The Oral Tradition of Zhang Zhung
The Oral Transmission of Zhang Zhung is one of the three principal systems in the Bon tradition for the transmission of dzogchen or "great perfection" teachings. According to the history of this teaching, this lineage began with Samantabhadra and was transmitted from mind-to-mind, without recourse to words, down through nine successive generations to Sangwa Dupa. The lineage then continued as an oral transmission through words for 24 generations to Dawa Gyaltsan, the teacher of Tapihritsa.
Tapihritsa appeared as a luminous young boy to Gyerpung Nangzer Lopo and transmitted the teachings in their entirety to him. The tradition then continued on for six generations to Ponchen Tsenpo at which time the lineage split into a Transmission of Precepts (bka’ rgyud) and an Experiential Transmission (nyams rgyud). The Transmission of Precepts consists of precepts, principally the Twenty-one Nails and the Six Lamps, that form the canonical teachings of the Zhang Zhung Oral tradition. The Experiential Transmission consists of detailed instructions on how to actually practice the tradition. Ponchen Tsenpo passed on these two different transmissions on to two different students who in turn formed two different lineages. In this way for six generations the two transmission lineages of Precepts and Experience were propagated independently.
In the eleventh century the Precept and Experiential lineages were re-united by Yangton Sherab Gyaltsan. With regard to the interrelationship of these two lineages it is said:
- The Transmission of Precepts is very important to the Experiential Transmission.
- The Experiential Transmission is very important to the Transmission of Precepts.
- If the Experiential Transmission lacks the Transmission of Precepts, it is like a king whose bloodline is cut.
- If the Transmission of Precepts lacks the Experiential Transmission, it is like an orphan without mother or father.
Fearing that the Oral Transmission of Zhang Zhung might be lost, Yangton Sherab Gyaltsen committed the transmission to the written word. This united lineage continued down for fourteen generations to Dru chen Gyalwa Yungdrung (1242-1290), also known simply as Dru Gyalwa. He composed a practice manual (phyag khrid) at the Yeru Wensakha monastery. The propagation of this unified Oral Transmission of Zhang Zhung continued at Yeru Wensakha monastery for another hundred years to Rinchen Lodro during whose time the monastery was destroyed by a flood in 1386. A student at Yeru Wensakha, Nyam Me Sherab Gyaltsen, later built a new monastery named Tashi Menri. The abbots of Tashi Menri then propagated this tradition for thirty-three generations over a period of seven hundred years. One of the principal Lopon of Menri, Sangye Tenzin (1912-1978), then passed these teachings to Lopon Tenzin Namdak (b. 1920) and Tenzin Wangyal (b. 1960).
Tenzin Wangyal has gradually and systematically begun to pass these teachings onto committed western students at the Ligmincha Institute in the United States. Thus, this ancient tradition that began as a transmission from mind-to-mind, then expressed verbally in the languages of Zhang Zhung and Tibetan, is available today in the English language for western practitioners.
Dru Gyalwa’s Practice Manual of the Experiential Transmission
Dru Gyalwa’s practice manual consists of three major sections: Foundation Practices, Actual Practices, and Supplemental Practices. The Supplemental Practices include guidance on: View – the Basis, Meditation – the Path, Behavior – the Causal Conditions of the Path, and Result. These sections are then complemented with texts on the elimination of obstacles and texts on the practices of the dark retreat. The manual is then augmented with various practices for removing obstacles. It is concluded with instructions on the practice of dark retreat. Thus altogether there are five sections to the presentation of this teaching.
What is most striking about Dru Gyalwa’s practice manual is its directness and clarity. The text is written as a detailed instructor’s guide for teachers in the tradition to teach their students. While the text is filled with beautiful and expansive quotes from the Twenty-one Nails and Six Lamps, the focus of the text is precise instruction on Dzogchen practice expressed in clear and direct language.