How the Teachings of Yungdrung Bön came to Tibet
An informal lecture by Yongdzin Lopön Tenzin Namdak Rinpoche at Shambahala Centre, Paris, 19 May, 1998
I would like to say a little about history, about where the Teachings come from. Now they come from Tibet, but their origin was Zhang Zhung. Zhang Zhung was a kingdom in early times and the Tibetan civilization comes from the Zhang Zhung civilization. Zhang Zhung was one of the biggest kingdoms in early times, until it was destroyed by the Tibetan king Trisong Deutsen in the seventh century. Since then it has been slowly invaded by Tibet and the Teachings emigrated from Zhang Zhung to Tibet. Zhang Zhung existed in what is now the West and North of Tibet, and Tibet itself was only the central part (i.e. Utsang).1 Throughout most of the country people were nomads although some people lived and farmed by the lakes. There were very special holy places beside the lakes and people grew good quality barley and turnips; those were the only things. Other places were too cold for crops, they were only for nomads. Even now grains are grown on the lakeshores and they are very special and big, so that’s why these areas are called holy places. Elsewhere there were only nomads. So it is difficult for archeologists and historians who want to prove something because although it was a rich civilization, it is difficult to find much physical evidence about it. In some parts of the kingdom you can still see remains that look like ruined castles. In the past, very few scholars mentioned the names of those places and it is even hard to locate the castles. In the central kingdom there was a castle called Silver Castle of Garuda Valley, Khyunglung Ngulkar.2 There was a forest and even sandalwood trees grew there. Now there is nothing, hardly even any grass; it’s mainly dry now. You can see how the lakes dried up over time and their age can be deduced by examining the shoreline. Most lakes do not contain drinking water – many are soda or salt – so it is difficult to find pure water. Sometimes people make pilgrimages to the Northern Plateau (Changthang)3 and follow animal tracks to find drinking water. Such a search might take days on foot or maybe on a yak or a horse. In early times the Northern Plateau was very big but now Chinese trucks and lorries go everywhere so it’s easy to travel and the plateau does not seem so big. People would dry yak dung and use it to make a fire. In winter you can drive anywhere but in summer there is a lot of water; if there’s too much water you get stuck in the mud.
Most people lived in tents. Not canvas ones but ones made of yak hair. There are two types of yak hair: rough and smooth. The rough type can be woven and is of very good quality. It is used for the tents. In summer it is water- and heat-proof and in winter it keeps the cold out. It is really very good. The smooth part of the yak hair is made into blankets and is very warm. When the animals had grazed all the grass from around about, the nomads would move to the next place and leave only ash behind, nothing else. Therefore, scholars can’t find anything and many Western scholars say Zhang Zhung did not exist and that it was made up by Bönpos when there was conflict with Buddhists in the seventh century. Maybe in the past it was easy to say that and people wrote books and said it was true. Now, however, the Chinese have come and the doors are open, so where are these books now? Who will buy them? What’s the use?
The rest of the people who lived as farmers had very small houses made of stone and clay. This was the same in the kingdom of Zhang Zhung. Zhang Zhung means Garuda Valley, Khyung Lung in Tibetan. These places were huge towns. Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche made a film there (in 1988), so now you need to hide the early books carefully in the bookcase because the film shows there was a kingdom. These castles and ruins are comparable with those in Egypt or Mesopotamia, Babylon. It seems that in the past people forgot about them and thought they were hills. Now the buildings are in ruins or like caves and the homeless live there, but if you look, you can see it was a big, dried town.
That is not the only castle; in the North, West and East as well as parts of Western Nepal there are ruined castles. It was a huge country, so many ruins and castles belong to Zhang Zhung and even now more are gradually being discovered.
Long before Tibet, this country had a religion and that is the source of its civilization. The Zhang Zhung Nyengyu4 is the essence (of Yungdrung Bön) coming from that region. We are not sure when this lineage started, we only know that the twenty-fifth master lived in the seventh century. In particular there were practitioners of Dzogchen who lived in solitude by the snow mountains; opposite Mount Kailash and in the valleys there are many ruins of solitary places which practitioners had used long before. We have some biographies of these yogis and yoginis.
Quite often robbers would come from Kalog,5 Mongol types, and they would rob horses and yaks in particular but also people to use as slaves. They were always kidnapping men and women for slaves. There were a few practitioners of Dzogchen there. One master was very sympathetic and he saw that there was too much suffering, so he wrote the four sentences of refuge on a bit of wood and gave it to people when they came and asked for protection. First of all, he wrote a few copies and tied it to whoever had connection to him, and they were safe from the robbers, so more and more people heard about it and came and learned refuge. Then instead of writing the verses on wood and tying them to a necklace, the people learned Refuge from him and it spread all over the country. So the Teachings spread in this country of Zhang Zhung and slowly developed and gradually masters were able to teach and people tried to make time to practise.
So that is how they found religion. Who was that practitioner in solitude? He was a practitioner of another Dzogchen lineage, Namkha Truldzö.6 That is how religion and civilization started in Zhang Zhung. It is not so important to know how it came but it is important to know how important and powerful Refuge is, so they began teaching it as a religion in that area.
Dzogchen is the main essence of our Teachings and everything is condensed into Nine Ways. Dzogchen is the highest, most esoteric Way while the First Way or path is connected with general Tibetan culture. First of all, there is medicine. It was not easy to introduce the Teachings to the people of that country. It was such a long time ago that men were all like semi-spirits, sometimes human, sometimes spirit. There were very few people. They lived in caves and in winter the snowfalls were higher than houses. It’s hard to imagine. From age to age, most people lived in caves. They looked after sheep but there were many practitioners and they helped those who wanted to do retreat and practise seriously. Those practitioners weren’t rich or comfortable, but they weren’t starving, either.
So first of all when our religion was introduced, it was very difficult. People were quite wild. Very few people knew meditation techniques, everything had to be explained. The people were nature worshippers, they worshipped rocks etc. So the best way to introduce the Teachings was through medicine. If someone was sick, they took medicine and some were cured and so they believed that if the Teachings could cure, then there must be something to know.
But medicine can’t cure everything so then what to do? Then you ask divination. There are four methods of divination: divination as such; dreams; consulting an oracle; using a mirror. The mirror is the best way. Letters or images appear in it. Divination tells us if something is disturbed by spirits or whatever, and then there are rituals and rites which can cure that. That is the Second Way.
So with a combination of medicine and divination most things can be cured, but it is still not certain. Sometimes farmers were disturbed and their crops destroyed by hail or long drought and they would ask the priest if he could do something to get rain or stop hail. In this way the Teachings became more widespread and people had more and more trust in what the priests were saying. So that is how our religion and culture started, the source of Zhang Zhung civilization and also of Tibetan civilization.
Transcribed & Edited by Carol Ermakova & Dmitry Ermakov
1 Tib. dBus gtsang.
2 Tib. Khyung lung Dngul mkhar.
3 Tib. Byang thang.
4 Tib. Zhang zhung snyan rgyud.
5 Tib. gar log
6 Tib. Nam mkha’ ‘phrul mdzod.