The Gesar epic is a vast body of literature that recounts the struggles of Gesar Norbu Dradul, the legendary 12th century King of Ling in Eastern Tibet. Gesar was renowned for the many battles and quests he undertook to secure the well-being, prosperity and peace of his embattled kingdom, and he came to be regarded as the embodiment of continuous cultural and spiritual renewal.
In all his endeavors, Gesar is inspired by fearless compassion. Unafraid of chaos, he is able to uncover a path of wakefulness and harmony even in the most perilous and compromising situations. His unconditional commitment to others gives birth to the confidence that always uncovers spontaneous, precise and vital expressions of enlightened mind. Thus, he is revered throughout central Asia in Buddhist, Shambhala and shamanic teachings as the perfect warrior.
The Spirit of Renewal
Gesar’s character in all his journeys is somewhat unique in Asian folklore. He is, even before his birth, an enlightened being. However he is also a classic epic hero, prey to a range of flaws. Unlike the Buddha who, having once realized enlightenment, was invulnerable to worldly sorrows and blandishments, Gesar is repeatedly caught in nets of outer and inner conflict. He repeatedly engages his torment and confusion in order to uncover the freedom of fundamental wakefulness.
The deepest impulse in the Gesar tradition is the constant renewal of enlightenment in the world. It is this dynamic—the constant rediscovery of wakefulness and compassion within the most horrific, grotesque, and frightening situations—that accounts for the Gesar epic’s continued vitality in its many elaborations.
A Living Tradition
One of the world’s most extensive bodies of epic lore, the Gesar songs and stories have long focused the social and spiritual aspirations of Eastern Tibet, Western China, Mongolia, Buryatsia, and the Kalmuk Republic. This epic tradition is still alive, in a wide variety of forms, today. Itinerant Gesar singers perpetuate the saga’s basic episodes and characters in improvised songs and chants, with some illiterate singers pretending to recite from written texts, and others unfurling scrolls that depict the tales of their songs. In eastern Tibet and elsewhere, an elaborate theatrical tradition boasts distinctive dances, costumes, and backdrops.
The epic has also been composed in written form, most famously in the early 20th century at the behest of Ju Mipham Rinpoche, the great Nyingma lama and scholar. This written tradition includes many liturgies invoking Gesar as a deity, protector, and spiritual guide. Of the written versions now available to us from Tibet, Mongolia, and Ladakh, many were adapted in whole or in part from the songs and performances of one or more singers. Meanwhile new episodes have continued to appear in response to the inspiration and needs of the time. One lama, for example, hearing of the horrors of World War Two, composed an episode in which Gesar went to Germany to conquer Hitler.
The Gesar epic is unlike the Mahabharata, which exists in one definitive written form, or the Ramayana which exists in two. Throughout India and Southeast Asia, the many theatrical and spiritual variations of these two great Indian epics assume the stability of the root texts. By contrast, there is no definitive Gesar epic, which is constantly evolving, as are its modes of presentation, with some songs and performances containing only selected episodes. In this sense, it is very much a living, improvisatory tradition. Because its message continues to inspire people in many cultures to find courage and hope in the hardships they encounter daily, new renditions of the Gesar epic have often arisen in times of special uncertainty and danger.
The Heart of the Story
The Gesar Epic has a core repertoire of episodes. These include Gesar’s celestial origin and miraculous birth, his childhood and accession to the throne, his four great campaigns against the demonic lords of the four directions, and his departure from this earth. Other episodes tell of his battles in foreign lands, undertaken to procure various spiritual and material riches for the people of Ling.
The episode recounted in Crossings on a Bridge of Light is also part of the traditional canon, but less well known and it tells of Gesar’s journey to rescue his mother from hell. To do so, Gesar, after encountering the great protectors Vajrasadhu and Vetali, enters the kingdom of Yama, Lord of Death, he then travels through the six realms of existence and the interim states or bardos. And afterwards, he visits the Kingdom of Shambhala, where he meets four great warrior rulers who frame this journey in a worldly societal context. Finally, King Gesar makes his last return to Ling.
This episode is in some ways the epitome of all Gesar’s other endeavors. Here he experiences each of the six realms of being: hell, the realm of hungry ghosts, animals, humans, jealous gods, and gods. These realms are traditional in Tibetan, Indian and other central Asian cosmologies, but even as they may be considered real places, they also represent the kinds of worlds that evolve from our own states of mind. Thus, when our anger becomes completely solid, our world becomes an all-encompassing source of pain; when our craving becomes incessant, we inhabit a world of utter deprivation; willful ignorance makes a world of endless apprehension; clinging to stability accentuates a world of constant change; envy produces a world where what is most desired is in the possession of others; and the hallucinations of self-absorption flourish in complete indifference. From this point of view, we may find that all these realms not just resonate but even exist in our human world.
At the same time, the actual experiences of anger, craving, ignoring and so forth are all intensely, even unsparingly alive. We try to harness them to our narrative of a solid self who achieves goals in a solid world. But, letting go of such reference points, the very energy of the passions becomes a path of enlightenment. Passions awaken us to what is real in the world, in ourselves, in life, in dying. Thus, Gesar’s experience of each realm leads him to realize the immediate enlightenment there.
Although in this rendition, the six realms and the Buddhas within them are represented traditionally, this story lives beyond its original cultural framework. The inner truth of Gesar’s journey is not ultimately confined to any specific imagery. The demonic figures are expressions of our own inner terrors; the Buddhas (literally: awakened ones) refer to the intrinsic clarity and vividness of our own minds. Beyond any specific cultural or spiritual tradition, Gesar continues to provoke and inspire because we continually sense that there is an intensity, a truthfulness beyond our own limitations, and we continue to dare to seek it, even beyond the limits of life and death.
Books mentioned: Crossings on a Bridge of Light.
Other Gesar works can be found in Rolf Stein’s work, Alexandra David Neel’s Superhuman Life of Gesar of Ling, Douglas Penick’s Warrior Song of King Gesar, and the late Robin Kornman’s translation, among others.
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