New Book Review: Kirkus Reviews

A remarkable work of historical insight and dramatic power.

Rice and Cole present a riveting history of the Chinese invasion of Tibet that highlights the plight of adherents of the ancient Bön religion.

Relatively few have heard of the Bön religion despite the fact that it was long the dominant spiritual practice in Tibet. Ultimately, it was supplanted by Buddhism, though the two religions share many similarities. Central to both are a monastic renouncement of worldly affairs, a commitment to enlightenment through meditative practice, and a belief in the availability of wisdom to all, principles lucidly discussed by the authors. At the heart of the Bön religion is the unflinching recognition of the pain of life, with spiritual emancipation the only antidote: “To avoid the suffering that causes unhappiness and realize enlightenment, true peace must be discovered within each practitioner. Such a discovery is done through meditation and purifying negative thoughts caused by the five poisons: anger, desire, ignorance, jealousy, and pride.” When the communists rose to power under Chairman Mao Zedong, they promised to leave Bön adherents to their own devices and undertake a policy of non-interference, a position they continued to assert as late as 1956. China eventually invaded Tibet, however, compelling the Dalai Lama to flee and Bön monks to either follow suit or violate their vows of peace and take up arms against their oppressors. Rice and Cole grippingly chronicle the perilous flight of three monks—Yongdzin Tenzin Namdak Rinpoche, Samten Karmay, and Sangye Tenzin—from Chinese aggression and their valiant attempts to preserve a religion the communists inarguably intended to eliminate. Tenzin Namdak was entrusted with the protection of the Nyame Kundung, a 600-year-old reliquary that contained the remains of Nyame Sherab Gyaltsen, the founder and first abbot of Menri, the most revered of the Bön monasteries. Samten Karmay and Sangye Tenzin devoted themselves to the preservation of the religion’s sacred texts by establishing a printing press to reproduce them, a task they undertook with the help of David Snellgrove, a famous British scholar.

The authors demonstrate a magisterial command of the historical material, rigorously documenting both the beleaguered history of the Bön religion and the self-interested involvement of the United States. A program run by the CIA was, at least officially, designed to arm and train Tibetan rebels, but, per the authors, it seems clear now that the American government was only interested in dealing a blow to communist interests, not defending the sovereignty of Tibet. For all its impressive scholarly scrupulousness, the book reads like a dramatic novel, filled with suspense and captivating tales of astonishing heroism. Many times, Tenzin Namdak nearly died carrying the reliquary to safety—he was shot and imprisoned and still refused to surrender his mission. It is heartbreaking to consider the moral predicament of the many monks who were spiritually committed to non-violence but were compelled to betrayed their vows to defend themselves, their religion, and the people they loved most. Rice and Cole should be credited for their own efforts to keep the Bön religion alive, and to do so in a way that is as dramatically consuming as it is intellectually edifying.

A remarkable work of historical insight and dramatic power.

See review here: https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/harvey-rice/flight-of-the-bon-monks/

Return Home

Follow the Book