Kingdom of Zhang Zhung


Courtesy of John Hopkins
Courtesy of John Hopkins


According to tradition, Bon originated in the land of Olmo Lungring, located in a larger country known as Tazig. Ol symbolizes the unborn; Mo the undiminishing; Lung the prophetic words of Tonpa Shenrab, the founder of Bon; and Ring his everlasting compassion. Olmo Lungring constitutes one-third of the existing world and is situated to the west of Tibet. It is described as an eight-petalled lotus under a sky which appears as an eight-spoked wheel. In the center rises Mount gYung-Drung Gutseg, which symbolizes permanence, indestructibility, and the Nine Ways of Bon.

At the base of Mount gYung-Drung spring four rivers flowing towards the four cardinal directions. The mountain is surrounded by temples, cities, and parks. To the south lies the palace Barpo Sogye where Tonpo Shenrab was born. To the west and north are the palaces in which the wives and children of Tonpa Shenrab lived. The temple Shampo Lhatse is to the east. The complex of palaces,rivers, and parks with Mount gYung-Drung in the center constitutes the inner region of Olmo Lungring. The intermediate region consists of twelve cities, four of which are aligned with the cardinal directions. The third region includes what is known as the outer land. These three regions are encircled by an ocean and by a range of snowy mountains.

Access to Olmo Lungring is gained by the arrow way, which takes its name from an episode in the life of Tonpa Shenrab who, before visiting Tibet, is said to have shot an arrow to create a passage through a previously impenetrable mountain range.
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Until the 8th century Zhang Zhung was an empire or tribal confederation that controlled most of the Tibet-Qinghai plateau, exerting cultural, religious and political influence on cultures of the regions far beyond its frequently changing borders. It existed as a separate kingdom from Tibet, comprising the land to the west of the central Tibetan provinces of (dBus) and Tsang (gTsang) generally known as Western Tibet, extending over a vast area from Gilgit and Kashmir in the west, to the lake of Namtsho (gNam-mtsho) and into China in the east and from Khotan into the Tarim Basin of Mongolia and even to Southern Siberia in the north, and extending over the Himalayas to Mustang in the south.

The capital was called Khyunglung Ngulkhar (Khyung-lung dngul-mkhar), the ‘Silver Palace of Garuda Valley’, the ruins of which lie in the upper Sutlej valley south-west of Mount Kailash. Its people spoke a language classified among the Tibeto-Burmese group of Sino-Tibetan languages.

Zhang Zhung was ruled by a dynasty of kings. According to traditional Bönpo sources, Yundrung Bön was brought to Zhang Zhung from Tagzig by Tonpa Shenrab himself at the time of the reign of the first king Triwer Lhaje Gulang Sergyi Gyaruchen, the Holder of the Golden Khyung (Garuda) Horned Crown. Those who practiced the belief system preceding Yungdrung Bön, prehistoric Domai Bön, were gradually converted, and Yungdrung Bön took root.

Over time, all levels of Sutra, Tantra and Dzogchen belonging to Yungdrung Bön, known in Zhang Zhung by its original name of Drungmu Gyer, were transmitted and practiced in Zhang Zhung, spreading out from there in all directions. Due to its geographical proximity to the great cultural centers of central Asia such as Gilgit and Khotan, it was through Zhang Zhung that many religious concepts and ideas such as Yungdrung Bön reached Tibet.[1]

Yundrung Bön came to the fledgling Tibetan state from Zhang Zhung at its very inception, at the time of the first Tibetan king Nyatri Tsenpo, and became the foundation upon which the Tibetan empire was built. It penetrated deeply into all aspects of Tibetan religious and secular life.[2]

The Zhang Zhung dynasty of kings lasted until the 8th century A.D. when the last king, Ligmincha (Lig-min-skya) was assassinated by order of the king of Tibet, Trisong Detsen, and Zhang Zhung militarily annexed by Tibet. Since that time Zhang Zhung has become gradually Tibetanized and its language, culture and many of its beliefs have been integrated into the general frame of Tibetan culture.

[1] From Yongdzin Lopon Tenzin Namdak, Masters of the Zhang Zhung Nyengyud. Pp. 16-17

[2] Yongdzin Lopon Tenzin Namdak, ibid, p. 17.