John Vincent Bellezza
Soaring high on the wings of the khyung, the human mind has no bounds but space itself, that limitless void extending in every direction. In this month’s Flight of the Khyung, I begin with an essay on a subject dear to me, the conservation of ancient monuments and art in Tibet. A friend of mine is working to protect old Buddhist frescos in Guge from further desecration by installing doorways on the cave temples. His is a simple but very effective project and I laud him for it. It is about time too, for the situation in Guge is really getting out of hand, with more and more rare and valuable murals destroyed by thieves every year.
Ngari Cultural Heritage Conservation: A Clarion Call for Help
To the rest of the world, Tibet is known as the ‘Roof of the World’. The very pinnacle of that roof is the region of Ngari, in western Tibet. Ngari is a vast and sparsely populated land that holds many secrets regarding the origins of Tibetan civilization. Although archaeologists, historians and anthropologists have worked there for over 30 years, much of the region remains unexplored. Ngari was home to two great civilizations: the pre-Buddhist Zhang Zhung civilization and the Buddhist Guge civilization. Zhang Zhung, an amalgam of chiefdoms and cultural orders, flourished from circa 1000 BCE to 650 CE. After a transitional period during Tibetan dynastic rule, Ngari emerged as one of Asia’s premier Buddhist centers around 1000 CE.
Boasting these two important world civilizations, Ngari is an extremely rich repository of architectural and artistic treasures. From megalithic sites of thousands of standing stones to cave monasteries filled with frescoes of incredible cosmopolitan sophistication, it is one of the world’s finest cultural heritage zones. The history and accomplishments of Ngari are truly something in which Tibet and mainland China can take pride. Unfortunately, this recognition has been slow to build, leaving the marvelous antiquities of the region vulnerable.
In the pre-modern period, many of the castles, temples and tombs of Ngari were left to decay gently, the resources and population needed to maintain them no longer existing. After the Communist Chinese annexation of Tibet, the heritage sites of the region suffered more terribly. In the Chinese Cultural Revolution (1966–1976), many religious and cultural assets of Ngari were looted or razed, causing losses on an almost unimaginable scale. After the Cultural Revolution, state-sponsored destruction of monuments ceased and, in the 1980s and 1990s, an effort was made to rebuild certain monasteries throughout Upper Tibet. In the 2000s, with the rapid rise of tourism of Tibet, China’s regard for ancient Tibetan culture is intensifying, a heartening development.
Despite efforts made in recent years to protect and respect Ngari’s cultural wealth, the situation on the ground is still dire. Modern conservation programs have yet to be put in place on a regional level. This has lead to the illegal pillaging of dozens of archaeological sites in just the last five years. Among the greatest losses has been the systematic destruction of frescoes in Guge cave temples. These 500 to 1000-year old artistic wonders have fallen victim to organized gangs stealing art for trade on the international antiquities market. Just recently, a grotto known as Mangdrak was irreparably desecrated, leading to the loss of unique 13th century paintings of enormous cultural and historical value.
Unless effective conservation measures to protect the cultural legacies of Ngari are instituted, the decimation will continue unabated. The expertise and resources of the international community are urgently called. This international aid must be harmonized with initiatives made by the Tibetan Autonomous Region and central governments of the PRC. Working together, international organizations and the PRC can stem the tide of cultural destruction in Ngari. The benefits of heritage conservation in Ngari are legion, having many positive spin-offs for economic and community development projects. The move to safeguard the archaeological and cultural capital of Ngari, however, cannot wait much longer if something of value is to be salvaged.
Recently vandalized frescoes at Mangdrak, Photo by D. Ott
I visited Mangdrak circa 2000 with the then chief caretaker of Tsaparang, a man who had lost both his thumbs. The cave temple at Mangdrak harbors an astounding sampling of Buddhist art. In this cave, the color red predominates, a bright, rich, earthy red, enlivening the brown of the raw walls. The style of the frescoes is a little folksy (indicating that local artists were responsible for its creation) but highly competent in its execution. The anterior wall of the Mangdrak cave is primarily dedicated to images of the territorial deities of Guge, in a style that combines Indian and indigenous elements. Inscriptions accompany these unique paintings, showing that many of the territorial deities or yulha had Zhang Zhung language names.
Thank goodness I was able to photograph the art of Mangdrak before it was vandalized. I understand that there are a few other collections of photographs of this superb cave temple as well, but this is little consolation for the loss of the paintings themselves. Reportedly, either in 2008 or early this year, thieves active in removing frescos from the Guge temples came to Mangdrak. They attempted to pry the paintings off the cave walls but most crumbled to dust when assaulted in this fashion. Many of the 700 or 800 year-old frescoes were destroyed or seriously damaged in this attack. Another piece of the fabulous history of western Tibet has been lost to all of us, something my son or your children will never get to enjoy.
Shenrab Miwo and the Future Trajectory of Religion in Tibet
The early historical identity of Shenrab Miwo is a subject with enormous implications for the development of Tibetan culture and religion. Utilizing Old Tibetan literary sources composed circa 700–1000 CE, I have been exploring the activities of Shenrab Miwo and the socio-cultural context in which they occur. Building on my past research into the Dunhuang manuscripts, I am now working on translations of recently discovered texts that are also written in the old language of Tibet.
In the Bon religion, the Buddha is Shenrab Miwo. According to Bon tradition, as first propagated in two circa 11th CE century biographies dedicated to Shenrab Miwo, this august figure was responsible for the transmission of nine vehicles or systems of teachings. These teachings have come down to the present day in an integral form. In addition to Bon scriptures, the ritual activities of Shenrab Miwo have been preserved in archaic ritual texts. In these Old Tibetan literary sources, Shenrab Miwo is depicted as an archetypal priest and cultural hero, not as a Buddha. Despite the very different conceptions about Shenrab Miwo in the Old Tibetan and later Bon materials, in both corpora he fulfils a soteriological role. In the earlier cultural milieu he is depicted rescuing individuals through the correct performance of funerary (’dur) and ransom (glud) rites. In the post-1000 CE cultural texts, he liberates through a regimen of moral and mental exercises.
Tibetan religion may be on the verge of an intellectual revolution more powerful than anything seen for 1000 years. As more textual evidence becomes available indicating that the Shenrab Miwo of the Old Tibetan documents was an archetypal priest and not a Buddha figure, a historical reappraisal of Tibetan religion becomes a pressing issue. It must be said the Bonpo are no stranger to attacks on their legitimacy and views of history; these have been all too common in the sectarian struggles of Tibet over the last millennium. In these rivalries, the Bonpo often have been the underdog. Representing just 10 to 15% of the total Tibetan population, they have had to work hard to counteract their minority status.
To use Old Tibetan sources to claim that Shenrab Miwo was not originally a Buddha strikes at the very heart of Bon identity. Understandably, there will be Bonpo scholars who will vociferously counter this view. These defenders of the traditional position will probably utilize two major polemical strategies: 1) to call into question the authenticity or authority of the Old Tibetan documents, and 2) to deny that their Shenrab Miwo is represented in them. However, looking at the evidence in toto (a very complicated proposition that will take years to complete), will, from what I can see, eventually vindicate the Old Tibetan documents as furnishing the most accurate picture of the historical/legendary figure Shenrab Miwo.
What then? Will Bon intellectually retreat into itself, shrugging off yet another assault on its integrity? In the increasing transparency of the 21st century this may not be possible or even desirable. Ultimately, Bon can come out of the debate as to the real identity of their founder much stronger than they are today. It will depend on how it copes with the textual scholarship on the matter now gaining ground. In my opinion, the emergence of a new and more powerful Bon religion hinges upon it making two major admissions: 1) that the historical Sakyamuni Buddha is the cornerstone persona of all Tibetan religious sects, and 2) that Bon safeguarded the older Tibetan identity while adopting the cultural patrimony emanating from India.
If Shenrab Miwo, the ancestral priest, was re-imagined as a Buddha after the 10th century, we must ask ourselves why? This was not part of some grand effort at deceit; to the contrary, it was part of a systematic attempt to preserve ancient traditions by framing them in the predominant ideological framework forged by Buddhism. The Bonpo did what they could to preserve older customs, practices and lineages, maintaining a Tibetan imprint on them. The Nyingma sect also absorbed a great deal of indigenous tradition but did so by giving it a Buddhist stamp of approval, scarcely acknowledging its Tibetan roots.
In the 21st century, the day of accounting will come when both the Bonpo and Buddhists will have to openly recognize their huge cultural debt to one another. All sects of Tibetan religion are syncretistic affairs, born out of native Tibetan tradition wed to ideas and personalities of Indic origins. Nevertheless, it is the Bonpo who have done the most to preserve the old traditions over the last millennia, something for which they deserve much more credit. In this century, with its unparalleled threats to the cultural integrity of vulnerable peoples, those like the Tibetans must strive to gain a fuller and more objective picture of who they are and where they came from. In this regard, Bon will prove invaluable, affording it a place in the religious and intellectual life of Tibetans much greater than it has today.