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Tibetan Bönpo flag (Tibet)

Last modified: 2020-07-11 by ian macdonald
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[Tibetan Bönpo flag]   [Tibetan Bönpo flag]
images by Tomislav Todorović, 15 February 2014

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I discovered another Tibetan religious flag. This time, it is not a Buddhist, but a bönpo flag. As I said in my previous message, at first the bön religion was a mix of different rituals and beliefs. Historians still debate at length and wonder if this religion was as unified as Buddhism was, or if it was a common name used by Buddhist monks when refering to any non-buddhist religious element. Among its most characteristic trait was the belief in mountain-deities. With time, those mountains were linked to mythical ancesters who, in turn, could be deified. Mountains were important sites of pilgrimage, long before the arrival of buddhism, and numerous stone pilars (Tib. Doring) and altars have been discovered on high peaks. The old religion also included royal devotion, sacrifices and divination.
Confronted to buddhism, the bönpo experienced some decline but never disappeared. Bön evolved and was very influenced by some buddhist schools, especially the Nyingmapa, but also influenced them. The bönpo consider their faith as a world religion, even if it is geographically limited to Tibet, as its purpose is to save people. The swastika, old symbol of good luck, is very present in bön and represents eternity, mostly in its anti-clockwise version.
The flag has five horizontal stripes (blue, white, red, green, yellow). In the middle of the flag there is a golden yungdrung chakshing (g.yung-drung phyag-shing in Wylie transliteration), which is a bönpo scepter and symbol of immortality. On each end of the yungdrung there is a square with a swastika. The squares are shown with a blue swastika on yellow field in one instance, and with several colours between the arms of the yellow swastika in the other (blue to the left, red on top, green on the right, and white on the bottom), all on a red field within yellow border..
Corentin Chamboredon, 10 February 2014

The flag design is certainly an example of the way these two religions influenced each other: in Buddhist tradition, five colors are associated with five Dhyani Buddhas, as well as with the cardinal directions:
Whether the use of this color set originated in Buddhism and was adopted by the Bönpo, or vice versa, is an open question for now. (Or maybe it is not, but I don't know the answer.)
The use of swastika is another example. (In this case, I'm apt to attribute the origins of its use to the Buddhism, because the symbol is known to have been used in India long before the Buddhism was founded.)
Tomislav Todorović, 10 February 2014

I'd say five has been a number of note in the greater Indus region for a long time, though I don't know exactly how long. Unless we find something better, I'd go with shared heritage rather than influence one way or the other.
But to demonstrate the influence it also should not have been present in Tibet in pre-Buddhist times. Wasn't it? I don't know. It reminds me of the Jainism flag.
Peter Hans van den Muijzenberg, 10 February 2014

Tibetan are particularly fond of numerical classifications : the eight auspicious symbols, the seven precious jewels, the five attributes of sensory enjoyment, the six symbols of long life, etc. So this could come from anything.
That was the case. Almost all of western Tibet constituted, before the Tibetan emperor Songtsen Gampo invaded it in the VIIth century, the kingdom of Zhangzhung. Modern bönpo claim their religion had roots in this old country (some texts even claim bön was imported from old Persia to Zhangzhung before that), which had a script and a language different from Tibetan. Archaeologist John Vincent Bellezza is surveying the remains of this very old culture. The oldest ruins date back to 1 000 BCE, and there were some cultural continuity until the XIth century of our era, when the second diffusion of buddhism (or Chidar in Tibetan) imposed its philosophy to the whole Tibetan plateau, along Tibetan script and language.
Sources :
Mount Kailash, which lays in Western Tibet, in an extremely old pilgrimage site which has been visited for centuries by members of four religions : bön, buddhism, hinduism and jainism. Cultural exchange rarely happens in a single way, so why not ?
Corentin Chamboredon, 10 February 2014

I agree with the importance of the number, not only in India, but in other parts of Asia as well (in China, it seems to be ancient enough to have been developed independently), but it's the use of this particular color set that I wanted to stress.
Jainism flag does resemble somewhat. However, here: it is described as being brought to Tibet with the Buddhism - that is, from India.
Tomislav Todorović, 10 February 2014