Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The Warrior Song of King Gesar

Book Review: The Warrior Song of King Gesar by Douglas J. Pennick (Wisdom Publications 1996)

This is quite a beautiful retelling of the Central Asian/Tibetan epic – Gesar of Ling. Some of the poetry is exquisite. It is among the best of all warrior sagas. Apparently, this epic has a massive number of versions in many languages. Besides the many Tibetan versions – such as this one – most of which are entwined with Buddhism, there are versions among Mongolians, many different languages Chinese, Ladakhi, the Buryats and Altai of Siberia, and other Turkic peoples. It has been noted that the formula follows that of traditional epics of Turkic peoples – particularly that of Bolot, a Kirghiz hero. Our version here was strongly influenced by the Shambhala warriorship philosophy of the late Tibetan lama Chogyam Trungpa. The time of the life of King Gesar is thought to be somewhere in the 1000s to the 1200s but this may vary. Among Buddhists he is considered an avatar of the Tantric Buddhist hero Padmasambhava (Guru Rinpoche). The kingdom of Ling is thought to have been a small area in the eastern part of Tibet. As in many hero epics the sense of time and place is quite variable and events many centuries before and after may have been incorporated into the myth. Interestingly, this epic has a vast oral history and there are hundreds of bards who still sing it today – usually in a poetic meter – in Tibet, Mongolia, and several ethnic areas of China. Versions among the Buryats and other Siberian peoples are apparently quite different with Tengerist elements throughout rather than Buddhist ones. I noticed a few similarities with the Persian epic – Shah Namah. Apparently, some bards go into a trance state when reciting their local version of the epic – which may take weeks! There is some great information about this epic in the Wiki article below:

Gesar was named Chori when he was a child. Curiously, he rode on a magical willow pole. Also as a child he gained his companion, his mystic horse, Kyang Go Karkar, who would aid him in many times of need. With this horse he won the horse race of Ling and gained the kingdom. He married Sechan Dugmo. He would go on to win eighteen major wars against rival kingdoms among Tibetans, Mongolians, Taziks, and Turks.

The introduction by Tulku Thondup Rinpoche notes that any heroic being that brings peace, justice, and prosperity is given divine status, or in the case of Buddhism, the status of an enlightened being. Apparently, in some literature of the epic, Gesar is related to the Mugpo lineage of which Chogyam Trungpa is a modern manifestation.

Gesar’s uncle Todong, is often a jealous adversary and causes many problems, yet is often tolerated as part of the clan. The “uncle” as a sort of trickster/liminal/adverserial figure in Tibetan literature should perhaps be explored.

The textual literature of the Gesar epic tradition is known as Drung. The bards are called Drungpas. The legendary warriors of Ling were said to sing war-songs to their enemies before they fought them. These songs are recounted by the bards among the stories. Some Drung literature may be considered Mind Ter, inspired treasure teachings discovered by special “treasure-revealers.” Others may simply be considered inspired by clever writers. There are specifically fictional accounts as well. Tulku Thondup Rinpoche places Gesar in the lineage of Dzogchen masters, those who contemplate the nature of mind – and indeed much of the poetry here seems to fall into that style. Indeed there are three teachings that contemplate the nature of mind – Dzogchen, Mahamudra, and Madhyamaka. In the Shambhala teaching, according to Mipham, Gesar will reincarnate as Rudrachakrin, the 25th Rigden king of Shambhala, conquer the dark forces, and inaugurate an age of peace around 2424 C.E.

Gesar is also called the Imperial Drala. Dralas and Wermas are warrior spirits. Werma remind me a bit of the Vedic Maruts – both martial spirits associated with wind and storms. Gesar is called the slayer of the four great demons that enslave the mind of humans. These four demons are exemplified in the story of Gesar conquering the kingdoms of the four directions. In this sense he also purifies the four elements. In doing so he also heals the earth metaphorically speaking. Humans have become robots and zombies relying on the demons, hope and fear – says one of the poetic lines.   

Gesar grows up with his mother, both banished to the desert plains. After he wins the horse race and the kingdom he reveals his true enlightened form which awes the people. Then he draws his sword, cuts a vein in his palm, and declares that the root of world aggression is cut through. Curiously, his new wife, Sechan Dugmo, then draws the blood out with her lips and thus becomes one with the lineage of Dralas.

Gesar is often guided by visions of deities and enlightened beings. Padmasambhava appears. Another is the goddess Manene, his sister. Gesar practices meditation in retreat – the wrathful deity practices of Vajra Kilaya and four-armed Mahakala. During one description of his meditation it is said that his body becomes the tent pole of the world. Thus, his universal form (Purusa/Macranthropos/Cosmic Man) is identified with the World Tree.

Early in the tales, Gesar obtains the treasure of Magyel Pomra, or black rock mountain. He battles demons in animal forms. He overtakes a Tirthika (described here as cruel and deluded non-Buddhists) fortress as his first military victory.

During his meditation Gesar sings a song to the Great Rock Demoness, the legendary mother of his people and she who presides over the Mother Lineage of Dralas. This seems to be a realization song in the tradition of Mahasiddhas yet with a paradoxical invocatory element of the inevitability of both death and the destructive power of nature. As in the Kalachakra Tantra one goal is to manifest the fabled enlightened and just Kingdom of Shambhala. But the four dignities of the Rigden kings must ever be renewed as his sister, the moon goddess Manene states:

“There will never be a time when genuine dignity is stable.
There is no place in which great exertion is not required.”

She also describes to him the demonic kings and their realms along the four borders of Ling that he must conquer. As to what it is that is actually being subdued, she says this:

“They are the belief that freedom can be possessed
As an experience, as power, intelligence, lust or wealth.
They are the rapacious struggle of the deluded mind
To expand the domain of its own projections.
Thus they undermine the true merit of men and nations,
Which is confidence in the power of egoless action.
The blazing sun of unbiased wakefulness
Becomes the shifting half-light of craving.”

The demons are said to enter through “the gate of selfishness.”

“Demons cannot be attacked directly or conquered from afar.
As you entered their terrain when you accepted human birth,
They will enter you; they will erupt and slide into your thoughts
With their array of fears, arguments, enticements and promises.
Do not accept their conditions and do not ally yourself with them;
Remember your true allegiance, the unconditional confidence
Of the vast, clear midday sky.”

Gesar must rely on cunning, wit, and his magical powers rather than mere might in order to vanquish the demon foes. His first foe is Lutzen, the twelve-headed demon king of the North. He is destroyed but Gesar and Kyang Go Karkar fall victim to the spells of the king’s wife and Gesar remains in a stupor as the queen’s husband for several long years. He is awakened from his spell one day by a headless falcon who tells him sad news from Ling. The falcon is an incarnation of a warrior of Ling decapitated by Kurkar, the white demon king of Hor. His severed head is at the gate of the palace as a warning and talisman and until it is buried he cannot incarnate in human form. Gesar then sets out to vanquish the demon king of Hor and return Sechen Dugmo, who was taken to be his wife. For aid he invokes the great Nyen, or Lord of Nyen, the great Drala protector Magyel Pomra – as he does several times in the story. Here is a rather long supplication where Magyel Pomra is called Protector of Life Force. Gesar eventually transforms himself into a five-year old boy and becomes apprenticed to a smith. He excels and eventually dazzles the demon king. Interestingly, he later sends a dream to the demon king. Dream sending is a mythic motif of many tales as are the many interpretations of dreams and situations as omens. Gesar often appears in magical forms to these demons and gives them false omens. All the demons of Hor are killed except Kurnag, the black demon of anger. Legend has it that the leaders of the Sakya sect keep him imprisoned in a rock. Gesar, his original wife Sechen Dugmo, and the warriors of Ling return now to Ling. Uncle Todong is released from his prison of three years when he sings a curious song of his cunning, strategic, greedy, lustful, deluded nature which he has accepted that he cannot escape. Gesar replies with a teaching about the futility of selfishness and the virtue of considering others.

“Dear friends, look and see:
All forms of experience, of feeling, of knowing,
Are never separate from ever-present naked awareness.
Awareness cannot be bound and does not come or go.
It is like the cosmic mirror where all reflections arise.
Because awareness rests only in itself, there is peace.
Whether we struggle or rejoice, this is so.”

“If we wish to see
The source of fearlessness that opens every instant,
We must abandon our struggle
To possess and be possessed,
On the spot.”

Next on the foe list is Satham, demon king of Jang from the west. Satham is absorbed in bliss and his beautiful wife and wants to protect his situation so plans to invade Ling. Gesar magically sees this and reveals his powerful true nature (something he does often) to the king’s son. The prince vows not to oppose Gesar. Gesar becomes an iron bee and invades the body of the demon king. A minister seeks to destroy him by closing up the orifices and burning the king’s body on a funeral pyre. Gesar transforms his consciousness to a red fly and the consciousness of the king to a black fly and they escape through the aperture at the crown of the head. Geasr fights Petul, the king’s powerful minister that assumes the power of the king and his ancestral gods. Kyang Go Karkar saves Gesar and this is not the first time. Gesar gives the kingdom of Jang to the prince who vowed his loyalty and sings a song to him where he refers to himself as a “self-born Garuda.” Among the victory celebrations at Ling there seems to always be some special dance performed. In this case it is the dance called, “The Gods Fall from the Garuda’s Beak.”

After ten years of solitary retreat Gesar is stirred again by the goddess Manene and must confront Shingti, the demon lord of the south. The warriors of Hor and Jang must join those of Ling for this conquest. While the other demons were sustained by ancestral gods and talismans, Shingti is sustained only by his own accumulations (and of course his powerful army). The power of his grasping is relentless. Gesar tells his messengers that he has dreamed for years that Todong’s son (his nephew) would wed King Shingti’s daughter and now he has come to take her.  Shingti, upon hearing this, flays his own messengers and sings a ruthless song, part of which is this:

“There are only two kinds of things:
What is mine and what is not.
And everyone knows that if one increases,
The other must decline.”

Gesar proceeds to destroy the army of Shingti and the palace, beginning with its turquoise long-life pole. Gesar and Kyang Go Karkar rise into the sky (as they do) as a turquoise dragon with obsidian eyes then as a golden dragon with ruby eyes. He kills Shingti, flaying his skin, stretches it out, and pins it to the ground with spears. He notes that this skin, when dry (and presumably pulverized), will become a powerful medicine that is both antidote and protective – much to the astonishment of his warriors. The princess is rescued and brought to Ling to wed Todong’s son. Here the victory dance performed is called “The Relative and the Absolute Do Not Part.”

Later, Sechan Dugmo, the wife of Gesar, sings the song called “The Rainbow Palace of Pure Presence” that begins thusly:


In the world,
That is and is not this world,

In the bliss,
That pervades and does not pervade this world,

In the unfabricated instant
That is and is not this,

You O Sun, are the pure light that has never known darkness.
You are the origin of all movements and cycles, and do not move.

You are ever the enduring center of the centerless,
The light indivisible from all light.”

A month later Gesar is ready to finish his retreat and is joined by many.  They go to a splendid white mountain. Gesar sings songs of true warriorship and his exploits conquering the demons of death, defilement, desire, and raw accumulation in his forms as Lion, Tiger, Garuda, and Dragon. Gesar then more or less dissolves into space. Todong’s son sings of this restoration beyond life –

“In the crystal light of AH,
The seamless continuity of the Great Eastern Sun.”

Splendid tales. Exquisite poetry. Invocatory words.

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