Divination in Tibet: the Ancient System of Zhang Zhung Ju thig

Prof. Dr. Donatella Rossi

Project Background

Followers of the Everlasting Bon religion (Tib. g.yung drung bon) maintain that Bon is the autochthonous spiritual tradition of the Tibetan civilization and that the cradle of that civilization was the ancient kingdom of Zhang Zhung - located in an area that roughly corresponds to present day Western Tibet, with the revered dyad of Mount Kailash and Lake Manasarovar at its center – whose political and cultural sphere of influence were preponderant in greater Tibet until the central Tibetan empire incorporated it around the seventh century.

The ancient Bon worldview contemplated the existence of three different dimensions - heaven above, earth in the middle, and the subterranean world below - dominated and ruled by different classes of beings and elemental forces. The ability to interface with, and the numerous techniques and ritual liturgies for effectively dealing with those dimensions, were entrusted to and represented the prerogative of priests (called Bon gShen-po), who also performed the role of protectors of the Tibetan monarchs until the country was converted to the Buddhadharma (see Chögyal Namkhai Norbu, The Light of Kailash, A History of Zhang Zhung and Tibet, Volume One, The Early Period, translated from the Tibetan and edited by D. Rossi, Shang Shung Publications, Arcidosso, 2009, passim).

Within the realm of discovering hidden circumstances, the Ju thig or Zhang Zhung divination system, which is based on prognostication through knots, is considered the most comprehensive, venerable, and profound, and was characterized by numerous, extensive cycles (Namkhai, pp. 189-191). Its historical origins have not been identified with certainty; nonetheless, Ju thig is acknowledged as the very first category of divinatory methods into which the Bon series of mantic practices has been systematized since ancient times. A textual testimony of such a method is found in the authoritative Old Tibetan Documents of Dunhuang (PI 1047, lines 4-404, in Spanien et al., Choix de documents tibétains conservés à la Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, 1979, Vol. II).

Project Justification

Although several learned and insightful works have already been published on the topic, Tibetan divination and its diversified contributions to the formation of Tibetan cultural identity have never been subjected to a systematic investigation in and of itself. In this regard, it remains a virtually unexplored field of knowledge, not only in the realm of Tibetological studies, but also in terms of broader comparative research within East Asian religious studies.

Overall Project Objectives

Establishing a preliminary framework, based on textual evidence, to constitute an interdisciplinary discourse aimed to identify and interpret the role of divination within the realm of the Tibetan socio-political and cultural structures in order to provide new research elements for the Tibetological field in general and a distinguishing comparative perspective for the IKGF Project in particular.

Specific Project Results

The most comprehensive and authoritative text on the Ju thig system which was available when the research began is that written in 1885 by the eminent scholar and master, Mi-pham 'Jam-dbyangs rNam-rgyal (1846-1912), who compared several ancient documents on the topic (Namkhai, p. 189), most of which are no longer available.

This unedited, voluminous, and frequently cryptic textual source, entitled Ju thig gi bstan chos snang gsal sgron me (literally, Treatise on Ju thig, The Lamp Illuminating Existence, Sonam Topgay Kazi ed., Gangtok, Sikkim, 1974, 849 folia), was surveyed and critically analyzed; major and significant topics were identified and their interrelation probed.

Within that context, and thanks to the cooperation of Ven. Lopon Trinley Nyima who is a foremost leader of the Bon tradition and was invited to two-week research visit at IKGF, a draft translation of the Ju thig divination text contained in the Old Tibetan Documents of Dunhuang has been completed. A rare copy of the Ju thig divination manual has been received by the Lama; he has also allowed the reproduction of his personal manuscript copy on divination with pebbles (Tib. lde'u 'phrul gyi mo), which represents a condensed version of Ju thig divination; copies have been made for the IKGF library.

In addition:

  • a video featuring an interview with Ven. Lopon Trinley Nyima on Ju thig and other Tibetan divination methods, as well as a real divination, was coordinated and filmed by the IKGF Production Team and its contents translated from Tibetan into English for the subtitles
  • a reading session on divination with pebbles was carried out for research fellows of the IKGF who were present at the time
  • a public event consisting in Ven. Lopon Trinley Nyima's creation of a Bon apotropaic material item for a good omen was set up at the IKGF premises
  • a public lecture by Ven. Lopon Trinley Nyima, consisting of a presentation of the Tibetan Bon divination systems and their cultural background and of a propitiatory ritual for the authentication of the apotropaic item donated to IKGF, was actualized at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg
  • a workshop entitled "Divination in Tibet and Mongolia. Past and Present", attended by eight prominent scholars from several major German and international institutions was formulated and implemented
  • a translation from Tibetan into English, annotation, editing, and indexing of the third volume of the trilogy entitled The Light of Kailash, A History of Zhang Zhung and Tibet. The Later Period, summa of the research work in 1900 manuscript pages on the origins of the ancient Tibetan culture compiled by the eminent contemporary Tibetan scholar Chögyal Namkhai Norbu (b. 1938), was completed.

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