Himalayan Art Resources

Collection of Dr. Richard R. Ernst (Bon Paintings)

Dr. Richard R. Ernst (Bon Paintings) | Dr. Richard R. & Magdalena Ernst (Paintings) | Bon Religion Main Page

The regional origin of the paintings below can be divided into two areas. Roughly half are from East Tibet, Amdo area, and the others from West Tibet, Dolpo and the Western Himalayas.

East Tibet: HAR 18352, 18356, 18363, 18371, 18394, 18395, 18396, 18461, 18462, 18463, 18464.

West Tibet: HAR 18391, 18465, 73106, 73118, 73124, 73127, 73134, 73139.

Bon Painting and Iconography:
An Overview of Subjects with an Introduction to Special Symbols and Characteristics

Himalayan art styles cover both a very broad geographic area containing many different cultures and over one thousand years of production. Within the regions and period of time there were, and still are, three main religious groups being served; Buddhist, Bon and Hindu.

The Bon religion is often referred to as the indigenous religion of Tibet existing before the spread of Buddhism into Central Tibet in the 8th century. Early Bon artwork, be it painting or sculpture, is hard to identify or even find. Pictographs from the 1st millennium and earlier etched onto rock faces in Western Tibet are considered the earliest examples of Bon symbolic art.

Bon painting is studied in the same manner as the Buddhist art of the Himalayan and Central Asian regions. The Three trainings of (1) art history, (2) religious studies and (3) iconography are essential. The art history in general applies equally to both, however there can be small differences in overall composition and the asymmetrical placement of figures and groupings of figures in Bon compositions while Buddhists tend to create symmetrical compositions in almost all cases. The religious studies training is different from other religions and traditions of the region because the subjects of the art originate from a completely different corpus of religious literature with its own unique terminology and original mother language. The iconography of Bon can be similar to Buddhism in general appearance and look, however in specific detail it is differentiated and distinguished from Buddhism by the use of unique symbols, attributes and choice of animal attendants and mounts.

Like Vajrayana Buddhism, Bon employs the use of many different forms of deities. The deities are best understood by the different types of iconography - their visual appearance, and by their religious, narrative or ritual function which is by nature more abstract. For iconographic appearance in Bon there are seven types: (1) Buddha-like, (2) monastic person, (3) lay person, (4) peaceful deity, (5) wrathful deity, (6) animal featured and (7) warrior. Himalayan Buddhist iconography has a few more forms totalling eleven figurative forms. The term Buddha-like is used with reference to Bon art and Tonpa Shenrab specifically because although the similar Buddha image is borrowed by the Bon from Indian Buddhism the subject figures depicted within the Bon context are not true Buddhas from the Buddhist point of view. This is a similar situation with the Jain religion of India where the principal figures have Buddha-like appearance and are each referred to with the title of ‘Jina’ rather than Buddha.

Deity figures are different in nature from the persons, be they lay or monastic. People are real, had real lives and historical events, either well or poorly recorded. Deities are not real in most senses of the word. Deities are constructs. They are tools to codify abstract concepts and systems of meditation. They have metaphors to help explain their appearance and symbolic content. There are four important and original Bon gods known as the Four Transcendent Lords. The four are Satrig Ersang, Shenlha Okar, Sangpo Bumtri, and Tonpa Shenrab. Almost all, if not all, the enlightened Bon deities are regarded as emanations of these four gods. The terms ‘god’ and ‘deity’ are used interchangeably here because the Four Transcendent Lords play a major role in the various Bon creation myths. In that role they are much more like traditional gods as understood in modern religious studies. Aside from the Four and the deities that are regarded as emanations of them, there is a class of subjugated worldly gods that are made up of local village, mountain or lake gods of the Himalayan regions and Tibet.

Unlike with Buddhist Iconography, a peaceful Bon deity will always have a wrathful form and a wrathful Bon deity will always have a peaceful form. This can however become very confusing because the peaceful and wrathful names are unrelated and give no clues to the relationships between different forms of deities. The different names and deities have to be learned either textually or from oral instruction from a Bon teacher.

The founder of Bon is known as Tonpa Shenrab, ‘teacher, great priest.’ He is typically depicted, from the iconographic seven types of appearance, as either a peaceful deity or in Buddha-like appearance. His earliest depictions in art portray him in peaceful appearance. Only later is he found depicted in a buddha-like appearance. The general narrative works of Bon art visually convey the life story and previous life stories of Tonpa along with the stories of later Lay or monastic teachers, both mythical and real.

The special symbols of the Bon that are not generally shared with forms of Buddhism found in the Himalayan regions and Tibet are the ‘yungdrung’ (svastika), five pointed star, nine-crossed swords, umbrella, butter lamp, bird crown and a bird wing, just to mention the more common and easily recognized. The garments of deities can be clouds, water, fire or rainbows. There is also the use of Tibetan letters placed on the hands with the palms open and facing out, or on the chest of different deity figures such as Kunzang Gyalwa Dupa and Kunzang Akhor.

A set of wrathful deities are known as the ‘Five Fortress Deities’ and they are employed as principal meditational practices of the Bon. The chief protector deity of Bon is Sipai Gyalmo, a female, the wrathful form of Satrig Ersang of the Four Transcendent Lords. She is typically depicted as wrathful in appearance, with three faces and six arms, riding a dre’u. There are many different forms of this protector. There is even a form that depicts a thousand faces and a thousand hands.

Animals are depicted in the iconography and art in several different ways. Some deities are placed standing on a square throne. Animals are depicted as decorating or supporting the front of the throne. With Bon art the animals are generally indigenous to the Himalayas and the Tibetan plateau. Whereas Buddhism almost exclusively depicts animals that are native to greater India such as lions, elephants, horses, peacocks and the like. The Bon depict the otter, yak, tarpin, leopard, monkey and other native animals. The animals are different, but so is the abstract meaning. Beneath the Bon throne the animals represent negative mental characteristics that are being subdued and conquered. For the Buddhists the animals are positive characteristics related to the deity above and the worldly human condition being transformed.

The reasons for creating Bon art are the same as for other religious groups of the Himalayas. Generally there are seven reasons for the creation of art. Some works are used purely for devotional reasons, others are narrative and meant to convey a story, some are didactic which is instructional in nature, for ritual use, memorial, as a commodity, or simply decorative. Those are the seven. Artworks can also have over-lapping reasons for their creation and over time they can be re-purposed for other uses.

The general painting styles of the Bon follow the different regional art styles across the Himalayas which are also employed by the Buddhists. There is no unique or identifiable Bon art style. Art styles are regional. Identification of Bon art is based solely on iconography and unique symbols.

Jeff Watt 1-2018, Lhasa, Tibet. The Richard R. & Magdalena Ernst Collection of Himalayan Art. Sothebys Auction Catalogue, New York, March 2018.