Bön: Mustang to Menri
Directed by Tad Fetttig. 2011. 52 minutes.
Study areas: monastic life, contemporary Asian religion, Tibetan religion, Bön tradition, Tibet, Nepal
If you say “Tibet,” the next word that comes to mind will probably be “Buddhism.” This is all the more likely as by far the most famous Tibetan is the Dalai Lama, the charismatic Nobel Peace Prize laureate (1989) who for decades has traveled all over the world to spread his message of compassion and individual responsibility to statesmen as well as countless ordinary men and women.
Yet – and this may come as a surprise to many – not all Tibetans are Buddhist, even aside from the tiny Muslim and Christian minorities inside Tibet. Many Tibetans are followers of a religious tradition known by its Tibetan name “Bön,” which is found especially in the eastern and northeastern parts of Tibet, i. e. in areas lying outside the so-called Tibet Autonomous Region, but within the historical and cultural borders of the Tibetan nation.
It is a belief shared by all Tibetans that Bön was a flourishing religion in Tibet, especially at the royal court, at the time when Buddhism was introduced in the 7th and 8th centuries CE. As opposed to Buddhist Tibetans, however, the followers of Bön (known as Bönpos) claim that Bön rather than Buddhism is the universal, true, and most effective path to spiritual enlightenment. Furthermore, they maintain that the founder of Bön, Tönpa Shenrap (“The Teacher Shenrap”), was the ruler of a kingdom to the west of Tibet, and that he lived long before the Buddha appeared in India. Hence Bönpos, in spite of sharing a common culture and way of life with other Tibetans, including a well-established tradition of monastic life, regard themselves as representatives of a distinct religion, and this is how by other Tibetans regard them as well.
Against this somewhat complicated historical background it is not surprising that when Bönpos, along with thousands of other Tibetans, fled the Chinese oppression in their homeland in the 1960s, they established a monastic and cultural center of their own in India. The exile Bön monastery, situated at Dolanji, near the town of Solan in the Himalayan foothills north of New Delhi, was founded in 1969. Here the monastic tradition of Menri (“Medicine Hill”), the chief Bön monastery in Tibet, destroyed by the Chinese in the late 1960s, has been preserved and developed. The monk Lungtok Tenpai Nyima was chosen as the abbot of the “New” Menri in 1969, a position he still occupies.
Bön: Mustang to Menri is a documentary film that translates the story of this monastery into personal, human terms. The narrative, as indicated by the title of the film, focuses on two crucial places: Mustang and Menri. The link between them is the monk Sonam Gurung, a native of Mustang, a remote district in northwestern Nepal where culturally and linguistically the population is predominantly Tibetan.
Sonam, born in a Bön village in Mustang, was sent to the Bön monastery of Menri in India when he was nine years old. He studied hard for fourteen years and eventually obtained the degree of geshe (“geshay”), the highest academic degree in the Tibetan monastic system in 2004.
He became the personal assistant of the abbot after that, and this was still his assignment when the film team entered his life. The first half of the film portrays life in Menri monastery and the crucial role the monastery plays in preserving the ancient Bön religious tradition. The real thrust of the film, however, is the second part. Here we follow geshe Sonam Gurung back to his native village in Mustang where the Bön religion and the traditional way of life are under multiple kinds of pressure from a changing economy, the need for education, and modernity in all its forms. Sonam’s ambition is to establish a temple and eventually to install resident geshe there. Above all else, however, he hopes to “bring more texts, so people can feel more spiritual”.
Whether geshe Sonam’s dream will be fulfilled, we do not yet know, but the film ends on a note of optimism. On the day before his departure from his village to return to India, a father brings his son to Sonam and asks him to take the boy with him to Menri so that the child can receive an education. Sonam agrees, and invites us to share his joy and hope that the Bön religion will be passed on in the future in the same way that it has survived for many centuries until today. As this turn of events could not have been foreseen by geshe Sonam nor by the film team, it gives the film a vibrant immediacy.
Bön: Mustang to Menri will capture the attention and sympathy of children as well as adult students. Geshe Sonam’s engaging personality and simple, straightforward story make this possible. However, the film will be of particular use to students in courses on contemporary Asian religions. Even students who specialize in the study of Tibet may be quite unaware of the importance and sophistication of the Bön religion. One significant aspect of Bön is that the lineage of nuns has never been broken, and nuns may thus achieve the same level of study and practice as monks. This is a possibility that, while perhaps still largely absent in Tibet, is actively encouraged in exile by the abbot of Menri Monastery.
The film can be warmly recommended, with only a few words of warning: with regard to the history of Bön it lacks the critical distance of a historian’s point of view with respect to the historical constructedness of the religion that is held largely as an article of faith by the Bönpos themselves. Thus the film asserts that Bön is “one of the world’s oldest religious traditions,” in spite of the fact that there are – at present – no sources that can tell us anything meaningful at all about religion in Tibet before the 7th century CE, nor is Bön mentioned in older sources from outside Tibet. Perhaps this uncritical attitude is due to a mistaken belief that it expresses respect for the representatives of Bön encountered in the film.
The film does not attempt to assess the ongoing shift among Bönpos towards a definition of Bön almost exclusively expressed in terms of scholastic learning and monastic life. This is in fact a recent development, particularly pronounced – as might be expected – among younger monks who have been trained as geshes. It would be a worthwhile enterprise to have this presented in a wider, sociological setting, as comparable developments can be observed not only within other Tibetan (Buddhist) religious traditions, but also in madrasas and seminaries all over the world. But that would be another story, and another film.
Per Kværne, b. 1945 in Oslo, Norway, graduated in Sanskrit and Indian literature from the University of Oslo in 1970. He was appointed Professor of History of Religions at the University of Oslo in 1975, a position he retained until his retirement in 2007. Among his publications in this field are A Death Ritual of the Tibetan Bonpos (1985) and The Bon Religion of Tibet. The Iconography of a Living Tradition (1995). He is a member of the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters, Oslo.
Bön: Mustang to Menri is available online from the distributor's website.
Last Updated: March 6, 2013