Filming the Real Culture of Zhang Zhung

The following article is from the Winter, 2001 issue of the Snow Lion Newsletter and is for historical reference only. You can see this in context of the original newsletter here.

Shangrila, by dictionary definition an imaginary and remote paradise, was the subject of a major TV documentary produced by BBC's Natural History unit that filmed the legendary Mount Kailash in Tibet.

That video showed real historic places associated with the Zhang Zhung culture, says Lama Shenpen Samdup, a monk from Menri Monastery in Dolaryi, India.

At Menri Monastery, Lama Samdup and a small group of dedicated monks are working on their own to record and preserve the Zhang Zhung culture associated with their Bon/Buddhist tradition. They work with a single home video camera. But they have the cultural knowledge Western researchers would envy, not to mention the trust of the people whose traditions they want to record.

The BBC documentary did not get much detailed information about the Zhang Zhung culture that is associated with Mount Kailash, says Lama Samdup. Zhang Zhung cultural traditions still exist there as well as in Northern India and Western Nepal. Our group wants to travel to these other areas and record the songs and dances and rituals that are still performed there.

There is also much to be captured in oral histories, says Lama Samdup. Old people have memories of what people used to do before a wedding, for example. There are many auspicious practices that were done before the lama came to a wedding that are related to the Zhang Zhung culture.

Lama Samdup and his group of eight monks have a mission endorsed by the Abbot of Menri, His Holiness Lungtok Tenpa'i Nyima. They are determined to document and preserve as much as possible of this fragile culture, which is an integral part of Tibetan history.

Zhang Zhung History

Zhang Zhung was an ancient kingdom centered in what is now western Tibet. It extended as far as Mongolia, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, northern India, western Nepal, and the western borderlands of China.

The Zhang Zhung empire was effectively ended in 717 C.E. when the Tibetan King TVisong Detsen killed King Ligmincha of Zhang Zhung. The Buddhist teachings promulgated by King Trisong Detsen incorporated the ancient Bon teachings of the Zhang Zhung culture.

Buddhists absorbed most of the Bon teaching and culture so it would be accepted by the people, says Lama Samdup. The living tradition of Bon has proof that we had written textsall the teachings of the sutra, tantra, dzogchenthat existed long before the arrival of Buddhism from India in the 7th century.

The Bon people believe that Tonpa Shenrab, the founder of Bon, gave his original teachings 18,000 years ago in the language of Zhang Zhung and that the Zhang Zhung people were practitioners of the Bon religion

Mission at Menri

Lama Samdup began using a home video camera to record His Holiness Lungtok Tenpa'i Nyima's second visit to Tibet. This recording, as well as the filming of rituals performed at the monastery by visiting monks from Western Tibet, has proven valuable to scholars and others from the worldwide Bon community.

For training, monks packed a blank cassette and the home video camera. Traveling two by two, week after week, into the valleys and forests far from the monastery, they practiced filming. When they returned, Lama Samdup critiqued their shooting and told them what

Lama Samdup, who is working with a small group of trumks at Menri Monastery to record and preserve the Zhang Zhung culture associated with their Bon/Buddhist tradition. needed improving. Lama Samdup learned computer editing of video on his trips to the West and is eager for a donation that would allow him to edit footage. He would also like two to three digital video cameras to step up the recordingand get simultaneous shots of dances and rituals from different angles.


The Bon people believe that Tonpa Shenrab, the founder of Bon, gave his origlinal teachings 18,000 I years ago in the language of Zhang Zhung.

Despite their currently meager equipment, the monks are making use of their extensive education to research Zhang Zhung and Bon history. One monk is researching how many historical Zhang Zhung dzogchen masters there have been, says Lama Samdup. Another monk is studying how many places are still Zhang Zhung and are still following the tradition and culture. A third monk is working on where these places are located geographically.

Great Expectations

The monks at Menri Monastery have long wanted to start a historical study and archive. Initially called the Zhang Pod Records Project, research has incorporated old photos of the monastery and photos of sacred objects. It has expanded to include video and oral recordings. The project continues to expand in the hearts and minds of Lama Samdup and his brother monks.

Originally, His Holiness gave me two rooms for the project, says Samdup. But when we get the necessary funds, our aim is to build an audio recording room to preserve all the chants. It would also be wonderful to record the teachings His Holiness and those of the Yungdrung Ponlop Rinpoche, the old Lopon (head teacher) at Tnten Nor- butse, the Bon monastery in Nepal.

We want a darkroom to research the photos, a classroom, and a small library that will have books related to Zhang Zhung and the ancient Tibetan culture.

It is my hope to publish a Tibetan history book in Tibetan with pictures. It will be very helpful to future students. Already, children at His Holiness the Dalai Lama's school in Dharamsala are learning about Bon. The Dalai Lama is always on the lookout for anything about Bon. He accepts that Bon is really Tibet's own culture.

Dreams Come True

The energy and dedication of the monks at Menri Monastery is strong. What they need to realize their dreams and expand their project are initial donations of $15,000 for the building of a Research and Records Center and $10,000 for recording and data storage equipment.

Donations of the following equipment would also help build the project:

Good quality sound and recording equipment, including audiocassette recorders, mixers, microphones, etc.

Audio and video editing equipment

Video cameras (NTS or PAL), including home video cameras

Good quality tripods

Computers, scanners, and printers, preferably with enough memory and power to handle large color photos

Still cameras

Portable audio recorders

Video monitors

A large-screen video player

Lama Samdup attended the Smithsonian-sponsored Tibetan festival last July in Washington, D.C. I was invited to present the Bon religion and culture. Bon seems important to many people now. It seems like a good time, a good season to start this project.

Interested readers may contact Lama Shenpen Samdup at the following address:

Zhang Pod Records Project

P. O. Oachghat 173223

Solan, H.P. India ä_æ

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