Introduction to Yungdrung Bön and Zhang Zhung
Photo by Carol Ermakova
Yungdrung Bön may well be the world’s most ancient organized religion still practised today. With its origins stretching back to the Central Asian Buddha Tönpa Shenrab (born 16017 BC), it has come to us through the ages, passed from Master to disciple in an unbroken lineage of transmission. During its many thousand year long history, this rich and profound tradition spread over vast tracts of Eurasia where it was practised by many peoples. With time, it has been woven into the cultural fabric of many nations, a distinctive strand present in many subsequent societies.
Yungdrung Bön is a complete and complex spiritual tradition practised by both lay and monastic communities throughout the world. As well as higher spiritual teachings, its doctrines also contain the Five Sciences, which include detailed texts on medicine, astrology, art and poetry. It is not a religion confined to one particular ethnic group or geographical location; rather, its teachings deal with the fundamental base of human nature common to all peoples the world over, making Yungdrung Bön a living tradition which can benefit all humanity.
Both the scriptures of Bön and historical research indicate that the ancient empire of Zhang Zhung was the original heartland where this tradition flourished in days gone by. It was from here that Yungdrung Bön spread into the neighbouring lands of Central Tibet, and throughout the Zhang Zhung Empire, a large confederation of tribes encompassing the Tibetan Plateau, the northern Himalaya, parts of China, Gilgit, Ladakh, northern India, Nepal and the Great Steppe. The Empire rested on a three-fold foundation: Bön, the Shen-priest and the king. Historical records show that the Bön priests, steeped in ritual lore as well as disciplines such as astrology and medicine, played a pivotal role in the governance of Zhang Zhung and were directly responsible for the well-being of the royal family and the nation as a whole.
When the Empire collapsed due to a Tibetan invasion led by the Tibetan King Trisong Deutsen (8th century AD), Yungdrung Bön suffered its second major persecution, the first having taken place in Tibet during the reign of Drigum Tsenpo (born 710 BC according to traditional chronology). In an attempt to bolster his power, King Trisong Deutsen banished or executed Bön adepts, introducing Buddhism from India as the new state religion. Although many texts and ritual artefacts were destroyed at this time, Bön survived, eventually flourishing once more, largely due to the discovery of scriptures which had been buried or otherwise hidden during the persecution. These so-called textual treasures began coming to light from the tenth century onwards.
However, despite this revival, followers of Bön have been subject to ongoing oppression in various parts of Tibet, right up until the Chinese Cultural Revolution of 1966 when a tragic number of monasteries from all traditions were razed to the ground.
Bön has nevertheless remained the cultural well-spring of Tibetan society, as well as a vibrant spiritual path for many, both East and West. Many religious leaders were among those who left their homeland and sought exile in India, where they struggled to re-establish their tradition, gathering fragmented scriptures and gui-ding their fellow refugees.
In particular, H.E. Yongdzin Lopön Tenzin Namdak Rinpoche and H.H. Lungtog Tenpai Nyima Rinpoche collaborated with Western academics such as Prof. David Snellgrove to translate key Bön texts, providing a platform for future research. Today, many eminent scholars, such as Prof. Samten Karmay and Prof. Charles Ramble, acknowledge that Tibetan culture is rooted in the Bön culture of Zhang Zhung. More recently, Prof. Yasuhiko Nagano has published as many as eleven volumes examining various aspects of Bönpo culture and religion. Many features particular to Tibetan Buddhism, such as the distinctive five coloured lungta prayer flags, actually trace their origins back to Bön.
Today, a thriving monastic community exists in exile, primarily in Dolanji, India and Kathmandu, Nepal, as well as in the ethnic Tibetan societies of the Himalayas. Yungdrung Bön is currently the second most popular religious tradition in Tibet itself, with large communities of lay Tantric practitioners, particularly in Eastern and Central areas, as well as a growing number of ordained monks and nuns. Thanks to the dedication of spiritual leaders such as H.E. Yongdzin Lopön Tenzin Namdak Rinpoche, many Westerners are also now being empowered to face modern issues with the help of this ancient spiritual path. Yungdrung Bön now enjoys official recognition as a religion by the French government, with its main seat in Shenten Dargye Ling, Loire Valley.
However, despite this new interest, little research has been carried out into the history of the Zhang Zhung Empire, while only a tiny percentage of the rich scriptures of Yungdrung Bön have been translated into English. This is largely due to a dire lack of funding. This Foundation therefore aims to play a part in the preservation of this ancient tradition by recording seminars given by erudite masters such as Yongdzin Lopön Tenzin Namdak Rinpoche, the current lineage holder of the three-fold teachings of Sutra, Tantra and Dzogchen, and most senior teacher of Yungdrung Bön, and also by translating key texts into English in collaboration with accomplished adepts of Bön. Currently, very few masters are able to teach effectively in English, so the Foundation also hopes to sponsor language courses for potential instructors.