Sbírka o ňen (Gnyan `bum) staré tibetské rituální a literární tradice

Grant GAČR 17-01246S.

Řešitel: doc. Daniel Berounský, Ph.D., spolupracovníci: Ph.Dr. Anna Sehnalová, geše Nyima Woeser Choekhortshang, Ph.D., prof. Charles Ramble, dr. George Fitzherbert, prof. Ngawang Gyatsho. 2017-19.

Nyan collection (Gnyan `bum) in the old Tibetan literary and ritual tradition

Current state of research

This project falls within the wider field of research in Tibetan literature and history concerning the non-Buddhist traditions of Tibet. In the 20th century these traditions were largely the domain of French Tibetologists, who pioneered the study of early Tibetan documents (dating to the 11th century and earlier) which were found in the so-called Dunhuang Library Cave discovered and opened at the beginning of the 20th century. The beginning of the 21st century has brought new textual materials to light in the form of several vast corpi of texts consisting mainly of authoritative scriptures of the Bon monastic tradition. In particular we now have access to the single surviving exemplar of the Bonpo Kanjur (for the catalogue see Martin – Kværne – Nagano 2003) as well as the so-called New Collection of Bonpo Katen Texts (see Karmay – Nagano 2001). For the most part these texts represent the monastic tradition of Bon, which has been influenced by Buddhist notions and concepts. However, scattered among these texts appear also those which lack Buddhist terminology and bear distinct signs of relating to the non-Buddhist or pre-Buddhist Tibetan traditions familiar from Dunhuang documents. This is particularly true of two of the three versions of the so-called Nyen Collection (Gnyan ’bum).

Recent years have also brought to light a collection of interesting non-Buddhist texts found in Gathang Bumpa stupa in southern Tibet (Pa tshab Pa sangs dbang ’dus – Glang ru Nor bu tshe ring 2007, for some preliminary research on them see Bellezza 2013), which appear to provide very useful new material on the non-Buddhist traditions in Tibet. Yet still more texts with non-Buddhist content, which seem to lie on the cusp of the Buddhist-influenced Bon monastic tradition, have recently resurfaced in north-eastern Tibet (Amdo). As yet, these texts have received only very cursory attention. They have so far only been collected by local Tibetan researchers and their careful edition and publication is expected in the near future. Among these unpublished texts is once again a version of The Nyen Collection, which appears in the group of texts belonging to the so called leu (Tib. le’u) tradition. A distinctive leu tradition is referred to in many Old Tibetan textual sources, but it has never, until now, drawn the attention of western scholars. Remnants of such a tradition of popular religion, in which the Nyen beings play a prominent role, still lives in north-eastern Tibet, in an area known as Thewo.

In general, research on old non-Buddhist Tibetan culture has made some significant progress over the last few decades. Yet, there are still too many gaps in our knowledge. Given the large number of difficult and hitherto unexplored texts now available, the main focus of research to date has simply been on cataloguing them. And due to the rather limited nature and poor quality of archaeological research currently being conducted on the Tibetan Plateau, the most important and challenging ongoing task for researchers of early Tibet is to explore the content and structure of these newly-available texts, to look at the ways these originally locally-based traditions may have been disseminated, and then progress towards a fuller and more nuanced picture of their development in Tibet.

This project intends to contribute to these goals by focusing on the anthology of old non-Buddhist myths dedicated to the Nyen, and then combining this textual analysis with fieldwork. The Nyen beings figure in the contemporary folk tradition as numina related to the natural environment and have so far received very little scholarly attention (Karmay 1998: 253-255). Nyen are beings often associated with the space between the sky and earth (Tib. bar snang). The lords of Nyen are described as huge composite beings. One such Lord of Nyen is, for example, a huge stag with eighteen golden branches of mercury antlers and eyes of blazing golden lakes, with a golden coat and iron legs with copper feet. He pursues the ‘souls’ (bla) of living beings and drinks fog through his mouth. From the myths, it is apparent that Nyen often miraculously transform themselves into animal bodies (often deer), birds, snakes, and so on. They are also present in rocks, lakes and rivers, trees, and so forth.

The Nyen Collection is by far the most detailed textual source yet to come to light dealing with Nyen. There are three mentions of the “rediscovery” of this collection in the Tibetan sources. Based on these mentions it is apparent that The Nyen Collection (re-)surfaced as a corpus of written in both western and eastern Tibet during the 10th to 12th centuries. This wide geographical distribution and/or dislocation itself raises some important questions.

The great potential of this research lies in the simple fact that this Nyen Collection is now available in three different versions of various wordings and length, none of which have yet received scholarly attention. By far the majority of non-Buddhist Old Tibetan manuscripts exist in only a single copy, and this prevents us learning more about the distribution of such ‘old knowledge’, and the ways these texts were employed. By using the case study of three different manuscripts of The Nyen Collection, we might be able to illuminate more general processes of adaptation and development at work in old documents like these.

An important issue with these texts concerns locality — ascertaining the possible original core of these narrations. We have some clues about this from the texts themselves, in for example, the frequent references to the “language of Nampa Dong” (Tib. nam pa ldong gi skad du na…), which is usually followed by the phrase “in the language of Pugyal’s Tibet” (Tib. spu rgyal bod kyi skad du na…). The Nyen Collection thus gives many specific names in these two languages, suggesting a relationship with the Dunhuang documents ITJ 731 and 732, in which, likewise, some names are given both in Tibetan and the language of Nam. It is also believed that three as yet undeciphered manuscripts from Dunhuang are written in Nam language (PT 1246, PT 1241 and ITJ 736). Despite the previous efforts of scholars (Thomas 1958, 1939, 1928; Lalou 1939, Takumi 2012), these are still not understood.

Our working hypothesis places the origin of the core of the Nyen Collection to the south of the upper reaches of the Yellow River and south of the Machen Pomra range, i.e. in north-eastern Tibet. This is hypothesis is based primarily on a record in the Tibetan Annals from Dunhuang (ITJ 750), in the entry for the years 702-703 which mentions a locality called Nam Dong Trom (Tib. Nam ldong prom, cf. Dotson 2009: 101; cf. Hazod 2009: 168) as being a part of Domay (Tib. Mdo smad). This does not seem to have been taken into consideration so far. This is likely a place connected with the Nam of the Dong clan, and also the likely origin of Nyen Collection.

The project, its goals and research methods

Outline of the project and its main goals

The project aims to study what is currently an academically-neglected corpus of Old Tibetan texts entitled The Nyen Collection (Tib. Gnyan ’bum), as well as another smaller collection, also concerned with Nyen, entitled the Chadang (Tib. Bya rdang). These texts will be explored as sources of information on the ritual context for the worship of Nyen. These literary sources will be assessed in conjunction with ethnographic work on the surviving remnants of this ritual tradition in the Thewo region, which preserves a unique and complex set of practices focusing on Nyen beings. All the topics addressed by the project are new and hitherto unexplored areas of research, and none of the three manuscript collections of The Nyen Collection we will examine has yet been the subject of any substantial academic research. Only one of the three editions has been briefly introduced by Samten Karmay (Karmay 2010).

The project will contribute to our understanding of autochthonous Tibetan culture and religious cults in one of the earliest periods traceable through textual material, viz. the 10th-11th centuries (and possibly even earlier). The Nyen Collection represents a unique body of texts, both because of its antiquity and its content, which is rich in archaic language and unusual, ritual-specific vocabulary. The three versions of the corpus each consist of approximately 60 myths written on some 250 folios. They represent one the few extant examples of Tibetan written sources devoid of the influence of Indic Buddhism (which was imported to Tibet in the 7th century, and thoroughly changed the Tibetan religious landscape thereafter). Thus, The Nyen Collection offers a unique insight into the pre-Buddhist foundations of Tibetan culture.

The Nyen Collection comprises mainly myths and ritual manuals which would primarily have been transmitted orally. The Collection will thus constitute an interesting case study illustrating the important historical progression from oral sources to the written word in Tibet.

Furthermore, the team aims to focus on the possible place of origin of this textual corpus by using fieldwork to explore those aspects of the examined texts which survive in ongoing ritual traditions. The fieldwork will focus mainly on the region of Thewo, where a living tradition of leu rituals continues to be performed by lay religious specialists, though it is currently facing imminent extinction. These rituals represent a complex system of beliefs in which Nyen beings play a prominent role. Nothing has yet been published about this complex of beliefs in any western language. Ngawang Gyatso of Lanzhou University, who is himself a native of Thewo region, has been exploring this tradition over the last decade (Ngag dbang Rgya mtsho 2005). The fieldwork for this project will be conducted in cooperation with him and will aim at recording the traces of this tradition. This will include making video records of the remaining rituals.

Steps of research

Detailed research on the lexical and grammatical peculiarities found in the texts will best be illustrated through the translation of selected portions of the corpus. The texts will also be transliterated (in order to be searchable). Although many peculiar features of these texts might be considered erroneous from the perspective of “classical” Tibetan literary grammar and orthography, we need to ascertain whether or not these might be regular idiosyncracies stemming from a locally-based tradition. This will be undertaken primarily by Daniel Berounsky with the assistance of the Bonpo scholar Geshe Nyima Woser Choekhortshang, who is familiar with such texts.

A further separate research question to be explored will concern the names presented in the Nam language. These names have to be cross-checked with the three texts assumed to be written in the Nam language (namely Dunhuang documents PT 1246, PT 1241 and ITJ 736). Whatever the result, such cross-referencing will provide some important indications concerning the origin and context of the Collection and will also, we hope, bring some new information about the undeciphered Nam language.

A further important task will concern the possible layers of these texts. The texts are sometimes written in a dense and difficult style resembling those of Dunhuang documents (i.e. using 5 or 6 syllables for a verse). Other parts of the same text might resemble later styles (with 7 or 8-syllable verses). Also, despite the non-Buddhist content, there is evidence of some expressions of Indian origin (i.e. ra tsa= rāja, na ga= nāga) which occasionally appear.

Through the detailed work on translation, a list of orthographic contractions, unusual spellings and unknown vocabulary will be built up. And this will be of use to scholars working on the old Tibetan texts in general. Together with the transliterated texts it will be made available on the website This website has been prepared by Charles Ramble (EPHE; CRCAO Paris; Oxford University) in order to systematically collect, transliterate and translate ancient Tibetan texts with indigenous features, and thus provides a world-wide platform for researchers on the given topic.

Charles Ramble will further contribute research on another hitherto unexplored corpus of ritual texts for the worship of Nyen beings and ‘warrior deities’ (Tib. sgra bla) entitled Chadang (Tib. Bya rdang). Work on this corpus may help contextualise the Nyen Collection, and may help with the interpretation of its specifics. The Chadang texts were again recently found in Amdo, and also relate to ritual traditions at the cusp of monastic Bon.

The Nyen Collection bears many clear signs of having its origins in oral tradition. The best known example of later Tibetan oral traditions is the Gesar Epic, which interestingly also frequently mentions

the locality of Mt. Amnye Machen Pomra as the homeland of its warrior-hero Gesar, who is himself depicted in the epic as a descendent of Nyen beings. Questions pertaining to the oral tradition and its connection with this particular place will be the subject of research of George FitzHerbert, whose Ph.D. thesis on the Gesar Epic received much acclaim from Tibetologists and is currently in the process of being published as a monograph. Another interesting fact about the Gesar Epic the context of the current project is that the epic is currently known primarily from its surviving traditions in far western and far eastern Tibet. This east-west distribution is strikingly similar to the distribution of the Nyen Collection, and thus calls for exploration of the historical background of such dissemination.

The project will also attempt to put the studied textual collections in historical context. Beings called Ma (Tib. Rma) figure frequently in the myths of the Nyen Collection. These include Machen Pomra (Rma chen spom ra), the deity of the main mountain of the range of the same name. Anna Sehnalova has spent the last two years researching the contemporary local cult of this deity and thus her participation in the project will focus primarily on tracing the possible place of origin of The Nyen Collection.

An important part of contextualising these texts will be field research in Thewo undertaken with the assistance of Ngawang Gyatso. This will also enable us to bring these ancient texts into dialogue with the surviving ritual traditions still focused on the Nyen.

The output of the project will be 4 studies written in English-media journals. A volume of articles on related topics will in addition be an outcome of the two workshops organized within the frame of the project. These workshops will bring together almost all leading scholars of the given field. Furthermore, a monograph on the Nyen Collections will be prepared for publication in cooperation with Centre for the Study of Manuscript Cultures (Universität Hamburg), which is natural partner for this research. The monograph on the Nyen Collections will likely be published by De Gruyter as part of their monograph series Studies in Manuscript Cultures

Actuality of the project

Recent decades have proven that the burgeoning field of Tibetan Studies, and in particular Old Tibetan Studies, provides considerable new information for the wider disciplines of Linguistics, Anthropology, Religious Studies, etc. A number of hitherto unknown textual materials have now resurfaced and await research. The study of Old Tibetan traditions is rapidly-developing field, in which many issues—relating to linguistics, religious history, oral and literary traditions, and ritual studies—are hotly debated. This project will be a major contribution to this field by presenting careful research by internationally-acclaimed scholars on the context, content, language and evolution of this very little-known though important, corpus of texts. The selected texts represent rare material with great potential to offer some answers on debated features of old Tibetan ritual and literary traditions. For example their structural logic and their adaptation, which may illustrate their practical use and evolution; their geographical distribution which may reflect the early historical movements of tribes on the Tibetan Plateau; and their patterns of orality and dissemination within Tibetan societies. Furthermore, the project will draw upon the recently-flourishing research field of Bon studies and will contribute substantially to the effort in contemporary Tibetan Studies to understand the autochthonous layers of Tibetan culture.

The research is not unrelated to the present time, in which Tibetans are increasingly the subject of attention from the world-wide public and politicians alike. The lack of sensitivity towards the specifics of Tibetan culture in the current political situation in China is currently contributing to the rapid vanishing of many centuries-old traditions. Thus, this very decade might well be the last one in which old people and indigenous specialists still remember personally the traditional society which existed in the Tibetan regions before the Cultural Revolution. This situation highlights the importance of timely fieldwork without delay.

Besides knowledge-preservation, this project has the potential to explain some of the core ideas still held in the world-view of many contemporary Tibetans. Ideas which are often misinterpreted, in for instance, a narrowly political manner. A straightforward example of this are the numerous and regular protests by Tibetans (which are rarely covered by international media) against highway construction, and mining. These protests do not stem primarily from opposition to the PRC’s Central government per se, but rather stem from the core belief of many Tibetans that the natural environment is permeated by Nyen beings.


The project is based primarily on philological and linguistic analysis combined with historical analysis and anthropological fieldwork. It represents an interdisciplinary approach within Tibetan Studies. The project fulfils the present world-wide academic trends of Oriental Studies. The combination of analyzing ancient texts and fieldwork is (due to its challenges) rather unique.

The foundation of the project lies in research on the manuscripts. These texts bear many signs of bridging archaic oral traditions with a nascent literary culture, and thus the main approach will be philological. The language of The Nyen Collection will be analysed across the three different versions we have and will also be illuminated comparatively in light of another hitherto-unknown corpus of ritual texts for worshipping the Nyen and the ‘warrior deities’ (by Charles Ramble) and in light the Gesar Epic as the best example of a Tibetan oral tradition (by George FitzHerbert). Both of these ancillary textual corpi are also related to the geographical locale with which the origin of the Nyen Collection appears to be connected. A careful study of the language from these comparative perspectives might also help isolate locally- specific variants in the language. Our methods will draw upon those implemented in related research at other centres of excellence in Oriental Studies in both Europe and Asia. Textual       analysis will follow patterns established for Tibetan language by Karmay (2010) and Ramble (for ex. 2014), method of historical interpretation of the material will be methodologically close to renowned Karmay (1998, 2005) and Dotson (2009), however enriched by fieldwork (as Ramble 2008, 2013; Huber 1999, 2013). A separate question will concern the Nam language appearing in the Nyen Collection in a form of bilingual names. The Tibeto-Burmese languages will be then taken into account, namely those from the areas bordering with ethnographical Tibet in the East (i.e. languages of Naxi, Pumi, Namui, etc.).

This will be then supplemented by anthropological field research in the localities near Mt. Amnye Machen range and in Thewo. These fieldwork trips will focus on rituals dedicated to the Nyen and on contemporary notions concerning this class of beings. In addition we will gather oral histories concerning the clans in these territories. The broader anthropological approach to fieldwork (as found for example in Douglas 1975, Leach 1976, Levi-Strauss 1963, Evans-Pritchard 1951) will be further informed by anthropological approaches more specific to the Anthropology of Tibet and Buddhism (Ramble – Brauen 1993; Huber 1999; Buffetrille – Hamayon 2013; Gellner 1988, 1990; Tambiah 1970, 1984). The main scholars who have established these methodologies will themselves be consulted during the project and/or invited to the planned workshops.

Consultation of related Tibetan historical texts and chronicles will add further information on the historical context for our corpus. So in addition to our focus on existing oral traditions, attention will also be paid to published local histories; published clan histories (Tib. rus mdzod); and the main chronicle of the region, known as the “History of Buddhism in Amdo”. Through all of these means, an attempt will be made to trace the historical diffusion of the Dong (Tib. Ldong) clan, since the Nyen Collection contains a number of references to the original Dong people (cf. Stein 1959, 1961).

Selected bibliography

  • Bellezza, John V., 2013, Death and Beyond in Ancient Tibet. Vienna: Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften.
  • Berounsky, Daniel 2013, Bon religion in 11th-12th century Amdo: A case of Kyangphag Mula Drungmu (sKyang ’phags mu la drung mu). In: Asiatische Studien/ Etudes Asiatiques, 2013/1, Bern, pp. 783-808.
  • Berounsky, Daniel, 2009, “Soul of Enemy“ and warrior deities (dgra bla): Two Tibetan myths on primordial battle. In: MONGOLO-TIBETICA PRAGENSIA ’09, Vol. 2/2. Charles University and Triton, Praha 2009, pp. 19–57.
  • Berounsky, Daniel, 2015, A dialogue between the priest and the deer. In Hanna Havnevik and Charles Ramble (eds), From Bhakti to Bon: Festschrift for Per Kvaerne. The Institute for Comparative Research in Human Culture. Oslo: Novus forlag, pp. 97-112, ISBN 978-82-7099-817-3.
  • Brauen, Martin – Ramble, Charles (eds.), 1993, Proceedings of the International Seminar on the Anthropology of Tibet and the Himalaya. Zurich: Völkerkundemuseum der Universität Zürich.
  • Buffetrille, Katia – Hamayon, Roberte 2013, D’une anthropologie du chamanisme vers une anthropologie du croire: hommage à l’œuvre de Hamayon, Roberte. Paris : Centre d’études mongoles et sibériennes, École Pratique des Hautes Études.
  • Dotson, Brandon, 2008, Complementarity and Opposition in Early Tibetan Ritual. In: Journal of the American Oriental Society, vol. 128, No. 1, pp. 41-67.
  • Dotson, Brandon, 2009, The Old Tibetan Annals: An Annotated Translation of Tibet’s First History; With an Annotaded Cartographical Documentation by Guntram Hazod. Wien: Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften.
  • Douglas, Mary, 1975, Implicit meanings: essays in anthropology. London : Routledge & Kegan Paul.
  • Evans-Pritchard, E. E., 1951, Social anthropology. London: Cohen & West.
  • Gellner, David, 1988, Monk, householder and priest : Newar Buddhism and its hierarchy of ritual, D.Phil. Thesis, University of Oxford.
  • Gellner, David, 1990, The Anthropology ofBuddhism. Oxford : Oxford University Anthropological Society.
  • Hazod, Guntram, 2009, Imperial Tibet: An Annotated Cartographical Survey of its Territorial Divisions and Key Political Sites. In: Dotson, Brandon, 2009, The Old Tibetan Annals: An Annotated Translation of Tibet’s First History; With an Annotaded Cartographical Documentation by Guntram Hazod. Wien: Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, pp. 163-230.
  • Huber, Toni, 1999, The cult of Pure Crystal Mountain: popular pilgrimage and visionary landscape in southeast Tibet. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Huber, Toni, 2013, The Iconography of gShen Priests in the Ethnographic Context of the Extended Eastern Himalayas, and Reflections on the Development of Bon Religion. In: Ehrhard, Franz-Karl – Maurer, Petra, eds., Nepalica-Tibetica: Festgabe for Christoph Cüppers, Band 1, Andiast, International Institute for Tibetan and Buddhist Studies, pp. 263-294.
  • Ikeda, Takumi, 2012, Highlights in the Decipheriment of the Nam Language. In: Hill, Nathan, ed., Medieval Tibto-Burman Languages IV, Leiden: Brill, pp. 111-119.
  • Karmay, Samten G. – Yasuhiko Nagano, eds., 2001, A Catalogue of the New Collection of Bonpo Katen Texts, Bon Studies 4. Osaka: National Museum of Ethnology.
  • Karmay, Samten G., 1998, The Arrow and the Spindle: Studies in History, Myths, Rituals and Beliefs in Tibet. Kathmandu: Mandala Book Point.
  • Karmay, Samten G., 2010, Tibetan Indigenous Myths and Rituals with Reference to the Ancient Bön Text: The Nyenbum (Gnyan ‘bum). In: Cabezón, José Ignacio, ed., Tibetan Ritual. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Lalou, Marcelle (1939). Sur la langue « nam ». In: Journal Asiatique 231: 453.
  • Leach, Edmund, 1976, Culture & communication: the logic by which symbols are connected : an introduction to the use of structuralist analysis in social anthropology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Lévi-Strauss, Claude, 1963, Structural anthropology. New York: Basic Books.
  • Martin, Dan – Kværne, Per – Yasuhiko Nagano, eds., 2003, A Catalogue of the Bon Kanjur, Bon Studies 8. Osaka: Natinal Museum of Ethnology.
  • Ngag dbang rgya mtsho, 2005, Mdo smad kan lho yul du bon bstan dar ba’i lo rgyus rag srid tsam brjod pa. In: Ting ’dzin bkra shis, ed., Mdo smad zhib ’jug, vol. I, Mi rigs dpe skrun khang – Kan su’u bod kyi shes rig zhib ’jug khang, Beijing, pp. 174-181.
  • Pa tshab Pa sangs dbang ‘dus – Glang ru Nor bu tshe ring, 2007, Gtam shul dga’ thang ’bum pa che nas gsar rnyed byung ba’i bon gyi gna’ dpe bdams bsgrigs. Lhasa: Bod ljongs dpe rnying dpe skrun khang.
  • Ramble, Charles, 2008. Tibetan Sources for a Social History of Mustang, Nepal. Volume 1: the Archive of Te. Halle: International Institute for Tibetan and Buddhist Studies.
  • Ramble, Charles, 2014, Real and imaginary Tibetan chimeras and their special powers. In: Daniel Berounsky, ed., 2014, Mongolo-Tibetica Pragensia, Special Issue: Indigenous Elements in Tibetan Religions, Prague: Triton – Seminar of Mongolian and Tibetan Studies, Faculty of Arts, Charles University, pp. 13-33.
  • Ramble, Charles – Schwieger, Peter – Travers, Alice (eds.), 2013, Tibetans who escaped the historian’s net: studies in the social history of Tibetan societies. Kathmandu, Nepal: Vajra Books.
  • Stein, Rolf A., 1959. Recherches sur l’Épopée et le Barde au Tibet. Paris. Presses Universitaires de France. Stein, Rolf A., 1961. Les Tribus Anciennes des Marches Sino-Tibétaines: legendes, classifications et histoire. Paris. Presses Universitaires de France.
  • Stein, Rolf A., 2010, Rolf Stein’s Tibetica Antiqua. Leiden: Brill.
  • Tambiah, Stanley, 1970. Buddhism and the spirit cults in north-east Thailand. Cambridge: University Press.
  • Tambiah, Stanley, 1984, The Buddhist saints of the forest and the cult of amulets: a study in charisma, hagiography, sectarianism and millennial Buddhism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Thomas, Frederick W. 1939. The Nam Language.In: Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland 2: 193-216.
  • Thomas, Frederick W. 1928, The Nam Language. In: Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland 3: 630-634.
  • Thomas, Frederick W., 1948, Nam: An Ancient Language of the Sino-Tibetan Borderland; Text with Indroduction, Vocabulary and linguistic studies. London: Oxford University Press.
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