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Drung Deu and Bon: Narrations, Symbolic Languages and The Bon Tradition In Ancient Tibet

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Item Code: NAC801
Author: Namkhai Norbu
Publisher: Library of Tibetan Works & Archives, Dharamsala
Edition: 1997
ISBN: 8185102937
Pages: 347
Cover: Paperback
Other Details 9.5 Inch X 6.0 Inch
Weight 550 gm
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Book Description
About the Author

Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche is a renowned lama of the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism and a master of the Dzogchen tradition. Besides giving instruction in Dzogchen meditation and leading retreats in the West, he held the position of Professor at the University of Naples. Where he taught Tibetan language and cultural history.

About the Book

Drung, Deu and Bon

Drung, Deu and Bon offers a rare opportunity to explore pre-Buddhist Tibetan culture, presented within the three categories commonly described as the foundation of the kingdom of Tibet— drung (narrations), deu (symbolic languages), and the Ban tradition.

In this important work, Professor Namkhai Norbu begins by investigating the epic poems and legends of Tibet’s secular culture. He then turns his attention to the mysteries of the ancient symbolic languages that conveyed wisdom inexpressible in conventional terms; and he concludes by elucidating the complexities of the Pre-Buddhist Bon religion in the context of its 12 ‘lore’s’ or ‘sciences’.

This fascinating book sheds new light on the ancient and authentic wisdom of Tibet, in the process revealing its influence upon the historical and cultural continuity of the Tibetan people.


It gives us great pleasure to publish this erudite and fascinating account of the origins of Tibetan culture by Professor Namkhai Norbu, one of the finest lama scholars of the century. Drung, Deu and Bon contains rare and valuable information on pre-Buddhist Tibetan culture, from the time of Tibet’s first King, Nyatri Tsenpo, to the 28th King, Lhathothori Nyentsen. This is presented within the three categories commonly described as the foundation of the kingdom of Tibet, namely drung (narrations), deu (symbolic languages) and the Ban tradition.

Professor Norbu’s fine intellect and compassionate mind are evident throughout the book He investigates in turn the epic poems and legends of Tibet’s secular culture, the mysteries of the ancient symbolic languages that conveyed wisdom inexpressible in conventional terms, or the complexities of the pre-Buddhist Bon religion in the context of its 12 ‘lore’s’ or ‘sciences’. In all three sections of the book, he seeks to uncover and preserve knowledge of the authentic roots of the present-day Tibetan culture.

The Library of Tibetan Works and Archives particularly welcomes scholarly works which shed light on the ancient wisdom of Tibet and reveal its influence upon the historical and cultural continuity of the Tibetan people today. Thus, we celebrate the emergence of this book and are confident that its contents will be of benefit to scholars and students of Tibetan culture around the world.

We are grateful to Don Eisenberg who devoted much time to the computer formatting of the book we trust that this great work will continue to be esteemed far into the future.


The author of this book, Professor Namkhai Norbu, is one of the most original and singular personalities in the field of contemporary Tibetan culture. As well as being well known in the west as one of the most authoritative masters of Dzogchen (Doges then), an ancient teaching that embodies the essence of Tibetan spirituality, he is also deeply and widely versed in all the religious, medical and astrological traditions of his country, to which he has devoted studies, and on which he has written numerous works.1 Particularly, over many years he has undertaken research into the origins of Tibetan culture, identifying in the ancient kingdom of Shang Shung (Zhang zhung), which had its centre in western Tibet, and in the Bon religion the roots of the marvelous flowering of wisdom and spirituality that took place on the ‘roof of the world’.

In this book,2 written in 1982, he gives a global overview of pre Buddhist Tibetan culture, taking his cue from the statement, repeated in several historical texts, that rule of the ancient Tibetan kingdom was based on three factors: drung (stung: narrations); deu (lde’u: symbolic Languages);3 and Ban (bon). On the basis of several quotations drawn from historical sources and ritual texts the author unfolds with great clarity the functions and characteristic traits of the ancient Tibetan wisdom, delving particularly into each of the diverse cognitive and magic ritual traditions belonging to the twelve ‘lore’s’ or ‘sciences’ (sties pa bcu gnyis) of Ban, utilizing an original and deep interpretative method which could also be applied to the study of the other religious traditions of the past.

The first chapter of the book is devoted to the drung, which comprised every kind of narrative, from epic poems to legends, from fables to anecdotes, and which undoubtedly formed the ‘secular’ culture of the country. Just as in other ancient civilizations, the cultural heritage of the people actually lay in the hands of the bards (stung mkhan) who in their epics and poems, as well as the ancestry of the royal and noble families and the narrations of important historical events, handed down all the heritage of traditional knowledge and cosmogonist notions of the country. Thus it represented the main means of diffusion of culture and of education. Moreover, many of these tales were, as the author explains, derived from the ‘origin myths’ which guaranteed the efficacy and correct functioning of the Ban rites and of which we will read numerous examples in the course of the book.

The deu, treated in the second chapter of the book, consisted in symbolic or cryptic languages used to communicate information and secret messages through the use of words and with the aid of objects charged with special imports. Thus they were instruments for the discovery of wisdom which could not be communicated openly, ‘keys’ to open the door of knowledge of the ineffable and the unknown, as we can deduce from their use in the Dzogchen teaching and by the association of the probable original meaning of the term deu with certain divinatory practices. However the field of the deu was not limited to spiritual initiations or divination, they were also widely used as a kind of cipher code by members of the court for strategically and political ends and by the common people to resolve particular problems and needs. ft is likely that with the passing of time only the outer and more superficial aspect of this ancient form of knowledge remained, that of the enigma or riddle, because this is the meaning of the term which has survived in modem Tibetan.

The major part of the book is devoted to Bon. It is divided in thirteen chapters, one introductory and twelve treating of the ‘twelve lore’s’ of Bon. It appears that originally Ban consisted in an assortment of magic ritual cognitions and practices based on the principle of the interaction of man and the outer forces of nature and of the cosmos, ‘invisible’ to ordinary perception but highly influential and determinant in human existence. The ancient Bonpos,4 as transpires from the extant ritual literature and from the pages of this book, had deep knowledge of the energy dimension5 of the individual and of the energies present in the universe, personified or dominated by a great variety of powerful non human beings capable of benefitting but also of disturbing man. According to tradition at a certain moment in time these ritual cognitions and practices, some of which included animal sacrifices, were revised and codified by Shenrab Miwoche (gShen tab nil bo the), a master from Shang Shung who was in many ways similar to the great sages and founders of religions of the past His teachings were then classified in different ways; that of the ‘twelve lore’s’ appears to be the most ancient classification, as we shall have occasion to see.

Only in recent years in the Tibet logical field has Ban become the object of serious study and research, so that there still persist several doubts and uncertainties concerning its origin and the history of its evolution, also on account of the scarcity of ancient sources and archaic- logical findings. Current Ban religion, codified into a canon of scriptures very similar to the Buddhist one, does not differ in its philosophical principles and ritual and meditative practices from the other Tibetan schools of the Buddhist tradition. The separation of the more ‘authentic’ or ancient traditions from those influenced by Buddhism has been one of the major tasks of those who in recent years have devoted themselves to the study of Bon; however the results have not always been satisfactory or in accord.6 For this reason at times there has been a tendency to dismiss the idea that Ban might have been the autochthonous religion of Tibet and to hypothesize that it was instead the outcome of a religious syncretism of Indian, Buddhist, Iranian and other elements which took place in the west and northwest of the country in an era preceding the official introduction of Buddhism in Tibet in the seventh and eighth centuries. As a result of this tendency in the field of Tibet logy it is considered that the study of the pre-Buddhist religion of Tibet should be distinguished from the study of the Bon religion and based mainly, if not exclusively, on the Tun Huang manuscripts not with standing the fact that these manuscripts, generally recognized as reliable sources for the study of Tibetan history and religion, contain numerous descriptions of rites performed by officiates called bonpo and shen pa.8 Moreover, large part of the cognitive and magi co-ritual traditions found among the ‘twelve lore’s’ of Bon are generally subsumed under the name ‘folk religion’, an expression which although it transmits the sense of ‘autochthonous’ and ‘traditional’ nevertheless does not help clarify their origin or historical collocation.

The importance of Professor Namkhai Norbu’s study and research lies, in my view, in its capacity to explain the various cultural and religious phenomena of ancient Tibet in the light of a clear and consistent key of interpretation: the conception of man as the indivisible centre of inner energies symbolized by deities on one side and as the ‘support’ of outer energies dominated by different classes of beings on the other. On the basis of this knowledge the various phenomena of existence were interpreted as modalities of the interaction between these two types of energy. In ancient times the Tibetans believed that by intervening in nature and altering the original harmony man could disturb the energies or ‘deities’ tied to various environments and that the ensuing disharmony could provoke a decline in his health and prosperity. The Bonpos were specialists in identifying the causes of the disturbances, through divination, astrology etc. and in prescribing suitable remedies which in most cases consisted in rites, according to this tradition the main means of restoring cosmic and individual harmony. Understanding in our own time the value and significance of these rites means opening a door onto the immense panorama of the primordial experiences and knowledge of man because, as the great scholar Mircea Elide suggested at the conclusion of his study of Australian religions “The ultimate goal of the historian of religions is not to point out that there exist a certain number of types or patterns of religious behavior, with their specific symbol logiest and theologies, but rather to understand their meanings.

In our era we have witnessed the disappearance of values and traditions based on civilizations thousands of years old, and nowadays man seems to have forgotten that part of him which formed the essential nucleus of the myths and rites of ancient peoples. For this reason the danger of extinction of a culture tied to ancient traditions, as the Tibetan tradition is, means the loss of a knowledge that belongs to all of humanity, as it is part of that original wisdom or global vision that we find in various forms in all the religious cultures of the world.

In my translation of the original Tibetan and in my edition and annotation I have enjoyed the generous collaboration of the author, who was my Professor of Tibetan at the Institute Universitario Orientale in the University of Naples, where he currently holds the chair in Tibetan and Mongolian Studies. With unsparing patience he went over the whole translation and helped me resolve several doubts and difficulties, particulate in the interpretation of passages from ancient ritual texts which frequently contained terns and expressions that have disappeared from modem Tibetan and are not to be found in the Tibetan dictionaries currently available. Heartfelt thanks are also due to Lobpon (slob dpon) Tenzin Namdak (bsTan ‘dzin mum dug), a leading exponent of Ben from Mend (sMan Ti) Monastery in central Tibet who during his stay in Italy in August 1989 clarified aspects and characteristics of the ancient ritual traditions for me. Finally I wish to thank Ceshe (dge bshes) Tenzin Wangyal (bsTan ‘dzin dung royal), a young Bonpo scholar currently living in the west, who helped me resolve certain doubts in the translation.


The study of the Ben religious tradition, that was present in Tibet for many centuries before the spread of Buddhism, is an indispensable reference point for research into the birth and history of the civilization of the ‘Land of Snows’. Originally the term ‘bon’ designated the various existing religious and magi co-ritual traditions, very probably based on elements common to the heritage of panasiatic Shamanism.1 Etymologic tale ally the term derives from the verb bon pa, ‘to recite magical formulas’, because the power its practitioners obtained derived from the recitation of mantra, syllables or sounds with the capacity of influencing certain energy dimensions. In fact through the vibration of mantra the ancient Bonpos came into contact with, and succeeded in controlling, the invisible energies and occult forces that govern existence.

In a historical era which can probably be dated about the beginning of the second millennium Bc? One stream of the several ritual traditions gained supremacy over the others, conquering them so to speak, and absorbing them into its own system. The foundation of this stream, which was to become ‘official’ Bön, is ascribed to the master Shenrab Miwoche who lived in Shang Shung, in that area between Mount Tise (Kailas a) and Lake Mapham (Manasarovar) which can in all respects be considered the cradle of Tibetan culture. The name Shenrab Miwoche means ‘Great Supreme Man of the Shen’; Shea was the name of the clan to which he belonged and to which historical sources attribute the names of his ancestors for several generations.3 The most remarkable innovation in his teaching was the abolition of the ancient cruel sacrifices and the adoption of the use of clay or butter ‘effigies’ to replace the human or animal victims, a tradition still observed today not only in Bön but also in all the schools of Tibetan Buddhism.4 Thus the main aim of his mission was to renew and reform the pre-existent cognitive and ritual traditions, as clearly transpires from the theoretical principles and methods of practice comprised in the ‘twelve lore’s’, twelve types of Bön that were spread in Tibet at the time of the first king, Nyatri Tsenpo.5 According to the historical sources these represent the whole of Tibetan culture as it existed until the definitive advent of Buddhism in the eighth century.

Let us dwell a moment on the history of Tibet in order to have an overall picture of the origin and evolution of the country. Broadly speaking it can be divided into three historical periods: in the first only the kingdom of Shang Shung existed; in the second Shang Shung coexisted with the new kingdom of Tibet located in the fertile Yarlung valley; the third, which starts with the annexation of Shang Shung by Tibet, ends with the collapse of the Tibetan empire in the ninth century.

He centre of the kingdom of Shang Shung lay in what is now the region of Cuge in western Tibet, but its dominion spread over practically all the territory subsequently encompassed in central and eastern Tibet. The government of Shang Shung probably did not exercise direct control over those regions, limiting it to levying annual taxes, however its civilization and culture, based on the Bon traditions, spread widely in all parts of Tibet. The beginning of this era probably coincides with the life of the master Shenrab Miwoche and of his royal patron Triwer Sergyi Charuchen.7 As regards the name ‘Shang Shung’, probably the original name was simply ‘Shung’ and ‘Shang’ (zhang: maternal uncle) was added later as a sign of respect, as many Tibetan kings had married princesses from Shang Shung. The word ‘shung’ (zhung) corresponds to the Tibetan khyung, the garu4a eagle8 that in this ancient civilization symbolized the energy force linked with fire, considered the most active of the five elements in Bon. Still today in the vicinity of Mount Tise there exists a place called Khyunglung, ‘khyung valley’, which was for a time capital of the kings of Shang Shung.

The second period saw the rise of the dynasty of the kings of Yarlung, a small kingdom in central Tibet, which was to lay the foundation of the Tibetan empire of the succeeding centuries. But the culture of the king- Dom was that of Shang Shung, as was its religion. All the historical texts report that for thirty-three generations of kings, from the time of Nyatri Tsenpo to that of Songtsen Garnpo (died 649), the state religion was Ban and the king was always accompanied by one or more royal priests called kushen (sku gshen). These priests served as the king’s bodyguards and were essential for maintaining his prestige and well being as well as ensuring the prosperity of the people and the nation. Nevertheless there were occasions when the kings attempted to rebel against the power of the priestly caste, which was directly tied to the interests of the kingdom of Shang Shung that initially enjoyed a sort of supremacy over the new state: it is sufficient to observe that traditionally the names of the Tibetan kings were conferred by the Bon priests in the language of Shang Shung.

Trigum Tsenpo’° (c; 1st century A.D.), the eighth king, was the first to try to suppress Bon for political reasons, exiling all the priests and enforcing a harsh repression of the clergy. He was concerned about the growing prestige of the priestly caste and feared that Shang Shung could conquer Tibet, a kingdom quite young in relation to the other and which still lacked adequate political and military power to protect its independence. But Trigum Tsenpo’s persecution did not achieve its desired ends for long, however, as the king was murdered and with the accidence of his successor Pude Kungyel11 Ban was reinstated in its prestigious position. In the light of subsequent events Trigum Tsenpo’s failure can be explained by the lack of a culture to pose as an alternative to the Bon of Shang Shung, because the Endeavour to disengage the political power from the influence of the clergy was not accomplished until the reign of King Sonstsen Gampo who, availing himself of the Buddhist culture from India and China, succeeded in laying the foundation of a new culture and religion capable of bearing comparison with the autochthonous religion.

With this king begins the third and last phase of ancient Tibetan history, corresponding to the annexation of the kingdom of Shang Shung and the culmination of the Tibetan empire, which in a short time became one of the greatest powers in central Asia. Forging diplomatic ties with the rulers of Nepal and China, Songtsen Gampo promoted the introduce Hon of Buddhism, although it was only in the reign of King Trisong Deutsen (742-797) in the following century that Buddhism came to be officially adopted as the state religion. Having laid the foundation for the diffusion of a new culture Songtsen Gainpo prepared an ambush for King Ligmigya’2 of Shang Shung and murdered him, thus consummating the annexation of Shang Shung. This marked the beginning of the decline of the ancient Ban religion, but in spite of this throughout the period of the Tibetan monarchy until its collapse, which according to tradition coincided with the murder of King Langdarma in A.D. 842, the king of Tibet continued to be flanked by a Bonpo priest whom he asked to perform the most important rites to propitiate fortune and glory, on the birth of a prince, at a royal matrimony and on other momentous occasions.

Until this period the basis of Tibetan culture, as we have suggested, had consisted in the ‘twelve lore’s’ of Ban, where we find the ritual knowledge and traditions that, merged with the principles and practices of Buddhism, have characterized Tibetan culture and spirituality up to the present day: medical and astrological cognitions, methods of divination, apostrophic and propitiatory rites, cosmogonist narrations etc. When Ban was subsequently classified in ‘nine ways’ (theg pa rim dgu) these ‘twelve totes’ were incorporated into the four ‘Ban of Cause’ (rgyu’i ban), so called to distinguish them from the five ‘Ban of the Fruit’ (‘bras bu’i ban) officially considered as higher teachings.’3 Let us try to understand the deposable origin of this classification. The five ‘Ban of the Fruit’ contain mainly teachings that can be found in the Mahsiyana and Tantraydna Buddhist traditions, so one can assume they were introduced into Bon in a period later than that of the ‘twelve lore’s’; the authenticity and originality of the ninth and last ‘way’, comprising the Dzogchen teachings, alone is beyond doubt as its historical inception can be correlated with the kingdom of Shang Shung.’4 In any case we can hypothesize that the Bonpos absorbed elements of Buddhism without recognizing then as such, as some scholars maintain,15 or that they did so in order to survive, to counter the great success of the Buddhist faith. The fact remains that in the contemporary Banpo canon can be found some of the most important Buddhist texts, albeit with different titles, and even the iconography of Shenrab Miwoche emulates that of Buddha Akyamuni.’6 There may originally have been valid reasons for this work of transformation and adaptation of Buddhist elements, perhaps for the very preservation of the authentic Ban teachings, but this principle was soon forgotten and the importance of the original traditions was neglected in favor of the philosophical teachings derived from Buddhism. It was probably at this point that the original Ban was classified as ‘Ban of Cause’, that is as inferior or preliminary to the ‘Ban of the Fruit’17 and the authentic principles of the ancient Ban culture were misconstrued and almost excised by the protagonists of official Ban.

The fundamental principles of the ancient Bon tradition are not expressed in philosophical concepts and are rarely found in the canonical texts.8 Rather they must be ‘distilled’ from the mythological narrations contained in the ancient ritual texts which act as prelude to the rites and guarantee their efficacy. Reading these myths we can understand the principles underlying the various rites and identify the most particular characteristics of the ancient Bon tradition: a practical and concrete knowledge of the various aspects of the energy of the individual in relation to the dimension in which he lives, whereby it differs greatly from Buddhist philosophy which is more centred on the nature of the mind and its manifold psychological aspects. This was the original wisdom of the Tibetans, which has imbued all the cultural and religious aspects of Tibet but which today runs the risk of sinking into oblivion.

Today, as is well known, Tibet is under the domination of the People’s Republic of China, and of its vast territory the central and western regions and a small part of eastern Tibet form the ‘Autonomous Tibetan Region’ under Chinese rule, while the eastern region has been absorbed into four Chinese provinces (Qinghai, Gansu, Sichuan and Yunnan). Ladakh, a country with Tibetan population and culture, is under Indian rule and only the small state of Bhutan, also culturally Tibetan, enjoys political independence. The Tibetan population, including refugees who have settled down mainly in India and Nepal, does not seem to total over six million people and such a small number of inhabitants in a territory as large as Tibet, which is almost a quarter the size of modem China, is clearly insignificant compared to one billion Chinese. The consequence of this fact is the danger that the Tibetan people and culture may be destined to vanish. The only way to save the identity of a people is to preserve its culture, and in order to appraise the culture of a country to enable it to survive it is necessary to search for its genuine roots, which in Tibet’s case undoubtedly derive from the ancient hon. tradition and civilization of Shang Shung.

Concerning the organization of this book, I have chosen to present the culture of ancient Tibet through a tripartition in drung (narrations), deu (symbolic languages) and Ben on the basis of the statement which often recurs in works by Tibetan historians to the effect that the kingdom of Tibet was founded on these three constituents. For example the Mirror of Royal Genealogies by Sodnam Gyaltsen ç1312-1375)19 states:

Judging the custom of the ancient Tibetans of governing their country on the basis of narrations and symbolic languages to be a primitive usage characteristic of backward civilizations, many scholars have underestimated their importance and have neglected to undertake precise research into the true nature of the drung, deu and Ron and into their characteristic functions in ancient Tibet consequently exhaustive studies and research on this matter have yet to appear.32 However as the historical sources clearly indicate research in this field is vitally necessary and a deep understanding of the meaning of these three fundamental aspects is the only key that will open for us the precious treasury of Tibetan culture.

Cognizant of this, I have undertaken research on the drung, date and the Eon traditions based on original historical texts of both the Ben and Buddhist traditions, endeavoring to clarify their fundamental characteristics and to resolve, as far as I have been able, the more obscure and difficult points. With this work, which represents the fruit of my research, I hope to make a contribution to the preservation of the inestimable Tibetan culture and to provide the Tibetans 01 the present and of the future, who will be the custodians of this culture, and all those who love and study it, with a global understanding of its authentic roots.

**Contents and Sample Pages**

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