Biography and autobiography in Tibet are important sources for both education and inspiration. Tibetans have kept such meticulous records of their teachers that thousands of names are known and discussed in a wide range of biographical material. All these names, all these lives—it can be a little overwhelming. The authors involved in the Treasury of Lives are currently mining the primary sources to provide English-language biographies of every known religious teacher from Tibet and the Himalaya, all of which are organized for easy searching and browsing. Every Tuesday on the Tricycle blog, we will highlight and reflect on important, interesting, eccentric, surprising and beautiful stories found within this rich literary tradition.

Bon Master Drenpa Namka

“Tonpa Shenrab, Life Story.” Tibet, 1800-1899, Bon Lineage. Ground mineral pigment on cotton. Collection of Rubin Museum of Art, NYC.

Bon is the name given to the belief systems present in Tibet prior to the advent of Buddhism and to the contemporary tradition that claims that history as its own. Bon doctrine, history, and practices can be found throughout Tibet, and have had a profound influence on the form of Buddhism that has taken root there, just as Buddhism in Tibet has had a profound influence on Bon. This is true to the degree that it is often difficult to distinguish the visual materials emerging from the two communities—to the untrained eye it is difficult to differentiate paintings of Sakyamuni Buddha and Tonpa Shenrab, the Bon founder.

“Drenpa Namka.” Tibet, 1400-1499, Bon Lineage. Metal. Collection of Rubin Museum of Art, NYC.

Members of the Bon faith have unfortunately suffered discrimination from the majority Buddhists, and their history is often ignored in both Tibetan and Western literature. Take, for example, Drenpa Namka, an eighth-century master who was both Buddhist and Bon. In Buddhist literature he is a convert who turned his back on his native faith at a time when Buddhism was being imported from India. But according to Bon sources he is an important sage who saved the Bon teachings from being extinguished. He did this by adopting Buddhism and displaying an ability to transcend religious boundaries, through which he overcame sectarian controversies and demonstrated the inseparable nature of Buddhism and Bon. 

Bon legend says that Drenpa Namka married a woman named Oden Barma, who was born of high caste Indian parents. The couple had twin sons, the first of whom was named Yungdrung Donsal, who would later be named Tsewang Rigdzin. The second was named Pema Tongdrol. Tsewang Rigdzin is said to have been born with a svastika in the middle of his forehead (an auspicious Bon mark) and the skill of clairvoyance. Pema Tongdrol is described as dark and royal in appearance, with big eyes, a scrunched nose, and hands that “made ferocious gestures while his feet danced.” It is said that through meditation Tsewang Rigdzin accomplished the feat of long life, while Pema Tongdrol attained powerful and dangerous magical powers. Both are now revered as Bon saints.

After some time, Drenpa Namka and his wife separated and split custody of the children. Tsewang Rigdzin stayed with his father and Pema Tongdrol left with his mother. The two twins subsequently lived very different lives: Tsewang Rigdzin lived a quiet, contemplative life of retreat, and Pema Tongdrol was adopted by a barren royal couple and spent his life practicing his magical, mystical gifts. Bon and Nyingma mythology conflate Pema Tongdrol with Padmasambhava, the tantric adept who, in religious imagination, receives credit for subduing the demons of Tibet and allowing Buddhism to flourish.

According to his Buddhist biography, Drenpa Namka was a Bon master who converted to Buddhism. He later became one of the 25 disciples of Padmasambhava, and is said to have gained the yogic power of being able to tame wild yak with the wave of a hand. Bon mythology, on the other hand, holds that Drenpa Namka never left his Bon faith and, furthermore, transmitted the teachings of Bon to Padmasambhava who later concealed them as Bon treasures. Drenpa Namka is given credit for organizing many of the Dzogchen Semde (rdzogs chen sems sde) and disseminating the translations, commentaries, and oral teachings of Padmasambhava.

The different versions and distinctive details found amongst the biographies of Drenpa Namka provide invaluable insight into the often-adversarial dialogue between Buddhism and Bon. Both Buddhism and Bon honor Drenpa Namka as an important historical figure who contributed to the prosperity and longevity of their own traditions, but each gives a very different account of the figure. Multiple versions of a single figure’s biography are a common occurrence in Tibet and the Himalayan region. This is in part due to the process and tropes involved in writing the biographies, which are weaved from multiple threads and decorated with mythology and mystique. By examining the different versions of Drenpa Namka’s hagiographies, we see a larger story being told: one of political and religious competition between two adjoining traditions—that of Buddhism and Bon—ever adhered to one another.

Asha KaufmanMeet your Treasury of Lives blogger: Asha Kaufman is a museum educator and specialist of Himalayan art. Asha has a master’s from Harvard Divinity School and serves as Manager of Outreach and Development at the Treasury of Lives.

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