Origins of Tibetan culture

Chögyal Namkhai Norbu
The Origins of Tibetan Culture and Thought

(From a lecture given at the Centre Civic Elizalde, Barcelona, Spain on June 14,1987
Edited by Oriol Aguilar and the editorial staff of the Merigar magazine, Shang Shung Edizioni, 1994)

[...] Generally, Buddhism is placed at the beginning of Tibetan history and thought. From a strictly historical standpoint, it is said to have originated at the time of the Tibetan monarchy and its most famous king, Songtsen Gampo, who lived in the seventh century A.D. - not very long ago. However, there are documents attesting to the fact that this king occupied the thirty-second place in the dynastic succession, or the thirtieth, in some Buddhist annals. Even on this point there is disagreement, but there is no doubt that Songster Gampo was not the first king and that there were at least thirty other monarchs before him.

Tibetan history before his reign is not very clear, because the Tibetans themselves have somewhat neglected their own ancient history. This neglect is closely linked to the spread of Buddhism in Tibet which has been very important for a deeper knowledge of human nature. But, it would be arbitrary and unjustified to believe that before the advent of Buddhism, Tibet had no history or culture of its own. Historical and religious facts are two separate things. While no one would say that historians should ignore the religious or spiritual aspect, nor pay it too much attention, in fact this is precisely what regularly happens.

The spiritual or religious aspect of a culture is certainly of value, but some historians stress it to the exclusion of all other historical concerns. Buddhism certainly originated in India, and the Tibetans who attribute so much importance to Buddhism consider anything coming from India of great value, while assigning very little value to whatever is native to Tibet and not related to Buddhism or India. It is this mentality, which has endured for centuries, that has caused the disappearance of the real history of Tibet.

Before the spread of Buddhism, in Tibet there was a very ancient religion called Bon. According to some historians, Nyatri Tsempo, the first king of Tibet, was a contemporary of the Buddha Shakyamuni, while according to others he lived at a later time. But whatever the truth, this takes us back to very remote times. In any case, the Bon religion is very much older than the monarchy itself. Bon existed before there was a Kingdom of Tibet, which we know was known by a different name and had a different geographical extension from present-day Tibet. And it was the priestly caste of the Bon religion which recognized and crowned the first king of Tibet.

Preceding the Yarlung dynasty in Tibet, there was a kingdom called Shang Shung. We know of eighteen of its kings, but between the last of these and the first king of Tibet there is a long gap. Actually, we do not know the names of many of the kings of Shang Shung nor do we know anything of what they did, but we do know for certain that Bon was the official religion of the kingdom. The entire territory of present-day Tibet belonged to that kingdom, and its capital was located in the area of Mount Kailash. In the 1986 a German expedition reached the sacred area around Mount Kailash and filmed a documentary of the ruins of buildings and fortresses from the kingdom of Shang Shung. This film was broadcast by some European television networks.

What we know of the history of Tibet refers principally to central Tibet. Even contemporary studies tend to focus on this area and neglect to investigate the area where the kingdom of Shang Shung was located. This area is practically unknown and unexplored, and so almost no one knows anything about this kingdom. Interested students could find some information in the books about the Bon tradition. The kingdom of Shang Shung not only is a historical reality, but it is from there that Tibetan culture originated. That is why it is so important to study its history, and it is through the history of Bon that we can learn the history of the kingdom of Shang Shung. Which came first, the religion or the kingdom? In answer to that question, there are many clues pointing to Bon as having come first.

The Bon of the Swastika

In Tibetan, 'bon' means 'to recite mantras or prayers' or some sort of prescribed formula, and at that time, anything having to do with religion or the practice of magic was fixed in formulas to recite. Bon was a short name that indicated all these practices and did not refer to a religion as such, but rather a wider concept. While we do know that the kingdom of Shang Shung possessed religious beliefs expressed in precise verbal formulas, we do not know when they originated nor who was responsible for giving them the form they eventually look. These are complex and difficult questions.
The best known aspect or Bon is the so-called 'Bon of the swastika'. The swastika is an ancient symbol found not only in Tibet and Shang Shung, but in other places and cultures as well.

Generally, when we find this symbol in two different cultures we try to establish which of the two culture influenced the other, but, in effect, it is not easy to apply this criterion to events so far removed in time. The expression of a principle of knowledge can manifest in several different places not necessarily connected by a specific link. The swastika is also an ancient Greek motif found in vase paintings, for example. I myself saw it inscribed on archeological artifacts in the museum at Paestum, Italy. But it would be hard to make a case for saying that Greek culture, or the culture of the Magna Grecia which grew from it, was in some way related lo the culture of Shang Shung or vice versa. On the other hand, that would not be the only influence possible, since I also saw a swastika drawn on the handle of a round water container in a museum in Norway. So we cannot say that this symbol belongs uniquely to the culture or just one country or geographical area. With reference to Indian culture, it is said that the swastika derives from the symbol for the letter 'a' of the ancient Pali alphabet. The same could be said for Shang Shung, since the backwards swastika closely resembles the letter 'a' of its ancient alphabet. Therefore it is not easy to claim that certain things belong to one specific culture only.

In the ancient tradition of the Bon religion, the swastika is a symbol of immortality, while in modern day Bon it has the same meaning as the Tantric 'Vajra'. In fact, the swastika symbolizes a concentration of energy, and as the Bon texts include many explanations this principle, this tradition is called the 'Bon of the swastika'.

Shenrab Miwo and the Ancient Principles of Energy

The Bon of the swastika began with a historical figure called Shenrab Miwo. 'Miwo' means 'the great one' (literally, 'great man'). This master, who lived near Mount Kailash, taught and disseminated Bon of the swastika in that region which is why, in the Bon texts, Kailash is considered to be the cradle of the culture of Shang Shung. In the literature of Bon there are no precise references to dates earlier that Shenrab. In the same way as regards Christ in the Christian scriptures, Bon sources provide a genealogy for Shenrab going back seven generations and contain some details about his family. From an examination of the texts, we see how the name Bon was already used by earlier generations. The famous king of Shang Shung called Triwer, tri meaning 'divine', and wer meaning 'power', was a contemporary of Shenrab Miwo. And so 'Divine Power' way the king's name in the language of Shang Shung. That name, indicating the divine origin of the person who bore it, was the name of the kingdom's first ruler. Bon texts attest that Triwer lived one thousand years before the Buddha, in very ancient times. Shenrab Miwo introduced many changes to the religious tradition and in particular to the sacrificial rites by replacing animal victims with symbols, and by modifying earlier cultural ceremonies, he created the Bon religion. This body of doctrines occupies an important place in the 'Bon of the Mind' teachings (sems bon) which explain the nature of the mind and contain within them the origins of Tibetan philosophy and thought.

The differences between Bon and Buddhism are particularly evident regarding how each considers the nature of energy; in this sense, Bon is the more realistic since for Bon the relative condition is not unimportant. Bon does not advocate learning the concept or idea of the unreality of all phenomena, bill rather discovering how things work. For example, if there is a problem, there must be a negative cause behind it. Since it does not consider the causes themselves to be illusory, Bon provides a framework with many ways to identify them. The causes are considered to belong to the relative phenomena, but not as mere fantasy. Someone who is afraid of ghosts or other frightening things can overcome the problem by realizing their unreality, that is, their quality of emptiness (sunyata). Following this method, the problem can certainly be overcome, but an idea is not enough. For instance, a hungry person might believe that instead of eating he can meditate on the unreality of food, or of hunger itself, but this will not eliminate his hunger which is a concrete fact. In order for a knowledge of the unreality of phenomena to function, we need to have a specific realization which can be achieved by working at various types of practices.

But Bon is different: if we are afraid of an evil spirit, and although we certainly are aware of the immateriality of spirits, we also know that this does not mean they do not exist. Whether or not a spirit can hurt me depends not only on him, but also on me. First of all, it will depend on how well my energy is balanced since excessive fear of ghosts indicates an imbalance in my energies. The very fact of being afraid constitutes a cause in favor of negativity being able to reach us, and by realizing that things do not depend only on external factors, or spirits, but above all on ourselves, we have a stronger base from which to start improving the condition of our energy. If the condition of my energy is excellent, no spirit however powerful will be able to do anything against me. So, from the standpoint of Bon, a person who is going through a bad period, full of negativity, should try to see whether he is receiving any provocations to his energy or pressure from negative forces.

Understood in this way, a provocation of one's energies can be caused by spirits or individuals that alter the balance of our energy, or something similar. Whoever has an energy imbalance due to a provocation will need to find out what is causing it in order to avert the consequences. From this standpoint, many aspects of energy affect us directly since we have in us the same manifestations of the energy of the five elements as exist externally, in the outside world. Consequently, an external disturbance of the balance of the elements affects us. It can provoke us, and if our protective energy shield is not aggressive enough, it makes us passive and receptive to all types of negativity.

An excellent example of this are those periods when everything seems to go wrong, and when in spite of all our efforts, we cannot seem to accomplish anything positive. At times like this, if we are not careful, things can really get out of hand. At these times we are open to many types of provocations, so it is easy to get sick or have an accident. In these cases, we talk of bad luck, ill fortune or some such thing, but in reality the true cause is to be found in the disordered state of our own energies.

More on the Ancient Principles of Energy

Bon had fully explored these ideas and perfected many methods to reinforce and coordinate the energy in case of imbalance. It used different rituals which we might erroneously consider to be meaningless ceremonies or customs without knowing what their purpose was. But if we examine them, we can begin to understand their sense and the specific type of methods deriving from that vision. When a person is not well it might seem ridiculous to act on external objects and not on the person himself, but a closer look reveals that such a method takes into account the person's relationship with the world and its positive and negative aspects.

For Bon, a being born into the human dimension enters into a condition called ye and nam. Ye means 'principle', but it also means 'positive', while nam means 'negative' and signifies darkness. In certain cases, ye and nam are taken to mean light and dark respectively, something like yin and yang in the Chinese tradition. If we forego ideological preconceptions and are free of 'cultural imperialism', it is hard to say whether it was the culture of Shang Shung that influenced Chinese culture or vice versa.

Some Western scholars maintain that part of the Bon teachings derive from Indian Shivaism. This position is based on a prejudice whereby the culture of India is the oldest one and the most valuable. But to be fairer and more objective, we need to look at the origins of Shivaism which can in fact be traced to the area surrounding Mount Kailash. In actuality, documents regarding the origins of Shivaism often mention Kailash, Lake Manosarovar and the four rivers flowing out from it. The Ganges, for instance, whose waters are considered sacred, and where people take ritual baths for purification, originates in the area of Mount Kailash where the Indus and the Brahmaputra also begin. That entire area belonged to the territory of the Kingdom of Shang Shung (western Tibet), and not to India. When we treat historical and cultural matters, we ought to reflect more and abandon our prejudices. In this case, our knowledge of the kingdom of Shang Shung helps us to understand where the teachings regarding the principles of energy, and the particular Tibetan world view come from.

Some practices in Tantric Buddhism that make reference to divinities like the Garuda are in reality also found in the primordial tradition of Bon. Even today, when we cure certain illnesses using Tibetan medical procedures, we perform practices with the Garuda. Some original texts relating to the most ancient deities of Bon still exist, and although Tibetan culture is supposed to be derived from Indian Buddhism, its origins are actually indigenous to Tibet itself. Memory of this has been lost, not so much because the Bonpo texts were forbidden, or because the followers of Bon were persecuted by Tibetan Buddhists, but because with the spread of the new religion, Bon almost disappeared, and its followers understandably adopted many Buddhist ways. Today there are many followers of Bon, including some in India, where there are monasteries and monastic colleges of the Bon tradition, but it is hard to find anyone who truly understands the importance of this tradition for the origins of Tibetan culture.

In the course of my research, conducted over a period of many years, to establish the origins of the Bon culture, I found a great deal of information in Buddhist books, as well as in strictly Bon texts, although it is not easy to uncover the origins of Bon through the texts alone, since the Bonpo themselves have introduced many changes to their way of seeing. There are numerous modern historical and philosophical texts by Bonpo, but without a solid grounding in history and text analysis, it is very difficult to find there the concept of Bon. Every so often you can find works describing Bon rituals. These books, which are ignored by present-day practitioners of Bon, are actually the most interesting. Some rituals are still used by villagers to ward off sickness from men and the animals, or to obtain other benefits having to do with everyday life. These books are interesting, not only for learning how to practice the rituals, but also for studying the principles underlying them.

These Bon manuscripts are divided in the following way. First there is an explanation of the purpose of each ritual, then a full description of it, and finally a further explanation, the mang, which analyzes the relationship existing between the practitioner and the outside world. From a reading of these texts we can deduce the characteristics of Bon.

It is natural that a person who is primarily interested in spiritual realization would not be particularly interested in the history and culture of Bon, but from a historical and cultural point of view, these texts are very important because they show that without studying Bon we cannot really understand the value of Tibetan culture, which, together with its offshoots like the medical studies, are otherwise attributed to China or India, as I mentioned earlier. [...]

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