Rituals of the Bön Religion


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 to the researcher, 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. 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 that 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. 

Statement of purpose

The purpose of the website is to enable a greater understanding of the Bon religion through narrative descriptions of rituals, with links to videos of performances and to the texts on which they are based. In most cases, the videos are subtitled in English, and many of the texts have accompanying translations. A more detailed explanation of how this works is given below, but the general idea can be explained in simple terms as follows: 

* The site hosts several dozen Bonpo ritual texts. The texts are presented in facsimile form as well as romanised transliteration, and, in many cases, with a full English translation and notes.

* The performative aspect is represented by video recordings of a number of rituals, to which access can be had via links on the site’s pages. These videos are available in full on the Youtube channel Bon Rituals.

* Each ritual is also covered by an article that is divided into two main parts: 1. a general discussion of that category of rituals; and 2. a detailed description of a particular performance.

* The articles are illustrated with photographs, diagrams and tables, and contain numerous links. The links are of two kinds: 1. to texts; and 2. to video footage. The links will take you to precisely that point in the text or the video that is relevant to the part of the performance that is being described. (It is also possible, of course, to see the texts or watch the videos in their entirety.)

* The transcriptions of the texts also contain links that will take you to the point in the video where any given passage is being recited. This will enable you to see exactly what is going on when the lama is reading that section of the text.

* We hope, in time, to establish reciprocal links. This means that it will be possible to go from a point in a video to the corresponding point in a text (assuming that a text is being used at that moment) or to the description furnished in the accompanying article. 

While this website is dedicated mainly to ritual it also offers resources that are relevant to other areas of the Bon religion. These resources include: paintings (tsaklis and thangkas); texts not directly connected to ritual (such as biographies and canonical works); Tibetan periodicals and other publications related to Bon; scholarly contributions to Bon studies in Tibetan and in European languages. 

Current state and goals

The site currently offers narrative descriptions of two ceremonies. One is a ritual for the subjugation of vampires (Tib. sri), and the other a combination of three rituals: a soul-retrieval, a rite for the acquisition of good fortune, and an exorcism. Most of the texts that are used in these rituals are available in the corresponding parts of the “Texts” section, and the majority of these have been transliterated and translated. Video documentation of several other Bon rituals has been collected. The treatment of the texts on which these rituals are based is in progress, and this material will be added to the site when complete. Presentations of further rituals, comprising narrative descriptions, texts and videos of performances will continue to be added in the future. 

It is our hope that the site will be of value to a broad spectrum of users with different interests and specialisations. These include established researchers and graduate students in the domains of anthropology and Tibetan Studies, for whom the video documentation and the edited texts will comprise useful primary material for further research.

The narrative descriptions of the ritual performances are written in a simple style that avoids the use of excessive technical terminology. The videos are subtitled in English, and most of the accompanying texts have annotated English translations. This commitment to making the material presented as accessible as possible to non-specialists makes it suitable for undergraduate and even secondary school courses in subjects such as religious and cultural studies. 

How to use this site

To use this site in such a way as to benefit from the integration of the basic description of the rituals with the accompanying texts and videos, we suggest that you simply read the narrative of each performance and follow the links to the associated resources. This approach will give you access to selected sequences of video footage and textual passages that are most relevant to the corresponding point in the narrative.

Users with specialised interests may, alternatively, wish to bypass the narrative description and to turn directly to the full-length presentations of the videos or the texts