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Buddhadharma : Fall 2013
FALL 2 0 1 3 BUDDHADHARMA: THE PRACTITIONER’S QUARTERLY 69 Versions of Gesar’s story have been told for many hundreds of years by Tibetans and neighboring peoples, such as the Baltis and people of Hunza to the west and the various Mongol peoples to the east and north. As epics do, the stories of Gesar deal with central issues of human existence. They also provide insights into many aspects of Tibetan religion and culture. That is why the appearance of this new translation of Gesar stories is so important and welcome. The Epic of Gesar of Ling has been a long while coming. The principal translator was Robin Kornman, a fine teacher and scholar who worked on the Gesar epic for many years. Robin died, unfortunately, in 2007, at a rela- tively young age and without finalizing his translation of the three episodes of the Gesar epic covered in this volume. His work was completed by members of the Light of Berotsana Translation Group: Lama Chönam, who is from the Golok area of Tibet where Gesar was traditionally very popular, and the American translator Sangye Khandro, with help from Jane Hawes and oth- ers. It has been published in a luxurious edition with a heavy blue cover and a separate blue slipcase. Traditionally, the epic of Gesar was performed, not read silently. It consists of a prose narration, gener- ally performed in a kind of heightened speech, alternating with songs for the various characters. In the Eastern Tibetan versions, these songs are per- formed without accompaniment in short mantra-like melodies, which are repeated over and over until the song is finished. Their hypnotic melodic power can make a strong impression when performed by a good singer. While many Gesar bards sing from memory or from manuscripts, the most respected have always been the babdrung, or inspired bards, who sing through a kind of shamanic inspiration. When they begin their performance, the epic “descends” on them, like a moun- tain god on a Tibetan village shaman, and they sing not from memory but from direct vision of the story. Often it is said that they can do this because, like a tertön who remembers his pre- vious life as a disciple of Padmasamb- hava, they can recall a previous life in which they were a character in the epic. Countless places and natural features throughout Tibetan-speaking regions are associated with Gesar’s story, and the same incident can be narrated as happening in many different places. Nonetheless, it is Eastern Tibet (Kham and Amdo) that has the strongest asso- ciations with Gesar. The kings of Ling Tshang in Kham regarded themselves as descendants of Gesar’s adopted son, and many aristocratic families of Kham claim to be descendant from one or another of Gesar’s generals. In recent years, many of the episodes have been printed in and outside Chinese-con- trolled Tibet, and groups of Khampa men will gather together with a copy and read and sing through an episode. As all this suggests, the Gesar story is not just a history of events that hap- pened at some time in the past. While there may have been an historical Gesar, just as there may have been an historical Arthur, any such figure has by now been lost under layers of legend and story. The name “Gesar” appears to be borrowed from the Roman “Cae- sar,” probably transmitted via the Cen- tral Asian kingdom of Bactria, whose rulers used this title in the eighth cen- tury. Perhaps there was a historical King Gesar in East Tibet in the eleventh or twelfth century, but the evidence is slim. A fifteenth-century text, the Lang Poti Seru, mentions a King Gesar, but REVIEWS he bears little resemblance to more recent versions. By the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, however, we find early forms of the principal episodes that we know today, in both Tibetan and Mongolian versions. By this time we also find traces of Gesar as a deity to whom ritual is performed, specifically the sang fire- offering of fragrant woods and herbs that Tibetan and Mongolian peoples traditionally offered to local gods. Gesar is often referred to by the title Masang, a term otherwise used for a group of early semi-divine beings who are described as living in Tibet before the first human beings came to reside there. The masang deities may have something in common with the werma and drala, two other groups of early deities associated with Gesar. All take the form of mounted warriors, and all are associated with the principle of warriorship. As Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche explained in his 1981 foreword to Alexandra David-Neel’s The Superhu- man Life of Gesar of Ling, warrior- ship “has for centuries been the heart of the lineage of Gesar of Ling, whose Tibetan descendants still exist today. Although it has been somewhat influ- enced by Buddhism, as has virtually all of Tibetan culture, basically the principle of warriorship stands on its own.” He goes on to say, “When we talk here about conquering the enemy, it is important to understand that we are not talking about aggression. ... Thus the idea of warriorship altogether is that by facing all our enemies fear- lessly, with gentleness and intelligence, we can develop ourselves and thereby attain self-realization.” For the Rimé lamas, Gesar of Ling was far more than a warrior deity of old Tibet. Gesar’s activity was seen as an expression of the enlightened energy and wisdom of buddhahood itself.