Buddhism and Bön III: what is yungdrung?

Those who translate Buddhist texts from Tibetan into English sometimes talk in nostalgic terms of our forbears who laboured to translate the vast corpus of Sanskrit Buddhist literature into Tibetan. In contrast to the chaotic scene today, where nobody can agree on a standard English word to translate any given Tibetan term, Tibetan translators worked under a top-down system in which royal edicts decreed the correct Tibetan word to be used for every Buddhist Sanskrit term. The result was the admirably coherent and consistent canons of Tibetan Buddhism, undoubtedly one of the wonders of the Buddhist world.

When we look at the Dunhuang manuscripts however, the situation seems rather less coherent, and a bit closer to the chaos of our times. The coherence of the Tibetan canons was the result of a process, centuries long, of rethinking translation practices, revising earlier translations, and weeding out dubious texts. This process is visible in all its messiness in the Dunhuang manuscripts, and one of the ways it reveals itself to us is the many different ways a single Tibetan word is used in Buddhist translations.

One of the problems for the early translators was what to do with certain important and powerful words that came from the pre-Buddhist culture of Tibet. In some ways it was clearly beneficial to use these words, so as to give them a new, Buddhist resonance. But they came with a lot of baggage. The same problems face translators nowadays when we contemplate using Christian words like ‘hell’ and ‘sin’ to translate Buddhist concepts.

One of the most powerful and resonant words in pre-Buddhist Tibet was yungdrung (g.yung drung). It was a the key terms for the old royal religion, the mythological backdrop to the kingly lineage of the Tibetan Empire. For example, the inscription of the tomb of Trisong Detsen has the line: “In accord with the eternal (yungdrung) customs (tsuglag), the Emperor and Divine Son Trisong Detsen was made the ruler of men.” I discussed how to translate that term tsuglag in an earlier post. Here, as you no doubt noticed, I have translated yungdrung here as “eternal”. Eternity seems to be the general meaning of yungdrung in the early religion. In addition, the word was associated with the ancient Indo-European swastika design, which in Tibet was the graphic symbol of the eternal.

So, what did the early Buddhist writers and translators do with this term? Many of them just attached it to the word “dharma” (i.e. Buddhism), no doubt in an attempt to transfer its prestige from the earlier religion to Buddhism. Thus we see “the eternal dharma” (g.yung drung chos) in many Dunhuang manuscripts. Translators of Chinese Buddhist scriptures into Tibetan used it to translate nirvana. Translators of Sanskrit Buddhist scriptures used it to translate the Sanskrit samyak, meaning “correct” or “perfect”, as well as various Sanskrit terms meaning “eternal”. This messy scene begins to look more like the chaos that bedevils contemporary translation efforts..

Later standardizations of translation practice in Tibet fixed yungdrung as the translation of just one Sanskrit word, sanātana, meaning “eternal”. This Sanskrit word doesn’t appear very often in Buddhist texts, where the Sanskrit word nityā is prefered, and the latter was translated by a different Tibetan term (rtag pa). So yungdrung was almost written out of Buddhist translations, but its story doesn’t end there. From the 11th century it became a central concept of the later Bon tradition, so that the later Bon tradition itself came to be known as ‘Yungdrung Bon’. There is much more to tell, but the full realization of those developments comes later than the Dunhuang manuscripts, where yungdrung is still in the process of being redefined by the Buddhists.

*  *  *

IOL Tib J 339 2rLet’s look at just one Dunhuang manuscript, in which the attempt to redefine yungdrung in the Buddhist context is unusually clear. The manuscript (IOL Tib J 339) is a the prayer with interlinear notes. One line of the prayer is an homage to “correct yungdrung” and the notes go on to spell out the difference between correct and incorrect yungdrung. I’ll translate the note here:

“Yungdrung” comprises correct yungdrung and incorrect yungdrung. Of these, incorrect yungdrung itself comprises the yungdrung of words and the yungdrung of substances. The yungdrung of words means all of the names drawn from yungdrung. The yungdrung of substances means the yungdrung of substances. Even if this yungdrung, it is still incorrect yungdrung.

Correct yungdrung means the following: when you remain as the Bhagavan Vairocana and his entourage of bodhisattvas, you take in the meaning of the unborn nature of phenomena. Then you are not endowed with birth or death. When the yungdrung of the lifespan is accepted as the [nature of] the deity, this is correct yungdrung.

The definition of incorrect yungdrung is strikingly unhelpful here: “the yungdrung of substances means the yungdrung of substances(!)”. Fortunately the definition of correct yungdrung is better. It means freedom from the constraints of birth and death, and is linked to the lifespan, so we could translate it either as “eternity” or, considering the emphasis on lifespan, “immortality”.

IOL Tib J 339 2rHere we see a Buddhist re-reading of immortality as the unborn nature of the meditation deity. ‘True’ immortality is not a long life, but the realization that transcends birth and death. I wonder if the incorrect yungdrung here refers to Chinese (especially Daoist) practices of securing long life or immortality, particularly the teachings (“the yungdrung of words”) and alchemical experiments (“yungdrung of substances”)? After all, in the previous post on this manuscript it emerged that the definition of incorrect tsuglag was aimed at Chinese practices of astrology.

*  *  *

In any case, perhaps we translators can take heart. The coherence of the Tibetan corpus of translations was the end result of a process of centuries. Take a slice out of that process (like 9th-10th century Dunhuang) and it sometimes looks as messy as the contemporary scene.

*  *  *

1. Karmay, Samten. ‘A General Introduction to the History and Doctrines of Bon.’ In The Arrow and the Spindle. Kathmandu: Mandala Book Point. 104-156.
2. Stein, R.A. 1983. ‘Tibetica Antiqua I: Les deux vocabulaires des traductions indo-tibetaines et sino-tibetaines dans les manuscrits Touen-Houang.’ Bulletin de l’Ecole Francaise d’Extreme Orient LXXII: 149-236.

Tibetan text
* g.yung drung yang dag la’ gus par phyag ‘tshal lo *
[1] g.yung drung la yang <yang> dag pa’i g.yung dang yang dag pa ma yin ba’i g.yung drung ngo/ de la yang dag pa ma yIn pa’I g.yung drung la yang/ tshIg gi g.yung drung dang rdzas gi g.yung drung ngo/ tshig gi g.yung drung shes pya ba nI/ g.yung drung [2] las dra[ng]s pa’i mying thams cad la bya/ rdzas gi g.yung drung nI rdzas gi g.yung drung la bya’o/ de yang nI g.yung drung yIn na yang yang dag pa’i g.yung drung ma yIn/ de la g.yung drung yang yIn la/ yang dag pa <ma> yin ba nI/ [3] bcom ldan ‘das dpal rnam par snang mdzad ‘khor pyang chub sems dpa’ rnams kyis bskor cing bzhugs pa de ni chos rnams gyI chos skye ba myed pa’i don thugs su chud pas skye shi myi mnga’/ sku tshe g.yung drung [4] lha du bzhes nas/ g.yung +drung+ yang dag ces bya’o/

Also in this series
Buddhism and Bon I: the religion of the gods
Buddhism and Bon II: what is tsuglag?

17 thoughts on “Buddhism and Bön III: what is yungdrung?

  1. Dear Early,

    It’s kind of unusual, isn’t it, for a truly two-syllable (with the 2nd syllable also being an identifiable word and not just a functional affix like -ba) not to be etymologizable. (Like me-tog, ‘flower’ being analyzable as ‘fire tip.’) It sure doesn’t look like a borrowing or a calque translation for something in another language. These possibilities being eliminated as unlikely, I guess it must have been of local formation.

    So why not attempt its etymology as such?

    I imagine some alternative forms of spelling, like g.yu-rung (try the THDL online translation tool for it), might be relevant to the effort.

    Then there’s what is supposed to be an obsolete term for it, gzha’-gsang, which is glossed by g.yung-drung already in the relatively early “old-new” vocabulary by Dbus-pa Blo-gsal, as studied by Prof. Mimaki-san. This, too, is a rather odd word, don’t you think?

    You know that g.yung and rgod are common in your Old Tibetan texts, with the first meaning ‘civilian’ & the 2nd meaning military.

    Drung[s] has been listed in some vocabularies as meaning ‘root’ (rtsa-ba).

    Are we getting anywhere?


  2. So me-tog is ‘fire-tip’? Wonderful! Well, I’m not sure I can play the etymology game; I certainly can’t play it as skilfully as you do. So, just a couple of thoughts:

    Drung(s) as ‘root’ seems plausible. And then there’s drang(-po), meaning straight, upright, honest, and so on. It’s a bit of a stretch, but seems to be the kind of meaning that ought to be associated with the Tibetan kings and their rule.

    As for g.yung: thinking of the swastika symbol and its left (or sometimes right, I know) turned ‘spokes’ I wonder if there is anything in the similarity between g.yon (left), g.yas (right) and g.yung? There is a family resemblance here, don’t you think, especially g.yon/g.yung? And if we allow a little more vowel fluctuation, can we move from drung to drangs (‘to lead / pull’)? Then we could have a description of the swastika symbol ‘leading’ to the ‘left’, or anticlockwise (counterclockwise for those in the US). Fanciful, I know.

    Are we getting anywhere–or just going round in circles?

  3. Dear Early,

    And phye-ma-leb is etymologized as ‘flour flats’ or ‘powder planks.’ Although it just means parpar, or butterfly.

    I like the idea that some vowel harmony might be involved. I think it does happen in Tibetan, and not only in Mongolian where it’s the rule rather than the exception.

    You also have the wonderful word g.yang, that has some kind of meaning of ‘blessing’ in the sense of prosperity. Do you have it in Dunhuang with a more abstract meaning than ‘livestock’ (sheep & goats… in SE Asia it [yang] also seems to be a ‘spiritual’ concept at times, and don’t you have it in Chinese?).

    I was thinking of yun-ring, actually, since it means a long duration, which would fit with the ‘unchanging’ or ‘eternal’ meaning of g.yung-drung…

    I think we’re circling around, which might be getting somewhere.

    You think it might be a ‘dod-rgyal after all?


  4. Ah, yun-ring. If we are following the path of vowel harmony, that certainly looks like a promising route.

    As for g.yang, I found in one Dunhuang scroll of tantric prayers the term g.yang-‘dren, an old word meaning “to invite” (or to “conduct” to “blessing/prosperity”?). Surprise, another near homophone for g.yung-drung…

  5. Actually, I am thinking g.yang ‘hooking’ (g.yang ‘gug) types of rituals (and I think ‘inviting’ and ‘hooking’ are fairly synonymous here), like gto rites, have a high likelihood of being ‘primordial’ (by which I mean old and natively Tibetan, perhaps even pre-Buddhist, although as such they might very well be compared to ancient levels of sino-turkic culture where they might somehow ‘converge’, perhaps SE Asia, too…. but I don’t like to speculate too far back into pre-history myself…).

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  7. This was very interesting. Just a few points:

    The arms of the Bonpo swastika go left (anticlockwise).

    Daoist attitudes concerning immortality were/are quite varied.

    The ‘waidan’ external alchemy, may have had more to do with living a long life, ingesting pills (often containing mercury); whereas the ‘Neidan’ internal alchemy was more refined (medtative) and has many similarities to recognising the deathless nature of mind (Rigpa). Livia Kohn is a good source for these discussions.

  8. Dear Sam,

    I believe I have the solution for your puzzle about the “yungdrung of substances”. Since you have been abiding in the lofty heights of rdzogs chen, you perhaps don’t notice the gtor mas and banging drums of the everyday temple. This is the material yungdrung, the swastika which would be ritually used as the symbolic support for eternity/longevity, as it still is today. We have been working on a contemporary longevity ritual in which a yellow swastika is put in the south-west of the mandala and acts as the shrine of the life-spirit (bla yi rten mkhar). The phrasing here is quite typical of commentaries on ritual texts: the material vajra is the material vajra; the material phur pa is the material phur pa; self-explanatory so no need of further explanation. You have a slightly “incorrect” (or imperfect) nuancing of yang dag pa here, I think. And the word you give as lha in the final line looks perhaps like lta instead (but I’m only looking at the image, so the original might make lha clearer?) Either could work, but assuming it is lta, here is my amended version of your translation:
    “Yungdrung comprises perfect yungdrung and imperfect yungdrung. Of these, imperfect yungdrung itself comprises the yungdrung of words and the material yungdrung. The yungdrung of words means all of the names drawn from yungdrung. The material yungdrung means the material yungdrung symbol [ie. the swastika symbol]. Even though this is also yungdrung, it is imperfect yungdrung.
    Perfect yungdrung means the following: when you are abiding as the Bhagavan Vairocana and his entourage of bodhisattvas, you enter into the essential meaning of the unborn nature of phenomena, so you are no (longer) subjected to birth or death. When (you) partake in the view (of) the eternity/yungdrung of the (deity’s) lifespan, this is perfect yungdrung.”

    Thanks for bringing our attention to these Dunhuang understandings of g.yung drung. With the sku tshe in the final part, it looks to me like we already have in place something like the longevity rituals we have now, which accomplish relative longevity through focusing on the immortality of realisation.


  9. Dear Cathy,

    Many thanks for your comments. I can at least come down from the clouds for long enough to see that you must be right about the yungdrung of substances. And I’m willing to consider “perfect” and “imperfect” as better translations of yang dag and yang dag ma yin. It’s always nice to see how the Dunhuang materials can be linked to contemporary practices, expecially in “Bon”.

  10. I have just found your fantastic blog and look forward to many hours of reading all the entries.

    I just wanted to comment that in the gryud bla ma, g.yung drung translates the Sanskrit śāśvata, one of four similar adjectives for “permanent” ascribed to the suviśuddhaḥ sattvadhātuḥ (the four are nitya, dhruva, śiva, and śāśvata).

    The Ratnagotravibhāga explains these terms as the dharmakāya being free from birth, death, sickness, and old age, respectively . It’s interesting to note the similarity to the hermeneutical strategy adopted by the Dunhuang manuscript, especially considering the RGV was traditionally considered lost pre-11th century.

    So I just wanted to note that, given the importance of the rgyud bla ma, especially in the gzhan stong pa and bka’ bryud pa traditions, g.yung drung has been alive and well in later Tibetan Buddhism.

  11. Regarding etymology, could there be a connection between yungdrung and the Chinese word 永遠 (yongyuan), also meaning eternity? As for the Daoist comments on the “search for immortality”, it seems that western scholarship continues to deontologize the facet of of Daoist practice which leads to eternal life. Daoist practice, inner and outer cinnabar included, seek to refine perfection to obtain the Dao. The eternal life comes naturally as one is imprinted on the preverbal Dao of the prior Heavens.

  12. as i know little about the eastern languages i will not attemt to make any comments that i cannot even begin to substantiate, but i have just spent some time cjating to a Buddiasm Monk and teacher about this symbol, especialy after he told me what the name is. he did however pronounce it closer to the sound “ion” even if it is in English spelled “Yung” that i found very interesting.

    the eastern nations call my people, the Hellenic Nation, even up this day Yunan and the country of Hellas, Yunanistan.

    this is a term that has evolved from the Hellenic people that lived in modern day Turkey (Asia Minor) from the Aegean coastline all the way to Persia (Iran) and ti the Ganges river on the border of India that where Ionian. the area that the occupies Ionia. hence the name Ion became Yion, Yuan, Yunan.

    we have used this symbol from the Minoan civilisation that in Oral history / Mythology it you like since about 15-20,000 years BC.

    could this have any influence in the name according to what you have studied?

    thank you

  13. Dear friend, Just out of co-incidence, I happened to be reading about “swastika” at a site called http://reclaimtheswastika.com/history/. They seem pretty erudite I would say. Anyway, according to them and the myriad pictorial examples given across myriad cultures, the direction of your swastika above is called the “negative swastika”. This was fairly striking to me having studied for an hr. or so and seeing pics only of the positive swastika’s direction-ing. Apparently, the negative-direction-swasrika is very, very bad. You may want to consider changing that image, especially since you are associating it with this article and it’s connection with these most beautiful and karmically positive systems of living. With sincerity friendly intent only, Dan Zellan

  14. Hmmmmmm….ya know what? I looked on further at a Kalden Yungdrung’s youtube page (basically surfing a bit) and it seems that the “negative direction” of the swastika actually lines the bottom Tashi Menri Temple (monastery). So i don’t know….maybe it’s a Bon thing? Also amazingly, the pic that you have above is on Kalden Yungdrung’s AOL page under “images of Kalden Yungdrung”. But again at the “reclaim the swastika” site they denote this positioning as negative…..??? Okey doeky, do as you will. peace and thank you. : )

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