Book review for Flight of the Bön Monks

This book presents fascinating life stories of three Bön monks,  Yongdzin Tenzin Namdak Rinpoche, Samten Karmay, and Sangye Tenzin, who later became the thirty-third abbot of Menri Monastery, the seat of Bön religion, the oldest religion of Tibet. The book, however, is much more than stories about  the monks’ escaping from war-ravaged Tibet, about their courage, determination and resilience.  It  is also a highly valuable historical record of the survival and development of Bön in exile. 

Being an old religion with a small number of followers, Bön has been shrouded in mystery, legends and misunderstanding.  In China,  Bön was traditionally referred to as the “black religion” due to the popular belief that its followers covered their heads with black cloth.  People with little knowledge about Tibetan Buddhism still consider the “black religion” to be a sect of Buddhism.  Just like the four major schools of Tibetan Buddhism are popularly known by the colors of their “hats,” i.e., Gelug being “yellow religion,”  Kaguy “white religion,”  thus  Bön “black religion.” The name may also implicate the “black magic” believed to be associated with Bön rituals. Mystery and misunderstanding no doubt contributed to alienation and discrimination, adding more difficulty to the survival of the Bön religion after Communist China took over Tibet, determined to wipe out Tibet’s cultural heritage. In exile, misunderstanding from the Buddhist community brought more hardship to the survivors of the  Bön community. Due to the small number and relevant obscurity,  the fate of Bön and its followers tended to be blended with the big picture of the Tibetan exile narrative.  Little attention was paid to its unique experience.  Fortunately, through careful and meticulous research, the two authors recorded a new chapter of the ancient Bön religion and presented it to general readers in a smooth and catching writing style. 

In this book, readers will follow the three monks from their hometowns in Kham and Amdo to central Tibet, their monastic life in Lhasa, their life-and-death escape to Nepal,  their first encounter with the world beyond the Himalayas and the survival of Bön in exile.  With each step, they not only saved an ancient religion from extinction, but also brought it to the outside world. Readers will get to know well-known and less known figures, Tibetan, British, American and Indian alike, who were instrumental in establishing the Bön center in exile, in collecting and preserving Bön texts for future generations, and in introducing Bön to the West.  Reading this  book helped me to better understand Bön religion, and enriched my knowledge of the Tibetan diaspora. I am grateful to the authors and congratulate them for a book well written and a work well done.

— Jangling Li.  author of Tibet in Agony and When the Iron Bird Flies.  

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