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A Critical Genealogy of Shamanism in Tibetan Religions - PART III

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Shamanism Afloat A Sea of Family Resemblances


In the 1950s, shamanism acquired a distinctly different meaning when used by Mircea Eliade, Réne de Nebesky-Wojkowitz, and Helmut Hoffmann to describe Tibetan religion, and Bon in particular. In their work, we see a new approach to shamanism emerge that is explicitly comparative, "scientific," and grounded in both ethnology and textual study. These authors are all schooled in the phenomenology of religion, and this influence is apparent in their effort to catalogue systematically the typical features of shamanism, in their preoccupation with its morphology. For them, the original form of shamanism is to be found in the hunting cultures of North and Central Asia, but pre-Buddhist Bon constitutes the national Tibetan form. All agree that shamanism is found among hunting peoples, which accounts for the sacrality of bones feathers, weapons, and blood in shamanic rituals. These features are described with much more detachment than their predecessors. As good phenomenologists striving for epochê, they manage to avoid much of the barbaric rhetoric and lurid labels that were commonly used by their predecessors to describe Bon shamans as devil dancing sorcerers of a sinister sort. Despite their best intentions to bracket their own judgments about the truth or falsehood of the shaman's vocation and experiences, their evaluations of shamanism and Bon become apparent. When conflicts between Bon shamans and Tibetan Buddhists are discussed, the representations of the Bonpo are inevitably drawn from Buddhist apologetic sources. The Bonpos come off as the historical losers in their confrontation with their more sophisticated opponents, forced to the margins of Tibetan religious development, or assimilated into "Lamaism." What all three scholars display as phenomenologists is an interest in classifying shamanic phenomena systematically, with numerous comparisons drawn to the shamanism of North and Central Asia. There is a noticeable shift away from simply labeling the primordium of Tibetan religion as "shamanism," towards interpreting this term as a constellation of ingredients that manifest interrelated patterns. Once these shamanic elements are identified and placed in some meaningful order, these scholars shift to an analysis of the shaman's function in society, his religious and healing role. Their identification of Tibetan shamanism is not limited to Bon, for they find shamanic elements surviving in the practices of Lamaism. Their approach reveals a tendency to decontextualize contemporary Bon and Buddhist practices and see them as remnants of something more primary, an archaic substrate of shamanism. How each scholar evaluates the substrate varies. The single most influential study of shamanism is Eliade's Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, first published in 1951. Although not a Tibetologist, Eliade's role in defining shamanism and identifying its essential features plays a formative role for these and subsequent scholars of Tibetan religions. At the very outset of his sweeping study, he offers an essential definition of shamanism; however, his conception expands as the work progresses to include a broad range of functions and symbolic motifs, until the phenomena become truly ubiquitous. According to his definition, the single most essential element involves the shaman's ecstatic experience: "the shaman specializes in a trance during which his soul is believed to leave the body and ascend to the sky or descend to the underworld."[1]

Ecstatic soul travel enables the shaman to establish a relationship with a celestial being. Eliade claims that the shaman's interaction with a Supreme Being residing in the heavens was the original underlying ideology of shamanism. This ideology is based on the ecstatic experience of soul flight, an experience that he sharply distinguishes from spirit possession, when deities are persuaded to descend into a medium's body. It is his controversial judgment that spirit possession is a later degenerate development, and not properly shamanic at all.[2] The shaman's ability to abandon his body and roam to the spirit world enables him to serve as a healer, when he combats evil spirits who are responsible for causing illness among ordinary folk, and to function as a psychopomp, who guides the souls of the recently deceased to the netherworld. In addition to describing the various social roles of the shaman, Eliade broadens his conception even further when he identifies certain symbols as archetypical "shamanic motifs." These include the shaman's exotic paraphernalia, his feathered costume, the tools of his trade (e.g. the drum), as well as more abstract features like the odd numbers commonly appearing in cosmological classificatory schemas. Eliade insists that all of these shamanic symbols are integrated in a religious microcosm, and their intrinsic meaning remains unaffected by their changing roles in different traditions. In constructing this ideal type, Eliade turns the shaman into a timeless mystery, almost a metaphysical being, who soars effortlessly across cultural boundaries, transcending historical particularities. By applying such loose criteria to a myriad different phenomenon, he finds shamans and shamanic elements everywhere, Tibet included. For Tibetologists like Hoffmann and Nebesky-Wojkkowitz too, there is a great deal of excitement in discovering the shaman in his Bon incarnation, or in his Lamaist disguise. There is striking agreement among Eliade, Nebesky-Wojkowitz, and Hoffmann in what constitutes shamanism and where its manifestations might be found in Tibetan religions. Their consensus is no coincidence, for they were all familiar with each other's research, as evidenced from their mutual referencing in their citations. All agree that the classic example of a Bonpo practicing shamanic flight occurs in the tournament of magic at Mount Kailash between Milarepa and a Bonpo. In that story, Naro Bon chung flies to the summit mounted on a drum and wearing a blue cape, just like the shamans of central Asia.[3]


Other instances of the flight of Bon magicians are declared shamanic, as well as their healing rituals recalling lost souls (bla khyer), their reliance on thread crosses (mdo) as "spirit traps," and their use of effigies (glud) during exorcism rituals. The effigies are understood to be a substitute for the bloody animal sacrifices that were originally practiced in pre-Buddhist Tibet. The early Bon priests who presided over the funerary rites for the Tibetan kings are also viewed as psychopomps. Eliade and Hoffmann concur that there is plenty of evidence for the "supreme being ideology" in the Bonpos' preoccupation with heaven, and in the early kings' celestial descent and ascent via the sacred rope (dmu thag). However, both Hoffmann and Nebesky-Wojkowitz depart from Eliade's conception of what is properly shamanic when they consider examples of spirit possession, the Tibetan mediums and oracles (lha 'babs) that they believe emerged from ancient Bon. In a chapter from his classic study, Eliade protests that "it would be chimerical to attempt in a few pages to list all the other shamanic motifs present in Bon-po myths and rituals and persisting in Indo-Tibetan tantrism."[4] "Chimerical" though it may be, the remainder of his chapter attests to his interest in cataloguing a broad range of shamanic techniques and symbols that originate in Bon and persist in Lamaism. These motifs range from the most abstract elements found in their cosmologies to mundane materials like fur and feathers, or the mirrors and drums used by Bon and Buddhist ritual specialists. Nebesky-Wojkowitz and Hoffmann are no less zealous in revealing shamanic motifs, which they list in encyclopedic fashion. All three scholars agree that the pre-Buddhist cosmology, which divided the world into three cosmic realms (heaven, earth, and underworld), is shamanic in origin, especially when ritual specialists are believed able to transport themselves and communicate between the realms. Furthermore, the penchant for odd numbers (especially 7, 9, and 13) found in Bon texts for classifying groups of deities and texts is cited as a shamanic motif, since these "mystical" numbers are frequently used by Siberian and Mongolian tribes too.[5] These numerological parallels between Bonpos and central Asian shamans may seem to us entirely superficial, if not misplaced. However, we must remember that it was only natural for these scholars trained in comparative phenomenology to search for (and find) structural similarities between the little known pre-Buddhist religion of Tibet and the neighboring shamanism of central Asia. By far the most frequently cited examples of shamanic motifs focus on the apparel worn by Bonpos, as presented in literary descriptions. Their cataloguing of shamanic symbols pays particular attention to the exotic accouterments and costumes of Bon priests. The paraphernalia include the tambourine drum (phyed rnga) and the mirror (me long), the thread crosses (mdo) used as spirit traps, the use of felt mats (phying stan), arrows (mda' dar), daggers (phur bu), and swords (gri); the costumes feature feathered coats (stod le), felt hats (phying zhva), and blue capes (sham thabs ngon po)-all of which seem to them to be nearly identical in appearance and function to those worn by Siberian, Altaic, Buriat, or Mongolian shamans.[6]

These materials, the dramatic emblems of power, add considerable weight and solidity to their identification of Bon shamanism that is otherwise missing in their flights of fancy about "mystical" odd numbers. Yet it is important to realize that for these scholars the mundane materials are not as earthly as they seem at first sight. Their value for Eliade and others lies in their abstract religious meaning; they are regarded as cosmic symbols that disclose "hierophanies" of the sacred, and patterns of "metapsychic itineraries."[7] It is assumed that the ancient Bonpo priest understood, perhaps only intuitively, the authentic sacred reality (the "depth of meaning") in the symbolism of his costume. Furthermore, as these shamanic symbols and forms have genuine ontological status for Eliade, they cannot be destroyed or lost, only mutilated or camouflaged when assimilated into later Lamaist rituals. This form of interpretation leads to a de-historicized perspective on Tibetan shamanism as an abstract type, an ideal type that was manifest most purely in the distant past. The fascination with the theatrical costume and equipment of the Bon priest is not limited to western historians of religion and anthropologists, however. Bon historical texts also describe the foreign origins of the priest's "wild" (rgod) costume and ritual paraphernalia, although there is little or no interest in interpreting their symbolic significance. According to their historical perspective, most of the exotic materials were offered to the Bon priests as decorations of honor by Tibetan kings during the pre-Buddhist period. Bon histories present an idealized image of pre-Buddhist Tibet, when Bon flourished and Bon priests served as the royal "bodyguards" (sku srung gi gshen), who protected the kings and offered them sage political advice. A stock phrase repeated in many Bon historical texts sums up this golden age, when Tibet was under Bon rule: At that time, the Tibetan kingdom was the land of Bon; the kings were great, the priests were dignified, laws were strict, and the subjects were happy. In Zhang zhung and Tibet as kings were gods, human beings were well protected. As the priests served as royal bodyguards, the kings were able to live long. As they lived mainly in virtue, they were happy in all their rebirths. As the divine rope hung from heaven, the ladder for ascending [to the heavens] was solid. As they invoked undefiled gods, they received protection from them. As the ministers were wise in their counsel, the government was stable: the activities of the unified religio-political system spread and flourished.[8]


The texts add that the Tibetan kings patronized Bon monks, and they especially revered the Bon priests and yogins who possessed supernatural powers. In recognition of their superior spiritual status, the kings paid homage to the Bon priests in three ways, in honor of their body, speech, and mind. Most important for our purposes were the crowns and clothes given by the king to his Bon priests as signs of respect for their body (sku la gtsigs byin): Their strands of hair were tied in a topknot and left uncut. In their white silk turbans were stuck tufts of eagle feathers, the king of birds. They wore a golden bird horn crown and a turquoise forehead ornament. They dressed in a cloak of white lynx and jackal fur. They were given tiger, leopard and caracal paws, and aprons made of white lion fur, and a pair of silken shoes with silver laces.[9] While Eliade would surely see the bird horns and feathers as ornithological symbols that recall shamanic flight, while the white fur resembles the costume of the Buriat shaman, Bon texts present these materials as royal rewards for the priest's magical power and counsel.[10]

One Bon history, The Collected Works on Eternal Bon (G.yung drung Bon gyi rgyud 'bum) even offers an explanation of how the kings acquired such exotic emblems. According to this text, the Tibetan empire expanded significantly during the time when Bon flourished, well before the reign of Srong btsan sgam po, the king usually acknowledged as Tibet's empire builder. It records how the Tibetan kings would lead their armies on expeditions to the frontiers "to subdue the border regions" (mtha' 'dul). Each campaign proved successful, due in no small part to the assistance of Bon priests who performed various rituals, such as the ritual to suppress demonic enemies (dgra sri phyogs gnan). As a reward, the Tibetan kings decorated the bodies of their Bon priests with the booty and spoils from the defeated countries. From Nan-chao ('Jang), a Bon priest was decorated with three wild markers as insignia of rank (yig tshang du rgod gsum): a turquoise bird horn crown, a cloak of white eagle feathers, on which were attached tiger paws. After defeating China, the Tibetan king presented his helpful Bon priest with a white silk turban, and the text notes that "even now Bonpos wear turbans on their head as an everlasting sign." After Bhutan (Mon) was conquered with the help of ritual bombs (btso) prepared by a Bon priest, he was rewarded by the king with a cloak of tiger and leopard skin, and the author explains "this is the reason why the Bonpos wear tiger skin cloaks."[11] The point of this narrative is clearly to present an etiology for the foreign looking garments and gear that Bon ritual specialists wear and use even today on special ceremonial occasions. But the narrative also glorifies the mythic past, when Tibetan kings heeded their Bon priests, and "the king's power was generated by Bon" (rje'i mnga' thang bon gyis skyed). What is noteworthy about these narratives is that they present the Bon priests as political actors and ritual specialists, rather than as shamanic healers, psychopomps, or masters of ecstatic trance. Their power is represented as less "spiritual" than political, for it supports the centralized authority of the king and his goals of imperial expansion. The "wild" symbols are not "borrowed" by the Bon priests from neighboring shamans, rather these neighbors are conquered and "tamed" by the powerful rituals of Bon priests working on behalf of a centralized imperial government, and their "wild" resources are appropriated. The bold display of these emblems is meant to embellish both the Tibetan king's and the Bon priest's power as a form of symbolic conquest and metonymic domination. Such a picture, however fantastic and mythical, does not fit well with the traditional representations of Bon "shamanism" by western scholars.[12] With the arrival of Buddhism in Tibet, Tibetan histories agree that Buddhism and Bon came into conflict. According to Bon histories, once pro-Buddhist kings came into power, most notably Khri srong lde btsan, the Bonpos were horribly persecuted, being forcibly converted to Buddhism or sent into exile from Central Tibet. This forced assimilation or marginalization is only a temporary setback according to the Bon histories, for after a few generations the Bon "treasure texts" (gter ma) that had been hidden in the ground were rediscovered, and a Bon renaissance takes place.


A somewhat similar scenario is imagined to occur in the narratives of western scholars. "Original" Bon is suppressed by Buddhism but it does not disappear altogether; for its shamanic elements went underground, as it were, to become the religious substratum of Tibet. How well shamanism survived there in the substratum, and what impact it had on Tibetan culture, was debated. Although Eliade was not a historian of Tibetan religions, he hazards that "Lamaism has preserved the Bon shamanic tradition almost in its entirety. Even the most famous masters of Tibetan Buddhism are reputed to have performed cures and worked miracles in the purest tradition of shamanism."[13] He acknowledges that some of the esoteric practices found in "Lamaism" might have Indian Tantric roots, yet he insists that many of these practices are motivated by the shaman's pursuit of an ecstatic experience. Using the metaphors of surface and depth found so often in the analysis of Lamaism, he claims that if one peeled away the thin veneer of Buddhist theology and symbolism in many Lamaist rituals (e.g. the dismemberment rites (gcod), skeleton dances ('cham) and visits to Buddhist hells ('das log), one will find underneath the "soul" of archaic shamanism, with its initiation rites, ecstatic techniques, and psychopomp function. While these shamanic practices and symbols have been reinterpreted to fit into a Buddhist theological framework, and thus redirected away from goals that are properly ecstatic, Eliade insists that Bon shamanism somehow remains preserved in Lamaism. In his own theological argument, he makes the problematic claim that the normative Buddhist doctrine of no-self (anatman) presented a serious challenge to the realistic doctrine of the soul that is essential to shamanism, yet he sees the archaic shamanic spirit surviving in Lamaism, animating many of its rituals.[14] It is as if the essence of shamanism, its very soul, anchors the trans-historical category for Eliade, bringing it back to earth. Without it "shamanism" might float free as a signifier into space, like the limbs of a body disassembled in the Tibetan ritual of gcod. The archaic Bon substratum preserves more than distant memories of shamanism, for in certain remote areas of Tibet shamanism still flourishes openly, and Eliade considers that to be evidence for the genuine spiritual value of these archaic practices. While Nebesky-Wojkowitz might balk at Eliade's romantic vision of Lamaism being animated by archaic shamanism, he agrees that Lamaism contains various traditions that are survivals of early Bon shamanism: The exceedingly numerous class of protective divinities comprises many figures who originally belonged to the pantheon of the old Tibetan Bon faith. A study of the Tibetan protective deities and their cult, apart from giving an insight into a little known aspect of Lamaism, reveals new facts regarding the beliefs of pre-Buddhist Tibet and their relation to the early shamanistic stratum out of which the Bon religion developed.[15]

For Nebesky-Wojkowitz, original Bon can be reconstructed by considering all the weird and overlooked magical practices of Lamaism, including the cult of terrifying protective deities such as Dorje Shugden (Rdo rje shugs ldan), and realizing that they too derived from the ancient shamanic substratum. Much of his ethnographic and textual research is oriented towards reconstructing these elements, in addition to demystifying the shaman's ecstatic techniques. There is a marked ambivalence about Nebesky-Wojkowitz's research on Tibetan shamanism. His scholarship combines scientific disclosure about the esoteric techniques and tricks used by ritual specialists, with the coyness of the historian who is stripping off the veil of time from ancient secrets, seen for instance in his descriptions of the shamanic "séance." His scientific interest in explaining the oracle medium's trance reveals some of the pharmacological techniques used to induce the trance state, ranging from the inhalation of juniper smoke to the secret ingestion of hashish and Guinea pepper. His own suspicions about the authenticity of the oracle's trance state remain unvoiced, but instead he lets us know of well-educated Tibetan skeptics who regard the oracles "if not as impostors, then at least as strange pathological cases."[16] Ironically, his study has attained a certain dark occult status among some well-educated Tibetans today. The author's sudden untimely death, shortly after the book's completion, was thought to have been brought about by Tibet's protective deities, who were avenging his efforts to reveal their secrets and magic power. At the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives in Dharamsala, when I tried to check out Nebesky-Wojkowitz's text for my research, I discovered that it was not on the shelf with most other books but kept separate under lock and key. Only after offering the Tibetan librarian my American passport as collateral was I permitted access to the work, although not before being warned of its dangerous content.[17] Nebesky-Wojkowitz's contemporary, Helmut Hoffmann, also presents himself as a historian who is lifting the veil of secrecy from Tibet and its history. At the very outset of The Religions of Tibet Hoffmann disparages "the tremendously swollen romantic literature" that has been written by earlier travelers and scholars, "much of it of very doubtful value, and including the curious dissertations of eccentric followers of mysticism and occultism." Contributing to this mysterious and mystified image of Tibet was the country's "hermetic isolation," its geographic and political inaccessibility. This mythical image is problematic, of course, because it made Tibet appear as if it lacked any "real history." After explaining why the mystical image of Tibet is mistaken, thereby clearing a space for the historian to reconstruct the real Tibet, Hoffmann declares that only recently have a few Western scholars been able to reveal a truly historical picture of Tibetan religion, one that is scientific and comparative: Tibet can no longer be regarded as without history. The veil of secrecy is gradually being raised, and we shall come to know more and more about this strange world from within, to understand it in accordance with its own laws of development, and be able to find its place in the total history of Asia major, together with the newly-discovered civilizations along the edge of the Tarim Basin.[18]


For Hoffmann, understanding "this strange world from within" means that Tibetan culture and history should be accessed through Tibetan literature. Indeed, one of his strengths as a philologist and textual scholar is that he used a broad range of Tibetan sources in his survey of Buddhism and Bon. Still, much like his predecessors, his presentation of Bon favors Buddhist apologetic and polemical sources, with The Crystal Mirror of Doctrinal Systems featured prominently in his historical narrative about Bon's development. Hoffmann does not simply reiterate the tri-fold schema of Bon's development found in the CMDS. He also explains its "own law of development" by using western models of religious evolution and diffusion, always with the intent of explaining what is implicit in the "original" text. Finally, his analysis of Bon is explicitly comparative. He argues that early Bon corresponds quite simply to Central Asian shamanism, though its shamanic motifs are found throughout Asia major, while the second phase of Bon reveals many foreign influences from India and Persia. Since we have seen all of this before, it might seem that the "veil of secrecy" lifted by Hoffmann will disclose only more of the same clichés about Bon shamanism. Yet his views on Bon are often unusual and even startling, and they manifest his biases quite clearly. Hoffmann identifies two main forces in the formation of Tibetan religious culture: the dominant force of Indian Buddhism, and the indigenous Tibetan worldview of Bon, "which, though outwardly defeated, has nevertheless filled all the spiritual and psychological channels of the country's national life." One may well wonder what exactly this "autochthonous" Tibetan tradition entails, since Hoffmann traces everything about it that is recognizable elsewhere in Asia Major. Leavingaside what "autochthonous" might mean, let us see how he distinguishes between the impact of these two forces on Tibet, and how he identifies ancient Bon in particular: The internal situation of Tibet may be said to turn on a polar reaction between a luminous, dynamic, fructifying and historical element on the one hand, and a sombre, static, and fundamentally unhistorical element-the ancient Tibetan religion-on the other. The origin of the word ‘Bon' to describe it is lost in the past, and it is not readily definable, but in all probability once referred to the conjuring of the gods by magic formulas.... Until quite recently, we knew very little about this old Bon religion. Today we are in a position to say with some certainty that the original Bon religion was the national form of that old animist-shamanist religion which at one time was widespread not only in Siberia, but throughout the whole of Inner Asia, East and West Turkestan, Mongolia, Manchuria, the Tibetan plateau and even China.... Comparative religious historical study of the present-day Shamanist tribes of Siberia, and of the old Turkish, Mongolian and Tungusan peoples of Inner Asia (before the advent of missionary activities) ... promises to afford us valuable assistance in our efforts to understand the autochthonous beliefs of Ancient Tibet.[19] Hoffmann's differentiation between Buddhist and Bon cultural forces, reminiscent of Lévi-Strauss' binary opposition between "hot" and "cold" societies, denies temporal coevalness between Buddhism and Bon. It also raises questions about how two opposing forces could ever interact or coexist, for it makes Tibetan culture appear somewhat schizophrenic. We might ask why he designates Buddhism as the "luminous, dynamic, fructifying and historical" force, while Bon is "sombre, static, and fundamentally unhistorical." As a missionary religion that traveled across nations and boundaries, Buddhism parallels the historical tradition of [[Wikipedia:Christianity|Christianity]]. Buddhism is also viewed as a classic literary tradition, with an ethical orientation and philosophical corpus that enables the educated Buddhist to evolve to greater spirtual depths and achieve higher levels of doctrinal sophistication. "Original" Bon, on the other hand, is represented as the non-literate native tradition, the national religion that remains stuck in the mire of animistic beliefs and shamanic rituals. Like Waddell and many others sympathetic to some form of "pure" Buddhism, Hoffmann views Buddhism as a bridge between Tibet's primitive origins and the post-Enlightenment worldview of the Europeans. Once Buddhism is adopted as the national religion, Tibetan civilization advances along the Buddhist path. But Bon remains nothing more than a "moribund side channel of Tibetan cultural history-one capable of providing us with interesting indications with regard to the past, but not one which played any further role in shaping the life of the nation."[20] Such an evaluation is sharply at odds with Eliade's romantic view of Bon shamanism as an active spiritual force animating contemporary Tibetan Buddhist practices. Hoffmann's suggestion that the study of contemporary Siberian shamanism will shed light on Tibet's ancient native tradition is reminiscent of Tylor's "survival" theory, but with an added comparative component. Like Eliade and Nebesky-Wojkowitz, he finds it remarkable that some Bon priests are depicted with ornate headdresses, blue robes, fur cloaks, and drums, all of which make up the paraphernalia of Siberian shamans.[21]

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Hoffmann would no doubt seek to support his diffusionist theory in the accounts of the foreign origins of the wild costume and paraphernalia described earlier in the Bon histories. However, it would be a mistake to accept these Bon etiological narratives as accurate historical records. There is simply no evidence from Tibet (aside from these Bon apologetic works) or from neighboring territories to corroborate Tibetan imperial expansion under the early kings and their Bon priests. Moreover, the Bon etiological narratives present the magical powers and ritual prowess of the priests as prior to the headdresses, bird horn crowns, and fur and feathered cloaks offered as gifts by the king to honor his priests. There does not appear to be any link in the Bon texts between the costumes and the Tibetan subjugation of foreign "shamans." The foreigners are simply described as demons on the frontier, who need to be "suppressed" and "tamed," a common Tibetan euphemism for defeating one's enemies and converting them to the true religion. With the death of king Gri gum (200BC?), Bon is said to undergo a major transformation. It becomes preoccupied with funerary rites, for which Hoffmann offers a diffusionist explanation following the narrative found in Thu'u bkvan's CMDS. Hoffmann tells how funerary rituals were introduced from Kashmir (Kha che), Gilgit (Bru sha) and Guge (Zhang zhung), along with divination and magical practices. He also notes the syncretic character of this stage of Bon, adding Tantric, Gnostic, and Manichaean influences to Thu'u bkvan's theory of Shivaivite influence. His diffusionism becomes most pronounced in his theory of Manichean influences on "primitive" Bon. "The Bon religion seems to have been a rather primitive animism, but by the time Zhang zhung was incorporated into the new Tibetan empire the religion must have undergone certain changes connected with the adoption of ideas from Iran.... This is not surprising since the western Himalayan districts were at all times open to the neighboring Iranian peoples."[22] Many of the "Manichean" dualisms that one finds in Hoffmann's work (good/evil, white/black, sacred/demonic) have their parallels in the insider/outsider distinctions found in Tibetan polemical literature, although they are also compounded by Orientalist binarisms. Hoffmann claims that the early Bon tradition was transformed yet again once it came into contact with Buddhism. However, these transformations (bsgyur) were merely in imitation of the superior Buddhist doctrines and practices, a process that Hoffmann describes with the rhetoric of the demonic: Just as the medieval Satanist desecrated the Host, so the Bon-po turned their sacred objects not in a dextral but in a sinister fashion. For example, the points of their holy sign the swastika did not turn dextrally as that of Lamaism do, but sinistrally, to left instead of to right. The Bon religion had become ossified as a heresy, and its essence lay largely in contradiction and negation.[23] In language strikingly similar to that used by Christian theorists of demonic plagiarism, as well as by those European missionaries who first encountered Tibetan lamas as satanic doubles, Hoffmann suggests that the entire thrust of Bon became heretical, a deliberate inversion and perversion of Buddha's pure teachings. Using this figure of reversal, Hoffmann translates the difference between Buddhists and Bonpos as anti-sameness. It is as if the Bon tradition were a concave carnival mirror whose grotesque distortions invert orthodox Buddhism, but in the process the High Tradition is also flattened out. Positioning himself as the righteous judge condemning Bon heresies, Hoffmann's harsh verdict is that "transformed" Bon became somewhat less primitive but more sinister. Even though the Bonpos were imitating a "luminous, dynamic, fructifying and historic" tradition, they ultimately never achieve full historicity themselves, becoming instead "ossified as a heresy." All of Hoffmann's judgments about Bon and its marginal position in Tibetan culture mirror that of the Buddhist polemicists, who place themselves at the center, as the legitimate and orthodox "insiders" in contrast with their heterodox Bon opponents. Not surprisingly, later European scholars who collaborated with Tibetan Bonpo monks and scholars would come to dismiss Hoffmann's view of Bon as inadequate because of its Buddhist bias. In his survey of research on Bon, Per Kvaerne sums up Hoffmann's scholarship thus: "Hoffmann's work, originally fruitful, had become ossified and now represented a dead end."[24] Kvaerne's assessment sounds ironic in that he echoes Hoffmann's language in order to put him in his place. Hoffmann is recognized as the first scholar to explore the Bon tradition in any serious and systematic way, and his exploration of Bon based on Tibetan literature is said to be fruitful. Yet the fact that he persisted in judging Bon as anti-Buddhist in essence led us down a blind alley. After the ancestor of Bonology is dutifully invoked and praised by Kvaerne, his later work is declared pleonastic, an ossified relic. Such an assessment anticipates a dramatic shift in the evaluation of Bon, one that is more sympathetic to interpreting Bon from its own historical and literary perspective, and that calls into question whether Bon is truly a form of shamanism. It is to this revisionist perspective on Bon that we shall now turn.

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  1. Mircea Eliade, Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy (Originally published in French as Le Chamanisme et les techniques arch. de l'extase Paris: Librarie Payot, 1951; revised and enlarged in the translation by Willard R. Trask, Princeton: Bollingen, 1972), p5.
  2. Eliade, Shamanism, pp. 505-507.
  3. Eliade, Shamanism, p. 433, where he cites Helmut Hoffmann's translation of the Collected Songs of Milarepa in his Quellen zur Geschichte der tibetischen Bon-Religion Akademie der Wissenschaften und der Literatur in Mainz, Franz Steiner Verlag (Wiesbaden, 1950), p. 275; also see Hoffmann, The Religions of Tibet (originally published as Die Religionen Tibets Karl Alber Verlag, 1956, English edition translated by Edward Fitzgerald, Macmillan, 1961), pp. 98-9; Réne de Nebesky-Wojkowitz, Oracles and Demons of Tibet: The Cult and Iconography of the Tibetan Protective Deities (The Hague: Mouton Publishers, 1956; reprinted in Kathmandu, Tiwari's Pilgrims Book House, 1993), p. 542. Also see Nebesky-Wojkowitz, "Die tibetische Bön-Religion," Archiv für Völkerkunde II, (Vienna, 1947), p. 38.
  4. Eliade, Shamanism, p. 433.
  5. Eliade, Shamanism, pp. 274 ff. Nebesky-Wojkowitz, Oracles and Demons of Tibet, pp. 538-9; Hoffmann, The Religions of Tibet, pp. 19-20.
  6. See Nebesky-Wojkowitz, Oracles and Demons of Tibet, pp. 542-553; Eliade, Shamanism, pp. 177 ff.; Hoffmann, Quellen, pp. 201 ff.
  7. Eliade, Shamanism, p. 145.
  8. This phrase appears in many Bon texts, with some variation. The version quoted appears in Shar rdza Bkra shis Rgyal mtshan's Legs bshad rin po che'i mdzod (or A Precious Treasury of Good Sayings) (Beijing: Mi rigs dpe skrun khang, 1985), p. 170.12ff; but also see Rgyal rabs Bon gyi 'byung gnas (from Three Sources for a History of Bon), p. 115.4 ff; G.yung drung Bon gyi rgyud 'bum, p. 22.1ff; and Spa ston Rgyal bzang po's Bstan pa'i rnam bshad dar rgyas gsal ba'i sgron me (Beijing: Krung go'i bod kyi shes rig dpe skrun khang, 1991), p. 141.18ff.
  9. Rgyal rabs Bon gyi 'byung gnas p. 116.3 ff. For a shorter version, see G.yung drung Bon gyi rgyud 'bum, p.22.3; Legs bshad rin po che'i mdzod p. 171.5ff; Bstan pa'i rnam bshad dar rgyas gsal ba'i sgron me, p. 142.13ff; Sgra 'grel (or Bden pa bon gyi mdzod sgo sgra 'grel 'phrul gyi lde mig in Srid pa'i mdzod phugs kyi rtsa 'grel (Sarnath: Central Institute of Higher Tibetan Studies, Yungdrung Bon Student's Committee, 1993), p. 23.18ff. The term "bird horn" (bya ru) is not one of those stock phrases quoted in Tibetan monastic debate to illustrate non-existent phenomena (such as "the horns of a rabbit" or "bird tracks in the sky"). Rather, the literal referent for the term bya ru are the horns that appear on the head of the mythical khyung bird, the bird most sacred to the Bonpos, which became identified with the Indian garuda. However, more commonly bya ru refers to a device found atop the finials of Bon chortens. But in this context it appears that the "bird horn" is a symbol of royalty. For a discussion of this symbol, see Giuseppe Tucci, The Religions of Tibet pp. 237-8; Roberto Vitali, The Kingdoms of Pu.hrang (Dharamsala, 1996), pp. 162-164; and Dan Martin, The Emergence of Bon and the Tibetan Polemical Tradition, pp. 118-137. Both Vitali and Martin argue that the bird horn is a royal symbol that originates from Persia, where the Sassanid kings wore winged crowns.
  10. For Eliade's analysis of the Buriat shaman's white fur, see Shamanism, p. 150. The fur of a white lion is not only found as an emblem of distinction in the Bon tradition, for Buddhist historical texts also present it as a mark of honor. See Dpa' bo Gstug lag phreng ba's Mkhas pa'i dga' ston, ed. by Rdo rje Rgyal po (Beijing: Mi rigs dpe skrun khang, 1986), p. 379.2-3, where a collar made from the fur of a white lion was awarded to a member of the powerful 'Bro clan; another passage cited by Vitali in Kingdoms p. 169 n. 231 comes from the earlier Buddhist text, Lde'u jo sras chos 'byung (Lhasa: Bod ljongs mi rigs dpe skrun khang, 1987), p. 112.8-12., where it is stated that another member of the 'Bro clan "owned the white lion fur collar. This was his sign of greatness." From these two examples, Vitali concludes that the white lion fur denotes the 'Bro clan, as its special mark of distinction. Such a conclusion would certainly be contested by the Bonpos, who offer their own etiology for the white lion fur.
  11. G.yung drung Bon gyi rgyud 'bum, p. 30.4-31.4. 64 For a revisionist perspective on the shaman and his political role, see Shamanism, History and the State ed. by Nicholas Thomas and Caroline Humphrey, (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994).
  12. Eliade, Shamanism, p. 434.
  13. Eliade, Shamanism, p. 434.
  14. Eliade, Shamanism, pp. 440-441. 67 Eliade, Shamanism, p. 437: "These few extracts suffice to show the transformation that a shamanic schema can undergo when it is incorporated into a complex philosophical system, such as tantrism. Important for our purpose is the survival of certain shamanic symbols and methods even in highly elaborated techniques of meditation oriented to goals other than ecstasy. All this, in our opinion, sufficiently illustrates the genuineness and the initiatory spiritual value of many shamanic experiences."
  15. Réne de Nebesky-Wojkowitz, Oracles and Demons of Tibet, p. vii.
  16. Nebesky-Wojkowitz, , Oracles and Demons of Tibet, pp. 440, 547. He adds that "I have often been asked by Tibetans the question what I thought of their mediums, and whether I had the impression that really some supernatural forces were manifesting themselves in the course of these ceremonies." While he never tells us his answer, as if doing so would violate his "objectivity" as a scientist and transgress the phenomenologist's ideal of epochê, his own skepticism is apparent.
  17. Debunking the Tibetan shaman and his magic may be hazardous to one's health.
  18. Hoffmann, The Religions of Tibet, pp. 13-14.
  19. Hoffmann, The Religions of Tibet, pp. 14-15.
  20. Hoffmann, The Religions of Tibet, p. 85.
  21. Hoffmann, The Religions of Tibet, p. 25.
  22. Hoffmann, Tibet: A Handbook (Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1975), p. 102. For a critical assessment of the Manichean and Iranian influences on Bon, see Per Kvaerne, "Dualism in Tibetan Cosmogonic Myths and the Question of Iranian Influence," in Silver on Lapis: Tibetan Literary Culture and History ed. By Christopher I. Beckwith (Bloomington: The Tibet Society, 1987), pp. 163-174.
  23. Hoffmann, The Religions of Tibet, p. 98. On page 74 he adds: "The later Bon-po led an isolated existence apart from the main stream of spiritual development as a discarded heretical sect, as a provincial tendency in religious belief whose main tendency was and still _is a purely negative one, namely anti-Buddhist." The trope of "reversal" or "inversion" is a common motif used in popular literature to dismiss or disparage Bon. Helmut Hoffmann's countryman, Ernst Hoffman, better known under his self-appointed name Lama Anagarika Govinda, writes in his The Way of the White Clouds (Boulder: Shambhala, 1970), p. 223: "Since it is only the Bon-pos who reverse the direction of the cicumambulation or who pass a shrine or sacred place (as for instance Mount Kailas) with the left shoulder towards it, our suspicion that the abbot was not a Buddhist but a Bon-po was confirmed, and when we entered the main temple our last doubt vanished, because everything we saw seemed to be a reversal or at least a distortion of Buddhist tradition. Thus the swastika sign of the Bon-pos points to the left, while the Buddhist one points to the right." Likewise, Fosco Maraini expresses his sense of discomfort when visiting a Bon temple, where everything is backwards: "If first impressions are to be trusted, I do not like the Bon religion. There is something uncanny about it, though that is only an impression, I repeat. Perhaps it's the feeling that it is a primitive religion, which only came to have proper temples, scriptures, ceremonial, and art because of contact with its Buddhist neighbor. Finally there is the fact that no great human spirit has expressed himself in it-a sure sign of inferiority. Its spaces have never been illuminated-they have remained gloomy and nocturnal." Maraini then goes on to describe how savage and "robustly barbarous" ancient Tibet was with its Bon religion. See his Secret Tibet (New York: Viking Press, 1952), p. 204.
  24. Per Kvaerne, "The Bon Religion of Tibet: A Survey of Research," The Buddhist Forum vol. III, ed. by Tadeusz Skorupski and Ulrich Pagel (University of London, School of Oriental and African Studies, 1994), p. 133.