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Buddhadharma : Fall 2013
FALL 2 0 1 3 BUDDHADHARMA: THE PRACTITIONER’S QUARTERLY 71 Trungpa Rinpoche counted himself among the descendants of Gesar, and the Gesar tradition and its ideal of war- riorship were central to his presenta- tion 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 war- riorship—and this was particularly true in Western Tibet (Ladakh and Baltistan) and among the Mongols, where many local traditions have little real con- nection 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 teach- ings, while tertöns Chogyur Lingpa (1829–1870) and Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo (1820–1892) began the rev- elation 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—Avalok- itesvara, 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 stu- dents 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 sig- nificant lamas among the Tibetan dias- pora with close links to Gesar include Kalu Rinpoche (1905–1989) and Kham- trul 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 repre- sented 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 Lada- khi tradition of Gesar were made avail- able 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 aca- demic publications. The main exception is The Super- human 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 spiri- tual 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 ori- entation. 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 rel- evance of Gesar as a spiritual figure. The Epic of Gesar of Ling is thus an important addition to the sparse lit- erature 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 lead- ing 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 REVIEWS Ceremonial Gesar mask MASK | KATIE HAGGERTY