John Vincent Bellezza
This special edition of Flight of the Khyung extends to the very western edge of the Tibetan Plateau. Ladakh, the Maryul (Smar-yul) of ancient times, has been a cultural crossroads for millennia. Ladakh’s rock art and structural remains document a multitude of exchanges with neighbors near and far, but much remains to be learnt about these connections. In fact, the study of the early cultural history of the region is still in its infancy. This month we take a look at what might be Ladakh’s largest archaic stronghold, echoes of western Tibet being found in its walls. In doing so, it is my privilege to introduce to you a guest writer.
This 74th Flight of the Khyung also reviews papers written by the distinguished scholars Henk Blezer and Christopher I. Beckwith. In the interests of more clearly presenting the early religious and cultural history of Tibet, this review focuses on the technical points of difference I have with my esteemed colleagues. If you have any comments or criticisms concerning this review you would like to share, please contact me by email at email@example.com.
I had not visited Ladakh since 1989, so I was prepared for momentous changes this year. The capital Leh is of course larger now but what surprised me most was how much Choklamsar has grown. A quarter century ago it was little more than a refugee camp catering mainly to those from western Tibet who had fled their homeland. Now Choklamsar is an urban zone with a large bazaar, opulent monastic facilities, and a significant population. Leh spreading south and Choklamsar expanding northward are converging to form one metropolitan area. I could not foresee this in 1989. A major long-term problem is that much of this land area is vulnerable to flash flooding.
The tourist industry has grown significantly in Ladakh and bigger hotels and stately family-run inns have come up where there were once just fields. The roads are now crowded with vehicles, and domestic visitors are the fastest growing sector of the tourist industry. There is a rather strange disconnect between the proceedings of the native population and the recreational activities of tourists. It is as if they inhabit parallel universes.
Water consumption is growing exponentially in Leh, and while last winter produced a good snow cover, in recent years drought conditions have become increasingly common. There are two main sources for water in the city: two glaciers above the head of the valley in the Ladakh Range and groundwater. According to the director of Lamo, an arts and media NGO in Leh, these two glaciers are shrinking at an alarming rate. It is only now that the first scientific study of local groundwater resources is being carried out. In recent years bore holes have been sunk with much frenzy. Ultimately, water will prove the great limiting factor to growth in Leh, but this fact is hardly acknowledged by real estate developers and other business interests. The Ladakhis I spoke to expressed concern about the environment and adverse social changes but neither they nor their elected leaders seem able to address these challenges head-on. As elsewhere, financial gain is the real motivator, and despite the nice words being bandied about, those profiting do not want to see the boom end.
Excellent progress is being made on completing the Central Asian Museum, which is housed in a traditionally constructed four-story bonded masonry building. Each floor is devoted to a different cultural region: Ladakh, Kashmir, Tibet and Baltistan, the interior woodwork capturing the architecture of these areas. There are still relatively few exhibits but the museum staff is undertaking a program to acquire and develop more. The Central Asian Museum, the first of its kind in Ladakh, was the brainchild of the late Andre Alexander, the founder of the Tibet Heritage Fund. I had the pleasure of first meeting Andre in the mid-1990s when he began his work in Lhasa. He went on to restore many historically important architectural monuments in various places in the Tibetan world. Sadly, Andre passed away last year, a huge loss not just for his friends but for all peoples of the Tibetan Plateau.
Exploring ancient Ladakh with Martin Vernier
It is with much pleasure that I introduce the explorer Martin Vernier to readers of this newsletter. Single-handedly, he has done much to record the antiquities of Ladakh, making available a huge body of information of long-term importance for historians, archaeologists and connoisseurs. Modest by nature, for years Martin toiled alone in the burning Ladakh sun with little recognition or support. His astounding results vindicate his efforts. Born in Switzerland, Martin first visited Ladakh in 1987; he was just 16 years of age then.
Since 1992, Martin has made regular trips to Ladakh, and he and his wife and children have lived there for several years in total. Trained in fine arts, Martin has undertaken a massive study of rock art and ancient monuments in the region, documenting through photography, drawings and written accounts more than 250 archaeological sites. His documentation work has been supported by the Italo-Swiss Carlo Leone and Mariena Montandon Foundation. He has also compiled a database on Buddhist art and artifacts from Ladakh. Vernier is still very active in the field and every year he adds more rock art and monuments to his extensive records.
Among the many ancient strongholds documented by Martin Vernier is the site known as Stok Mon Khar, a fortress of very significant size and age. This issue of Flight of the Khyung introduces Stok Mon Khar for the first time to a wide audience. The description and plan of the site that follows has been compiled by Martin Vernier. A more detailed account by Vernier will appear in print elsewhere.
Stok Mon Khar by Martin Vernier
I surveyed the ruins of Stok Mon Khar (Stog mon mkhar) in 2003 and again in 2004 and 2006. To my knowledge it has not otherwise been studied or published with the exception of its mention in the recent NIRLAC’s inventory under the name of “Steng Lagar Khar (“Legacy of a mountain people : Inventory of cultural resources of Ladakh”, vol. 2 Leh, Leh–Karu, NIRLAC , New Delhi, 2008, p. 449). People from Stok village mainly refer to this installation as “Mon Khar“. This name, even if rather vague and common all over Ladakh, has our preference as it refers to the Mon people and thus assumes an older connotation, while the alternative name Steng La Gar khar is subject to various interpretations.
Indeed, for us, Stok Mon Khar’s construction has to be more generally linked with other ancient remains of the Stok valley, dating to the second diffusion of Buddhism or even earlier. The ruins are part of a historical assemblage that besides the ruined fort includes various types of petroglyphs, but strangely enough, unlike most other Ladakhi fortifications, no religious structures such as lhathos or chortens are found there. Like most such complexes, the whole site is littered with terracotta shards of various sizes and kinds. Indeed, the Stok Mon Khar site looks to be a coherent whole most probably arising from a single building impulse.
The ruins of Stok Mon Khar stretch along the summit of the crag, starting at its lower or southeastern side with two round watchtowers and high walls, and extends up to the topmost part of the summit where is located what obviously were the main buildings of the complex. Further northwest, and separated from the main buildings by a ravine and some 140 m, stands another watchtower.
There were two accesses points to the site from the valley down bellow. The first and obviously main one, located in the direction of Stok village, consists of a trail that gently ascends the slope before passing between two rocky escarpments at the foot of the outer walls. This meandering path, given its gradient and width, was probably even accessible to horses. The second access to the site was via a much more hidden path, located at the back of the complex. This path with its L-shaped course was evidently built to secure a water supply from the stream below. Essentially, a stepped corridor, it reaches the foot of the cliff only a few meters from where the stream flows today. Higher up, after passing two great rock pillars, there is a partly standing gateway, beyond which are half buried large paving stones. The part of the complex accessed by the hidden path stands as a magnificent example of ancient stone architecture with stone corbelled structures, lintels and stairs, all executed in a skilful manner.
The whole fortified complex, almost entirely built of mud mortared stone structures (some of its chambers and small parting walls do not contain mud mortar), is more than 200 m long. It can be divided into three main groups: lower, middle and upper. Clearly, two different types of buildings are present. The first type of building, which is far more numerous, consists more or less of rectangular structures around 1.5 to 2 m in height interconnected to each other by walls of various alignments. These small structures mostly follow the contour of the ridgeline. There are approximately a total of 80 of them; they exhibit floors of paving slabs and most presumably had stone corbelled roofs. A few structures still show the remains of corbels. Some of the series of small structures may possibly have had temporary forms of roofing. Several doors and windows with stone lintels are also still intact at the site.
The second type of building consists of edifices of a much larger size located in the uppermost part of the complex. The three main buildings had both their exterior and interior walls mud plastered. The sockets that once held beams supporting the floor as well as the roof are still visible. These buildings had roofs made of wooden beams. The ground floor of the main buildings was executed by erecting large stone posts at regular intervals, which take advantage of already existing natural rock outcrops, thereby creating a level grid-like pattern that was covered by stone lacing topped by large slabs.
Round towers, numbering five or possibly six are located along the outer wall of the northeastern side of the complex facing Stok and the Indus Valley. Some of these round towers have loopholes of a size clearly designed for the use of bows and arrows.
My (Bellezza’s) visit to Stok Mon Khar
During a visit to Stok Mon Khar (Stog mon mkhar) I detected many of the same salient architectural features as did Martin Vernier, thus there is some repetition in my account. I was only able to conduct a cursory survey of the site, while Vernier’s study is more extensive.
Stok Mon Khar is situated approximately 6 km upstream from the well-known Stok village, site of a 19th century royal palace. Thanks to my friends and colleagues Martin Vernier and Quentin Devers (who has also extensively surveyed ancient remains in Ladakh), I was able to easily locate Stok Mon Khar. With its all-stone corbelled structures, lack of Buddhist monuments and remote location, this facility must predate the second diffusion of Buddhism (circa 1000 CE).
Stok Mon Khar is situated on a well defended ridgeline some 200 m above the valley’s watercourse. This was a very large installation extending along the summit of the ridge for approximately 250 m. It contains many dozens of defunct rooms and buildings. The various structures were skillfully built, indicating that substantial economic and technological resources were available for construction. Stok Mon Khar was certainly once the premier installation in the Stok (Stog) valley. I shall suggest that the alternative name of the site may possibly be rendered as Steng la sgar-mkhar (Military Fortress Above).
The location of Stok Mon Khar in a narrow gorge far from agricultural tracts and habitations indicates that it was built for special strategic reasons. Its sequestered geographic aspect mimics that of many archaic castles in Upper Tibet. There is one main approach to the ruined stronghold and it is marked with the remains of various ramparts. The other flanks of the ridge are too steep to have been scaled by invaders.
The buildings of Stok Mon Khar are of two major types: 1) smaller structures that had all-stone corbelled roofs (no roofs are extant and only a few corbels are still in situ), and 2) larger structures with high walls that had roofs made from wooden rafters but stone lintels over the entranceways. Both types of buildings often have corbelled basements covered in stone slabs, possibly indicating that they belong to the same time period and building tradition. In any case, there is no clear evidence among the ruins for distinct periods of site redevelopment, the complex seemingly founded as an integral whole. The presence of the two types of structures and circular defensive towers at Stok Mon Khar suggest a relatively late date for its establishment. There are however no Buddhist emblems at the site. I am inclined to place its foundation in the 400 to 900 CE timeframe pending more information (a more detailed survey of Stok Mon Khar has also been conducted by Quentin Devers; his Ph.D. dissertation and archaeological inventory are expected soon).
The wall fabric of the various structures is random-rubble with mortared seams, but there are also possibly dry-mortar walls especially among smaller structures. Hewn and unhewn red, brown and grey quartzitic sandstone (?) was used in construction.
The architectural composition of Stok Mon Khar is reminiscent of Gonpo Wangchuk Khar (Mgon-po dbang-phyug mkhar) in Upper Tibet (for more information on this site, see Antiquities of Zhang Zhung: thlib.org/bellezza). These two sites, given their architectonic character, are likely to belong to the same general period. As for any political or social alliance between these two large fortresses, we might consider that they belonged to a ‘Zhang Zhung’ polity but this is far from certain. A prominent link between Stok Mon Khar and many strongholds of Upper Tibet is their folkloric association with the Mon, which in this context is seen as an ethnos or tribe of antiquity. It is tempting to view this ethnonym as indicating that these various fortresses of western Tibet and Ladakh were built by the same people or even political entity, but this is highly speculative. In the textual and oral traditions of Ladakh and Tibet, the word ‘Mon’ is applied in a variable manner to denote a wide spectrum of Himalayan communities, both ancient and contemporary. As regards the strongholds of the western portion of the Tibetan Plateau, it is difficult therefore to pinpoint the historical significance of this term.
While the archaic fortresses of Upper Tibet commonly contain niches in interior walls, hardly any such feature is found at Stok Mon Khar. There is however one large recess in a room, as is found in all-stone corbelled structures of Upper Tibet. There are at least five small watchtowers or turrets with square and ellipsoidal plans and oblong loopholes at Stok Mon Khar. This kind of structure is not found among the archaic strongholds of Upper Tibet (although similar defensive towers are found at a few fortresses built after circa 1000 CE). There are various types of turrets and watchtowers in Ladakh, the oldest probably being only one story in height, square, and of an all-stone corbelled composition. Quentin Devers has devised a typology of these structures, placing them within a chronological scheme.
Basements with corbelled roofs are represented in Upper Tibet, but none of these are as deep as the one in a building of Stok Mon Khar. Here we find a series of four subterranean compartments 3 m in depth. Such a deep basement must have had special functions (utilitarian, ceremonial, ritual?) well beyond merely creating a level expanse for the superstructure.
While combing the ruins several petroglyphs were spotted. On one panel are geometric motifs that appear to be highly stylized shrines of the chorten or sekhar class.
On a ridge rising above the uppermost fields of Stok my son, a family friend and I documented another site with both archaic and more recent structures. Of particular interest is a single building consisting of five small rooms. It appears to have been an all-stone corbelled structure, as evidenced in:
- Its heavily built walls (now reduced to 1.5 m or less in height)
- Rooms partitioned by buttressing
- Three small window openings with stone lintels
- Rough alignment in the cardinal directions
- Possibly one or two small in situ corbels
- Bowed walls
- Overlapping masonry courses
Three more ancient tombs excavated in Gurgyam
This summer personnel belonging to the Institute of Archaeology (CASS) and the Tibetan Institute of Antiquities Preservation excavated three tombs at Gurgyam, in western Tibet. Among the artifacts discovered was a small golden death mask. The face of this mask was drawn using red, white and black pigments. This is the fourth such death mask to be discovered by archaeologists in Himalayan and Trans-Himalayan regions in recent years (for more information, see July 2012, November 2011 and October 2011 newsletters). Press releases for the 2012 discoveries at Gurgyam written by Dr. Tong Tao can be found at:
Review of six recently published papers on Bon
written by Henk Blezer and Christopher I. Beckwith
concerning the historical character of Zhang-zhung,
the possible location of its capital, and the use of the term bon in Old Tibetan sources
John Vincent Bellezza
This review is part of my ongoing efforts to elucidate the course of prehistoric and early historic religion in Tibet. I offer this work in a collegial spirit and hope that it will serve ultimately to strengthen professional bonds with colleagues.
Although some lay-people may find matters discussed below rather subtle in tone if not obscure, the specialist may thirst for more detail. In this work I have tried to strike a balance between technical elaboration and readability. I urge those wanting to know more about specific points raised to consult the author’s bibliography at the end of the review. Detailed historical argumentation and in-depth philological analyses are found in the listed publications and I will not reproduce these materials here.
I have devoted much of the last eight years to a philological study of non-Buddhist ritual texts written in Old Tibetan (an obsolete form of the Tibetan language). The best known hoard of Old Tibetan ritual texts was recovered from Dunhuang, on the southern edge of the Gobi desert. Much more recently, a small cache of Old Tibetan ritual texts was discovered in Gathang Bumpa (Dga’-thang ’bum-pa), in southern Tibet. These two sources have furnished most of the Old Tibetan sources known to scholars (documents from eastern Turkestan notwithstanding). As anyone who has perused these manuscripts will know, they pose considerable challenges of a philological, historical and ideological nature.
The abstruse quality of Old Tibetan ritual texts has dissuaded most scholars from following in the footsteps of our illustrious predecessors. It has been more than a generation since legendary names in Tibetology like Stein, Lalou, Pelliot, Richardson, and Macdonald turned their formidable intellectual abilities towards understanding this fascinating literature. As difficult as the Old Tibetan ritual texts are, they constitute one of the most valuable sources for comprehending Tibetan culture and religion in the period before Buddhist dominance. It is for this reason that I have made their study a pillar of my research work.
It has become increasingly common to cite isolated words or lines from Old Tibetan ritual texts and use them in theoretical expositions. Sometimes these materials are extracted from a reading of the original documents and sometimes from the work of other scholars. This restricted approach can pose various methodological challenges, having to do with removing specific terms or phrases from their intended narrative and operational context. By chopping chips from the trunk, so to speak, Old Tibetan studies has in certain instances borne questionable or even unsatisfactory results. My modus operandi is different: I have strived to produce translations and paraphrases of extensive tracts of Old Tibetan materials along with annotated philological analyses. This is an extremely rigorous undertaking but one that is necessary if the contents and import of the Old Tibetan texts are to be adequately understood and appreciated.
Before we get to the heart of the matter a brief discussion of terminology is in order. I refer to the non-Buddhist Old Tibetan ritual texts as ‘archaic ritual texts’. These texts contain antique language and contents, much of which has been lost or reinterpreted in later religious literature, thus the word: ‘archaic’. Most texts of this genre are focused on the tales of origins of funerary and therapeutic rituals.
To avoid confusion, this work employs the common noun bon when dealing with the archaic usage of the word. The Lamaist or Buddhist-like religion that is also called Bon is labeled ‘Eternal Bon’ (proper noun), eternal being signified by the word ‘swastika’ (g.yung-drung), the self-referent epithet of the Bonpo.
In this review, I have selected just one spelling for each Old Tibetan term and name, so as not to confound non-specialists and add undue complexity. Those conversant with Old Tibetan texts will know that many words have alternative spellings (as many as 13 spelling variants for a single personality are found in my forthcoming book).
Blezer papers reviewed
Blezer, H. 2008. “sTon pa gShen rab: six marriages and many more funerals” in Tibetan Studies in Honour of Samten Karmay, part II, Revue d’études tibétaines, No. 15, November, 2008, pp. 421–480. Paris: CNRS. http://himalaya/socanth.cam.ac.uk/collections/journals/ret/pdf/ret_15_11.pdf
Blezer, H. 2010. “The Two Conquests of Zhang zhung and the many Lig-Kings of Bon: A Structural Analysis of the Bon ma nub pa’i gtan tshigs” in Studies on the History and Culture of the Himalayas and Tibet (eds. A. Chayet, C. Scherrer-Schaub, F. Robin, and J.-L. Achard), pp. 19–63. Collectanea Himalayica, vol. 3. München: Indus Verlag.
Blezer, H. 2011a. “In Search of the Heartland of Bon–Khyung Lung Dngul Mkhar: The Silver Castle in Garuda Valley” in Emerging Bon: The Formation of Bon Traditions in Tibet at the Turn of the First Millennium AD (ed. H. Blezer), pp. 117–163. PIATS 2006: Proceedings of the Eleventh Seminar of the International Association for Tibetan Studies, Königswinter 2006. Halle: International Institute for Tibetan and Buddhist Studies GmbH.
Blezer, H. 2011b. “The Bon of Bon–Forever Old” in Emerging Bon: The Formation of Bon Traditions in Tibet at the Turn of the First Millennium AD (ed. H. Blezer), pp. 207–245. PIATS 2006: Proceedings of the Eleventh Seminar of the International Association for Tibetan Studies, Königswinter 2006. Halle: International Institute for Tibetan and Buddhist Studies GmbH.
Blezer, H. 2011c. “It all happened in Myi Yul Skyi Mthing: A Crucial Nexus of Narratives Pointing at the Proto-Heartland of Bon? in Buddhist Himalaya: Studies in Religion, History and Culture (eds. A. McKay and A. Balikci-Denjongpa), vol. 1, Tibet and the Himalaya, pp. 157–178. Proceedings of the Golden Jubilee Conference
Dr. Henk Blezer is an instructor at the Leiden University Institute for Area Studies, Leiden. Blezer has been active in Eternal Bon studies for more than 15 years, making significant contributions to the field.
In this review, I primarily focus on differences of opinions, areas where I think Henk Blezer’s understanding about the historical and cultural development of bon and Eternal Bon needs revision or further deliberation. As this review contains elements of contention between the two of us, a reader may get the impression that we are professionally opposed to one another. In reality, we have a fine working relationship, for Blezer and I share a common ground in Tibetan history and language and in the rudiments of the Eternal Bon religion. Our common links are in sum far greater than the scholarly matters that divide us. I make this point because there may be some readers of this newsletter who are not very familiar with the Western method of scholarship and its reliance on open and candid debate. I believe it is only through honest engagement with other scholars in the fields of history, science, etc. that any real progress can be made.
For reasons that are not entirely clear to me, Blezer (2011a: 119) lumps together Old Tibetan and Classical Tibetan sources, characterizing them as the two main founts of ‘early textual sources’. In this category he includes non-Buddhist Dunhuang manuscripts and early Eternal Bon hagiographic materials such as Mdo chen po bzhi, and Mdo ’dus. I question the utility of Blezer’s categorization, because the two main bodies of texts he includes exhibit varying grammatical, orthographic and lexical structures, reflecting different stages in the linguistic development of Tibetan. While many thematic features and linguistic peculiarities are shared between the archaic ritual texts and the Eternal Bon corpus, their differences in content and form are strong and compelling. In a forthcoming book, I analyze orthographic and lexical data from archaic funerary texts of the Dunhuang and Gathang Bumpa collections, contrasting hundreds of Old Tibetan and Classical Tibetan linguistic features. In brief, this exercise helps to demarcate the two languages in the ritual setting.
By his own admission, in formulating his understanding of what constitute early textual sources, Blezer has been influenced by the prologue of Michael L. Walter’s Buddhism and Empire. The Political and Religious Culture of Early Tibet. Brill’s Tibetan Studies Library, vol. 22. Leiden: Brill, 2009. Thus, Blezer feels that the archaic ritual texts of Dunhuang were composed within one or two centuries of the closure of the Library Cave in the early 11th century (2011a; 2011b; 2010; 2008). He goes so far as to claim that some of these texts may have been written as late as the early 11th century (2011c: 158). On the other hand, in my forthcoming book, as in other works, I view some of these materials as potentially belonging to the imperial period, for this is indicated by their linguistic and narrative makeup (as elaborated below). Yet, it must be stated that given the current state of our codiocologcial knowledge, any such pronouncements about the age of the archaic ritual texts of Dunhuang remain a matter of educated opinion. For my critique of Walter’s prologue and its synchronic view of Tibetan linguistic development, see forthcoming, p. 180 (fn. 329).
In keeping with his stance that the archaic ritual texts of Dunhuang all postdate the imperial period, Blezer claims that in that time the bon-po only had an oral tradition to rely upon (2011b: 210, 211). It is curious then that he should concede that some Tibetan Buddhist texts from Dunhuang date to the imperial period (ibid.). I suppose this might imply that bon-po were somehow culturally retarded. Be that as it may, the non-Buddhist ritual texts are often written in a more archaic language and exhibit more primitive paleographic features than the Buddhist texts, grounds for considering that they may be contemporaneous or even earlier. There are also historical reasons for contemplating that the archaic ritual texts are of imperial period composition. For instance, the abolition of bon by King Khri Srong-lde’u-btsan in the late 8th century may possibly indicate that the production of archaic ritual texts subsequent to this event was circumscribed. My forthcoming book presents other historical data suggesting that certain archaic ritual manuscripts may have been composed during the Tibetan imperial period.
The most persuasive argument for considering that certain archaic texts could well date to the empire period has to do with the linguistic development of written Tibetan. As I demonstrate in my forthcoming book, the unfolding of the various stages of Old Tibetan through to Classical Tibetan probably required a timeframe measured in several centuries. In the funerary ritual arena these changes appear to have occurred in three major stages. An Illuminated funerary manuscript composed in Classical Tibetan but with relict Old Tibetan grammatical and orthographic features acts as a chronological benchmark; it has been radiocarbon dated to the 11th century or first half of the 12th century. The Gathang Bumpa archaic ritual texts were written with far more Old Tibetan grammatical, orthographic and paleographic features. They appear to represent an intermediate stage in the development of Old Tibet and can be provisionally dated to circa 850–1000. The archaic funerary ritual documents of Dunhuang are indicative of an earlier or first stage in the grammatical development of Old Tibetan as a written language. In my opinion, these documents can be provisionally attributed to the circa 700–900 period. For a detailed explication of these three stages of linguistic development, see my forthcoming book.
In other places, Blezer does seem to also acknowledge the differing linguistic complexion of the two bodies of texts, by considering that the early narratives about the gshen, bon and the Gshen-rab figure probably date to the 9th or 10th centuries, while holding that Eternal Bon sources like Mdo ’dus, which speak of Ston-pa gshen-rab, first appeared in the 10th or 11th centuries CE (Blezer 2011a: 119, 120, 121). Nevertheless, given the likely linguistic evolution of literary Tibetan, his time allotment appears to be inadequate.
Blezer also suggests that the volumes known as Klu ’bum are typologically and chronologically intermediate between the Dunhuang sources and Mdo ’dus (ibid., 129), implying that Old Tibetan and Classical Tibetan sources do not actually belong to a unitary category of literature. Thus, even by his own chronological scheme, it would seem appropriate to differentiate the relevant Old Tibetan and Classical Tibetan sources from one another.
In his evolving position on the historical origins of archaic ritual materials, Blezer (2011a: 119, 120) sagaciously observes that some of their contents and aspects of their narrative form go back to the 7th or 8th century and perhaps even earlier. Commenting upon narratives that mention the Gshen-rab figure, Blezer (2008: 424) previously speculated that their cultural sources could be traced solely to the early historic period: “This gestation may take us back one or more centuries for the possible historical origins of the names and, less likely: events; say 7th–8th c. AD?”. Indeed, Blezer (2011a: 120) concedes that the Dunhuang sources may have been shaped by a considerable period of oral and even written transmissions, as evidenced in what he calls ‘the logic of the narrative’. Cross-cultural archaeological data presented in my works certainly supports the view that certain themes and motifs found in the archaic funerary texts may be of prehistoric origins. In this regard, I direct readers to my forthcoming book and its discussions on the cultural historical sources of archaic funerary manuscripts, as well as to my 2008 volume.
Blezer (2011a: 120) maintains that in the archaic ritual manuscripts of Dunhuang there is “no evidence that Gshen-rab was considered the founder of a tradition called Bon (proper noun, as used by the author) and there are no convincing references to Bon as a self-conscious religious entity, except for a few ambiguous uses of bon”. While it is correct that Gshen-rab is not portrayed as the founder of a monolithic Lamaist religion in the Dunhuang sources, his seminal place in the proclamation of origins tales (smrang) does indicate that he is a propagator of religious traditions, whatever institutional and doctrinal basis these may have had in ancient times. His bon etiologic functions may be purely mythical but Gshen-rab is clearly assigned with them all the same.
Blezer (2011b: 207; 215; 2008: 424) alleges that in the Dunhuang manuscripts Gshen-rab is a generic term; apparently a class of powerful religious specialists. In fact, Gshen-rab is the proper name of an individual in all the Dunhuang sources that cite it (Pt 1068, Pt 1134, Pt 1136, Pt 1194, Pt 1289, ITJ 731r). This is demonstrated through painstaking philological work; see Bellezza 2008; 2010; forthcoming. When collections of priestly individuals are intended in the Dunhuang manuscripts they are referred to using generic terms; viz., gshen and bon.
Blezer’s (2011a: 156; 2011c: 158, 159) characterization of the Dunhuang documents as containing disjointed and fragmentary narrative and ritual elements is misleading. Philological analysis of the archaic funerary texts shows unequivocally that they represent a remarkably coherent and well evolved (albeit incomplete) religious and linguistic tradition, each manuscript building upon the other to reveal an ideology and praxis of great sophistication. Actually, in another work, Blezer (2011b: 211) partly acknowledges this fact when he writes that the archaic death rites of Dunhuang represent an organized ritualistic system. However, he questions whether any of it was called bon (ibid.). The answer is a resounding yes, in that specific ritual operations and those who performed them are described as bon. This is a matter of the literary record, as I show in my forthcoming book. It must also be stressed that the term bon is not used in an ambiguous or non-specific fashion in archaic ritual sources. It has particular applications pertaining to individual traditions and their conceptualization as part of a suite of ritual operations, which has its own historical groundwork (for a comprehensive discussion on the significance of the word bon in archaic sources, see my forthcoming book). To reiterate, this does not imply the existence of a formal ecclesiastic structure or universal creed, as known from modern world religions.
Blezer rightly observes that the term bon denotes a class of ritual specialists, but he adds that bon is “not a firmly established religion embodying a popular system of belief known as Bon” (2008: 426–428). Blezer holds that, had there been an established religion, it should be named in Dunhuang sources as a counterpoint to Buddhism (ibid., 426, 427). I concur, in that if there was indeed a large unitary religion with a centralized administration and institutional structure in the Dunhuang sources, it should by all rights be showcased in contradistinction to Buddhism, but no such entity seems to have existed. This however is not to say there was no religion but that it probably had a non-specific or folk basis, as opposed to the conventional origins of Buddhism or other modern religions for that matter.
As much as can be gleaned from the Old Tibetan texts, bon, as a cluster of interrelated ritual traditions practiced and propagated by special classes of priests, developed organically over a long period of time as an integral part of the prehistoric and early historic cultural makeup of Tibet. The bon ritual complex was deeply ingrained in the social and intellectual universe of Tibet, in the same way that many other taken-for-granted cultural realities are. These required little critical comment or self-reflection because they were accepted parts of a way of life that evolved over centuries. Similarly, the system of medicine practiced in imperial times and which surely had antecedents in the prehistoric epoch is not assigned a special catch-all name in the early literary sources. That is to say, there is no equivalent of ‘Ayurveda’ or ‘Unani’ in them. On the contrary, the system of therapeutics (gso-ba) that developed as an indivisible part of the Tibetan way of life did not require being intellectualized as some grand abstraction. Likewise, this appears to have been so with ritual traditions subsumed under the term bon.
It must also be stressed that ritual traditions, however elaborate, are just one component of what comprises a religion. The archaic ritual texts do touch upon the cult of deities that were the object of propitiation, but tell us little about their iconography or lore. The hierarchical structure of the sacerdotal class and its organization are almost untreated as well. We know from Dunhuang documents that there was indeed a hierarchal arrangement but no historical details are given, save that some priests were perceived as more effective than others. The bon ritual system of the imperial period is framed as being quite uniform over the full extent of Upper Tibet and Central Tibet, blurring whatever regional distinctions (linguistic, conceptual, operational, etc.) may have existed previously. If there was an universally accepted ‘bon’ in the imperial period it would have been dependent on overarching political and economic structures, but the texts are mute on this point. Eternal Bon of course maintains that there was an Übermensch founder to whom almost all followers of religion once submitted, but there is no evidence for this in the archaic texts. For more on the import of the word bon and its relationship to Tibetan religion in general, see Bellezza 2008, pp. 525 (fn. 591); forthcoming.
Blezer (2008: 428) writes that bon while designating religious rituals “does not imply a more abstract notion of some kind of self-conscious organized, popular or elite Bon religion”. Yes, as explained above, the existence of a singular formal religion in ancient times must be called into question; however, a well developed ritual tradition could only have had roots in popular belief and observance. And common custom can potentially be more influential among the masses than any elite hold on religious power. Much depends on how we define ‘religion’, but to suggest that there was no set of beliefs or formalistic behaviors informing bon ritual tradition seems misguided to me.
The importance of the archaic ritual complex to the formation of Eternal Bon cannot be underestimated, as I demonstrate for the funerary sphere in my 2008 book. These connections are not merely onomastic as Blezer suggests (2011a: 156), but rest upon deep intellectual and cultural foundations. Blezer (2011a: 157; 2011c: 167) appears cognizant of this fact when he observes that Eternal Bon sources refer systematically to pre-10th century narratives and sources but rearrange these into a grand religious scheme. This is undoubtedly true. He calls this an ‘invented tradition type’, while I think it is better described as an ‘adapted tradition type’.
I must also call into question Blezer’s (2008: 433) stance that, as regards Eternal Bon usage, it is not relevant to search for the semantic roots of the verb and noun bon in Dunhuang documents. The historical linguistic continuity in the application of this word pre- and post-11th century can be inferred with little complication; for as Blezer himself holds (ibid.): the term bon in the formative period of Eternal Bon development (late 10th and 11th centuries) is used as an explicit reference to the earlier bon and gshen narratives found in the Dunhuang corpus.
Blezer (2011a: p. 120) sees the Dunhuang and Gathang Bumpa locations geographically at odds with the assumed western heartland of Eternal Bon. These locations are indeed far from western Tibet but this is more an accident of history than any indication of the geographic source for their origins myths. As has been shown consistently in the study of archaic ritual sources, their various tales of origins are placed in many of the principalities of Tibet, situated as they are in both the central and western regions. Blezer (ibid., 126) characterizes the Zhang-zhung of the Dunhuang manuscripts as “a petty western principality of some kind”. However, the location of a capital city, king and ministers associated with it noted in the Old Tibetan Chronicle (Pt 1287) and the funerary ritual text Pt 1060 show that Zhang-zhung was in this regard as noteworthy as any other ancient principality cited in Old Tibetan sources. Even Blezer himself concedes that Zhang-zhung and its capital, Khyung-lung rngul-mkhar are directly connected to a king named Lig-snya-shur (2010: 27). While it is true that even rulers of small principalities can carry the title ‘king’, when viewed in tandem with the other historical evidence, it is not prudent to see Zhang-zhung as an insignificant territory. This is particularly true when factoring in the archaeological evidence: the existence of sui generis funerary stelae extending over much of Upper Tibet helps to delineate a paleocultural entity of significant size (see Bellezza 2011c for more details).
It is not surprising then that Blezer (2011c: 157) amends his view on Zhang-zhung when he writes that Bon, Buddhist and Chinese sources all frame it as a powerful kingdom somewhere in greater western Tibet. I am not sure therefore why he attempts to argue that Eternal Bon references to Zhang-zhung are late (ibid., 157, 158), implying that they are not very relevant to a historical investigation. In actuality, they begin to appear in a wide range of Eternal Bon literature in the 11th to 14th centuries CE. It may be that he has in mind late relative to Dunhuang sources, but I am not certain. Nonetheless, even this interpretation is problematic because Blezer holds that early Eternal Bon textual sources like the Klu ’bum and Mdo ’dus are close in age to the archaic ritual manuscripts of Dunhuang (ibid., 158). Again, his position entirely overlooks the fact that the latter sources are composed in Old Tibetan while the former sources are written in Classical Tibetan.
As Blezer (2011a: 128) states, in Eternal Bon sources, Zhang-zhung assumes a position of great importance. It is puzzling to me then why he attempts to decouple archaic textual references to Zhang-zhung from later Eternal Bon conceptions (ibid.). Although the specific historical modalities of this linkage are still obscure, there are nonetheless clear narrative continuities. In the very unlikely scenario that the narrative resonance between the sources is insignificant or a fluke, a new theory on why this is so is demanded. To buttress his position, Blezer brands the Zhang-zhung snyan-rgyud, Me-ri and Ge-khod corpus as “an island onto itself”. I see no reason for sequestering this literature, nor any other body of early Eternal Bon texts (most notably the historical texts) that mention Upper Tibetan locations. To do so would seriously bias any historical discussion on the role of Zhang-zhung in religious history.
Nor do I believe it is significant as Blezer (ibid., 127) seems to think that no named gshen or bon priests are directly connected to Khyung-lung rngul-mkhar (a Zhang-zhung capital), for our archaic textual record despite being woefully incomplete depicts the gshen and bon as the sacerdotal mainstay of the ancient religion. In other words, the gshen and bon of the imperial period belonged to Upper Tibetan locations as much as they belonged to Central Tibetan ones.
I am nonplussed that in response to the Mdo ’dus and Khro dbang chen commentary placing a Gshen-rab footprint high up in the upper Tsangpo (Rtsang-po) valley, Blezer interprets this location as being fairly close to Rkong-po (2011a: 132). Even if this footprint was situated in the Rtsang-chen region as Blezer suggests (ibid.; 2008: 431, 432), there is all of the province of Dbus between it and Rkong-po!
Blezer (2011a: 134) observes that when the emissary Spug Gyim-brtan rmang-chung was dispatched to Khyung-lung rngul-mkhar to meet the sister of the king he found her at Lake Ma-pang. Blezer (ibid., 134) takes this Pt 1287 account as evidence supporting the location of Khyung-lung rngul-mkhar much further east than Gur-gyam, a place increasingly cited as the possible location of the Zhang-zhung capital (see April 2012 newsletter for more information). Blezer (ibid.) states that Gurgyam is situated four days by yak caravan from the Lake Ma-pang area, too far away if she was to go fishing there. Nevertheless, the fact remains that Lake Ma-pang and Lake La-ngag are the closest major bodies of water to Gur-gyam. Moreover, Tibetan princesses did not customarily travel by yak caravan but rather on horseback with an equestrian escort. Lake Ma-pang can be reached easily from Gur-gyam in two days of riding. I also view with skepticism Blezer’s reading of rngul (silver) as rdul (dust) in Dunhuang texts (ibid., 136, 139). Close acquaintance with the handwriting used to produce these manuscripts demonstrates that the correct reading is Khyung-lung rngul-mkhar. Furthermore, my familiarity with the terrain of the region suggests that silver is a more appropriate word for describing its topography than ‘dusty’ or ‘sandy’.
Blezer (ibid., 140–142) is at pains to criticize aspects of my translation of a Kun ’bum excerpt (Antiquities of Upper Tibet, 2002, Adroit: Delhi) and his analysis is not without merit. Nonetheless, I still maintain that the word khug in this context means ‘basin’ (as in a fold or indentation in the land surface) rather than ‘bend’, as Blezer thinks. A ‘bend’ in a circular lake does not seem a very appropriate usage. But more fundamentally, the mythic Kun ‘’bum account cannot be used to fix the location of Khyung-lung rngul-mkhar at either Lake Ma-pang or Gur-gyam. It simply does not contain that kind of geographic precision; rather it was written as a paean to past glories real or imagined. As regards the archaeological evidence, there are no indications that a capital citadel was found near the shores of Lake Ma-pang, while there is a large ruined archaic citadel above Gur-gyam.
Undermining Blezer’s suggestion that Khyung-lung rngul-mkhar may have been located in eastern regions is his following admission: “In older contexts (presumably he is referring to Dunhuang materials here) a Rngul-mkhar is merely associated with the center of power of a Zhang-zhung polity and with those Lig-myi-rhya or Lig-sna-shur kingly figures” (ibid., 147). Yet, as Blezer observes (ibid.,148), it remains to be seen whether Mkhar-gdong or Khyung-lung yul-smad can be positively identified as the site of Khyung-lung rngul-mkhar. He aptly concludes that given the fictive qualities of the narratives it may be “difficult if not impossible to locate in the field” (ibid., 148).
Blezer (ibid., 143, 144) believes that the yul chab gyi ya-bgo (country of the headwaters) of the archaic ritual text Pt 1060 probably designates the upper reaches of the Tsangpo River near its Zhang-zhung or western Tibetan source (for a locational analysis of yul chab gyi ya-bgo in the headwaters of the four rivers of southwestern Tibet, see Bellezza 2010: 38–40). However, he adds that it may not refer to the same place in all its Old Tibetan textual applications (ibid.). As a ritual geographic designator it is indeed used in the same fashion in the Dunhuang manuscripts Pt 1136 and Pt 1060. Blezer relies on his variable signification notion to assert that yul chab kyi ya-bgo is in Rtsang-chen, a region he expansively defines as being located somewhere between Mount Ti-se and Central Tibet (ibid., 145, 146). By doing so, he divorces Mount Ti-se from any association with Zhang-zhung, its traditional and most plausible location.
Blezer’s (ibid., 145) idea that Rtsang and Rtsang-chen in early historical documents are probably synonymous must also be treated with a good degree of caution. I have not found compelling evidence in the texts to permit these place names to be seen as interchangeable.
I cannot agree that Eternal Bon references to Sta-sgo shel gyi gangs-ra might refer to the Rta-rgo (sic) range in the central Byang-thang, as Blezer seems to think (ibid., 142, 143). When this toponym is coupled with G.yung-drung mu-le or Ma-pang g.yu-mtsho, it denotes Mount Ti-se and the Trans-Himalaya range of which it is a part (for some examples, see Bellezza 2008).
Blezer’s (ibid., 149) statement that Eternal Bon narratives “may not be the relic of a grand Zhang-zhung empire, but a careful and gradual construction as such” deserves comment in itself, for nothing less than the validity of the Eternal Bon historical picture is at stake here. On one hand, Blezer’s historical characterization of Eternal Bon histories as being modified to reinforce a doctrinally agreeable version of events is insightful and telling (see analysis of the nature of the Eternal Bon historical discourse in Bellezza 2008, pp. 201–207). Nevertheless, Eternal Bon materials also contain authentic relics of a time when archaic religious traditions flourished. These relics have been reinterpreted to embody and advance the Eternal Bon faith, yet they still exist in quite prolific form despite being veiled by the doctrinal accretion of subsequent centuries.
Blezer (2011a: 149, 2011c: 161) believes that if there was indeed an ancient heartland of bon, it appears to have been projected on the Zhang-zhung principality a century or more after the emergence of Eternal Bon. He goes on to speculate that the heartland of bon may have been in Rkong-po and only transferred to the west with the growing importance of Mount Ti-se and Lake Ma-pang in Eternal Bon sacred geography (2011a: 150). Thus, Blezer (ibid., 153) goes on to argue for an expansion of Eternal Bon influences westward around the turn of the second millennium CE. I however see the geographic spread of Eternal Bon in almost contrary terms. The central role that Upper Tibetan locations (such as Zhang-zhung, Smra-yul thang-brgyad, Byang-ka rnam-brgyad, yul chab gyi ya-bgo, etc.) play in the archaic ritual origins myths of Dunhuang and Gathang Bumpa texts encourage us to see this vast region as having played a formative role in the religious development of Tibet. The archaeological record of Upper Tibet is also instructive: it is replete with intricate burial grounds and necropoli reflective of considerable cultural sophistication before the dawn of the Buddhist era. For an analysis of the prominence of Upper Tibet to archaic religious and cultural traditions, see Bellezza forthcoming; 2010, pp. 70–72; for the pre-Buddhist archaeology of Upper Tibet, see 2011a; 2011b.
Although Upper Tibet holds a special position in the foundation myths as a venue of ritual generation and sacerdotal action in the foundation myths, various regions to the east are also prominent in the discourse of origins. Texts such as Pt 1285 and Rnel drĭ ’dul ba’i thabs sogs are virtual catalogues of principalities stretching across Central Tibet from Rtsang to Rkong-po. Blezer (2008: 432) seems to appreciate this fact when be comments that the lists of locations in Pt 1285 may point to the heartland of Gshen-rab and bon. Why then his reluctance to accept the uppermost reaches of the Tibetan Plateau when the narratives of Pt 1060 and Pt 1136, etc. encompass them as well? Moreover, to postulate an eastern homeland for Eternal Bon / bon runs counter to the letter of the historical documents of Eternal Bon. I am not insinuating that we should accept this religion’s historical orthodoxy uncritically, but that one would have to marshal a wide spectrum of evidence to repudiate its western origins tradition, and that evidence in quality or quantity has not been forthcoming.
Rma-yul and Smra-yul in texts such as Pt 1136 and the Gathang Bumpa byol-rabs ritual text denote specific localities. Their locations are not absolutely certain but textual indications allude to the Upper Tibetan environment. Had Blezer consulted my 2010 paper he may possibly have reevaluated his position on the original homeland of bon, but he consistently ignores the existence of this work in his writings.
I am afraid that Blezer also errs in claiming that the personalities Smra-myi and Rma-myi of Pt 1136 hail from Skyi in Central Tibet, which he believes may be the same entity as Smra-yul thang-brgyad (2011c: 160). These figures actually come from a pastoral region, as a careful reading of the text demonstrates (see Bellezza 2008, pp. 517–522; 2010, pp. 70–72). In addition to their geographic connotations, as with many other ethnonyms or tribal appellations the world over, smra and rma also carry the sense of ‘man’ or ‘the people’.
These geographic miscalculations on the part of Blezer underline the danger of extracting names and terms in isolation from archaic ritual manuscripts. These documents have specific cultural and religious characteristics and applications, which must be understood and appreciated if basic matters such as the settings of the origins myths are to be determined. It is only through engagement with a rigorous philological process that there is any hope of coming to grips with archaic religious traditions in Tibet. Borrowing from the work of other scholars or dismantling intricate narratives to remove a single name or term cannot suffice if the observations about them are to be well-rounded.
In his brief treatment of Dunhuang geographic terminology, Blezer (ibid., 145) identifies Pt 1136 as a “story about a marital alliance”. For the record, although there is a betrothal involved, this manuscript contains two of the extant myths about the origins of the do-ma, the horse reputed to carry the dead to the otherworld. Also, Blezer’s identification of Pt 1060 as a ‘divination text’ is patently incorrect. Pt 1060 is another text in the genre of do-ma origins myths (this text and other do-ma origin tales are closely examined in my forthcoming book).
Blezer (2011c: 159) supposes that the occurrence of the Rma ethnonym in Dunhuang sources is probably connected to the Rma-chu (Yellow) River, thus any use of this name in connection with the gshen and bon must place them in eastern or central Tibet. This is not so in every instance because Rma / rma is also used in connection with Zhang-zhung genealogies and as a Zhang-zhung lexical form (see Bellezza 2010, p. 70, fn. 148). Blezer (ibid.) also claims that the Central Tibetan location of Skyi is where Rma personalities originate. This also cannot be taken as a blanket statement of fact because the homelands of Rma figures like the celebrated funerary priest (dur-gshen) Rma-da and the emblematic figure Rma-bu mchin-rgyal cannot be localized with any certainty. The textual evidence simply does not exist. As another matter of the written record, Rma-myi de of Pt 1136 hails from Dga’-yul byang-nams (Northern Joyous Land). This boreal land is definitely not equated with Skyi. Also dubious is Blezer’s assertion that Skyi is the homeland of humans in a general sense, and that Myi-yul is the equivalent of Smra-yul, which he conflates with Rma-yul. In the Dunhuang manuscripts there is no single cradle of humanity isolated in a specific geographic locale. Origins myths transpire in settings from the headwaters of southwestern Tibet to the ‘tail-waters’ of Rkong-po.
It appears that Blezer confuses or conflates Myi-yul skyi-mthing and Skyi-ro ljang-sngon (a principality in Central Tibet). Still, given the sequence of syllables, Myi-yul skyi-mthing cannot be characterized as a Skyi location or principality. It seems that the epithet Myi-yul skyi-mthing signifies an original homeland of humans in a mythic or poetic sense, a location geographically centered in Lha-ri gyang-do, as the spot on earth where Gnya’-khri btsan-po (Tibet’s first king) came down to be lord of the country of humans (myi-yul; see, for example, Bellezza 2005: 397 [fn. 193]). Blezer (2011c: 161) does point out that Myi-yul skyi-mthing is of seminal significance, but not for the reasons he tenders. It is so because it appears to be a title for the world or earth, not because of the crucial importance of a single corner of Rkong-po. Thus, as Blezer himself acknowledges, in the Eternal Bon text Kun ’bum, the mythic center of Myi-yul skyi-mthing is ’Ol-mo lung-ring, the cosmological omphalos (2011c: 163). In the Dunhuang manuscript ITJ 731r, Myi-yul skyi-mthing is directly prefixed to sMra-yul thang-rgyad as a larger geographic entity, the latter falling within its compass. Likewise, Myi-yul skyi-mthing as the earth or a large chunk of it is found in an ancestral lineage text (pha-rabs) for the Gu-rib clan of Zhang-zhung (see below). I suspect that there are other such references in Eternal Bon materials but I have not had the opportunity to check yet.
In support of Myi-yul skyid-steng (sic) as designating the earth is the following reference from Gu rib pha rabs kyi byung khungs mdor bsdus bzhugs so (The Abridged Origins of the Gu rib Paternal Origins, 12 folios (nos. 1–24), anonymous, text owner: Dol-po ban-tshang Bla-ma btsan-’dzin nor-bu, text compiled in Pho-brang rnam-rgyal, edited version to be published by Chos-’khor tshang nyi-ma ’od-zer). After reaching the earth, the founding deity of the story mates with a water spirit (klu) before returning to the heavens. His progeny hail from Upper Tibet and Rtsang, not Skyi (I will present more of the textual translation on another occasion):
In ancient times, the emanation of the body, speech and mind of the Buddha, that known as a luminous sphere as large as a pigeon, going into the sky, beheld whatever were the good places and lineages. In the precious swastika existence numinous place, on the branch of the holy place world tree, were the lha of effulgence known as Ya-smad (Upper and Lower), the father and mother couple of very great power and good activities. All around the three worlds no better than them was found. [The luminous ball] entered the womb of that lha-mo.
mgnon (= sngon) dus sangs rgyas [no. 3] kyi sku gsung thugs kyis sprul pa ’od kyis gong bu bya ba phug ron tsam cig nam mkha’ la phyin nas / gnas dang rigs gang zang (= bzang) gzigs pas / gnas dpag bsam gi zhing gi yal gal la rin por (= po) che srid pa g.yung drung nga gi gzhal yas khang na / ’od bas la gyi lha ya smad kyang bzhes bya ba yab yum gnyis shin du dbang che ba / spyod pa bzang ba ’jig rten gsum skor yang nga (= de?) las / lhag pa ma rnyed nas / lha mo de’i lhums su gzhugs  so /
When it was time, the mother gave birth to a very handsome and finely complexioned son. In the morning, in the holy place of the father and mother lha, a feast was held and the name Dmu-g.yang rje was bestowed upon [the son]. Thereafter, Dmu-g.yang rje with his divine eyes looked up and down and all around, but there was no place as special as Myi-yul skyid-steng.
lha yum de la lo dus su / bu shin du mdog bzang dug pa cig skyes / lha yab yum gnas su nam (= gnam) la stang rag stang nas ming la dmu g.yang rje ru btags so / de nas dmu yang rje de lha’i spyon gyis steng ’og phyog gang la gzigs yang mi yul skyid steng las lhag pa’i gnas ni ma ’chis so /
He saw that in the east it is like a conch basin realm, in the south it is like a turquoise shoulder blade realm, in the west it is like swirling [water] in a brass caldron realm, and in the north it is like a properly arranged golden tablet realm. Seeing that both the holy place and noble mother were marvelous, [Dmu-g.yang rje] with an exceedingly happy mind went before his mother and father lha, requesting that he himself have a consort of similar likeness. [He said], ‘I will go to Mi-yul skyid-steng.’
shar dung zhong lta bu’i gling / lho ni g.yu’i sog pa’i g.yu lta bu’i gling / nub phyogs ni slang rag ’khyil lta bu’i gling / byang phyogs ni gser gyi gyang  pu (= bu) bkod pa lta bu’i gling dang bcas pa gzigs so / btsun mo dang yul gnyis kar ya mtshan du gzigs nas / shin du dga’ ba’i sems kyis / lha yab yum gyi drung du phyin nas / zhus pa bdag ni ’di lta bu’i yul dang grogs par mchis so / nga mi yul skyid steng du ’gro mchis so /
Another example of cutting and pasting into contexts unintended by the authors is Blezer’s assertion that Rtsang ho-de’i hos-bdag of Pt 1136 is the lord of Rtsang province (2011c: 166). Again, scrutiny of this text strongly suggests that Rtsang in the above name refers to the river (Rtsang-po), not the province, for the origins tale takes place in the headwaters region of southwestern Tibet. This riverine localization is mirrored by geographic data contained in a Gathang Bumpa manuscript (see my forthcoming book). Also questionable is Blezer’s (2008: 448) assertion that the name Ho-de’i hos-bdag of Pt 1136 is a variant of His-de chen-po and His-po his-bdag of the manuscript ITJ 734. The narrative context in which these names are found makes this an unlikely prospect, and this is substantiated by a study of Old Tibetan spellings and lexicography.
The cursory nature of Blezer’s inquiry into the archaic ritual texts is typified in his belief that the Rma and Skyi syllables (which he enigmatically calls narratives clusters) reveal both the name of the founders and locations of the ancient ritual traditions, which is southwestern Central Tibet, not far western Tibet (2011c: 167). As underlined, southwestern Central Tibet, far western Tibet, as well as Central Tibet and Rkong-po are all essential constituents of archaic ritual discourse. Although Upper Tibetan regions assume a precedential mantle in the origins myths, they are not alone in this regard. In the imperial period Tibetans were engaged in building a Plateau-wide polity, incorporating the various proto-cultural regions (Zhang-zhung, Bod, Sum-pa, etc.) into the empire. The focus of the archaic ritual texts is not so much to locate a heartland for the bon traditions, but to endorse the legitimacy and efficacy of its ritual dispensation over a broad geographic area. Ironically, it seems that we modern scholars are more focused on pinpointing an ultimate geographic source for bon than the ancients ever were.
Beckwith paper reviewed
Beckwith, C. I. 2011. “On Zhangzhung and Bon” in Emerging Bon: The Formation of Bon Traditions in Tibet at the Turn of the First Millennium AD (ed. H. Blezer), pp. 164–184. PIATS 2006: Proceedings of the Eleventh Seminar of the International Association for Tibetan Studies, Königswinter 2006. Halle: International Institute for Tibetan and Buddhist Studies GmbH.
Dr. Christopher I. Beckwith is a professor of Central Eurasian studies at Indian University, Bloomington. He is the recipient of a number of highly distinguished academic awards and a linguist and historian of much repute.
In this review, I highlight areas of disagreement that Beckwith and I have as concerns the signification and historical placement of the term bon, setting aside for the moment the great Tibetological commons we both inhabit.
I wish here to dispute Beckwith’s contention that, “there is not a single verifiable reference to Bon or Bonpo (proper noun, the author’s) datable to the Tibetan empire period” (p. 172). He adds, “[bon] is undoubtedly contemporaneous with the transmitted [Eternal] Bon texts” (ibid.). These bold statements are squarely contradicted by the philological evidence, some of which I touch on in the review of papers by Henk Blezer above and elaborate upon at length in my forthcoming book. Even a superficial study of the concerned texts demonstrates that the archaic ritual sources citing bon were composed in a different or earlier form of the Tibetan language than the Eternal Bon materials. Unfortunately, there is no sign in any of the articles written by Beckwith with which I am familiar indicating that he has studied the archaic ritual texts of Dunhuang. He provides no translations and almost no textual citations. Hence, his sweeping statements about these Old Tibetan texts without furnishing even a shred of philological evidence are not at all convincing.
Beckwith’s (p. 174) allied claim that there is no evidence for a religious tradition called bon in verifiable imperial-period texts is also suspicious. Although it is true that none of the archaic ritual texts have been conclusively dated, they are written in a language that is comparable to the Old Tibetan Annals and other texts often accepted as authentic empire-period documents. Therefore, to rule out the possibility of an imperial period date is unwarranted. His categorical statements, while not yet disproven beyond a shadow of doubt, should not be presented as historical facts. They are not.
Beckwith (pp. 174, 176) maintains that in Old Tibetan texts the word bon appears as a verb meaning ‘to call’ or ‘to name’ and does not seem to occur in religious contexts. He does not specify any texts, let alone specific references, supporting his allegations. As I have pointed out above and which I elucidate at length in my forthcoming book (also recognizable in translations found in my 2010 and 2008 works), bon as a common noun denotes a body of funerary and therapeutic ritual traditions of significant depth and complexity as well as the priests who carried them out.
When expounding his position, Beckwith (ibid.) maintains that the word bon has nothing to do with its meaning in the Eternal Bon religion. This is simply not the case, for bon in Eternal Bon also denotes a set of ritual traditions and their historical underpinnings (as well as other aspects of religion not covered in the archaic ritual documents). Furthermore, Beckwith (ibid.) wants us to believe that circa 11th to 12th- century Eternal Bon texts are not a reliable source of information about ‘pre-Buddhist’ personalities, but again he provides no textual data to support his belief. In reality, Gshen-rab myi-bo, Dur-gshen rma-da, Mgon-tshun phywa and a host of other priestly figures are found in both archaic and Eternal Bon sources in complementary arrangements (see my publications for more details). How reliable any of the host narratives are as real biographical documents is another matter entirely, but the narrative continuity between the earlier and later sources is clear and convincing.
After summarily discarding all archaic ritual texts as invalid sources of information regarding ancient religion in Tibet, Beckwith advances the old theory that bon is derived from Central Asian Buddhist traditions, which were orally transmitted (pp. 174–176). They would have to have been orally transmitted because the textual record for any such propagation is scant indeed. This is not to say that pre-7th century Tibet could not have been influenced by Buddhist traditions practiced to the north and west, but this was certainly not the main current of religion in that time. The archaic ritual texts of Dunhuang and Gathang Bumpa present a history, ideology and praxis that have nothing to do with Buddhism. They belong to a different religious universe. If Central Asian Buddhism did indeed somehow color religion in early Tibet, it left virtually no traces behind. To the best of my knowledge there is not a single inscription or monument of Buddhist persuasion in Tibet that predates the 7th century. This absence of epigraphic and archaeological data must be accounted for in any theory of religious development in Tibet.
Beckwith does make passing mention of the archaic ritual systems known as gto and dpyad (ibid.), but he attempts to brush them aside by branding them syncretic additions. Beckwith (pp. 157, 158) would like us to believe that Eternal Bon is merely a heterodox form of Buddhism. However, extensive ritual practices such as the gto and dpyad, as well as mo and phya, indicate that Eternal Bon is much more than merely a Buddhist imitation. Earlier scholarship on Eternal Bon (such as that conducted by David L. Snellgrove) quite convincingly established the wide-ranging nature of Eternal Bon origins. Why then are scholars like Beckwith now trying to narrow it down to just one historical source? I can only conclude that they are intent on cleaving ancient Tibet from its bon underpinnings. However, this bastion of native Tibetan historical understanding cannot be so easily swept away as the modern revisionists might like.
Forthcoming in 2012. Death and Beyond in Ancient Tibet: Archaic Concepts and Practices in a Thousand-Year-Old Illuminated Funerary Manuscript and Old Tibetan Funerary Documents of Gathang Bumpa and Dunhuang. Wien: Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften.
2011a. Antiquities of Zhang-zhung: A Comprehensive Inventory of Pre-Buddhist Sites on the Tibetan Upland, Residential Monuments, vol. 1, Tibetan & Himalayan Library (THlib.org). http://www.thib.org/bellezza.
2011b. Antiquities of Zhang-zhung: A Comprehensive Inventory of Pre-Buddhist Sites on the Tibetan Upland, Ceremonial Monuments, vol. 2, Tibetan & Himalayan Library (THlib.org).
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