Bon Medicine

Bon Doctors

Both the Bon and the Tibetan Buddhist religions have their own principal medical text: for the Bon tradition it is the Bumshi; and for the Buddhist tradition it is the Gyushi. The fact that the two texts are virtually identical is easy to explain for the Bonpo. In their opinion Tibetan medicine was first taught by the founder of the Bon religion, Tonpa Shenrab, and the Gyushi is a Buddhist reworking of the Bumshi. In order to fully contextualise this statement we need to outline the history of Tibetan medicine, and discuss the various accounts of the origin of these texts.

It was during the reign of King Trisong Detsen that the main medical text of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, the Gyushi, was brought to Tibet. It is said to have been transmitted to Vairocana by the Kashmir pandit Candranandana. Vairocana translated the text into Tibetan and passed it on to Padmasambhava, who, thinking that the people of Tibet were not ready for it, hid it in a pillar in Samye Monastery. Another important figure in the history of Tibetan medicine around this time is Yuthog Yontan Gompo the elder, he served as the personal physician for King Trisong Detsen. Like Vairocana he visited India and studied with Candranandana.

In 1098 the Gyushi was taken from Samye monastery by the terton Drapa Ngön Shé, who transmitted it to his disciple U-pa Dardrag. Eventually the text was passed on to Yuthog Yontan Gonpo the younger who lived in the twelfth century; he was the thirteenth generation descendant of Yuthog Yontan Gompo the elder. Yuthog Yontan Gompa the younger visited India several times in search of medical knowledge. As well as revising the Gyushi, he wrote numerous medical works, the best known of which is the Practice in Eighteen Chapters (Chalag Chogyé). The earliest textual account which connects Vairocana with the Gyushi is the Namthar Kagyachen, of Sumtön Teshezung, a disciple of Yuthog Yontan Gompo the younger. In this account the Gyushi was first taught by an emanation of the Medicine Buddha, Rigpé Yeshe in Oddiyana, it was eventually written in Sanskrit and passed on to Candranandana.

In his article, 'Vairocana and the rGyud-bzhi' (1989), Samten Karmay discusses the Tibetan literary genre known as khogbub that developed from the thirteenth century, which deals specifically with the history of Tibetan medicine; here the view of the Gyushi as a canonical text (Gyuzhi karu drub pa, or in short the kadrub literature) eventually became the standard opinion. But in the early period, there was another Tibetan historical tradition, which took a different stance; namely that the Gyushi was not a translation of a Sanskrit original, but was composed by Yuthog Yontan Gompo the Younger. This tradition, which was started by another one of Yuthog's close disciples, produced a large volume of writings known as tsod yig; unfortunately very few of these texts have survived, and the tradition is mainly known about from arguments made against it in the kadrub literature.

The Bonpo have a different account of the origin of the Gyushi. For them it is based on the Bonpo medical text the Bumshi, which was first taught by Tönpa Shenrab, the founding Buddha of the Bon tradition, to his son Tribu Trishi. From Tribu Trishi the text was passed on through the medical lineage in Tazig and Zhang Zhung, eventually to be translated into Tibetan by Tongyung Thuchen, Gyimtsha Machung, Chetsha Khorwa, and Shari U-chen, at the time of the second king of Tibet Mutri Tsenpo. Later, when the Bon religion was persecuted, the Bumshi, along with many other Bonpo texts was hidden. There are three different accounts of the way the text was discovered. One account states that the text was found by the Bonpo terton, Khutsa da-ö in Bhutan. A second account holds that it was one of the texts that were rediscovered at Samye monastery in 913 AD by three Nepalese monks; the terton is named as A-tsa-ra. The third account is given in Shardza Tashi Gyaltsen's history of the Bon religion (Karmay 1972:170). He writes that in 1037 AD Butsho Sipai Gyalpo found several medical texts in western Tibet, amongst which was the Bumshi. In Nyima Tenzin's catalogue (karchag) of Bonpo texts, nine medical texts are listed in the Bonpo Kanjur (Kvaerne 1974:101); these he states were all discovered by Butsho Sipai Gyalpo. The first of these texts is the Bumshi. Nyima Tenzin adds to his entry that the four parts of the Bumshi were 'transformed' (gyurpa) by Vairocana into the four parts of the Gyushi. He gives as evidence of this that the mantras in the text have been left in the language of Zhang Zhung, and the Bonpo word for a fully ordained monk, drangsong has also been left unchanged. Other Bonpo accounts claim that it was Yuthog Yontan Gonpo the younger who transformed the Bumshi into the Gyushi.

Though the kadrub thesis that the Gyushi is a canonical text was generally accepted, because it is a terma, it was not included in the Buddhist Kanjur or Tanjur collections. The Bonpo on the other hand, as nearly all of their Kanjur consists of termas, had no qualms about including the Bumshi With the dominance of the Buddhist kadrub tradition, and particularly with the ascendancy of the Gelugpa administration from the seventeenth century, we hear very little about the Bonpo medical tradition until relatively recently. Lopon Tenzin Namdak informed me that while he was the head teacher in Menri monastery in Tibet, before the Chinese invasion in 1959, there was a copy of the Bumshi in the monastery library.

Since the founding of the Chagpori medical school in 1696, Tibetan medicine has been increasingly taught in schools of medicine. Up until relatively recently these schools have all been based on the Tibetan Buddhist medical tradition. There are currently only 3 Tibetan medical schools that were founded by followers of the Bon medical tradition: the Darchen medical school founded by Tenzin Wangdrag in 1997 at the foot of Mt Kailash; a medical school in Dechen in Kham established by Tenzin Namdag in 1998; and the Tashi Gyegay Thartenling Bon Medical school which was originally established in Dhorpatan in West Nepal in 1992 but has since moved to Triten Norbutse Bon monastery in Kathmandu. Tenzin Wangdrag was a student of the Bon lama Khyungtrul Jigme Namkhai Dorje, who wrote a famous Bon medical commentary in 1948. Aside from formal teaching institutions medical knowledge has continued to be passed on in family lineages or by doctors taking on private students, by this means, aspects of Bonpo medical knowledge have survived to the present day. There are Bon medical lineages in Amdo and Kham. The picture above, taken in 2008, shows Bon medical doctors in Khyungpo in Kham who had just been trained in the complicated methods of making so called precious medicines or Rinchen Rilbu. Many of these doctors are from family lineages.

Colin Millard, October 2010

Page revised 23 November 2010
by Geoffrey Samuel.