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A recent development in discourse on Zhangzhung's Tibetan history

Zhangzhung seal

Zhangzhung seal

by Per Kvaerne, Emeritus Professor at the University of Oslo.

The Bon religion, or Yungdrung bön, “eternal bon”, was established in the 11th century in central Tibet in opposition to Buddhism. Yungdrung Bön is based on a historical-mythical discourse according to which tà¶npa Shenrap, king of the mythical country Wölmo Lungring, has spread the bön religion in a large number of countries, including the kingdom of Zhangzhung in what is nowadays western Tibet. According to the sources, bon, this religion would have spread from Zhangzhung in Tibet, where it would have remained the religion of Tibetans and especially kings until the end of the 8th century. According to Bönpos, Zhangzhung would have played an important role as intermediary in the history of bön and Tibet.

We are now witnessing a transformation of this discourse, as Zhangzhung is appropriating the place formerly occupied by Wölmo Lungring. The Bönpos, in the Tibetan diaspora as well as in Tibet, now claim that Zhangzhung was “the land of tà¶npa Shenrap”, and therefore the source of Tibetan culture, including Tibetan writing. At the same time, the archaeological excavations carried out in western Tibet by the Bönpos – and by the archaeologists themselves – seem to provide irrefutable evidence of the existence of a Zhangzhung “civilization”. However, the problem remains: there is no reliable link between the very few written sources of the Tibetan kingdom period and the Zhangzhung as it is described in the bön texts.

Recently, the Chinese government has set up an ambitious project to translate Chinese sacred texts into Chinese, 178 volumes in total. The goal is to ‘find’ Zhangzhung as the source of Tibetan culture and thus contribute to enriching China’s national culture. This is an entirely secular project – the bön religion does not seem to matter.

Thus, an ancient Tibetan historical discourse is being diversified before our eyes for very different purposes.

LECTURE at 6pm