts are supplemented with illustrations. But ritual, by definition, includes an important performative element. In addition to the various accoutrements and effigies that feature in any performance, there are gestures, processions and interactions that are generally described in only the vaguest terms in the liturgical sources, where they are mentioned at all.

Yet some of the most interesting aspects of ritual performances have no place whatsoever in the sources. These would include a lama’s idiosyncratic interpretation of text prescriptions, his exchanges with the other participants (such as his assistant and his patrons), the occurrence of errors (an assistant pouring red dye onto an effigy what should remain uncoloured), and solicited or spontaneous commentaries on procedures.

If the text is just one – albeit an essential – component of a ritual, observing an actual performance can be a hopelessly confusing experience. Behind the noise, the chaotic activity and the protracted chanting it is often far from clear what is going on.

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