Tibet Archaeology

and all things Tibetan

Flight of the Kyung

July 2017

John Vincent Bellezza

Welcome to another Flight of the Khyung as we zoom to the top of the cosmic mountain! We begin this issue with the wild yak, the quintessential animal of Tibet. This article is dedicated to yet another kind of wild yak rock art, one with a mysterious flourish. This month’s main article examines the cosmic mountain and the origins of grain, reaching far and wide into the early history of Tibet. Having been so busy working on archaeological projects in recent months, I could not focus on the study of Tibetan texts, so I decided to devote most of this newsletter to them. The work is quite technical but even for those who might not want to delve too deeply into the subject, a look at the photos could prove enjoyable. I should add that the features promised at the end of last month’s newsletter will appear soon.

Photo above: Mount Targo


Return of the Wild Yak: Another type of bovid composition in the rock art of Upper Tibet

Over the last year, two articles on wild yak rock art in Upper Tibet have appeared in Flight of the Khyung. This is an addendum to those works. It concerns two wild yak petroglyphs exhibiting an unusual linear motif. These petroglyphs are located at different sites in northwestern Tibet. As regular readers will know, that corner of Tibet (known as Ruthok) is extremely rich in rock art, probably harboring the greatest concentration of petroglyphic sites on the Tibetan Plateau, western fringe regions (Spiti, Ladakh and Baltistan) notwithstanding.

Fig. 1. A wild yak with a line extending from the tip of its snout. This ostensible band or channel arches below the wild yak to nearly reconnect with its rear legs. Far Western Tibet. Iron Age.

Fig. 2. A wild yak with line extending from the tip of its snout. In this example, the ostensible band or channel runs diagonally below the wild yak to the left edge of the boulder upon which it was carved. The line terminates in a much shorter one that runs perpendicular. Far Western Tibet. Iron Age.

The identity of the line linking the wild yaks in the two images above is unknown. In fig. 1, the line does not seem to connect to anything else. It might be speculated that it represents the ground but explicit depictions of the terrain are rare in the rock art of the Tibetan Plateau. Also, such an identification does not well suit the pictorial evidence in fig. 2. In that composition, the line runs well below the wild yak and joins another line or figure on the edge of the boulder. The lines running from the anterior-most portion of the heads of the wild yaks suggest a connection of some kind. A more convincing hypothesis is that these lines may be symbolic conduits or tethers. Perhaps these linear motifs were used in a ritualistic fashion, to attract wild yaks to hunters or as a sign of a magical bond between animal and carver with any manner of potential functions (curative, power-acquiring, good fortune bestowal, etc.).

A line connecting what seems to be a wild yak to an equid and lines linking other wild ungulates in the same scene are found in another composition in northwestern Tibet (see September 2016 Flight of the Khyung, figs. 111, 113). With its riders and mascoids (anthropomorphic visages in emblematic form), this scene embodies semantic structures that appear to be cultic and/or mythic in nature. Here the lines convey reciprocal or serial relationships between the various wild ungulates, in which mascoids participate or oversee. The use of lines to join sundry subjects in complex rock art scenes is much more common in Spiti (see September 2015 Flight of the Khyung, fig. 10.6). Although Upper Tibet and Spiti share many motifs, subjects and compositions in common, which is indicative of robust cultural affinities, it is not clear how much overlap there may have been in the meaning and function of interconnecting linear motifs.


Gift of the Gods: The cosmic mountain and the introduction of agriculture according to Old Tibetan and Yungdrung Bon sources


An account of the origins of grain cultivation has been preserved in the Mdo ’dus,* a biographical text for the founder of the Yungdrung (G.yung-drung) Bon religion, Ston-pa gshen-rab.† The Mdo ’dus, the shortest and perhaps the earliest of the three major biographies cum hagiographies for Gshen-rab, can be assigned to the late 10th or 11th century CE.‡ This text recounts the source of grain beginning with a mythic super food and culminating in the cultivation of ordinary barley, a process that unfolded over a span of one hundred thousand years. According to the etiologic myth, as the virtues of human beings declined over time, the source of their sustenance became less and less miraculous.

I have relied upon a printed copy of the Mdo ’dus used in the educational curriculum of Sman-ri monastery in India: Mdo ’dus dang g.yung drung las rnam par dag pa’i rgyud kyi gsung pod bzhugs. Solan: Bon Dialectic School (G.yung-drung bon gyi bshad-sgrub ’dus-sde), 2013. This work was kindly brought to my attention by Nagru Geshe Gelek Jinpa, who also helped clarify certain questions concerning its contents. Gurung (2011) lists three versions of the Mdo ’dus. Gurung’s work is concerned primarily with genealogical lore about Ston-pa gshen-rab recorded in the text.

For earlier accounts of Gshen-rab (myi-bo) in Old Tibetan manuscripts (Dunhuang and Gathang Bumpa collections), a figure who appears in these sources as an archetypal priest, not a Buddha, see Stein 2010; 2003; 1971; Bellezza 2008; 2010; 2013.

On the dating and literary development of the Mdo ’dus, see Blezer 2010. The Mdo ’dus is classed as a treasure (gter-ma) and is supposed to have been originally written in the Zhang Zhung language (Karmay 1998: 109, 110). It is said that this text was originally proclaimed by Gshen-rab atop the cosmic mountain, Ri-rab lhun-po (Martin 1995: 52).

The historical pedigree of the Mdo ’dus account of the origins of grain is unclear, as such information is hardly ever recorded in Tibetan mythological materials. The inclusion of passages referring to ideas about rebirth, karmic propensity and all-encompassing compassion bears the mark of powerful Buddhist influence, as can be seen throughout the Mdo ’dus. Thus, the text is very much a product of its time, corresponding to the emergence of Yungdrung Bon as a Lamaist religion on par with Tibetan Buddhism. Nevertheless, the Mdo ’dus myth contains cultural materials that can be traced to archaic religious traditions stemming from Tibet’s Imperial period (ca. 650–850 CE) and beyond. More on the dating of the Mdo ’dus myth in the discussions below.

The cosmic mountain

The Mdo ’dus tale of the development of agriculture from primal beginnings to the cultivation of ordinary grain incorporates mythic motifs of a cosmological nature, which are older than the thousand-year-old text. Most prominent among these is the grand mountain at the center of the universe known as Ri-rab lhun-po (Miraculously Self-Formed Excellent Mountain), the equivalent of Mount Meru/Sumeru of Indian mythology. Variously called Ri-rgyal lhun-po, Ri-bo mchog-rab, Ri-rgyal-po ri-rab, etc., Ri-rab lhun-po is commonly conceived of in the Tibetan tradition as the axis mundi of the cosmos, whose summit is directly in line with the pole star and around which circle the sun, moon, planets, and stars. The continents, rivers and realms of living beings that flank Ri-rab lhun-po have a quadpartite arrangement. This description of the cosmic mountain can be traced back to the famous Indian cosmological text Abhidharmakośa, written by Vasubandhu in the 4th or 5th century CE.*

On Mount Meru in the Abhidharmakośa, see La Vallée Poussin 1923–1931, pp. 393, 452–455, 460, 462, 463, 467–469, 477, 478. Also see Francke 1926, p. 68. On the author and doctrinal and historical context of the Abhidharmakośa, see Anacker 2005. On the history, mythology and symbolism of Mount Meru also see Mabbett 1983.

Fig. 1. Thang-ka painting featuring Ri-rab lhun-po. Rubin Museum of Art collection. Nineteenth century. Photo credit: Himalayan Art Resources: http://www.himalayanart.org/items/1038. On the summit of the Ri-rab lhun-po is the palace of the god Indra. Above the summit rises the heavenly realm of the thirty-three gods. Ri-rab lhun-po is flanked by the four continents which are encircled by subsidiary mountain ranges. A multitude of offerings are arrayed at the base of the jeweled cosmic mountain.

Towering Ri-rab lhun-po, at the very center of the universe, is the cosmological nexus of numerous Tibetan mythological and ritual traditions. This cosmic mountain is deeply embedded in both literary and folk traditions, the product of many centuries of cultural development. This is reflecting in numerous Tibetan songs, poems, folktales, and in the Ge-sar epic, which employ Ri-rab lhun-po as a motif and device in descriptions, similes and metaphors.*

Ri-rgyal features in a folksong sung in a festival for renewal and prosperity in the village of Poo, Kinnaur. In this hymn, the warrior spirits (dgra-lha/dgra-bla) and the earth goddess (dog-mo) play a central role. The lyrics are fundamentally non-Buddhist in character, although Lamaist content was added to nominally bring the song under the auspices of Buddhism. At the end of the song, the four sides of Ri-rgyal are invoked along with various animals, birds, trees, and plants in a prayer requesting their undiminished bounty as well as good weather and auspicious astronomical events. For the text of the song, translation and analysis, see Tucci 1966, pp. 61–112.

The earliest Tibetan literary references to Ri-rab lhun-po date to the Imperial period (ca. mid-7th to mid-9th century CE) and post-Imperial period (ca. 850–1000 CE). This era in Tibet was characterized by the wholesale appropriation and adaptation of Indic cultural materials, facilitated through the dissemination of Buddhism. A reference to Ri-rab lhun-po is found in a Dunhuang manuscript (Pt 16) containing prayers for the dedication of De-ga g.yu-tshal monastery. It occurs in a passage in which the 41st king (btsan-po) of Tibet, Khri ral-pa-can (reigned 815–841 CE) is likened to the cosmic mountain (Walter 2009: 272 [fn. 31], 274 [fn. 36]). Although this manuscript may have been written in the post-Imperial period, it contains materials dating to the late Imperial period. Another reference to Rĭ-rab lhun-po is in Dunhuang manuscript Pt 239, which dates to the Imperial period or somewhat later. In this funerary manuscript the cosmic mountain is identified with the Buddhist Ālaka paradise of Vajrapāni.* A third Dunhuang text composed in the post-Imperial period refers to Ri-rab as the site of the palace of the Buddhist wealth deity ‘Phags-pa rnam-thos-sras.† Finally, the form of the dagger (phur-ba) is identified with Ri-rab lhun-po in Pt 44, a post-Imperial ritual text for the god Vajrakīlaya (Cantwell and Mayer 2013: 39).

For a discussion of this paradise, see Cuevas 2003, pp. 33–37; Macdonald 1971, pp. 373–376.
Lns. 14-4–15-2: byang phyogs na rĭ rab lhun po zhes bya ba / / rĭ ‘i rgyal po rIn po che sna bzhĭ las grub pa zhIg yod de / / de ‘ĭ steng na chos bzang lha ‘ĭ ‘dun sa na / / lha ‘ĭ dpang po brgya’ byĭn dang / / (“On top of that one called Rĭ rab lhun-po of the north, the precious king of the mountains formed of four parts (continents), among the assembly of the gods of the good Dharma, is the divine Dpang-po (= Dbang-po) Brgya’-byin (Indra).”). That Indra shares the summit of Rĭ-rab lhun-po with Vajrapāni (Bcom-ltan (= Bcom-ldan) ‘das dpal phyag-na) is confirmed in lns. 15-4, 16-1 of Pt 239. For a transliteration of this text, see the website Old Tibetan Documents Online:

See Richardson 1998, pp. 191, 192. Titled Pt 131, this text contains a prayer for ’Od-srung (son of the last king of Tibet, Glang dar-ma) and his mother (ibid. 191–193).

In addition to references to Ri-rab lhun-po in the Dunhuang manuscripts set within the field of Buddhist practice and thought, three other examples have come to my attention that belong non-Buddhist or archaic religious traditions. These are found in Pt 1286, Pt 1052 and ITJ 501, texts exhibiting Old Tibetan grammatical features. Although the age of these manuscripts has not been precisely determined, they are best attributed to Imperial period or perhaps somewhat later. In Pt 1286, Rĭ-rab lhun-po features in an abbreviated theogony of the Tibetan kings as one of the places in which the divine forebears resided.* This passage establishes the cosmic mountain as a residence of royal ancestral figures descended from the divine patriarch Yab-lha bdag-drug. A second non-Buddhist reference in the Dunhuang manuscripts to Ri-rab lhun-po is in a divination text, Pt 1052. It occurs in the enunciation of a positive outcome in divination (mo) made perhaps for the dead. In Pt 1052, the untoppled (myi-rnyil) peak of Ri-rabs (sic) is paired with the undried (myi-skams) depths of the ocean (rgya-mtsho).† Ri-rab is also mentioned in ITJ 501, a manuscript of comparable age to Pt 1286 and Pt 1052. This work is dedicated to distinctions, ensigns and insignia awarded to various rungs of Tibetan society in the Imperial period. Among the emblems or seals (phyag-rgya) of the voice, will or expression (mgur) of the Tibetan king (known by the epithet ‘son of the gods’ [lha-sras]), is the symbol of his body: Ri-rab.‡

See lns. 30–34. Cognate lore is recorded in the Yungdrung Bon text bsGrags pa gling grags, where the three elder sons of Yab-lha bdag-drug (equated with the Indian god Indra in the text) went to reside in a heaven above Ri-rab lhun-po. See Bellezza 2008, pp. 272–276. The bsGrags pa gling grags was composed in the 11th century CE but it is traditionally attributed to Dran-pa nam-mkha’ (8th century CE). The existence of theogonic lore in this text paralleling that of Pt 1286 indicates that it does indeed contain materials dating to or a little after the Imperial period. In the Yungdrung Bon cosmological text Srid pa’i mdzod phug, the paradise called Dga’-yul (Joyous Land) sits directly above Ri-rgyal (Bellezza 2008: 478). In this text Dga’-yul is the dwelling place of Indra, who is equated with the Tibetan deity Yab-bla bdal-drug (sic; ibid.). In Old Tibetan texts dedicated to archaic funerary traditions, Dga’-yul is the ancestral otherworld.

Lns. 64, 65: rgya mtsho ni dgings (= gting) myi (C.T. = mi) skams / ri rabs ni rtse myi rnyil (C.T. = mi-snyil) /. For a transliteration of this text, see the website Old Tibetan Documents Online: http://otdo.aa.tufs.ac.jp/. On the Ri-rab lhun-po symbol in a divination tradition using a series of illustrated cards, see Stein 1939; also see Norbu 1995, p. 28.

For the text, see Stein 2010, p. 111, lns. 13, 14: lha sras mgur gi phyag rgya // sku ni ri rab / zal (C.T. = zhal) ni gnyi (C.T. = nyi) zla // thugs ni rgya mtsho // rtags ni rgyal mtshan // bka’ ni g.yung drung // yon tan rin po che… The other five seals of the King’s expression are the sun and moon for the face, ocean for the heart, victory banner for the standard, swastika for the commands, and jewel for the good qualities (cf. ibid., p. 7 [n. 13]). For an examination of the contents of this text more broadly, see ibid. pp. 97–111.

I have also located two non-Buddhist references to Ri-rab lhun-po in Old Tibetan literature of the Gathang Bumpa collection, which can be assigned to the post-Imperial period (ca. 850–1000 CE). One of these references to Rĭ-rabs lhun-ba (sic) is found in a funerary ritual manuscript, Sha ru shul ston rabs.* Another reference is located in a text furnishing the origins of beer and gold used in libation offerings (gser-skyems kyi rabs). In this text beer and gold are said to be more wonderful even than Ri-rab.†

See text in Pa-tshab pa-sangs dbang-’dus and Glang-ru nor-bu tshe-ring 2007, p. 67, no. 16, ln. 5: gsang (C.T. = bsang) cho ma cho rgu (C.T. = dgu nĭ // rĭ rabs lhun bas kyang che // (“In [a pile of] all types of incense as large as Rĭ-rabs lhun-ba…”). On the ritual context of this passage, see Bellezza 2013, pp. 198, 199. Comparing the quantity of offerings made to the size of Ri-rab lhun-po has continued in the Tibetan ritual tradition to the present day.

See text in ibid. p. 32, no. 45, ln. 1: chang dang gser du sbyar pas su / gnyi (C.T. = nyi) zla bas nĭ mdog yang gsal // ri rab bas ni lhun yang bstug / (“When beer and gold are combined their color is even brighter than the sun and moon. They are even more magnificent and beautiful than Ri-rab.”). See Bellezza 2010, p. 46 (n. 43); April 2011 Flight of the Khyung. Similar comparisons are still made in the Tibetan folk tradition.

Ri-rab lhun-po is cast differently in each of the nine passages from Dunhuang and Gathang Bumpa sources examined above. These passages can be summed up as follows:

Buddhist tradition

  1. In praise of the king in a document concerning the founding of a monastery.
  2. A paradise in a funerary text.
  3. A residence of deities in a prayer for the royal scion.
  4. As a description of the dagger in a ritual for a tutelary deity.

Non-Buddhist tradition

  1. A realm in which dwell ancestral deities of the Tibetan kings.
  2. A symbol of a positive prognosis in a divination ritual.
  3. An instrument of royal power in a text of military and political dispensation.
  4. A metaphor describing a vast quantity of incense in a funerary ritual.
  5. A device of lavish praise for beer in an origins myth.

In all nine settings enumerated above, Ri-rab lhun-po expresses superlative qualities, serving to exalt that to which it is applied. The peerless traits of the cosmic mountain were assigned to deities, luminaries and ritual offerings in a range of usages. This demonstrates that Ri-rab lhun-po was a culturally versatile symbol and theme, bridging both Buddhist and non-Buddhist traditions. The presence of Ri-rab lhun-po in sundry textual records of the Early Historic period (ca. 650–1000 CE) indicates that this mythic theme and symbol were well established in Tibet at that time. This acted as a historical prelude to the highly diverse and voluminous body of Classical Tibetan literature recognizing Ri-rab lhun-po, which developed from the late 10th century CE.*

As Ri-rab lhun-po occurs in Old Tibetan manuscripts containing non-Buddhist or archaic mytho-ritual traditions as discussed above, it can be concluded that it has little or nothing to do with Buddhism in Pt 1286. Stein (2010: 87) thought that Ri-rab lhun-po constituted a rare Buddhist expression in that manuscript.

In Classical Tibetan literature, Ri-rab lhun-po is a cultural paragon of great pervasiveness and fame.* Its origins are detailed in the celebrated Yungdrung Bon cosmological work, Srid pa’i mdzod phug. This text describes the genesis of the physical universe and the formation of the world mountain Ri-rgyal from the elements.† Similarly, in the cakravāla cosmology adopted by Tibetan Buddhism, the cosmogonic progression is based on the following chain of phenomena: wind, rain, a mass of water, the churning of this water by wind, a golden disc, the elements, and Ri-rab lhun-po (Jamgön Kongtrul Lodrö Taye 2003: 62–67). One of a number of Yungdrung Bon counterparts to this description of the formation of Ri-rab lhun-po is found in a funerary text entitled, ’Dur khung chen stong thun gyi smrang gi dbu slang, probably composed between the 11th and 13th centuries CE (Bellezza 2008: 348 [n. 431]). These Yungdrung Bon and Buddhist sources were probably inspired or derived from etiologic mythology (preserved as textual sources or as oral traditions) diffused in Tibet during the Early Historic period. Judging from its mythological content, a more archaic account of the creation of Ri-rab lhun-po graces the Klu ’bum khra bo, a mytho-ritual text first written down in the 10th or 11th centuries CE.‡ This myth concerns a pantheistic goddess known as Klu’i rgyal-mo srid-pa gtan la phab-pa (Queen of the Water Spirits Organizer of Existence), who fashioned the various parts of the universe, including beings, inanimate objects and cultural foundations, from the various parts of her body. According to this myth, Ri-rab lhun-po was engendered either from the light rays of her bones or the light rays of her body. As this cosmogonic myth may preserve mythic materials that predate the Early Historic period, it calls into question the historical origins of Ri-rab lhun-po in Tibet.

To briefly illustrate this point, I review some of the cosmic mountain’s many functions and associations in Classical Tibetan literature (uncited references are derived from my print publications). Ri-rab lhun-po is home to a variety of deities in Tibetan religious traditions. For example, it is a residence of the Buddhist horse-headed tutelary god (yi-dam) Rta-mgrin, as well as indigenous figures such as Gnam-phyi gung-rgyal, horned eagles (khyung), warrior spirits (sgra-bla), and an important class ancestral spirits known as phya. In a theogony of the Ldong, one of the four great clans of Tibet (rus-chen-bzhi), the divine ancestor, Lha-mu khri-khrig-ka, landed on Ri-rab lhun-po before coming down to earth. In the Yungdrung Bon tradition, archetypal priests like Snang-ba mdog-can and Legs-rgyal thang-po dwelt on Ri-rab lhun-po and the founder of the religion, Gshen-rab, is recorded as teaching there. In ritual literature, chief mountain gods such as Ti-se, Rta-rgo and Gnyan-chen thang-lha are often likened to Ri-rab lhun-po. The origins of critical ritual instruments like the drum and incense are traced to the cosmic mountain, a source of the good fortune energy known as g.yang. In an important class of Tibetan rituals known as mdos, the stepped platform used in the practice is considered a model of the cosmic mountain (Ri-rab gling-bzhi’i mdos; cf. Norbu 1995: 128; Snellgrove 1967: 91, 289). On the cosmology and practices surrounding the Ri-rab mdos, see Blondeau 2000, pp. 260–271. Mchod-rten, rten-mkhar and lha-khang and other architectural forms are also sometimes seen as microcosmic versions of Ri-rab lhun-po. On the association of Ri-rab lhun-po with the birth of a brotherhood of nine warrior gods, see Stein 1972, pp. 208, 209. On the origins of lustration (tshan) from the waters of Ri-rab lhun-po, see Norbu 1995, p. 115. On Ri-rab lhun-po as the central pole of the tent of the heavens, see Tucci 1949, p. 719.

For Ri-rab lhun-po in a creative sequence springing forth from the thought of the cosmogonic god Snang-ba ’od-ldan, a more figurative and moralistic account presented in a Yungdrung Bon text of the Berthold Laufer collection, see Martin 1994, pp. 72, 73.

On this myth and its historical and cultural implications, see Bellezza 2008, pp. 342–349.

How Yungdrung Bon and Tibetan Buddhism came to adopt the cosmic mountain mythology is unknown. In addition to its associations with Indian Buddhism, Mount Meru figures in Hindu and Jain mythology, possessing historical roots that long predate Tibet’s Imperial period. The mythic theme of a mountain at the center of the world linking the earth and sky and representing a paradise and source of living beings had wide currency in Asia and other parts of the world (Eliade 1972: 266–269). According to Eliade (ibid. 266), ancient ideas concerning the center of the world and cosmic axis of peoples in Central and North Asia were influenced by Mesopotamian traditions (transferred through Iran) and Indian traditions (transferred through Lamaism). Mabett (1983: 64, 65) holds that interactions between Babylon, the Seleucids and Mauryan India did indeed influence the development of Meru but cautions that the nature and trajectory of transferred cosmological lore remain unclear.*

On cross-cultural affinities, possible avenues of transference of cosmic mountain mythology and ideas concerning Mount Meru, also see Varma 1993; Kloetzli 1983, p. 43; Law 1932, pp. xvi-xviii.

Given the wide-ranging mythological links postulated by various scholars, it might be expected that concepts related to the comic mountain were known in Tibet before the Early Historic period.* Moreover, the appearance of Ri-rab lhun-po in the cultural composition of the Tibetan Plateau before the seventh century CE appears to be supported by linguistic evidence.† Seen as historical byproducts, well-rooted traditions surrounding Ri-rab lhun-po in the Imperial period seem to reflect an earlier origin for cosmic mountain mythology in Tibet.‡ If so, familiarity with Ri-rab lhun-po articulated in non-Buddhist texts of the Early Historic period is best understood as a continuation of earlier ideas circulating around Tibet. However, there is no direct evidence at our disposal to indicate that this was actually the case. The spread of cosmic mountain in Tibet, while seemingly of considerable antiquity, remains difficult to trace in the archaeological and literary records.

Kirkland maintains that Ri-rab lhun-po was introduced to Tibetan culture at an early date. Kirkland cites Hoffman (no bibliographic reference given) as suggesting that the concept came to Tibet from India via Zhang Zhung. See Kirkland 1983, p. 267 (n. 23).

The Zhang Zhung language equivalent of Ri-rab is Ri-rang/Rwi-rang, Ri-rab rgyal-po is glossed A-’dran rwang, and Ri-rgyal is Ri-rwang (Martin 2010: 206, 207, 244). There are also several place names in the Zhang Zhung language associated with Ri-rab lhun-po (ibid., passim). While this linguistic evidence cannot be used alone to adduce a pre-seventh century CE origin for the Tibetan tradition of the cosmic mountain, it does suggest that it sprung up as part of a trans-cultural dynamic extending beyond the bounds of the Tibetan Plateau. While tracing abstract aspects of culture in prehistory is difficult, many prominent material correlates have been shown to have a trans-cultural orientation (eg., barley, wheat and pea cultivation; chariot, mascoid, and ‘animal style’ rock art; funerary long-stones and golden masks; equestrian arts; bronze metallurgy, etc.). On wide-ranging archaeological interconnections encompassing Tibet, see various issues of Flight of the Khyung and the bibliographic information therein.

The most obvious source of mythological materials influencing the conceptual development of Ri-rab lhun-po is India. Mount Meru and Ri-rab lhun-po share many mythological motifs in common, most of which stem from Indian Buddhist inroads made in Tibet during and after the Imperial period. What ideas regarding the cosmic mountain these two territories separated by the Himalaya might have shared prior to the seventh century CE is unclear. One possible common mythological theme that may be of much antiquity is the G.yen-khams sum-bcu rtsa-gsum of Ri-rab lhun-po, the equivalent of the Trāyastriṁśas of Mount Meru, the thirty-three gods associated with the cosmic mountain. These celebrated groups of deities figure in a variety of Tibetan and Indian cosmological myths. In one Yungdrung Bon tradition, they are elemental spirits of the sky, earth and water. For an Indianized myth of these elemental spirits, see Ramble 1995, pp. 103, 104. Also, the thirty-three gods are equated with the auras (lha-ma-yin) of Indian tradition (Mimaki 2004: 99). In the Abhidharmakośa they are Buddhist gods (yakṣ as and vajrapāṇis) who live in pleasant surroundings. On the G.yen-khams sum-bcu rtsa-gsum, see Norbu 2009, pp. 82–85; Bellezza 2008, pp. 275 (n. 218), 379 (n. 69); on the Trāyastriṁśas, see La Vallée Poussin 1923–1931, pp. 463, 464. Fundamental differences in the character of the thirty-three deities suggest that they arose as different facets of the cosmic mountain mythos, the Tibetan variant seemingly more archaic and possibly derived from Indo-Iranian mythology. The motif of thirty-three gods inhabiting the three vertical planes of the cosmos is known in the Ṛgveda and in Avestan tradition (Keith 1925: 35, 40).

Fig. 2. Probable representation of the cosmic mountain on which two birds alight. Western Tibetan Plateau (?). Protohistoric period.

This copper alloy object of the primal metal (thog-lcags) class seems to demonstrate the existence of the cosmic mountain mythos in early Tibet. This extremely rare object belonged to the late Shang Nyima collection (Kathmandu). I photographed it nearly a decade ago. It features a cylindrical central form that tapers sharply inward at the top. The outer surface of the central element is lightly ribbed and completely closed on the upper end and fully open at the bottom. Two birds are perched two-thirds of the way up; they are depicted with folded wings, fairly long necks and pointed beaks. It is not clear what species they represent. While the central element appears to be that of the cosmic mountain, the two opposing birds may signify the male and female progenitors of existence. Male-female dyads are closely associated with non-Buddhist cosmogonies, including those based on mountains and lakes in Upper Tibet. This copper alloy object is a kind of ‘animal style art’ probably attributable to Western Tibet or Ladakh, and can be assigned to the Protohistoric period (100 BCE to 650 CE). The original function of the thog-lcags is unknown. It may possibly be a kind of figurine or emblem that was used in ritual activities.

Mdo ’dus translation

Having reviewed the cultural and historical significance of Ri-rab lhun-po, we return to the Mdo ’dus text and the origins of grain cultivation in Tibet. This myth is skillfully composed in lines with seven syllables each (with a few exceptions), maintaining a uniform recitation cadence throughout. The septasyllabic structure of the prose gives rise to a meter often seen in invocatory hymns for deities and other genres of more lyrical Tibetan literature.

The Mdo ’dus tale is a kind of universal myth, applicable to an understanding of grain cultivation worldwide, as seen through the prism of the Tibetan world and its places and personalities.* Although the Mdo ’dus myth has little relevance to an archaeological perspective on the introduction of barley in Tibet,† it reveals seminal concepts in Tibetan cosmology. It details not only how grain came to the world and Tibet but how its retarded development was associated with declining moral standards.‡ The subtext of a fall from grace is as vital to the religious function of the myth as is its treatment of the father of creation and the divine grain-giver. The descent of humanity from a paradisiacal existence to one fraught with hardship and suffering is of course a common mythic theme in world cultures.

In his highly informative article on the cultivation of barley and its cultural representations in Tibet, Laurent (2015: 88–93) furnishes three different versions of a Buddhist account of the origins of barley: Bka’ chems ka khol ma (eleventh century CE), Ma ṇi bka’ ’bum (twelfth or thirteenth century CE) and Rgyal rabs gsal ba’i me long (fourteenth century CE). In this myth the bodhisattva and patron deity of Tibet, Spyan-ras-gzigs, brought five types of ‘grain’ (’bru-sna lnga-bo: barley, hulled barley, wheat, peas and pulses/buckwheat) to Tibetans in the Yar-lung valley. Laurent (ibid., 92–95) brings attention to structural similarities between the pentad of grains noted in the three Buddhist texts and five grains connected to the myth of the father of farming in China, Emperor Shennong. The lists of grains are different in the Tibetan and Chinese myths, reflecting the disparate cultural and geographic conditions met with in each place (ibid.). Laurent maintains that Tibetans sent to China to study the classics or Chinese scholars brought to Tibet to work as scribes for official correspondence to the Tang court may have influenced the Tibetan adoption of a system of grain classification based on five types as well as other structural traits from the Chinese myth of the father of farming (ibid., 100). Be that as it may, potent Indian influence is indeed seen in the Rgyal rabs gsal ba’i me long, which attributes Ri-rab lhun-po as the geographical source of grain (ibid., pp. 91, 92). The Mdo ’dus also furnishes a syncretic model of divine intervention (indigenous and Indian Buddhist) in the personality of Khri-rgyal khug-pa. Moreover, Yungdrung Bon has an ennead of various kinds of grains (’bru-sna-dgu) grown on the Tibetan Plateau, an alternative taxonomic tradition cited in a circa early seventeenth century text, Sngon ’gro spyi rgyug nor bu’i ’phreng ba (Bellezza 2005: 386 [n. 165]). However, according to Yungdrung Bon understandings, the tradition of nine grains is of much greater age than the seventeenth century CE.

On the origins of grain cultivation in Tibet as determined through archaeological evidence, see, for example, d’Alpoim Guedes 2014; Laurent 2015; Bellezza 2015.

An early occurrence of this theme of a deteriorating humanity is found in the Dunhuang manuscript ITJ 734, which appears to date to the Imperial period. This Tibetan account affirms that morality declined after the salutary age of the non-separation of the gods and humans and will continue to decline in the future. See Bellezza 2008, pp. 222, 223; Thomas 1957, ch. 4.

Another mythologem represented in the Mdo ’dus tale is that of the divinity or ancestral hero who provides humanity with vital resources for life and the founding of civilization; these may include fire, the bow and arrow, grain, etc. As with the cosmic mountain, the divine benefactor and two other mythologems in the Mdo ’dus (magical food and the churning of the ocean) appear to be of considerable antiquity. These basic constructs of the myth represent ideas and symbols with much resonance in the Tibetan cultural world that were recycled in the Mdo ’dus a millennium ago.

The Mdo ’dus myth of the source of grain begins with the god or gods of profound mediation (bsam-gtan lha), a reference to the Bsam-gtan bcu-gnyis, which is part of the world of forms (gzugs-khams) and includes seventeen layers of deities above Ri-rab lhun-po.* This divine form engendered the primal gods of the four continents that carry the name: Shed (Strength).† Although of an effulgent appearance, in their new terrestrial home these gods consumed the essence of the earth (sa-zhag) for sustenance, causing them to lose their radiant bodies:

The gods of profound meditation descended upon the divine holy mountain Ri-rab. The lha perceived with his eyes. He saw the four pleasing continents of Ri-rab. [Thereafter,] Shad-can, Shad-bdag, Shad-bu, and Shad-la were born. They descended to the four pleasing continents and gardens. They consumed much nectar of the essence of the earth food. Their bodies became heavy and their resplendence also disappeared. The could not see their male hands [and arms] extended out nor drawn near.

The gods of the formless realm (rūpadhātu) as the ultimate ancestors of humans are also recorded in the Abhidharmakośa (La Vallée Poussin 1923–1931: 487).

These four gods are noted in a cosmogony found in the longest biography of Gshen-rab, Dri med gzi-brjid. In this account, it is the fourth god (more correctly named Shed-las skyes) who is the progenitor of the human race. See Bellezza 2005, p. 396.

bsam gtan lha gnas ri rab lha ru babs / lha’i spyan gyis gzigs pa yin / ri rab gling bzhi nyams dgar mthong / shed can shed bdag shed bu shed la skyes / gling bzhi tshal bzhi nyams rgar (C.T. = dgar) babs / bdud rtsi sa zhag ro myang (C.T. = mang) zos / phung po lci ste ’od kyang nub / skyes bu lag pa rkyang bskum mi mthong gyur / gling bzhi mun khrod lus pa…la /

To save the four Shed bothers from decent into utter darkness, a creator god with Buddha-like qualities named Khri-rgyal khug-pa appears on the scene.* He called upon the buddhas of the ten directions, those who have gone beyond to bliss (bde-gshegs), to commence the churning of the cosmic sea (probably of milk) to a yogurt-like consistency. In doing so using a wooden churn and rope of epic proportions, the light of the sun and moon were generated. The mythic theme of the churning of the ocean in Mdo ’dus is mirrored in the churning of the cosmic sea by the devas (gods) and asuras (demons) of Indian Epic and Puranic mythology. In the Indian version, however, the gods and demons work in concert to release the nectar of immortality. This Indian myth in various forms spread widely throughout East and Southeastern Asia in the first millennium CE. Moreover, myths exhibiting ambrosial features were known in other parts of Eurasia. The Mdo ’dus account goes on to describe the qualities of the sun and moon and their movement around Ri-rab lhun-po:

As the four continents were engulfed by the darkness of their bodies, the revered teacher (ston-pa) Khri-rgyal khug-pa appeared. Through the subduing power of his activities and great compassion, he called upon the ones who bring into balance everything in existence, the Buddhas of the ten directions, who with the churning wood of Ri-rab lhun-po and the churning rope of the eight great water spirits (klu) churned the ocean until it was like yogurt, from which appeared the sun, the essence of the fire crystal, and the moon, the essence of the water crystal. The sun and moon manifested as the lamp in space. The day and night, these two, became separated. The sun is fifty leagues (dpag-tshad) [across]. The moon is fifty leagues [across]. The sun has seven auspicious energies (rlung-rta). The moon has twelve auspicious energies. The sun and moon revolve around the middle of [Ri-rab] lhun-po. They delineate the [four directions], east, north, west, and south. When the sun is nearby, the moon is obscured by its shadow. On the last day of the lunar month (nam-stong) the sun and moon meet. The moon of skillful means [then] goes above the sun and the placement of the sun of wisdom is underneath. By the meeting of the rays of the sun and moon, the multitude of stars appeared.†

In the primary Yungdrung Bon cosmological text, Srid pa’i mdzod phug, and in the commentary by Dran-pa Nam-mkha’, Khri-rgyal khug-pa represents the principle of light and being (ye), as opposed to darkness and non-being (Norbu 1995: 165, 274 [n. 6]). In the Srid pa’i mdzod phug, the primeval father, Khri-rgyal khug-pa, sets in motion a wind that grows in intensity to form a wheel of light, which generates heat and moisture eventually leading to the formation of the universe (Karmay 1998: 127). On Khri-rgyal khug-pa as the creator god called Mngon-rdzogs (Perfected Reality) in another Yungdrung Bon cosmogony, see Bellezza 2008, p. 348 (fn. 431).

The size of the sun and moon, their revolving around the middle of Ri-rab lhun-po and stone-like qualities, as well as the interplay of the two are found in the Abhidharmakośa (La Vallée Poussin 1923–1931: 460, 461).

gling bzhi mun khrod lus pa la / ston pa khri rgyal khug pa byon / las dang thugs rjes ’dul dbang gis / srid pa yongs la cha bsnyams te / phyogs bcu’i bder gshegs kun bskul te / ri rab lhun po’i srub shing gis / klu chen brgyad kyi srub thag gis / rgya mtsho zho ltar bsrubs pa las / me shel snying po nyi ma dang / chu shel snying po zla ba byung / mkha’ la nyi zla sgron mar shar / nyin dang mtshan mo gnyis su ’byed / nyi ma dpag tshad lnga bcu gcig / zla ba dpag tshad lnga bcu ste / nyi ma rlung rta bdun yin te / zla ba lung rta bcu gnyis so / nyi zla lhun po’i phyed du ’khor / shar byung nub dang lho ru phyes / nyi ma dang ni nye ba las / zla ba rang gi grib mas sgrib / nam stong dus la nyi zla ’phrad / zla ba thabs te steng du phyin / nyi ma shel rab ’og gi gdan no / nyi zla ’phrad pa’i ’od zer las / skar ma’i tshogs su byung pa’o /

The Mdo ’dus myth goes on to introduce Ye-smon rgyal-po (King Primordial Aspiration), an important figure in Tibetan non-Buddhist cosmogonic traditions.* Ye-smon rgyal-po is often a key personality in indigenous myths of creation in both Yungdrung Bon and Buddhist literature. Attempts have been made to relate his origins to various foreign gods, but with limited effectiveness.† Ye-smon rgyal-po is the divine progenitor of humans and the first king who descends from the heavens to reside on earth. Although I have not found reference to this figure in Old Tibetan documents, there is a personality called Myi smon-bu/Myi smon-bu-cung (Son of Aspiration Man/ Little Son of Aspiration Man) in ITJ 734 (lns. 200–228), a manuscript that can probably be dated to the late Imperial period. Myi smon-bu may be a kind of generic or paradigmatic name,‡ as is Myi rma-bu mching-rgyal in ITJ 734 and in other Dunhuang texts. This prototypic hunter of deer and wild yaks is the protagonist in an origins myth of ritual procedures concerning the suppression of a marauding srin spirit by several named priests, using a ransom offering of the body (sku-glud) with the aid of the dmu, lha and gsas divinities. The discharge of the ritual permitted Myi smon-bu to recover the basis of good fortune (g.yang). The name Myi smon-bu may allude to Ye-smon rgyal-po as the archetypal father of Tibetans, if even his name was rendered somewhat differently in the Imperial period.

Ye-smon rgyal-po is the same cosmogonic god as Sangs-po’i ’bum-khri. On Sangs-po ’bum-khri (with seven turquoise plaits) as an emanation of Khri-rgyal khug-pa in the Mdzod phug, see Norbu 2009, p. 46. In some cosmogonic myths Ye-smon rgyal-po appears from the white egg of the virtuous side of existence (Bellezza 2005: 326; Hermanns 1971: 161–163, 178; Stein 1972: 194). The Gzi brjid cosmogony noted above, holds that Srid-pa Ye-smon rgyal-po and his consort Chu-rlung rdzu-’phrul produced the three proto-lineages of Tibet: Phywa, Dmu and Gtsug (Bellezza 2005: 394, 397). On the appearance of these three proto-lineages from Ye-smon rgyal-po in various sources, see Hermanns 1971, passim; Hoffman and Huston 1977, pp. 14, 15; Karmay 1998, p. 47, 265; Dagkar 1999, p. 50; Stein 2010, pp. 151, 152. In the Yungdrung Bon tradition, Sangs-po ’bum-khri is one of a trinity of divinities known as Lha-gshen srid-pa gsum (also includes Gshen-lha ’od-dkar and Gshen-rab; Karmay 1998: 109). Concerning the rivalry between Ye-smon rgyal-po and the king of the evil, black side of existence, Bdud-rnam rje btsan-po, see Tucci 1949, p. 717. On the primal human couple Sangs-po’i ’bum-khri and Chu-lcags rgyal-mo (sic) in an indigenous cosmogony recorded in the Buddhist Rlangs kyi po ti bse ru (fourteenth century CE) and in earlier Yungdrung Bon dbal-chu texts, see Bellezza 2008, pp. 349–355; also see Tucci 1949, pp. 632–634. Mention of Ye-smon rgyal-po as the primal king of humanity occurs in a genealogy of the Phag-mo gru-pa (ibid., 717), another Buddhist source. In addition to acting as the divine forebear of humanity, Ye-smon rgyal-po is attributed with many other precedential activities, including producing the first armor and various ritual implements.

On possible links of Ye-smon rgyal-po to the early Indo-Iranian gods Yama and Yima, see, for example, Macdonald 1959, p. 438. Hermanns 1971, p. 164; Beckwith and Walter 1997, p. 1038 (n. 4). If such links are substantiated, they appear to stem from an early (second millennium BCE) Indo-Iranian cultural substrate that may have reached the Tibetan Plateau. On the possible influence of the Indo-Iranian pantheon on other Yungdrung Bon deities, see Bellezza 2008, p. 307 (n. 312). Nevertheless, as Kvaerne has shown (1987), there is a lack of demonstrable Iranian terms and avenues of religious influence in Tibetan cosmogonies, as well as fundamental differences in conceptions of the original state of the cosmos (Iranian unmanifested potentiality versus Tibetan absolute non-existence), casting doubt on a Persian role in the formation of Tibetan origins myths. Based on general iconographical similarities and tenuous etymological links, Sangs-po ’bum-khri has been identified as the Tibetan version of the Iranian god Ahura Mazda (Kuznetsov 1978: 35, 36; 1981: 48–50). However, Sangs-po ’bum-khri is not a supreme deity like Ahura Mazda but rather a chief ancestral figure. Furthermore, no monumental or epigraphic evidence belonging to Iranian culture and religion (Zurvanism, Zoroastrianism, etc.) have been discovered in Tibet. It is therefore more probable that similarities between Tibetan and Iranian cosmogonies constitute structural analogies in mythic exposition, rather than being examples of direct borrowing.

Based on its cosmogonic associations, I suspect that in the Old Tibetan linguistic context the term smon-pa has a somewhat different semantic compass than in Classical Tibetan, perhaps denoting ‘that which effects’ or ‘that which sets in motion’, aside from more familiar glosses such as ‘aspiration’, ‘prayer’ and ‘intention’. On the Classical Tibetan signification of the term smon-pa in the name of Ye-smon rgyal-po, see Bellezza 2008, p. 351; Martin 1994, p. 74.

The Mdo ’dus describes the negative effect of consuming the essence of the earth on Ye-smon rgyal-po and by extension on humanity. As with the four Shed gods, humans lost their intrinsic luminosity. Thereafter, budding desire caused the essence of the earth, the sole source of food for humanity, to be washed away by rain.* The benevolent father of creation, Khri-rgyal khug-pa, intervened on behalf of humanity, bestowing the first grain upon it, a kind of magical food called sa-lu. Having this nourishment allowed humans to thrive and give birth:

[Thereafter], he who swallowed the essence of the earth assumed the name man. That man was called Ye-smon rgyal-po. Humans desired the taste of that food (essence of the earth) to eat. Their resplendence disappeared and the doors of the urine and feces appeared. The mistaken experience of joining desire to the gateway of the senses [appeared]. Through the fault of the experience of desire, rain fell and washed away the nectar of the essence of the earth. [Also], the vermillion mountains, rock formations and gullies appeared. At that time, through the compassion of the god (Khri-rgyal khug-pa), the grain sa-lu with fingers [ears] four fingers [in height] rained down. The grain was eaten [by humans] increasing their vitality, [thus] birth from the womb came into being. Hence, that [begotten] by woman was given the name son (bu). The son called them father and mother.

On the decline of human beings because of desire in another Tibetan cosmogonic setting, see Hermanns 1971, p. 199.

sa zhag myid (C.T. = mid) pas myi (C.T. = mi) zhes thogs / myi ni ye smon rgyal pos byas / kha’is zas ro la chags / lus kyi ’od nub bshang lci’i sgo yang dod / dbang po sgo sprad ’dod log spyad / ’dod spyad nyes pas char rgyun bab / bdud rtsi sa zhag gsha’is khyer / mtshal rnams ri brag sul du dod / de tshe lha’i thugs rje’i / ’bras ni sa lu sor bzhi bab / ’bras zos bcud rgyas mngal skyes byung / phyir la bud pas bu zhes btags / bu’i A pha A ma smras /

Mdo ’dus records that when Ye-smon rgyal-po distributed shares of the primal grain, sa-lu,* one portion was stolen. This necessitated the initiation of a judicial process, which led to more unvirtuous actions on the part of humanity. The rightful owner of the primal grain killed the thief after he denied having stolen it. All three protagonists in the myth, the grain owner, thief and the judge were reborn in the lower three realms of existence. This reference to rebirth appears to be an injection of Buddhist cosmological concepts into an origins myth that is partly non-Buddhist in makeup. The Buddhist six realms of existence (three upper, three lower) are noted in other Yungdrung Bon textual cycles of the late 10th and 11th centuries CE such as the Klu ’bum (mytho-ritual materials for the water spirits) and Mu cho’i khrom ’dur (mytho-ritual materials for funerals).

On the primal grain sa-lu, see Francke 1926, pp. 67, 292; Norbu 2009, p. 23; Das 1263. It should be noted that in the context of the Mdo ’dus and when describing sa-lu more generally, the term ’bras refers to ‘grain’ in a generic sense and not to ‘rice’ per se.

A decline in moral standards caused the primal grain sa-lu to disappear underground, but fortunately it was replaced by another grain called sa-lu ljang-bu.* This was still a kind of super food because humans only needed to eat one ear of it for their sustenance. Alas, through the rise of vanity this grain also disappeared. It was replaced by sa-lu ’bras-bu, which had to be cultivated but only took one day to ripen. However, due to greed, this phenomenal type of grain was supplanted by one that required six months to mature, reference to the barley actually grown in Tibet in more recent times. The myth of how grain appeared in the world and Tibet ends with an enunciation of the vast amount of time that ensued from the appearance of Ye-smon rgyal-po in the world to the cultivation of barley as we know it:

When Ye-smon rgyal-po apportioned the grain, one portion was stolen and that one portion was subject to a legal ruling. The king decreed the law through proclamation. The thief falsely stated that he did not steal [the grain]. The owner [of the grain] became extremely angry and wielded his weapons. He killed the thief and corpses [first] appeared. The mother of that son cried [and said] he was no more. The father of that son declared that they would beget another son. In that way women and men began to be called as such. Ye-smon announced that through that evil the adjudicator (ldam-po) became an animal, an animal of the outer ocean. The thief was reborn in the realm of the yid-dags (hungry ghosts). The hateful owner [of the grain] was cast into hell. On account of that, the root of the four sins originated.† The grain sa-lu disappeared below the earth. Thereafter, sa-lu ljang-bu came into being. Each [human] ate one ear (nyag-ma) of sa-lu ljang-pa (sic). At that time, a rivalry broke out about who had a handsome form. Then sa-lu ’bras-bu came into being. It was offered each day. It was sown at night and ripened in the morning. At that time, clever people (sgrin-po) set aside the grain. Due to the fault of greediness what was sown at night did not appear the next morning. It took six months for the ears of barley (gra-phub) to ripen. These events unfolded over a period of one hundred thousand years.

For reference to sa-le ljon-pa (sic) in the Yungdrung Bon text Ma rgyud sgrub skor, see Bellezza 2008, p. 218. In this text, it is characterized as ‘flowers’ and not as ‘grain’. Sa-le ljon occurs in various Tibetan historical texts as an ancient place name.

Probably four of the five poisons (dug-lnga) as follows: zhe-sdang (anger/hatred),’dod-chags (lust), ’phrag-dog (envy/jealousy), and nga-rgyal (pride/arrogance), the fifth being gti-mug (ignorance).

ye smon ryal pos ’bras bgos tshe / gcig gis brkus te gcig gis bldam (C.T. = bsdams) / rgyal pos zhal lce khrims kyis bcad / ngas ma brkus zhes rdzun bsnyon byas / bdag pos zhe sdang mtshon g.yug phyung / rkun ma bsad de ro yang phyung / ma des bu de med ces ngus / pha des da rung skye’o zer / der bud myed (C.T. = med) skyes pa bya bar thogs / ye smon du ngan du song zhes smras / ldam po byol du song ba ni / phyi’i rgya mtshor byol song red / rkun ma yid dags gnas su skyes / bdag po zhe sdang dmyal bar ltung / sdig pa rtsa ba bzhi’i rgyus / ’bras ni sa lu sa zhabs nub / der ni sa lu ljang bu ’khrungs / sa lu ljang pa nyag ma re zos / de dus skye gzugs bzang ngan brtsad / de nas sa lu ’bras bu ’khrungs / nyi ma re la phul re yod / nub rmos nang ni smin pa byung / de tshe sgrin pos bsog ’jog byas / chags zhen nyes pas nub btab nang ma skyes / zla ba drug na gra phub bcas par smin / de tshe tshe lo ’bum thub dus /


The motifs of luminous beings losing their resplendence because of eating the essence of the earth and an increase in greed through the act of consumption are closely related to materials found in the Aggañña Sutta, an early Buddhist text in the Dīghanikāya collection of the Pali canon. These themes were subsequently introduced into the Abhidharmakośa. A series of foodstuffs culminating in rice served as staples for humans in the Aggañña Sutta and Abhidharmakośa. Likewise, the Abhidharmakośa introduces movements of the sun and moon, the division of grain, and mythic precedents for theft, murder and adjudication. Moreover, the Abhidharmakośa contains the motif of judging beauty and ugliness, as well as the hoarding of grain, the creation of the organs of excretion, and the lengthening of the time it took for rice to ripen, all of which are seen in the Mdo ’dus too.* There can be no question that the Mdo ’dus myth was heavily influenced by the contents of the Abhidharmakośa, its author(s) appropriating many of the major themes as well as the sequential order of its narrative from the Indian cosmological work. The spread of Buddhism in Tibet in the Early Historic period acted as powerful magnet for the sharing of cosmological and cosmogonic ideas between India and Tibet. This seems to have had much impact in the Early Historic period not only on Tibetan Buddhists but also on those practicing non-Buddhist religious traditions. The large fund of Indian mythic materials adopted by Yungdrung Bon from the Abhidharmakośa certainly suggests so much.

For tropes in the Abhidharmakośa noted in this paragraph, see La Vallée Poussin 1923–1931, pp. 487–489). For a translation of the Aggañña Sutta, see Collins 1993. For a discussion of tropes in the Aggañña Sutta and Jâla Sutta, which parallel our Mdo ’dus account, see Martin 1994, pp. 71–75. Martin (ibid.) analyses the evolutionary theme of generation and dissolution underlying these tropes in the Brahmanical and Buddhist traditions in terms of religious legitimization and social construction.

Certain other features of the origins myths in the Mdo ’dus and Abhidharmakośa vary significantly from one another, reflecting cultural and geographic conditions encountered in Tibet and India respectively. In the Mdo ’dus these were grafted onto the Indian mythological scheme, indigenizing or naturalizing it. Most prominent among these Tibetan features is the creator god, Khri-rgyal khug-pa, the primeval man Ye-smon rgyal-po, and the first grain sa-lu. That such elements were amalgamated to Abhidharmakośa mythology seems to suggest that they were part of a pre-existing Tibetan mythos, one already established before the Early Historic period. It should also be considered that more geographically pervasive mythologems such as the cosmic mountain and the churning of the sea may also have been introduced to Tibet as oral traditions before the rise of the imperium. If this hypothesis is shown to be valid, it signifies that Yungdrung Bon appropriated both borrowed and indigenous materials in its adoption of Abhidharmakośa mythology, ideas, symbols and customs circulating in Tibet prior to the seventh or eighth centuries CE. As seen in the Aggañña Sutta and Abhidharmakośa, a somewhat parallel process of framing older mythic elements in later documents was at work in India.

The Mdo ’dus origins myth continues on with an account of the lineages of human and the further decline of humanity, material also known in the Abhidharmakośa. Other etiologic myths retailing the origins of grain may exist in the vast body of Yungdrung Bon literature, which could further enhance our knowledge of Tibetan conceptions concerning the cosmic mountain and the beginnings of agriculture.


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