In an age of monsters and miracles, they battled for the soul of a nation. Meet the Buddhists and Bönpos of ancient Tibet.
In 1626, two Portuguese priests set out northward from Delhi, India, in search of a lost kingdom. Disguised as Hindu pilgrims, Antonio de Andrade and Manuel Marques hoped to make contact with Prester John — a Christian monarch who, according to persistent legend, commanded vast Asian armies that would join European forces to crush the “infidel” Muslims of the Middle East.
Andrade and Marques never found the land of Prester John — instead, they stumbled upon a far more astonishing realm.
With the help of local guides, the two priests ascended the 17,900-foot Mana Pass, pressing onward through weeks of snow-blindness, frostbite, and oxygen deprivation. At last, one freezing morning, they stumbled onto the rim of a steep mountain valley — and looked out upon an oasis of lush green grass, colorful wildflowers, rippling brooks and gold-roofed temples. The two monks could scarcely believe their eyes. Surely, they thought, this must be the long-sought kingdom of Prester John.
What the two priests had actually found, however, was an ancient civilization on the verge of collapse: the kingdom of Gu-ge, whose mighty fortress-city of Tsaparang had once controlled all of western Tibet — and whose springtime splendor may have inspired the legend of Shangri-La. Yet within the next 40 years, Gu-ge would be laid waste by its enemies; its fortress shattered, its people dispersed, its monasteries plundered and abandoned.
Who were the people who ruled this enigmatic land? Where did they come from — and how did their empire collapse?
To answer these questions, we have to go back to the beginning — to the mist-shrouded dawn of Tibet’s civilization, where myth and history weave together in a tapestry of shamans and kings; demons and princesses; monsters and warrior-monks. Here in the Land of Snows, the spiritual permeates the physical in every aspect of life.
For thousands of years, Tibet’s southern neighbor India gazed up in wonder at the cloud-piercing Himalayas, and conceived of Tibet as the place where Earth rises to meet Heaven. Countless Hindu and Buddhist pilgrims have trekked northward through those mountain passes, crossing perilous ravines in howling snowstorms to reach the abode of the gods — and not always surviving the journey.
From the east, meanwhile, ancient Chinese scholars looked on Tibet as a land of fierce barbarians. Even as geographers disdained Tibetans as illiterate nomads clad in filthy furs and animal skins, generals feared the might of Tibet’s armies, which frequently raided along China’s western borders — and which, at the peak of their power in the 700s CE, even managed to capture China’s capital city of Chang’an.
By firelight, storytellers whispered darker tales. Tibetan sorcerers were rumored to consort with demons — and to revel in blood-soaked orgies of human sacrifice and ritual cannibalism.
Perhaps these tale-tellers had heard rumors of Tibetan rituals like chöd (“severing”), in which practitioners spent the night in a cemetery, beating drums and blowing trumpets of human bone, inviting demons and hungry ghosts to feast on their flesh. In later centuries, chöd would became an allegorical practice in tantric Buddhism — but its imagery hearkens back to an older age, when graveyard blood-sacrifices may have been more than merely symbolic.
Even so, Tibet has never been as reclusive, or as primitive, as many outsiders believe. In the 700s CE, Tibetan kings controlled thousands of miles of rich, fertile territory throughout Central Asia — a domain stretching from Kazakhstan and Tajikistan, down through Pakistan and northern India, and well into western China.
As key trade brokers astride the Silk Road, Tibet’s great kings actively exchanged technologies, ideas, and luxury goods with civilizations across the Asian continent. And while their closest links were always with India — from which they imported Buddhist doctrines and scriptures, as well as their writing system — Tibetans have always maintained that their own origins lie to the west, in a land called Ta-zig.
Some historians have identified Ta-zig with Tajikistan and/or eastern Iran — a surprising choice for a Tibetan homeland, since genetic analysis shows that Tibetans are most closely related to Han Chinese and South Asian peoples, who probably migrated westward into southeast Tibet from the Yellow River valley. One possible explanation, however, is that this origin story preserves a dim memory of Tibet’s cultural and spiritual beginnings.
While Tibet and Buddhism are practically synonymous today, Buddhist teachings only arrived in Tibet in the 600s CE — relatively recently in Tibet’s history.
For untold centuries before Buddhism’s arrival, Tibetans practiced a far more ancient religion known as Bön, whose origins remain mysterious. While Bön shares Buddhism’s focus on meditation as a method of spiritual liberation, the tradition also encompasses a range of beliefs and practices that may date back to an even older indigenous nature-religion — such as astrology, fortune-telling, spell-casting, talismans, ritual sacrifices and ecstatic trances.
Many Bön rituals clearly draw on tantric Hinduism — which Tibet’s highly unique Vajrayana Buddhism also acknowledges as a major influence. But while evidence remains inconclusive, some experts have also noted tantalizing similarities with Siberian shamanism, Iranian Zoroastrianism, and possibly even Greek and Near-Eastern mystery religions practiced in the Greco-Bactrian cities of northern Afghanistan.
Since the western Tibetan kingdom of Zhangzhung served as a multicultural trade entrepôt as early as the 500s BCE — more than 1,000 years before Buddhism came north from India — it’s not outside the realm of possibility that Bön arose as an ancient west-Tibetan synthesis between indigenous animist beliefs, tantric Hindu doctrines, North Asian shamanic practices, and esoteric religious ideas from still farther west. If there’s any truth to this speculation, it could go a long way toward explaining Tibetans’ insistence on a western cultural homeland.
However, Buddhism and writing arrived in Tibet around the same time, in the 600s CE — and our earliest descriptions of Bön come from Buddhist monks who sought to discredit their enemies as ignorant devil-worshippers.
Legend tells that when the Buddhist sage Padmasambhāva first came to Tibet from India, he found the country so demon-haunted that he almost turned back. Every shadowy forest teemed with evil spirits; each graveyard crawled with flesh-eating ghosts. Ten-headed monsters lurked in mountain caves, while snakelike creatures called klu dwelled in lakes and rivers. In fact, even the land of Tibet itself was the body of a titanic demoness.
Fortunately for the Buddhists, Padmasambhāva rose to the challenge of exorcising Tibet, one haunted locale at a time. He became a kind of Tibetan Saint Patrick, traveling the lonely countryside, performing miracles that overpowered his devilish enemies, and preaching the Buddhist doctrines of suffering and liberation everywhere he went.
Along the way, Padmasambhāva did something no Christian saint would consider possible — he taught Tibet’s monsters to meditate, and converted them to Buddhism.
In the Buddhist view, ghosts, monsters, demons, and even gods are trapped in the same wheel of death and rebirth as all other living beings. They lash out not because they’re inherently evil, but because they suffer from illusory attachments and desires, just as humans do.
Moved by compassion for Tibet’s suffering creatures, Padmasambhāva subdued and pacified them — then taught them how to let go of the hungers that tormented them. Soon, many of these monsters entered the Buddhist canon as helpful spirits, who use their terrifying powers to trample illusion and awaken people to Enlightenment.
At least, that’s the story from the Buddhist side. From the Bön perspective, on the other hand, Buddhist teachers like Padmasambhāva were heretics, purging holy places of their ancient deities and protector spirits — even daring to call Tibet’s beloved earth goddess a “demoness,” and symbolically nail her body to the ground with Buddhist shrines and temples.
The battle lines were drawn — and across the next ten centuries, Buddhism and Bön would war ferociously for control of Tibet.
Buddhist kings (inspired, presumably, by Padmasambhāva’s infinite compassion) waged wars of scorched-earth extermination against Bön communities across the land. Bön scholars fought back by committing their own orally transmitted scriptures to writing, and hiding them throughout the countryside, in remote locations prophesied to be revealed when the coast was clear. Hundreds of such relics are said to remain hidden to this day.
But even as Bön and Buddhism warred for Tibet’s soul, their theologies and practices evolved in dialogue with one another. Buddhist monks probably borrowed the custom of hiding sacred texts from their Bön counterparts — though Buddhists, of course, claim it was the other way around.
Bön practitioners, meanwhile, imitated their Buddhist enemies by constructing fortified monasteries protected by armies of warrior-monks, and formalizing their worldview into a system of canonical scriptures and ritualized theological debate.
Only in the 19th century did the two religions declare a formal peace — and by then, not even experts could tease apart all the threads of Bön and Buddhist doctrine.
The two belief systems had borrowed and adapted so much from each other that many modern Tibetan scholars — including the current Dalai Lama — have declared them to be complementary belief systems. (Perhaps it’s too much to hope that other major religions may someday reach a similar understanding.)
But centuries before Bön and Buddhism achieved peace, the kingdoms of Zhangzhung and Gu-ge had already been radically transformed — not only by warfare, but also by a seismic shift in the structure of Tibetan society. From the 700s onward, monasteries rapidly siphoned power and wealth from the ancient royal houses, transforming monastic communities into city-states with populations in the tens of thousands.
For more than a thousand years, monasteries would rule Tibet — controlling agriculture, commerce and education; even raising armies and waging wars.
We’ll see how this change unfolded in the next article of this series, where we’ll meet Tibet’s first great ruling families, watch their rises to glory, and witness their downfalls.
Along the way, we’ll explore a more earthly side of Tibet’s history — not the legendary battles of saints and monsters, but the gritty realities of royal power struggles and monastic military campaigns.
In the Land of Snows, power has always carried a steep price of iron and blood — even for kings who claim they’ve stepped straight down from Heaven.
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