When I tell people that I am studying the ongoing impact of King Gesar of Ling in Modern Himalayan Life I am greeted with a few standard replies: “What?”, “Who?” and saddest of all, “Why”?
They ask why an American would spend her time and effort studying a nearly 1,000 years old epic about a king who may or may not have existed historically.
My answer often circles back to the fact that the story of King Gesar is truly unique among Himalayan and Inner Asian cultural phenomena. Without its far-reaching influence, I doubt that King Gesar would have had any impact on the lives of the Himalayan Youth in the 21st century. Yet it assuredly does.
The Epic of King Gesar of Ling is estimated to be about 900 years old and the world’s longest epic poem, with many accounts agreeing it to be around 40,000,000 words. This actual word count is complicated by the fact that reincarnations of characters in the epic are recognised and may expand upon it, as well as termas and inspired recitations from bards who receive the epic in dreams or visions.
The epic tells the tale of King Gesar, his rise from poverty to power, and his conquests for honour, dharma, and wealth, all set against the early struggle for Buddhism taking root in Tibet. Although Western scholarship has not put much effort into proving the historical existence of King Gesar, there are contemporaneous records which appear to corroborate many of the events described.
Along with being a story of a historical figure, the Epic of Gesar is an all-encompassing dharma teaching. Gesar is believed to be an emanation of Guru Rinpoche, with other figures in the epic also viewed as emanations as well: beautiful Queen Sengjam Drukmo as Tara, wild Uncle Trothung as Red Hayagriva, and so forth. As such, not only are their activities believed to be dharma activities, but it is acceptable to worship them as Yidams as well.
Tana monastery, in the far reaches of Nangchen in Qinghai province in Kham, has maintained a spiritual connection with Gesar from the beginning. It was, as they say, their lama Amye Jangchub Drenkol who was King Gesar’s spiritual advisor and the root lama of the Kingdom of Ling. Their teachings, thus, come down to them from this lineage. Not only does the Tana monastery maintain the lineage, but also numerous artefacts, including swords and bows of the heroes, the resounding rightward turning conch of Ling and King Gesar’s white felt hat. A short but treacherous walk from the central monastery itself is the stupas of the great Kagyu master Phagmodrupa as well as the remains of the 30 Great Heroes of Ling.
Ju Mipham Gyatso, otherwise known as Mipham the Great, discovered termas which seamlessly added to this tradition. These include a Guru Yoga practice and the Lingdro Dechen Rolmo, a Cham or sacred vajra dance. Unique, however, to these practices is their emphasis on the laity. The Lingdro Dechen Rolmo can be performed by monastics but is largely performed by laymen and women alike.
King Gesar himself was a married man and a king. While he devoted his life to practice, he also maintained the rulership of his people and life as a family man. Perhaps this is why the Gesar epic resonates with so many young people in Eastern Tibet. With the difficult choice between monastic education or secular education, many people living in the Himalayas are torn between faith in Buddhism and a desire to practice and the need to function in the day-to-day world.
Often, we hear the sentiment: “I will try to make merit in this life so that in my next life I can become a practitioner.” Gesar makes no such distinction. He is a practitioner and a husband, a Vajrayana master and a king. His decisions are informed by Buddhist teachings, and even when he is in a battle and forced to kill, he tries to avoid harm as best he can and performs Phowa to liberate those lost. While he may raid the stores of sacred medicines, he also distributes them to the populace of the kingdom that had been his enemy. When he destroys demons, he redeems them and sends them to Buddha realms.
This multifaceted nature is reflected in the epic itself. It can be viewed as a story, a cultural lesson on morality, or when viewed from the Dzogchen perspective, an entire set of teachings and practices in narrative form.
The manifestation of Gesar in modern Himalayan life, especially in Eastern Tibet, has been equally multifaceted. In Xining, one of the most popular Tibetan restaurants is the Ling Gesar Restaurant, which performs a 20-minute-long version of the epic each evening. On arrival in Yushu, Gesar’s towering statue overlooks the town. The second largest building, at the intersection of Gesar Street and Drukmo Lane, is the Gesar Palace Hotel, housing not only guest rooms and banquet halls but also an entire top floor dedicated to Tana as a branch temple. This Gesar Gonkhang (protector shrine) provides access on paved roads to Tana, albeit on a smaller scale, with lamas presiding over the requisite rituals, providing prayers, counselling and information.
Hip-hop stars and pop singers pepper their lyrics with lu alalamo alalen, lu thalalamo thalalen as if they might break out into a Gesar aria at any moment. A towering white image of Drukmo, Khata and Chang in hand awaiting the horse racers, looks over the plains of Golok and nearby a massive recreation of Gesar’s palace is being built at a spot revealed to Khenchen Jigme Phuntsok in a vision in which ruins were found.
With China’s successful petition to recognise Gesar as part of UNESCO’s List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2009, renewed interest in Gesar has risen. It is not uncommon to see officially recognised bards given awards, with many invited to sing on national television and during important events. There is even talk of a museum for the Gesar artefacts.
For some, the Epic of Gesar of Ling is a story that not only gives pride to a vibrant culture but also a model of discipline and morality with good humour thrown in. The desire to participate in the ongoing Kingdom of Ling turns many into voluntary citizens of a dynasty long past.
When I came to Bhutan to present on different research methods while researching King Gesar at the 4th annual Vajrayana Conference, hosted by the Centre for Bhutan Studies, I was thrilled to be in a place where people had heard of King Gesar. Not only that, but I was in the Vajrayana Kingdom with a king who bears Gesar’s own name (Khesar in the English-Dzongkha transliteration) and who, from all I have heard and witnessed, embodies Gesar’s model of strong and compassionate Kingship.
Returning to the original question: “Why would I study Gesar?” Perhaps the better question is why more people aren’t. Given that we are living in a rapidly changing world where compassion is considered less valuable than money, where long-standing traditions are traded for passing trends, where spiritual cultivation is devalued and cultural identity is suppressed, the epic of Gesar shows us that no such concessions are necessary. And especially for Himalayan people, connection with this epic story can be viewed as a way of reestablishing cultural pride, and environmental protection as well as a model for spiritual and moral guidance.
It is, therefore, my hope that international and Himalayan scholars, practitioners and alike will work together in the future to continue to conduct research on a king who, despite nearly 1,000 years of change and turmoil, has remained, nonetheless, firmly relevant.
Amalia H. Rubin