Interview with Chögyal Namkhai Norbu

Investigating the ancient Kingdom of Shang Shung

Bruno Baumann interviews Prof. Chögyal Namkhai Norbu

Austrian-born Bruno Baumann is an award-winning writer and photojournalist who lives in Munich. He is a contributing editor to National Geographic Magazine and author of numerous travel adventure books, trekking guides and a popular lecture series. In June 2004 using whitewater rafts he led a European expedition into the Sutlej canyon in western Tibet to reach the ancient Kingdom of Shang Shung. He interviewed Chögyal Namkhai Norbu about his own research into Shang Shung and about his visit there in 1988.

Bruno Baumann: Could you tell us about your own research on Shang Shung and why you consider the area of Khyung Lung to be important.

Chogyal Namkhai Norbu: In general in Tibetan history there are many important places related to the ancient kingdom of Shang Shung because the Shang Shung kings of the past lived in different places such as Guge and Khyung Lung and many others. But we consider Khyung Lung to be a little more interesting because it is the place where the last king (of Shang Shung) lived. So it is more recent for us even though in the real sense it was at the time of Srongtsen Gampo, which was not so very near. Since the history of Shang Shung is really very ancient it was for that reason that I went mainly to Khyung Lung.

I know most Western professors have studied and made the area of Guge very famous, but it was not considered to be particularly important in the past. It was related to the history of Shang Shung and scholars such as Lotsawa Rinchen Zangpo and Atisha considered that the last Tibetan kings like Lha Lama Yeshe O for example lived there before the union of Tibet. There were many ancient cultures during that period, there were characteristic paintings of that period and so on, so they considered it to be very important. But when we study and go a little deeper into the history of Shang Shung, while Guge and many other places are important, Khyung Lung is more interesting because it is related to history.

During our trip there we saw many caves and understood that in ancient times the Shang Shung kings lived there in the wintertime. But I think that during that period, they didn't always live in a fixed palace such as the Potala. Although they stayed mainly in a stable place during the wintertime, in summer they moved to different places and did a lot of activities. And I also think that the weather and the general situation in that part of the country is a little different today from what it was in the past because the situation doesn't correspond very much.

We visited a lot of these caves and we understood that even when the last Shang Shung king no longer lived there, some Bonpo groups continued to live there for many years. Later on there were Buddhists. For example, at the time of La Lama Yeshe O there were some Buddhists living there who were following the teachings of Lochen Rinchen Zangpo and then later some followers of the Sakyapa tradition lived there. Then there were Kagyupa and Nyingmapa practitioners who treated it more like a refuge place because there was no longer that characteristic of the last ancient residence of Shang Shung.

Then finally there was a kind of small Gelugpa monastery there. We understood that because in one of the caves there were small remnants of books and even though not a single book was intact, we could see in which period different kinds of schools and traditions had lived there. The books showed this very clearly.

Later, during the Cultural Revolution, they did not permit the Gelugpa community to continue living there and after, when things became a little freer, they rebuilt the Gelugpa monastery in a nearby town because it wasn't so comfortable to return to the caves which were completely empty.
The way in which these kings and their functionaries lived in Khyung Lung was characteristic of the kingdom of Shang Shung because not only in Khyung Lung but also, for example, in Ladakh which now belongs to India and also in Guge and Purang and other areas there are many of these kinds of places where people have always lived in an unstable way. Here we are referring to a very ancient period in which the Bonpo tradition explains that there were 18 famous kings of Shang Shung who lived in different parts. It is a kind of rough history. In this period even Tibet didn't exist. The land and people were there but it wasn't called Tibet and there was no Tibetan king. This came much later. The first Shang Shung king that is mentioned goes back to very ancient times.

Historically the first Shang Shung king was more or less at the time of Tonpa Shenrab, the founder of the Bon tradition. The Bon of that time and the Bon of today are a little different. The characteristic of ancient Bon was knowledge of different kinds of medicine and astrology, rituals for having good crops and eliminating illness. It was related to the countryside, to the people, to the local guardians and there was a kind of interdependence within their knowledge and they studied very much in their own way, not like the Buddhist way. But modern Bonpo have taken much from Buddhism and have almost lost the ancient Bonpo tradition.

So in that period there were the ancient Bonpo who were related to the 18 famous kings of Shang Shung. Some of these kings lived in Khyung Lung and it was their residence and later on they continued to live there.

Bruno Baumann: I read in one of your books that you consider Shang Shung as the ancient roots of Tibetan culture. There was already quite a developed civilization with a medical and astrological system and the different Ways of Bon. How was the tradition of Shang Shung Bon transmitted?

Chögyal Namkhai Norbu: I want to thank you very much for your interest and research and attempt to discover that. It is something that is very important for ancient Tibetan history because at the time of the last Tibetan king, the kingdom of Tibet existed and also the kingdom of Shang Shung. When I wrote about and taught Tibetan history I advised all my students that it was not enough to study Tibetan history in a traditional way because in the traditional way they start with the first Tibetan king and from this time up to the time of Srongtsen Gampo there were something like 30 or 31 or 32 generations of Tibetan kings. And they say that during this period there was no form of writing and no forms of civilization, that they only existed after the time of Srongtsen Gampo. So how could they have governed the country? They governed it with Drung Deu and Bon. These three were the main means of government even though they had no form of writing.

Why do they say ‘Drung’? Because even if there was no form of writing, they always spoke about history of the time from Nyatri Tsenpo, the first Tibetan king up to Srongtsen Gampo. It is not a very rich history but there is some information about this period. They say that this (historical information) was passed from generation to generation through memory, so this is called Drung because they say there was no writing.

’Deu’ means signs or a ways to understand and refers to different aspects of divination or aspects related to astrology. Even if there was no writing they used that knowledge. ‘Bon’ refers to the kind of situation that exists: for example, if someone is ill, how they can overcome this problem, if there is no prosperity in the country, how they can develop that prosperity etc. There were twelve different kinds of Bon that were developed particularly in Tibet. And even if there was no writing, they used these things and governed. But there was no real explanation of what Drung Deu and Bon were. It only says that they were governed by Drung, Deu and Bon. Everyone who talks about Tibetan history only repeats that - they governed that way from the time of Nyatri Tsenpo to Srongtsen Gampo.

But then I did a kind of research about what Drung is, what Deu is and what Bon is. And I did research on the 12 characteristics of Bon to make people understand that it doesn't correspond to the idea that there was no writing at that time. Then later when I studied Tibetan history more I hoped it would become something stable, like a base for people who are interested in learning about Tibetan history.

I was Tibetan and I am still Tibetan even though I am an Italian citizen. But even though I live here, I always feel I have a kind of responsibility for maintaining and helping Tibetan culture. For that reason it is not sufficient for me simply to write a nice book on history or something like this. I want to show something very important - Tibetan culture is very ancient and has value at an international level. For that reason I did all this research to explain that in the second epoch during the time of the kings of Shang Shung up to the last king and then the Tibetan kingdom there were two main kingdoms. Others were more like tribes, some were stronger, others were weaker but in most parts of Tibet it was that way in that period.

BB: The Bon religion practiced today seems very similar to Buddhism. Was the Bon religion like this in the past?

CNN: For me, ancient Bon was very different. Today, for example, all Bonpos are very similar to Buddhists and there is no difference between Bonpo and Buddhist. But in the real sense we say Bon and Bende. Then there are a lot of discussions and we never consider that Bon and Bende are the same thing. But today Bonpo are considered to be Buddhist. It is not the same as ancient Bonpo. For example, in ancient Bonpo there was no development of the Vinaya style such as monks, like today. But, for example, in ancient lineages like the Shang Shung Nyengyud and Shang Shung Meri which are very ancient lineages, there are no monks. But there were monks later when Bon was reformed.

BB: What was the effect on Bon of the introduction of Buddhism into Tibet?

CNN: When Guru Padmasambhava arrived in Tibet, Tibetans were practitioners of Bon. They had a very strong Bon attitude and for that reason Shantarakshita had not succeeded in teaching them Buddhism and had gone back to Nepal. Then they invited Guru Padmasambhava. When he arrived, he started to teach Vajrayana mainly explaining about the real condition of the elements and also about our energy level. Then many Bonpo became interested because ancient Bonpo is based on the principle of the five elements. However, the way that the five elements are considered in ancient Bon and the modern and Buddhism is not the same and so at the time of Guru Padmasambhava it was difficult to spread the Vajrayana teaching. For that reason, Guru Padmasambhava did not destroy or eliminate many of the Bon rituals and attitudes but transformed them into Vajrayana style. But he kept the way of seeing as it was. That is why, I think, most Westerners call Tibetan Buddhism 'Lamaism'. Tibetans don't like this name very much but there is a reason for it because the characteristics of Tibetan Buddhism compared to the characteristics of Mahayana and Hinayana Buddhism practiced in south Asia and in Japan, are very different.

BB: What do you consider to be the origin of the culture and language of Shang Shung?

CNN: Originally, in ancient Tibetan history, in the Bonpo tradition, they say that everything originates from the egg of existence. Then from this egg comes ‘lha’, ‘lu’, ‘nyen’. That means ‘dewa’, ‘naga’ and ‘nyen’ beings of the ‘masang’ (class of beings). So then from the ‘nyen’ beings spread many different types of human beings. And among them they say that originally there were ‘miu dung drug’. There were six brothers from the same origin.
Then also in the history of Lang kyi poti seru it says that there was one egg and from it came forth six brothers. From these six brothers arose six kinds of tribes one of which was called Khyung or dra (sbra). That is the generation of Shang Shung. The others were in central Tibet and in east Tibet. But then different kinds of tribes developed each with their own language and their own attitude. That is why the Shang Shung language and the language of central Tibet is not the same.

CNN: Officially we say that Tibetan writing was invented by Thonmi Sambhota. It is official because Srongtsen Gampo said that Tibetans needed their own writing and language and went to India to learn Sanskrit and then invented Tibetan writing. So Tibetans consider that to be the source of written Tibetan.

But in the real sense some history records including Buddhist history say that a kind of writing was used before the time of Srongtsen Gampo and that it originated in Shang Shung. Historically Shang Shung writing was invented by Tonpa Shenrab who was the founder of the Bon tradition and also the first historical king of Shang Shung. That refers back to a very ancient time. They invented a form of writing that we call 'mar' (smar) which, in the Shang Shung language, means 'dewa', so the ‘writing of the dewa’ (gods). And Tibetans continued to use that language until the new writing was developed at the time of Srongtsen Gampo.

Today, for example, we have two different kinds of Tibetan writing: one is cursive writing and the other is 'uchen' which we use for block printing. But the origin of 'ume' or cursive writing is, I believe, from Shang Shung, and did not originate from the writing that was invented by Thonmi Sambhota. Why? Because the way of writing is different.

For example, when we use Tibetan 'uchen', we always write from left to right: first there is a kind of head, then we develop the written letters. But when we are writing 'ume' or cursive writing, it is the opposite - we write from right to left. That is already different and is easier and much quicker to write. This is called cursive. But when we write from left to right, we have to write, then stop, so even if you can write quickly, it is never as fast as cursive writing. So I think these two sources are very different.

BB: What is your opinion of the popular western idea of a Shangri-La?

CNN: We have an explanation of Shambhala, an explanation of Oddiyana—all these ancient places. We have very nice explanations and they are considered to be very important and for that reason today a lot of people think that Oddiyana and Shambhala are something like paradise. So for that reason maybe they invented something like Shangrila as a wonderful dimension. I think that is possible.

BB: Since the Bon religion of Shang Shung is older than Buddhism can it be possible that the Buddhist concept of Shambhala is inspired by the Bon concept of Olmolungring?

CNN: I don't know which concept is more ancient but Olmolungri was originally considered to be the place where Tonpa Shenrab taught and many things developed there in that period. That place was called Olmolung or Olmolungri. But later it developed a concept of something like Shambhala.

BB: I learned recently that in the Bon Gompa Gurugem, located at the gateway of the Sutlej Canyon, a Shang Shung statue was discovered which is quite similar to ancient Indian statues from Latin America. Is it possible that Shang Shung was not only the source of Tibetan culture as you wrote in one of your books, but also the source of ancient Indian cultures?

CNN: Some years ago there was an article in the Peking People's Journal saying that some Chinese researchers had gone to an area near Kailash, they didn't say Khyung Lung, and in some places they found Shang Shung writing on rocks. I didn't see any photographs, only the article. Maybe they actually found something like that.

When we were traveling in the direction of Khyung Lung, at one place we stopped to eat, drink and rest a little, there was a rock nearby and I went over and saw many figures and some writing on the rock that were very ancient. It looked like something I saw before which was the writing of the Aboriginal people on rocks in Australia. So there may be a possibility to find other writing and even objects there.

BB: Which sources did you use in your own research? Did you find any Bonpo texts which included historical data on Shang Shung or something about the ancient form of Bon practiced at the time of Shang Shung?

CNN: I couldn't find very much in the official Bonpo books, such as their history books. But when I was doing research I found many things in the Bonpo rituals. For example, the Bonpo still use many of their ancient rites and there is a part of every rite called ‘mang’ (smrang) in which they explain a kind of short history. These historical explanations are very useful for understanding how ancient Bonpo really was.

A question from the audience: How can we approach the study of Tibetan history in the future?

CNN: We should be more aware of how the real situation is, not only going after ‘official’ histories, because official books and histories change according to the situation so we cannot put much faith in them. But we should look at the concrete situation and try to do research. I think that is very important.

When I was working at the university, at the beginning, when I spoke about Shang Shung, many people laughed. They said that it was only a kind of legend, that it didn't exist. That is an example because it has been officially documented that way. But then when we are a little aware and we do some research, then we can discover many things. That way in the future I hope very much that Tibetans and particularly Westerners, scholars, people who are doing research, will try to find something more concrete and develop this kind of research. I think that that is very important.

July 17, 2005

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