From Folk Hero to Deity

Geoffrey Samuels reviews “The Epic Of Gesar Of Ling: Gesar’s Magical Birth, Early Years And Coronation As King”.

By Geoffrey Samuel

Printing Greg Smith

The Epic Of Gesar Of Ling: Gesar’s Magical Birth, Early Years And Coronation As King
Translated By Robin Kornman, Sangye Khandro, and Lama Chönam
Shambhala Publications, 2013
680 pages; $120

Gesar of Ling, the legendary Tibetan ruler, warrior, and spiritual leader, is the central hero of a vast collection of stories that has been described as the world’s largest epic tradition. In European terms, we could say that Gesar is both King Arthur and Merlin. Like Arthur, he is the exemplary king and war­rior who unites and defends his people in times of trouble and great danger. Like Merlin, he is a spiritual leader, but also a magician and trickster. In later centuries, he is also seen as a full-fledged tantric deity and important figure of the Dzogchen tradition.

Versions of Gesar’s story have been told for many hundreds of years by Tibetans and neighboring peoples, such as the Baltis and people of Hunza to the west and the various Mongol peoples to the east and north. As epics do, the stories of Gesar deal with central issues of human existence. They also provide insights into many aspects of Tibetan religion and culture. That is why the appearance of this new translation of Gesar stories is so important and welcome.

The Epic of Gesar of Ling has been a long while coming. The principal translator was Robin Kornman, a fine teacher and scholar who worked on the Gesar epic for many years. Robin died, unfortunately, in 2007, at a rela­tively young age and without finalizing his translation of the three episodes of the Gesar epic covered in this volume. His work was completed by members of the Light of Berotsana Translation Group: Lama Chönam, who is from the Golok area of Tibet where Gesar was traditionally very popular, and the American translator Sangye Khandro, with help from Jane Hawes and oth­ers. It has been published in a luxurious edition with a heavy blue cover and a separate blue slipcase.

Traditionally, the epic of Gesar was performed, not read silently. It consists of a prose narration, gener­ally performed in a kind of heightened speech, alternating with songs for the various characters. In the Eastern Tibetan versions, these songs are per­formed without accompaniment in short mantra-like melodies, which are repeated over and over until the song is finished. Their hypnotic melodic power can make a strong impression when performed by a good singer.

While many Gesar bards sing from memory or from manuscripts, the most respected have always been the babdrung, or inspired bards, who sing through a kind of shamanic inspiration. When they begin their performance, the epic “descends” on them, like a moun­tain god on a Tibetan village shaman, and they sing not from memory but from direct vision of the story. Often it is said that they can do this because, like a tertön who remembers his pre­vious life as a disciple of Padmasamb­hava, they can recall a previous life in which they were a character in the epic.

Countless places and natural features throughout Tibetan-speaking regions are associated with Gesar’s story, and the same incident can be narrated as happening in many different places. Nonetheless, it is Eastern Tibet (Kham and Amdo) that has the strongest asso­ciations with Gesar. The kings of Ling Tshang in Kham regarded themselves as descendants of Gesar’s adopted son, and many aristocratic families of Kham claim to be descendant from one or another of Gesar’s generals. In recent years, many of the episodes have been printed in and outside Chinese-con­trolled Tibet, and groups of Khampa men will gather together with a copy and read and sing through an episode.

As all this suggests, the Gesar story is not just a history of events that hap­pened at some time in the past. While there may have been an historical Gesar, just as there may have been an historical Arthur, any such figure has by now been lost under layers of legend and story. The name “Gesar” appears to be borrowed from the Roman “Cae­sar,” probably transmitted via the Cen­tral Asian kingdom of Bactria, whose rulers used this title in the eighth cen­tury. Perhaps there was a historical King Gesar in East Tibet in the eleventh or twelfth century, but the evidence is slim. A fifteenth-century text, the Lang Poti Seru, mentions a King Gesar, but he bears little resemblance to more recent versions. By the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, however, we find early forms of the principal episodes that we know today, in both Tibetan and Mongolian versions.

By this time we also find traces of Gesar as a deity to whom ritual is performed, specifically the sang fire-offering of fragrant woods and herbs that Tibetan and Mongolian peoples traditionally offered to local gods. Gesar is often referred to by the title Masang, a term otherwise used for a group of early semi-divine beings who are described as living in Tibet before the first human beings came to reside there. The masang deities may have something in common with the werma and drala, two other groups of early deities associated with Gesar. All take the form of mounted warriors, and all are associated with the principle of warriorship.

As Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche explained in his 1981 foreword to Alexandra David-Neel’s The Superhu­man Life of Gesar of Ling, warrior-ship “has for centuries been the heart of the lineage of Gesar of Ling, whose Tibetan descendants still exist today. Although it has been somewhat influ­enced by Buddhism, as has virtually all of Tibetan culture, basically the principle of warriorship stands on its own.” He goes on to say, “When we talk here about conquering the enemy, it is important to understand that we are not talking about aggression. … Thus the idea of warriorship altogether is that by facing all our enemies fear­lessly, with gentleness and intelligence, we can develop ourselves and thereby attain self-realization.”

Trungpa Rinpoche counted himself among the descendants of Gesar, and the Gesar tradition and its ideal of war­riorship were central to his presenta­tion of the Shambhala teachings. It is no accident, then, that this splendid new translation of the epic, the first of three planned volumes, was initially translated by Kornman, a student of Trungpa Rinpoche’s, and published by Shambhala Publications.

If the epic was initially about war­riorship—and this was particularly true in Western Tibet (Ladakh and Baltistan) and among the Mongols, where many local traditions have little real con­nection with Buddhist teachings—in Eastern Tibet the Gesar stories came to take on a decidedly Buddhist cast. This transformation was associated with the lamas of the Rimé movement in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The early Rimé lama Do Khyentse Yeshe Dorje (1800–1866) used the Gesar epic as a vehicle for Dzogchen teach­ings, while tertöns Chogyur Lingpa (1829–1870) and Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo (1820–1892) began the rev­elation of ritual texts in which Gesar was a fully fledged tantric deity (yidam). A slightly later Rimé lama, Ju Mipham Gyatso (1846–1912), was particularly associated with this transformation of Gesar into a central expression of Nyingma and Dzogchen Buddhism. He supervised the editing of the three initial episodes of the epic that are translated in this volume.

For these Rimé lamas, Gesar of Ling was far more than a warrior deity of old Tibet. They saw him as a manifestation of the three great bodhisattvas—Avalok­itesvara, Manjushi, and Vajrapani— who have intervened throughout history to guide and protect the people of Tibet. Gesar was also closely linked to Guru Rinpoche (Padmasambhava), who established tantric Buddhism in Tibet. As such, Gesar’s activity was seen as an expression of the enlightened energy and wisdom of buddhahood itself.

Trungpa Rinpoche had strong links to this Rimé background, and his stu­dents continue to practice several of Mipham Rinpoche’s texts. Trungpa Rinpoche’s son and successor, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, was recognized by the late Penor Rinpoche as the rebirth of Ju Mipham Rinpoche, and Gesar plays a central role in his teachings. Other sig­nificant lamas among the Tibetan dias­pora with close links to Gesar include Kalu Rinpoche (1905–1989) and Kham­trul Rinpoche Dongyud Nyima (1931– 1980), both of whom wrote episodes of the epic, and Namkha Drimed Rinpoche (born 1939), who revealed an extensive terma-cycle based on Gesar.

Shambhala’s new translation of the epic is particularly welcome because the Eastern Tibetan tradition of Gesar as a Buddhist warrior has been poorly repre­sented in English. Gesar has been known in Europe at least since 1839, when Jakob Schmidt published a German version of the 1716 Mongolian printed version (The Deeds of the Holy Gesser Khan) and English versions of the Lada­khi tradition of Gesar were made avail­able by the Moravian missionary A.H. Francke in the early twentieth century. But the Mongolian and Ladakhi versions present Gesar much more as a folk hero than an expression of buddhahood. The Eastern Tibetan Gesar tradition, with its links to the Rimé lamas, has mainly been the focus of scholarly works by French and German scholars, and little of this work is available outside obscure aca­demic publications.

The main exception is The Super­human Life of Gesar of Ling, written by the great French explorer and early Western Buddhist, Alexandra David-Neel, together with her associate and adopted son, Lama Yongden. It appeared in French in 1931 and in English three years later. Its spirited introduction and lively style did much to make Gesar known to a wider audience. David-Neel was certainly aware of some of the spiri­tual depth of Gesar for Eastern Tibetans, but her version is a retelling, rather than a translation, and it highlights the outer story rather than the inner Buddhist ori­entation. Inevitably, it gives only a very partial sense of what the epic is like in the original.

Douglas Penick’s The Warrior Song of King Gesar (Wisdom Publications, 1996) should also be mentioned. Like Kornman, Penick was a disciple of Trungpa Rinpoche, as was the composer Peter Lieberson, and with Lieberson he created a “campfire opera” (to use Lieberson’s term) about King Gesar, for a narrator/singer and a small group of instrumentalists. Penick’s Warrior Song, an extended version of his libretto for Lieberson’s opera, is largely based on David-Neel’s book, but Penick’s links to Trungpa Rinpoche’s teachings enable him to bring out the contemporary rel­evance of Gesar as a spiritual figure. The Epic of Gesar of Ling is thus an important addition to the sparse lit­erature on the Rimé-influenced Eastern Tibetan tradition. It presents three of the principal episodes compiled under Mipham Rinpoche’s direction in the late nineteenth century: the Lhaling, which narrates the events among the gods lead­ing to Gesar’s incarnation in the land of Ling; the Trungling, which tells the actual story of Gesar’s birth and early childhood; and the Tagyug, which tells of the horse race through which Gesar becomes King of Ling and husband of Drukmo, his principal consort. These episodes represent the opening stages of the epic. The intention is that they will be followed by further translations of the most important subsequent episodes.

The translation is for the most part fluent and readable, and it copes well with the difficulties of presenting the various types and levels of Tibetan discourse found in the epic (prose nar­ration, epic song, proverbial material, Buddhist religious verse). The volume’s introductory material is perhaps less effective in orienting new readers to the unfamiliar world of Gesar and to a narrative that works at many levels and is often far from straightforward. The translators’ introduction describes the characters and summarizes the story but presents a straightforward Buddhist interpretation of the epic as expressing Gesar’s enlightened buddha activity. This is doubtless how Mipham Rinpoche and his associates wanted the epic to be understood, but they and their contemporaries were well aware that they were building on a familiar story that also existed at a more homely and vernacular level, and which was grounded in the everyday reality of life in Eastern Tibet. Readers of the new English version may know little of the Gesar stories or of Tibetan society and may be puzzled, to say the least, by some of the twists and turns in the plot.

The complexity of the text is par­ticularly evident in the third episode translated here, the Tagyug, where the story has been arranged, at Mipham Rinpoche’s suggestion, according to the old Indian scheme of the seven precious jewels of a universal monarch. Gyur­med Thubten Jamyang Drapa also uses a previously written verse supplication by Mipham Rinpoche, the Symbolic Secret Jeweled Mirror, to structure the story and interweaves his interpretation of Mipham’s terse and highly symbolic verses with the narrative itself. The result is a multilayered narrative of con­siderable complexity, which operates at several different levels of meaning.

Here and elsewhere Robin Korn­man’s own writings on Gesar, such as his introduction in Donald Lopez’s Reli­gions of Tibet in Practice (1997) or his masterly essay in Fabrice Midal’s Recall­ing Chögyam Trungpa (2005), provide a better and clearer introduction to the complexities of the epic narrative, and to Gesar himself as understood by the Rimé lamas, than any of the interpre­tive material presented in this volume. Perhaps one or another of these essays might be included in a later reprint or in the subsequent volumes.

In the end, though, no amount of interpretation and orientation can offer a shortcut for the challenging but ultimately deeply inspiring encounter with the text of the epic itself. The real value of this translation is that for the first time, English-speaking readers can undertake a deep engagement with the story of Gesar. The book is also a fitting memorial to Robin Kornman, a great scholar and practitioner whose work is finally brought to the wider readership it deserves. Lama Chönam, Sangye Khan­dro, and everyone associated with this publication deserve our congratulations for bringing Kornman’s work to this remarkable conclusion. As Alak Zenkar notes in his introduction, “This epic life story of King Gesar of Ling is a beacon of light that will once again shine forth through these efforts.”

Geoffrey Samuel

Geoffrey Samuel is a professor at Cardiff University in Wales, and a research fellow at the University of Sydney, specializing in anthropology and religion in Tibetan societies. He is the author of Introducing Tibetan Buddhism and a co-editor of Religion and the Subtle Body in Asia, both published by Routledge.