Gesar: Tantric Practices of the Tibetan Warrior King

Read “Gesar the Warrior” an excerpt from Gesar: Tantric Practices of the Tibetan Warrior King

An excerpt of Gesar: Tantric Practices of the Tibetan Warrior King— as reviewed in the Fall 2023 issue of Buddhadharma: The Practitioner’s Guide

By Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche

This excerpt of Gesar: Tantric Practices of the Tibetan Warrior King, by Jamgön Mipham, translated and edited by Gyurme Avertin, with contributions by Chögyam Trungpa and Orgyen Tobgyal,— as reviewed in the Fall 2023 issue of Buddhadharma: The Practitioner’s Guide — is provided courtesy of the publisher, Shambhala Publications. We thank Shambhala for sharing this with Buddhadharma’s readers, and we thank our readers for supporting dharma publishers.

Gesar the Warrior

By Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche

*This essay first appeared as a foreword to The Superhuman Life of Gesar of Ling by Alexandra David-Neel and Lama Yongden (Boulder: Prajna Press, 1981).

In order for us to understand Gesar of Ling, the great warrior king of Tibet, it is necessary first to understand the principle of warriorship itself. This concept 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.

By warriorship we are not particularly talking about the skills necessary to wage war in the conventional sense. We are not talking about learning how to handle lethal weapons and crank up our aggression and territoriality so that we can burst forth and conquer all our enemies. Warriorship here refers to realizing the power, dignity, and wakefulness that is inherent in all of us as human beings. It is awakening our basic human confidence, which allows us to cheer up, develop a sense of vision, and succeed in what we are doing.

Because warriorship is innate in human beings, the way to become a warrior—or the warrior’s path—is to see who and what we are as human beings and cultivate that. If we look at ourselves directly, without hesitation or embarrassment, we find that we have a lot of strength and a lot of resources available constantly. From that point of view, if we feel we are without resources, if we feel incompetent or as if we were running out of ideas, it is said that we are being attacked by the enemy of warriorship: our own cowardice. The idea of warriorship is that because of our human potential we can go beyond that, step over the enemy of cowardly mind, and discover further banks of resources and inspiration within ourselves.

Cowardly mind is based on the fear of death. Ordinarily we try to ward off any reminders that we are going to die. We constantly produce artificial environments to shield ourselves from any harsh edges. We weave ourselves warm cocoons in which we can live and feel comfortable and sleepy all the time. We try to keep everything under control so that nothing unexpected will pop up and give us a nasty shock, reminding us of our impermanence, our mortality. By doing this, we are trying to defend ourselves from death, which we could say is the opposite of celebrating life. By maintaining our defensive attitude, we keep ourselves surrounded by a familiar fog. We wind up breeding depression and general unhappiness. In fact, that unceasing atmosphere of depression is what makes our little created environments feel so familiar and nestlike. But because it is based on struggle, this cowardly approach of ours is very far from the sense of real joy and playfulness that is associated with warriorship.

Becoming a warrior means that we can look directly at ourselves, see the nature of our cowardly mind, and step out of it. We can trade our small-minded struggle for security for a much vaster vision, one of fearlessness, openness, and genuine heroism. This doesn’t happen all at once but is a gradual process. Our first inkling of that possibility comes when we begin to sense the claustrophobia and stuffiness of our self-imposed cocoon. At that point our safe home begins to feel like a trap, and we begin to sense that an alternative is possible. We begin to have tremendous longing for some kind of ventilation, and finally we actually experience a delightful breath of fresh air coming into our stale nest.

At this point we realize that it has been our choice all along to live in this restrictive, and by now somewhat revolting, mentality of defensiveness and cowardice. Simultaneously we realize that we could just as easily switch our allegiance. We could break out of our dark, stuffy prison into the fresh air where it is possible for us to stretch our legs, to walk, run, or even dance and play. We realize that we could drop the oppressive struggle it takes to maintain our cowardice, and relax instead in the greater space of confidence.

It is important to understand what we mean by the confidence of the warrior. The warrior is not developing confidence in anything. He is not simply learning one skill, such as swordsmanship, in which he feels he could always take refuge. Nor is he falling back on some mentality of choicelessness, a sense that if only he can hold out long enough and keep a stiff upper lip, then he is bound to come out all right. Those conventional ideas of confidence would simply be further cocoons, based once again on yet further styles of defensiveness and fundamental aggression.

In this case we say the warrior has self-existing confidence. This means that he remains in a state of confidence free from competition and any notion of struggle. The warrior’s confidence is unconditional. In other words, because he is undistracted by any cowardly thoughts the warrior can rest in an unwavering and wakeful state of mind, which needs no reference points whatsoever.

On the other hand, we do not mean to say that once the warrior has uncovered his innate confidence there is nothing left for him to do. In many ways the path of the warrior is very similar to the Buddhist notion of the bodhisattva path of selfless action. The bodhisattva is a practitioner who isn’t satisfied with the possibility of liberating himself from the pain of samsara, but heroically commits himself not to rest until he has helped save all sentient beings. In the same way the confident warrior does not simply feel proud of having seen the nature of his cocoon and stepped out of it. He cannot rest in any sense of smugness at his achievement, or even in the sense of freedom and relief itself. Rather his understanding and personal experience of the claustrophobia of cowardly mind serve as an inspiration for the warrior to free others as well as himself. He actually cannot ignore the suffering and depression he sees in those around him. So from his unconditional confidence, spontaneous compassion naturally arises.

The warrior’s compassion manifests in different qualities, which all arise from the nature of his basic confidence. Because the warrior’s confident state of mind is self-existing, unmanufactured by aggression, he is not bloated or arrogant. Instead he is humble, kind, and self-contained in relating with others. The warrior is not captured by doubts; therefore he is humorous, uplifted, and perky in his dealings. He is not trapped by the pettiness of hope and fear, so his vision becomes vast and he is not afraid of making mistakes. Finally his mind itself becomes as fathomless as space, so he attains complete mastery over the phenomenal world. With all of these qualities the warrior has a tremendous sense of forward vision. In other words, he is not deterred or depressed by obstacles, but with genuine inquisitiveness and cheerfulness he includes all of them as part of his path.

The confident warrior conducts himself with gentleness, fearlessness, and intelligence. Gentleness is the warm quality of the human heart. Because of the warmth of his heart, the warrior’s confidence is not too hard or brittle. Rather it has a vulnerable, open, and soft quality. It is our gentleness that allows us to feel warmth and kindness and to fall in love. But at the same time we are not completely tender. We are tough as well as soft. We are fearless as well as gentle. The warrior meets the world with a slight sense of detachment, a sense of distance and precision. This aspect of confidence is the natural instinct of fearlessness, which allows the warrior to meet challenges without losing his integrity. Finally our confidence expresses itself as innate intelligence, which raises ordinary gentleness and fearlessness to the level of warriorship. In other words, it is intelligence that prevents gentleness from becoming cheap romanticism without any vision, and fearlessness from becoming purely macho. Intelligence is our sense of wakeful inquisitiveness toward the world. It is what allows us to appreciate and take delight in the vivid qualities of the world around us.

So what does all of this have to do with Gesar of Ling, the powerful warrior king who bore magic weapons, rode a marvelous winged steed, and slew numberless demons and other enemies of the sacred teachings? If we apply a more traditional language of warriorship to what we have discussed it will help make the connection.

We have already called cowardice the warrior’s enemy. Cowardice is the seductive and distracting quality of our wandering or neurotic minds, which prevents us from resting in our natural state, the state of unwavering wakefulness, which we have called the warrior’s confidence. Cowardice is actually the force of evil that obstructs what we could call our basic goodness, our inherent state of confidence, which is by nature devoid of cowardice and aggression, free from evil. From that point of view, the purpose of warriorship is to conquer the enemy, to subjugate the evil of our cowardly minds and uncover our basic goodness, our confidence.

When we talk here about conquering the enemy, it is important to understand that we are not talking about aggression. The genuine warrior does not become resentful or arrogant. Such ambition or arrogance would be simply another aspect of cowardly mind, another enemy of warriorship in itself. So it is absolutely necessary for the warrior to subjugate his own ambition to conquer at the same time that he is subjugating his other more obvious enemies. 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.

With this understanding of warriorship we can go back and look at the history of Gesar of Ling. At this point we can regard the entire story as a display of how the warrior’s mind works. Gesar represents the ideal warrior, the principle of all-victorious confidence. As the central force of sanity, he conquers all his enemies, the evil forces of the four directions, who turn people’s minds away from the true teachings of Buddhism, the teachings that say it is possible to attain ultimate self-realization. These enemies of the four directions represent quite graphically the different manifestations of cowardly mind, which the ideal warrior subjugates through the power of his unconquerable confidence.

Gesar’s magical weapons and his magnificent winged charger, Kyang Gö Karkar, are also important principles of energy in the warrior’s world. Weapons are the symbol of warriorship itself. The warrior does not carry weapons because he is afraid of being attacked, but rather as an expression of who he is. Weapons actually magnetize the qualities of warriorship and inspire the warrior to be brave and very gentle. Gesar’s winged horse symbolizes the warrior’s confidence. He is the ideal image of something beautiful, romantic, energetic, and wild that the warrior can actually capture and ride. Such a horse could be very dangerous and unworkable, but the idea here is that when the warrior has challenged and conquered the enemies of the four directions, then he can ride the great winged horse of confidence and success with dignity and pride.

I regard myself as a descendant of Gesar. I am proud to be a member of the tradition of warriorship and hope that clarifying these precious teachings will help others to bring the inspiration of Gesar’s example of warriorship into their lives.

From Gesar: Tantric Practices of the Tibetan Warrior King by Jamgön Mipham, translated and edited by Gyurme Avertin, with contributions by Chögyam Trungpa and Orgyen Tobgyal © 2023 by Gyurme Avertin. Reprinted in arrangement with Snow Lion, an imprint of Shambhala Publications, Inc. Boulder, CO.

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Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche

Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche

Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche (1940-1987) is recognized for playing a pivotal role in the transmission of genuine Buddhadharma to the West. One of the first Tibetan Buddhist teachers to come to America, he established Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado and an organization of some 200 meditation centers worldwide known as Shambhala International. In addition to his best selling books on the Buddhist teachings, including Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism and The Myth of Freedom, he is the author of two books on the Shambhala warrior tradition: Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior, and Great Eastern Sun: The Wisdom of Shambhala.