The following article is from the Winter, 2001 issue of the Snow Lion Newsletter and is for historical reference only.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.

Movie Camera, film

Filming the Real Culture of Zhang Zhung


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.Mount Kailash and Lake ManasarovarThat video showed real historic places associated with the Zhang Zhung culture, says Lama Shenpen Samdup, a monk from Menri Monastery in Dolaryi, India, but the BBC documentary did not get much detailed information about the Zhang Zhung culture that is associated with Mount Kailash he noted.


Capturing the Real Culture of Zhang Zhung

Home Video Camera, film, moviesAt Menri Monastery, Lama Samdup and a small group of dedicated monks worked on their own to record and preserve the Zhang Zhung culture associated with their Bön/Buddhist tradition. Although, they only had a single home video camera, they had the cultural knowledge Western researchers would envy, not to mention the trust of the people whose traditions they wanted to record.

Zhang Zhung cultural traditions still exist there [northwestern Tibet] 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.

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

Zhang Zhung History

Tonpa Shenrab, founder of the Bon tradition of TibetZhang 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 Trisong 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 texts - all the teachings of the sutra, tantra, dzogchen that 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.


Zhang Zhung cultural traditions still exist in the northwestern Tibet as well as in Northern India and Western Nepal.

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 needed improving.

Lama Samdup learned computer editing of video on his trips to the West and needed donations that would allow him to edit footage as well as gain two to three digital video cameras to step up during the recordings to get simultaneous shots of dances and rituals from different angles.

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

Tibet 700ad map

Tibetan Empire 700 AD

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. Lama Samdup comments,

"Originally, His Holiness gave me two rooms for the project, 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 Triten Norbutse, 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. Donations continue to help fund these important projects.

Lama Samdup attended the Smithsonian-sponsored Tibetan festival July '01 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."

For more information:

Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche

Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche, a lama in the Bön tradition of Tibet, presently resides in Charlottesville, Virginia. He is the founder and director of Ligmincha Institute, an organization dedicated to the study and practice of the teachings of the Bön tradition.