Inside a bon monastery Tibetans are a very religious and superstitious people. Nearly all Tibetans are Tibetan Buddhists, with the exception of tiny Muslim minority and some who still practice the Bon Religion. But being Tibetan Buddhists doesn't stop Tibetans from being superstious and practicing folk religions. Many Tibetan villages have a lama (a Tibetan Buddhist priest) and a shaman. Both are called upon to heal the sick, predict the future and read omens for auspicious and inauspicious times.
Mi chos (“the dharma of man”) is a folk religion widely practiced in Tibet. Closely linked to Bon and Buddhism, it is concerned primarily with the worship of spirits. Important spirits include sadak (lords of the earth, associated with agriculture), nyen (which reside in rocks and trees), tsen (air spirits that shoot arrows and bring illness and death), dud (demons linked to the Buddhist demon Mara), and lu or nagas (snake-bodied spirits that live at the bottom of lakes, rivers and wells).
Good Websites and Sources: Astrology View on Buddhism viewonbuddhism.org ; Tibetan Astrology Network tibetan-astrology.net ;Paper on Tibetan Astrology berzinarchives.com ; Bon religion Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Buddism and Bon in Tibet berzinarchives.com ; Bon Foundation bonfoundation.org ; Tapriza.org tapriza.org ; Links in this Website: BUDDHISM IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; HISTORY OF BUDDHISM IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; HISTORY OF TIBETAN BUDDHISM Factsanddetails.com/China ; TIBETAN BUDDHISM SECTS Factsanddetails.com/China ; TIBETAN BUDDHISM TEXT, BELIEFS, GODS, SYMBOLS Factsanddetails.com/China ; TIBETAN BUDDHIST OBJECTS, RITUALS AND TEMPLES Factsanddetails.com/China ; TIBETAN MONKS AND LAMAS Factsanddetails.com/China ; TIBETAN MONASTERIES AND PILGRIMS Factsanddetails.com/China
Bon religion is an ancient shamanist religion with esoteric rituals, exorcisms, talismans, spells, incantations, drumming, sacrifices, a pantheon gods and evil spirits, and a cult of the dead. Originating in Tibet, it predates Buddhism there, has greatly influenced Tibetan Buddhism and is still practiced by the Bonpo people. Prayer flags, prayers wheels, sky burials, festival devil dances, spirit traps, rubbing holy stones---things that are associated with Tibetan religion and Tibetan Buddhism---all evolved from the Bon religion. The Tibet scholar David Snellgrove once said “Every Tibetan is a bonpo at heart.”
Bon was the main aboriginal religion of the ancient Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau. It is said to have originated in the 5th century B.C. with Shenrab Miwoche, the prince of Zhang-zhung kingdom in western Tibet.
Bon is used to describe three different things: 1) the ancient Bon religion that was supplanted by Buddhism; 2) Bon (Gyyur Bon), a religion systematized along Buddhist lines in the 11th century and still practiced today; and 3) the worship or local spirits and deities. Modern Bon is so similar to Buddhism that the Dalai Lama has accepted it as one of the five schools of Tibetan Buddhism.
History of Bon Religion
A religion known as “the religion or men” preceded the Bon religion. Little is known about it. The earliest forms of Bon---variously known as Black Bon, Bon of the Sprits or Bon of Devils---was concerned with using magical practices to control evil spirits. Bon shaman were called into cure sickness, ensure fertility and bring good weather. The religion is thought to have evolved in western Tibet. Its founder, Shenrab Miowoche, also known as Tonpa Shenrab (The Teacher of Knowledge), lived in the second millennium B.C. His life story is quite similar to that of the Buddha, and some scholars argue was copied from Buddhism.
Around the first century A.D. the religion began to spread eastward until it became widely practiced in the Tsang region and Lhasa region. Bon is still practiced today. It embraces pantheism and beliefs that “everything has a soul”. Bon deities include supernatural powers of mountains, rivers, lakes, seas, the sun, the moon, stars, wind, rain, thunder, lightening, birds, and beasts, as many as one can enumerate. These deities govern the birth, ageing, sickness, death, events and fortunes of people, who can not predict and control their own destinies because people have been created by the deities.
Before the arrival of Buddhism in Tibet in the seventh century, the Bön people lived according to a societal hierarchy, including chieftains, shamans, tradesmen, and musicians. A belief system based upon the veneration of ancestors and the appeasement of spirits was central to this pre-Buddhist society. In the seventh century, the addition of Buddhism, migrating north from India, to the already lively native Bön traditions of the Tibetan tribes resulted in a complex hybrid rich in folklore and ceremony. The shamanistic customs of the Bön mystics, steeped in ancestor worship and spirit appeasement, combined with the teachings of the Buddha, yielded a multitude of deities and spirits comparable to those of ancient Greece and Rome. [Source: National Music Museum, University of South Dakota usd.edu ]
Bon Religion Practices
Bon ritual of burning twigs The Bon religion has traditionally used shaman to dispel demons and appease the gods, and employs a number of mudras (ritual postures), mantras (sacred speech), yantras (sacred art) and secret initiation rites.
Modern Bon religion, known as Yungdrung, and Buddhism are very similar. They embrace many of the same practices and rituals except they have different names or slight variations. Bonpo pilgrims, for example, circumambulate monuments and mountains and turn prayer wheels counterclockwise rather than clockwise as Buddists do. They recite the Bon mantra “om matri muye sale du” rather than the Buddhist mantra “om mani padem hum.” The concepts of karma and rebirth and the six states of existence are featured prominently in Bon as they are in Buddhism. The word Bon sometimes carries with it the same meaning as dharma.
There are some differences, though. The swastika, or yungdrung, is Bon’s primary symbol. Bon has its own canon and sacred text---The Nine Ways of Bon---and a number of gods unique to Bon. One of the primary religious figures is Tonpa Shenrab, who is often shown holding the Bon scepter, two swastikas joined by a column. Many Bonpo regard Buddhism as a false religion. Some Tibetan Buddhists are suspicious of Bonpo people and will not go anywhere near Bonpo religious sites.
Bon practice salutations and offerings of water. Mt Kailas and Bonri are Bon’s holiest mountains. During the pilgrimage season you can see many Bon pilgrims at Mt. Kailas as well as Buddhist pilgrims. Bonpo is found in small hamlets in isolated valleys in eastern Tibet, parts of the Chhnagtang in northern Tibet and the Aba region of northern Sichuan. Major Bon monasteries include Menri and Yungdrungking in central Tibet and Tengchen in eastern Tibet.
Shamanism and Animism
Bon Shaman Bon is regarded as an shamanist and animist religion. Shaman are people who have visions and perform various deeds while in a trance and are believed to have the power to control spirits in the body and leave everyday existence and travel or fly to other worlds. The word Shaman means "agitated or frenzied person" in the language of the Manchu-Tungus nomads of Siberia and northern China.
Shaman are viewed as bridges between their communities and the spiritual world. During their trances, which are usually induced in some kind of ritual, shaman seek the help of spirits to do things like cure illnesses, bring about good weather, predict the future, or communicate with deceased ancestors.
Animism refers to the collective worship of spirits and dead ancestors rather than individual gods. It emphasizes a reverence for all living things. Many animists believe that every living thing and some non-living ones too---even trees and insects and things like special rocks and landscape formations---have a spirit. Commonly these spirits merge with other spirits such as a common river or forest spirit and a general life spirit. Some spirits are conjured up before a tree is chopped down or food is eaten to appease them. Others are believed to be responsible for fighting disease or promoting fertility. Animist spirits are often associated with places or objects because they were thought to live close by.
Journalist Dianne Summers witnessed a Bon-style ritual in the Dolpo region of northern Nepal presided over by a shaman, dressed completely in white, with his hair in a long braid coiled in a knot on the top of his head. The shaman, she wrote: "rolls his head from left to right, yawns, and grimaces. He jumps like an animal around the primitive wooden statues. The bell in his hand rings erratically as he shakes. His braid falls to his waist...The shaman takes a handful of rice which he pours into the other hand...[He] starts to speak in a high pitched voice, as if possessed by the god." [Source: Eric Valli and Diane Summers, National Geographic, December 1993]
See Health, People and Life in Tibet
Catholics in Tibetan Areas
Catholicism penetrated into some remote Tibetan-occupied places. Cizhong, a village in Yunnan near the Tibetan border, three hours on a bad road from the nearest town, is the home of a European-style Catholic church built more than a century ago by Catholic missionaries. Around 600 of the village’s 1,000 residents are Catholics. They go to church every Sunday, sing chants from a hymnal called "Chants in Religeux Thibetan."
French priests brought their religion to Yunnan in the 1860s and the community endured through the Mao era and the Cultural Revolution. Most of the members are Tibetans. Many arrive at church on Sunday after walking for more than an hour from their mountain homes.
The Cizhong Catholic community has no permanent priest. Their church is decorated with lotus flowers and yin and yang symbols. Christian hymns are sung to Tibetan highland melodies. Communion is performed with wine made from locally grown grapes. Mass features a dance around a bonfire, presided over by a priest that comes to the village only two or three times annually. Christmas is also celebrated with dancing around a bonfire.
Tibetan astrology symbols
Tibetan Superstition and Astrology
Tibetans can be very superstitious and superstition, religion, culture and science are often intertwined. A lot of importance is placed on the date and time a person is born in astrological terms. Decisions are often made depending on one’s astrological sign. Tibetan year astrological signs are more or less the same as Chinese ones.
Monks serve as oracles, mediums and exorcists. Astrologers are consulted before for all kinds of occasions and events: marriages, funerals, births, journeys, archery contests. Beliefs in magic go all the way to the top: The Dalai Lama still consults the official state oracle, a monk who divines the future from a temple complex. Students at the Astrological Institute in Changkha take a five years course that includes courses in philosophy, literature and mathematics.
Confidence in the supernatural is common among Tibetans, though not universally celebrated. Jamyang Norbu, a prominent writer and critic of the Dalai Lama, told The New Yorker he bemoans the practice of "burying our collective head in the sands of superstition and inertia." [Source: Evan Osnos, The New Yorker, October 4, 2010]
Kao Tein-en, a Chinese expert on Tibetan Buddhism, told AFP: “Astrology and fortune telling are part of Tibetan culture, and the masters capable of doing these things are in a different spiritual dimension from the rest of us...The masters have their special ways to communicate with nature and applying that unique knowledge to the daily lives of common people...which can be explained by modern science.”
The people in some parts of Tibet believe that the world is flat and shaped like half moon; that the sun looks bigger in distant lands; and that Russians have horns and tails.Tibetans have traditionally believed that their race descended from an ugly, sex-starved witch who had sex with a monkey and bore six children. They believe that Mt. Kailas is the center of the universe and that the god Mahaba (represented by the constellation Orion) races across the sky in pursuit of the abductors of his wife (represented by the Pliades).
Taboos and Superstitions in Tibet
1) Don't touch the head or shoulders of a Tibetan. 2) Don't step across or tread on others’ clothes. 3) Never step across from one's body. 4) Don't step across or tread on the tableware. 5) Don't spit or clap your palms behind the Tibetans. 6) Don't kill any animals or insects in monasteries. 7) Don't drive away or hurt vultures or eagles, for they are holy birds for Tibetans. [Source: Chloe Xin, Tibetravel.org tibettravel.org]
8) Women clothes, especially, women pants and underpants are not supposed to be aired to dry in a place where people pass. 9) Don't whistle or shout or cry inside a house. 10) One is not supposed to sweep the floor or throw out the trash after some family member goes away from home, or guests have just left, or at noon or after the sunset, or on the first day of Tibetan New Year. 11) Non-relatives can not mention the name of the dead face to face with the relatives of the dead. 12) Tasks, such as knitting a sweater or making a carpet, should be finished before the end of the year.
13) One should not go to the house of others at twilight, especially when there are women who's going to give birth to a baby or have just given birth to a baby, or heavily ill people in that house. This especially applies to strangers. 14) Objects are not allowed to be taken outside a home after noon. 15) Two family members are not supposed to go out at the same time if they are headin opposite directions. They should go outside at different times. 16) Tibetan women can not comb or wash their hair in the evening, neither can they go outside with their hair not being tied up.
17) Don’t walk over an appliance, utensil or bowl that is used for eating. 18) When you are using a broom and dustpan, you can transfer them from one hand to another. But you must put them on the ground at first, and someone will pick them up from the ground and hand them to you. [Source: Chloe Xin, Tibetravel.org tibettravel.org ]
Lucky and Unlucky Numbers in Tibet
In Tibetan culture, the odd numbers are always regarded as auspicious number by local Tibetans. “13" is a lucky and holy number for Tibetan people. "6" is also considered as a lucky number for it is the multiple of "3". Tibetans always deal with some important matters or travel to some place far from home on odd days. [Source: Chloe Xin, Tibetravel.org tibettravel.org, June 3, 2014 <>]
We can also find out about lucky numbers in Tibet from Tibetan drinking customs. Tibetan people always clink their glasses three times, and drink three glasses of after each clinking. Hence, they would always drink nine glasses of chang or whatwver once a clinking is proposed and nine glasses is regarded as a sign of basic respect between friends. Gifts given to Tibetan people should be odd numbers and never be even numbers. During the celebration of Tibetan New Year, the lamas in the monasteries are given gift bags (filled with various dried fruits). The number of the gift bags should always be odd numbers and never be even numbers. <>
Tibetans connect nice things with "3", such as the three Buddhas, three monasteries, three tribes and three sages. They also use "3" to express something auspicious or some other lucky symbols. In Tibetan Buddhism culture, a lot of nouns use "3"as their affix. For example, "3" was used to symbolize the sun, moon and star. In Tibetan Buddhism, the universe is divided into three parts, the sky, ground and underground. The three Buddhas of Longevity refers to Amitayus Buddha, Ushnisha Vijaya and White Tara. <>
The odd number "9" means everything to Tibetans. The "9 rivers" means the place where all the rivers join together. "9 people" means all living creatures. "9 needs" means all the needs and "9 wishes" means all the wishes. In a word, "9" is always used to express "much" in Tibetan. The number "9" is also regarded as lucky among the ancient Han people and modern Chinese. In ancient times, Han people use "9" to express uncertainty, much and endless. <>
In the West, the number 13 is regarded as an unlucky number, but in Tibetan culture 13 is an auspicious number, a holy number. In the ancient Tibetan fairy tales, the heaven is composed of 13 layers. The 13th layer of the heaven is said to be the desireless pure land described by Master Tsongkhapa. Devout pilgrims always do 13 koras (circumambulations) around Mt. Kailash to pray for happiness and cleanse ones’ self of guilty. <>
According to King Gesar, a Tibetan story regarded as the world's longest epic, when Gesar was born he held 13 flowers in his hands, walked 13 steps and vowed to become a Buddha at 13. Indeed, when he was 13, he was victorious in a horse race, married and became king of the state of Ling. Also according to King Gesar, Gesar had 13 concubines and 13 Buddhist guardians, and in the state of Ling under his rule there were 13 snowy mountains, 13 mountain ridges, and 13 lakes. [Source: “The Mystery of Numbers” by Annemarie Schimmel, 1996]
Tibetan astrology thangka
Tibetan Folk Customs
Many Himalayan people protect their homes from evil spirits by smearing a layer of cow dung on the floor and making balls with sacred rice and cow dung and placing them on top of the doorway. The Mustangese set up demon traps and bury horse skulls under every house to keep demons out. If an abnormally high number of hardships occur at one house a lama may be called in to exorcize demons. Sometimes he does this by luring the demons into a dish, praying, and then tossing the dish into a fire.
Instead of saying grace before a meal Tibetans often dip their forth finger into their tea and flick the droplets in the four directions. To forecast, the weather salt is thrown into the air and then tossed onto a fire. If it crackles it means a storm is far away if it stays silent it means a storm in near.
Before a caravan begins, a consultation with the gods using a lama or shaman as an intermediary takes place and yak butter is placed on the brow and horn tips of each yak with the understanding that gods like butter and will protect the animals to show their gratitude. These rituals are believed to offer protection from rock slides, blizzards, falls from cliffs and dangerously cold and wet weather.
Before a caravan sets off shaman make sacred balls of rice and cow dung and spread them on yaks, goats, sheep and other animals in the caravan. The caravan leader sacrifices a lamb to the god of the forest and brings the shaman back a temple bell from Tibet. Wives dab yak butter on the heads of their husbands before a journey for protection from evil spirits.
In some villages, lamas have decreed that families can not leave their houses on certain days. Explaining why the start of a caravan was delayed, one caravan leader explained, "I must not leave my house on Tuesday because it is an evil day, and will be bringing bad luck upon my house. We will have until Wednesday." The edict can be circumvented by sleeping in someone else's house before the inauspicious day approaches.
When a caravan is ready to embark on a journey to the lowlands, the event is heralded with handfuls of barley thrown into the air and chants from lamas and honks from conch shell horns. The leader of the caravan thrusts his arm into the chest of a slaughtered sheep and draws out a cup of blood, which he drinks slowly. This is done to protect him from malaria and dysentery. [Source: Eric Valli and Diane Summers, National Geographic, December 1993]
Taiwan, Tibetan Buddhism and Superstition
In Taiwan, Tibetan Buddhism is known as the Secret Sect. Lamas are believed to have the ability to see into the future and have the power to change a person destiny using items such as crystal balls, mirrors, flutes, wind chimes, swords and colored threads. Monks perform feng shui---the auspicious positioning of structures and furniture---on homes and offices.
Taiwanese purchase items touched by monks for good luck. Businesses consult Tibetan monks on ways to make more money and politicians seek their advise in winning elections. Some Taiwanese believe that Dalai Lama has magical powers and have offered to pay tens of thousands of dollars for him perform initiation rituals on them.
Image Sources: Antique Tibet, Purdue University, Kalachakranet.org, Tibetan art.
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated July 2015