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Tibetan Bön: A Reading List

Submitted: Is it alright to ask what sources Tibetan gods come from?


I have to admit I spent a little time trying to figure out if this was a cosmological question (when were these gods born in their mythology, and how, and from what, and what does that mean for the world?) or a scholarly one (what books are you reading about these gods in)? This post is going for the second one, so if you're the submitter and I got it wrong, ping us again and let us know!


An ancient wood painting of a Tibetan deity wearing a leopardskin, dancing in a cloud of fire while pulling decapitated humans from its body

If I had to give Tibetan deities a seriousness rating, it would be: EXTREMELY


When we talk about the Tibetan gods, we're usually referring to the gods of Bön, the major religion native to Tibet. Of course, it's not even close to the only religion in Tibet; Tibetan Buddhism, imported from India and heavily influenced by China and Mongolia, is at least equal to Bön in terms of popularity in Hero's Journey, and there are at least three major strains of Bön itself in addition to folk religious beliefs that aren't as formalized but have nevertheless been around forever.


As you might imagine, it's not the easiest religion to find good information about in the West, in English, while China is still busy trying to demand Tibet stop having religion at all, but here are a few places to start if you want to learn more:

(Links are to WorldCat for those looking for a library copy, but of course you can also go scare one up for purchase if you want to!)


If you're just looking for a place to start, I'd recommend The Diamond Path as a starter and then Bön: Tibet's Ancient Religion and Spirit-Mediums, Sacred Mountains once you've gotten into it, but whatever calls to you as most interesting is probably the way to go. And I can't get out of here without suggesting EVERYBODY read The Epic of Gesar of Ling, the major Tibetan heroic epic and a story shared with a lot of other nearby cultures as well. It's very long - more than 20 times as long as Iliad! - but worth it. The best English translation currently is probably Alai's The Song of King Gesar, but there's an old translation version here (this is the Mongolian Buryat version, though, so you'll see different details and terminology than you would in a Tibetan version!) or check out Li Lianron's fabulous History and the Tibetan Epic Gesar for discussion of how it fits into the northern Asian mythology scene.


We can definitely say that we don't know as much about Bön as we'd like to, either, so we'll all be studying right alongside you!

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6 Comments


wigglestick
May 08, 2021

What are some really good tales from these books?

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Anne
Anne
May 10, 2021
Replying to

Oh gosh, so many! The story of the great earth goddess who is held down by the mountains as pegs so that she doesn't shake the world apart; the holy king Tönpa Shenrap who chased demons stealing his horses across the world and defeated them with curses; and of course our friend Gesar. I could do a blog post on some of those stories if you like, but they're too much for a comment, probably!

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William Bennett
William Bennett
May 05, 2021

Is there much crossover with Tibet and Mongolia in terms of this religious practice? If so that's a really large 'area' of which a lot of it is pretty inhospitable.

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Anne
Anne
May 05, 2021
Replying to

Bön itself is pretty Tibetan, but it does share a lot of features with Mongolian Tengriism and folk religion! In particular, both have strong practices of shaman/priests who form the link between the human world and the world of the gods - humans can't actually contact the divine, but in both religions a shaman can make a perilous journey into the spirit world to ask for help or find answers. Both religions might have the shaman in charge of trying to save people from illness or protect the countryside from a natural disaster, often by having to go on an extended trip into the other world to beg for intercession.


Both religions have very distinct unique features of their own,…

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Samudra
Samudra
May 05, 2021

If the art is anything to go by I approve of their style :D

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Anne
Anne
May 05, 2021
Replying to

I thought you might appreciate this particular piece. ;)

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