Buddhism was introduced to Tibet in the 7th century CE and became the official national religion in the 8th. The Bön religion came to acquire many Buddhist features but retained a strand of more archaic traditions. Since there is no evidence that these traditions were actually called Bön prior to the establishment of Buddhism, we refer to them collectively as Tibetan Pagan religion. Until recently, all we knew about this religion came from a small number of early (mainly 8-11th c.) manuscripts from the Silk Road, a small cache from southern Tibet, and some ritual narratives in the literature of “reformed” Bön.
This situation changed dramatically in 2005 when Tibetan media in China announced the discovery, in private houses, of several caches of manuscripts that were purported to date from the Tibetan imperial period. This media attention followed the publication, in that same year, of an article1 that contained sensational information about a local tradition of lay priests called Le'u in the Minshan mountain range, at the north-eastern edge of the Tibetan Plateau on the border between Gansu and Sichuan provinces. A local official named Drukthar, who had developed an interest in this obscure local tradition, obtained a substantial allocation from the Gansu provincial authorities to produce a lavish 31-volume collection of facsimiles. Drukthar kindly presented us with a full set of the collection. A description of this collection, with a detailed list of its contents, can be seen here.
Since the publication of this collection a great deal more source material has become available.
Our preliminary examination of the Le'u volumes revealed that they contained a very large number of texts of varying length, dealing with a variety of topics but concerned mainly with the propitiation of different categories of divinities employing a wide range of offerings. The first set of facsimiles was followed by the publication of further collections. In 2013, a 60-volume set of Leyu texts, in 2014 a further 100 volumes, and in 2016 a shorter 10-volume collection were published. Another 100-volume collection is in press. The volumes range in size from 150 to around 300 pages of facsimiles. These unique collections amount to some 35,000 folios.
Preliminary investigations of the Leyucollections
The editorial attention that has gone into the preparation of the four currently-available collections of Leyu texts varies considerably. The first collection (2011) contains a large number of relatively short works, some no more than two or three folios long. There is a general bilingual (Chinese and Tibetan) introduction, but no table of contents. Some longer works are interspersed with other complete or partial texts, and the order of the folios of several works has been reversed. The first task was therefore to create a catalogue of the contents, and this was carried out in collaboration with a Bönpo monk, Geshe Lhundup Gyatso. The catalogue contains almost 1,000 entries, a reflection of the disorderly state of the compilation. Little, if any, selection seems to have been undertaken in the preparation of the publication, but the difficulty of using it is outweighed by the great diversity of material presented. Many of the items are incomprehensible in our current state of knowledge, but will provide valuable source material as our familiarity with these textual traditions develops. The most recent, 10-volume collection from 2016 is, by contrast, well-organised, having been edited by two senior Tibetan scholars who are both specialists of the Bön religion. It comprises a relatively small number (90) of longer texts; there is a trilingual introduction (English has been added); beneath each of the facsimiles is a diplomatic transcription into the standard “headed” Tibetan script, and there are footnotes in which the many contracted forms that appear in the manuscripts are presented in extenso. There is, however, no attempt to address the content of the texts, and the introduction to the collection offers only a general presentation of the Leyu and their tradition. While the 2013 and 2014 collections are better organised than the original 2011 set, neither contains transcriptions, footnotes or content catalogues. What might the Leyu texts tell us about Pagan myth and ritual and the world view to which they belonged? Contrary to what had been claimed in the original announcement, the manuscripts themselves are certainly not relics of the Tibetan imperial period. This conclusion is substantiated by the testimony of certain Leyu themselves, who assert that the texts are copied out every few generations and the older exemplars destroyed. However, in terms of content, there are clear resonances with early ritual texts from Dunhuang, Gathang and Black Water (DGW).
- 1. Ngag dbang rgya mtsho 2005; translated from Tibetan to English as Ngöndzin 2016,