This was written as an introduction to the book, "The Warrior Song of King Gesar", by Douglas J. Penick.
In nature you are the Vajra Manjushri.
In manifestation you are a Divine King of the World.
In ancient times you were the Knowledge-holder Padmasambhava.
In the present you are Sengchen Norbu Dradultsal [Gesar].
In the future you will be Rigden Rudrachakrin.
- - Mipham Namgyal) [i]
Every now and then a spiritual or secular giant of unimaginable power appears on the world stage to bring order and harmony. About eight centuries ago, a glorious, miraculous man of amazing power took birth among the nomadic community of eastern Tibet. He conquered many parts of that land and brought to it peace and harmony, the law of Buddhism. He was Gesar of Ling.[ii]
Gesar was born[iii] in the lineage of Ling in Dza valley[iv] in Eastern Tibet. His father was Senglon Gyalpo[v] of Ling. His mother was Lhakar Drönma of Gog, popularly known as Gogza Lhamo or Gogmo. Senglon was the King of Ling, but being a person of gentle and feeble nature, he was losing his power to Trothung, his ugly and cowardly but short-tempered and loud windbag brother. Because of the jealousy of Trothung and Gyaza, the first wife of Senglon, Gogmo and her infant son were forced to live at a distance from Senglon, and then were banished to the high grassy tablelands of the spectacularly beautiful Ma (rMa) valley.
Gogmo named her son Chori. Chori grew up with his mother in a simple tent with no more than worn sheepskins to wrap himself up. He rode on a willow-pole (lChang dKar Ber rGa) which, due to his enlightened power, moved faster than a horse. He used a herdsman’s stone-throwing sling (Aur rDo) which miraculously became a powerful weapon. He was always under the protection and guidance of divine forces. His fearless courage, brilliant wisdom and gift of divine power brought hope and joy to his parents and friends, but bitter suspicion and fear to the hearts of Trothung, the contender for the throne of Ling, and his followers.
Before long he obtained his mystic horse, Kyang-göd, from the wild mountains of the north. At the age of thirteen (or fifteen), against all expectations, Chori won his first victory, the famous horse race of Ling. As the trophy, he won the throne of Ling and the hand of Sengcham Drugmo, the daughter of Kyalö Tönpa Gyaltsen of Ga, as his consort with abundant treasure. He proclaimed himself Sengchen Norbu Dradul, the Great Lion, Wish-fulfilling Jewel, Subduer of Foes. The youthful king assumed the golden throne of Ling. He was attired in warrior’s armor and carried a divine bow, arrows, sword, spear, helmet and a shield, all adorned with resplendent jewels.
Gesar’s main mission on earth was to defeat his people's enemies of peace and to propagate and preserve the Dharma. Ling forces under the command of Gesar won eighteen major wars. Many of them were against foreign kingdoms and others against provincial tribes within Tibet. They include Lutsen Akhyung (of Kongpo?), the kingdom of Gurkar of Hor (Mongolia),[vi] the kingdom of Jang Sadam (Li-chiang in Yunan province), the kingdom of Shingtri (Mon), a kingdom of Tazig (Persia), a kingdom of Trugu (Turks) and Kangri Sheldzong (Ladakh) with their demonic supporters.[vii] Those wars stirred up great turmoil not only in the camps of the foes but also for the Ling and their allies,[viii] but it is believed that they brought long lasting peace, joy and Dharma to the lives of many.
Ling Chölha Phen of the Mugpo Dong lineage is known as the famous forefather of Ling mentioned in the literatures on Gesar of Ling. The thirty-seventh generation after Chölha Phen was Chöphen Nagpo. From his three sons -- Lhayak Darkar, Changpar Trigyal and Dragyal Bumme -- came the three major lineages of Ling leadership. They are the elder lineage (Ch’e brGyud), the middle lineage (‘Bring brGyud), and the younger lineage (Ch’ung brGyud). Bumme’s son was Thoklha Bum and his son was Chölha Bum. Chölha had three sons, Amye Rongtsa Tragen, the eldest statesman of Ling in Gesar’s time, Senglon Gyalpo, the father of Gesar and Gyatsa (the half brother of Gesar), and Mazhi Pönpo Trothung.
Gesar raised hundreds of thousands of warrior men and women under the leadership of his legendary warrior commanders: the Seven Men of Supreme Warriorhood (dPa’ Yang Dag lDan Pa’i Mi bDun), the Thirty Warrior Brothers (Phu Nu Sum Chu), the Eighty Champion Warriors (dPa’ Thul/brTul brGya Chu), and the Eighteen Supreme Ladies (Dvangs sMan bCho brGyad). Among them the most famous commanders were Gyatsa Zhalkar, Tsazhang Denma Changtra, Shenpa Meru, Amye Nangchung Yutag, Palha Michang Karpo, Dralha Tsegyal,[ix] Atag Lhamo and Jangtrug Yulha Thögyur.
Gesar was a manifestation of Guru Rinpoche. His chief commanders were also believed to be enlightened, appearing solely to serve the world. Gesar constantly received teachings and prophesies from Guru Rinpoche, many divinities and Dakinis in pure visions, as from person to person. He also received teachings and transmissions from the great sage Amye Changchup Drekhol[x] of the Lang clan and others.
Mahayana Buddhism believes that in its true nature the whole universe is oneness with the qualities of peace, openness, joy and enlightenment, which are the Buddha nature and the Buddha qualities. However, we un-enlightened beings -- because of our entrapment in habitual webs of dualistic concepts rooted in grasping at “self” and self-afflicting negative emotions -- live in the nightmare-like life of conflict, pain and excitement. In order to serve an individual being, a community or the beings of an era, the power or quality of enlightened nature appears in various forms, such as beings, teachings or things of nature, which are the symbols and sources of peace and joy. Therefore, any person or source that comes from and/or provides peace and joy for people -- like a birth of Gesar -- is the manifestation of the Buddha.
Buddhas appear in the forms, sounds and actions of wrathful manifestations and expressions. These wrathful manifestations and actions do not come out of anger, attachment and grasping at “self” nor in order to harm or cause suffering to anyone. They come out of love and compassion, and they are powerful manifestations that destroy and eliminate the negative forces, the very sources of suffering.
Gesar's many wars are not expressions of anger, greed or confusion but serve serving the needs of beings and the principal of truth. They were wars to bring the victory of right over wrong, peace over hostility, joy over suffering, freedom over suppression through the action of compassion expressed in the form of war. The armies of Ling fought many wars, killed hundreds of thousands of people and looted treasure after treasure through their skill of warriorship and mystical power. But their sole goal was to eliminate the sources of suffering and suppression of people, and to spread and defend wealth, peace, freedom and the Dharma for all equally.
In the age of Gesar, the warriors fought according to the arts and ethics of heroes. Ling heroes would stand still before their opponents and listen to the songs-of-war (sGrung Glu) and await the poisoned and flaming arrow, spear, sword or missiles. True heroes of Ling and their warrior opponents hardly ever fought by hitting faster or by fleeing. They would cut off the weapons with their skill, the strength of their armor or the help of divine protection, or they would fall victim. If they survived, with a war-cry they would sing the songs-of-war.
Ling warriors would always start their songs-of-war with the mantra of the Buddha of Compassion and an invocation of Guru Rinpoche or another deity. This will be followed by the warrior introducing himself or herself, and a description of the field of battle. Then they would sing the reasons for the battle, the dangers of the weapons that they would wield, the guilt of their opponents, and the consequences that their enemies were about to face. Only at the end of their long monologues would they use weapons against their enemies. Among the Ling warriors there is hardly any event in which a warrior tried to run for his life, with the exception of Trothung, who, a number of times, after provoking his enemies, ran away from the fighting and then disclosed Ling secrets in enemy captivity.
The wars of Gesar and his chief commanders not only brought peace and joy to the lands of Ling and of their enemies, but ensured salvation for the fallen heroes of both Ling and their opponents. For example, the two youthful commanders, Pawo Ratna Bumthar and Agöd Senge Drug of Ling, realized that if they went to challenge the young prince of Sog Litri,[xi] they would lose their lives. But they also realized that because of their karmic connection with the prince, if they died in the battle with him their consciousnesses would be able to lead the prince's own mind streaminto the Joyous Heaven (dGa’ lDan). Other Ling warriors could kill the prince without any harm to themselves, but none could liberate his consciousness. So, knowingly they volunteered to fight and died on the same field with the prince.
During Gesar’s time, most of the Ling clans and their subjects inhabited the upper highlands of Ma, Dza and Dru valleys, around the sources of the great rivers of the world: Machu, the Yellow river (Huang ho), Dzachu, the Yalung river and Druchu, the Yangtze river. Today these areas are occupied by the nomadic tribes of Golok and Lingtsang, and also by some of the Dege, Gapa and Nangchen of Eastern Tibet.
There are numerous literary works on the legend of Gesar known in Tibetan as Drung (sGrung, epics). They were written centuries after the time of Gesar. No literature about Ling written at the time of Gesar is known to have survived.[xii] The Drung literature describes the wars of Ling in vivid detail, rendering the songs-of-war exchanged between the great warriors in the most rousing poetry. There are also many profound teachings and prophesies.
Gesar was a real person and his victories were true events. The life of Gesar left vast physical landmarks, many hereditary successions, numerous artifacts and profound historical contributions that prevail to this day.
However, some scholars have doubted the very existence of Gesar. Gedun Chöphel (1905-1951) is one of them:[xiii]
The snow lion exists nowhere.
King Gesar is nothing but
A phenomenon that appears to fabricating minds,
Material proper only for poetic composition.
Gesar’s influence on the spiritual and social life of his people is still felt in many parts of Tibet, Mongolia, Buryatsia, Kalmikia, and Tuva. In many parts of Kham and Amdo, and especially in Golok people are still being entertained by the Drungpas, the Drung singing specialists, who read and sing the stories and songs-of-war of Gesar for hours. Sometimes people pass whole nights listening to the heroic episodes of wars and the enchanting lyrics by bonfires, feeling as if they have become part of the warrior family of Ling.
For lay Tibetans, those Gesar epics remained a powerful source of inspiration to Dharma, awakening inner courage in their hearts and knowledge of the greatness of their past. But serious students of Dharma generally shunned them as distractions from their serious studies and meditation.
Many of the Drung texts could be categorized as Mind Ter (dGongs gTer), [xiv] messages concealed in the enlightened nature of a realized mind and discovered through the power of enlightened wisdom. Among their discoverers are great adepts such as Do Khyentse (1800-1866) and celebrated scholars such as Mipham Namgyal (1846-1912).
However, most of the Drung texts are called “visionary Drung” (Babs sGrung) written by gifted people such as Drungter Nyima Rangshar (20th century). They remembered the events of wars for they were members of the Ling community under the leadership of Gesar in one of their past lives.
Even today, Drung writers and Drung singers, like Drungpa Kelzang Tragpa, have special powers for recalling, retelling, and singing the endless epics of Gesar in beautiful poetry that flows spontaneously, as if the events were taking place right in front of them.
Then, a great number of people with gifts of language and imagination have written fictional Drung on the life of Gesar of Ling. So, it is not easy to present any factual information on the life of Gesar by separating fact from fiction. Nevertheless, here I have attempted to sift out some important points that are agreed on by most of the sources that seem to be reliable.
Gesar was not only a defender of Dharma, but he meditated in solitude for years and taught Dharma and especially on the nature of the mind to a vast number of disciples. At Lhalung Yudo of Ma valley he sang his teachings to his uncle Amye Rongtsa Tragen, his minister Tsazhang Denma and a huge assembly of people:[xv]
The creator of our delusory world is our own mind.
But (in that mind), no beginning, middle or end can be found.
The original nature (of mind), unmarked by any delusions
Is called the primordial basis (Thog Ma'i sPyi gZhi).
From it arises the notion of grasping at an 'I':
This is called the ignorance of the single self (bDag NyidgChig Pu).
From it arises grasping at the five lights of the wisdom as 'other':
It is called the ignorance of duality (Lhan Chig sKyes Pa).
From it arises conceptual thinking and analyzing:
This is called the ignorance of discursive thoughts (Kun TurTog Pa).
From it arises the defilements and the sense consciousnesses
Together with the fifty-one mental events.
At that point you have become deluded
Into the three realms of samsara.
In the beginning, our mind does not come from anywhere,
But just bursts out due to adventitious conditions.
In the middle, our mind has no place to dwell,
But just holds itself up in samsara by mere attachment and clinging.
And at the end,
Our mind has no place to go.
If we recognize these points,
We are liberated.
We cannot perceive the comings and goings (of our mind)
But due to the conditions of our karmic stream, comings and goings appear. ...
As all thoughts are mere drawings on water,
By letting them vanish and dissolve without a trace,
Perfect the state of complete equanimity.
In India there are three teachings (on the nature of the mind):
The great Middle Way, the Madhyamaka
Shows the view that go beyond the realm of conceptual thought and analysis.
This is the ground of the nature of our mind.
The Great Sign, the Mahamudra
Shows the way of meditating one pointedly
And attaining the simplicity
Beyond the elaborations of development and perfection stages.
Realizing the one-taste of samsara and nirvana,
Perfects the state of no meditation.
This is the path of training (the nature of mind).
The Great Perfection, Mahasandhi (Dzogpa Chenpo),
Perfects spontaneously the expanse of the intrinsic awareness
As the Dharmakaya, Sambhogakaya and Nirmanakaya.
This is the attainment of the fruition (the nature of mind).
At the age of eighty-eight, Gesar summoned Tsazhing Denma, the only old warrior commander who was still alive, and the warrior princesses of the young generation with his beloved Ling subjects to Sengdrug Tagtse, his main palace in Ma valley. After giving Dharma teachings, he declared that the time of his final departure had arrived. Then next day, many saw him flying away through the sky sitting on a shawl of light held up by four Dakinis, and then he disappeared. Others saw him dissolving into a rainbow-body, leaving the clothes that he was wearing but no mortal body behind.
According to Mipham[xvi] and some others, Gesar will reincarnate as Rudrachakrin, the 25th Rigden King of Shambhala, the mystical hidden land of central Asia. It is also said that in 2424 A. D. [xvii] Rudrachakrin will conquer the dark forces and inaugurate the dawn of a new golden age of peace and joy on earth.
Tulku Thondup Rinpoche
[i] dGra ‘Dul Nor Bu’i sNying Thig (GNN) by Mipham Namgyal (1846-1912) from The Writings of ‘Jam Mgon Mi Pham Rgya mTsho(Lama Ngodrup and Sherap Drimey, India), Vol. Na, page 26b/3.
[ii] Ling was the name of a country. Gesar means Blossom Pistil, or R. A. Stein writes in his introduction for Dzam Gling Ge Sar rGyal Po’i rTogs brJod, The Epics of Gesar (EG) (Kunzang Topgyel, Bhutan), Vol. I, p. 19: “Gesar is a transcription of the, first Greek, and later Turkish title kaisar (“king” or “emperor”).” If so, after conquering some Persian and/or some Turkish tribes, Gesar could have got the title in the same way that the third Dalai Lama was offered the title of ‘Dalai Lama’ by Altan Khan, a Mongol King.
[iii] The date of Gesar is uncertain. Some believe that he lived in the 11th century and others in the 13th:
bsTan rTsis Kun Las bTus Pa by Tseten Zhabtrung (1910-?) (mTsho sNgon Mi Rigsd Peb Krun Khang, China), p. 152: “Lingje Gesar was born in the iron rat year (1000 a.d.).” Lingje means the Lord of Ling. And p. 165: “According to the prophesies of rLang Byang Ch’ub ‘Dre Khol, Gesar died at the age of 88, in the fire hare year of the second Rabjung, 1087.”
Deb Ther rGya mTsho (DG) by Trag-gon Zhabtrung Konchog Tenpa Rabgye (1801-?) (India), Vol. I, p. 562/13: Gesar was born either in the iron rat (1060) or in the water snake year (1053) of the first Rabjung. Gesar received teachings from Lang Drekol and Smritijnanakirti (10th-11th cent.).
The Nyingma School of Tibetan Buddhism (NSTB) by Düdjom Rinpoche (1904-1987) (Wisdom Pub.), Vol. I, p. 952: “Lingje Gesar, born in the earth tiger (1038) was in his 50th year, when the 2nd Rabjung began (1027).”
Bod Kyi Lo rGyus (rGyal Rabs) by Dudjom Rinpoche (Dupjung Lama, India), p.187b/6: “Lingje Gesar seems to have lived during the time of Ngadag Palkhor Tsen (924-954) and his sons.”
EG Vol. I, “Gleng brJod (Introduction) by Pemala” p. 10/2: “(Gesar) was born in 1038 a. d. in the earth-male tiger year of the first Rabjung cycle.”
Bod Kyi Srid Don rGyal Rabs (BSG) by W.D Shakabpa (1907-?) (Tsepal Taikhang, India), Vol. I, p. 256-261: A friend of Shakabpa’s told him, “Kathog Situ and Jamgon Khyentse have said that Drogon Chögyal Phagpa (1235-1280) couldn’t go by the northern route on his second trip to China (1267) because of the war between Ling and Hor.” However, Shakabpa adds that he couldn’t find this story in any Sakya sources.
My teacher, Kyala Khenpo (1893-1957), told me, “Chögyal Phagpa couldn’t travel to China by way of Amdo because of the war between Ling and the Mongols, and he turned south. On the way he was received at Tsangchen field of Do valley by 500 monks of Deur Chöje Monastery.” Today in Tsangchen field of Do valley stands the Dodrupchen Monastery, but it is true that Deur Chöje, a Sakyapa monastery, was situated there, and the ruins are still visible. However, it is not certain that Chögyal Phagpa ever traveled here or if he did, why.
rLang Gi Po Ti bSe Ru (LPS) by rLang Byang Ch’ub ‘Dre Khol (Bod Rang sKyong lJongs, Tibet), p. 46-69: It says, rLang ‘Dre Khol visited Gesar and Ling twice, subdued for demonic forces of the four directions and gave teachings and blessings. LPS was written at the time of Gesar and this is the earliest literature that mentions Gesar of Ling, but the time of rLang ‘Dre Khol himself is in question.
Ch’os ‘Byung mKhas Pa dGa’ Byed by Guru Trashi (19th century) (Grung Go’i Bod Kyi Shes Rig dPe bsKrun Khang, China), p. 170 and Rin Ch’en Baidurya’i Phreng Ba(gTer rNam) by Kongtul Yonten Gyatso (1813-1903) (Jamyang Khyentse, India), folio 22b/4, say that rLang ‘Dre Khol was the father of rLang dPal Gyi Seng Ge, one of the twenty-five main disciples of Guru Rinpoche. Bod Kyi Deb Ther dPyid Kyi rGyal Mo’i Glu dByangs by the Fifth Dalai Lama (1617-1682) (Mi Rigs dPe bsKrun Khang, China), p. 1223/4, mentions a dPal Gyi Seng Ge as being a son of rLang ‘Dre Khol, though he is not clear whether he was the disciple of Guru Rinpoche.
But rLang ‘Dre Khol must have come after rLang dPal Gyi Seng Ge, the one who was a disciple of Guru Rinpoche, as LPS p. 40, mentions that Guru Rinpoche gave prophesies to rLang dPal Gyi Seng Ge concerning rLang ‘Dre Khol’s coming in the Lang clan in the future, and LPS 2/14 also says that there were two masters named dPal Gyi Seng Ge and thirteen masters named Byang Ch’ub in the rLang clan. Also Gesar came much later than Guru Rinpoche.
Bibliographical Dictionary of Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism by Khetsun Sangpo (Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, Dharamsala, India), Vol. IV, p. 97-98: “As (DG and NSTB) agreed, Gesar appeared in the first Rabjung. NSTB says that he was born in the earth tiger year (1038) and LPSG writes that he lived for 88 years. So he must have been killed in the wood dragon year (1124) by ‘Dan Ma, as Zhal lChe bChu Drug writes: ‘King Gesar of the lower (province) was killed by Denma. But the blood-money has still not been paid’.”
However, throughout Drung literature, there is no report that Gesar of Ling was killed, let alone by Denma, one of his chief commanders.
[iv] Although some texts on Gesar indicate that Gesar was born in Ma valley, the majority of the sources seem to agree that Gesar was born at Kyid Sos Yag Gi Kha mDo in Dza valley. At the age of seven or eight he moved to Ma valley where he then settled.
DG- I 562/20: “There are different views. Some say that Gesar was born at mTsho Gor Kha by the Dza river near Tshab Tsha Monastery, while others say that he was born at Dar [Gyi] Sa Nag Lung of Dar gorge (of Ma valley). These areas are now inhabited mostly by Golok people.”
BSG I-259/7 quotes Phuntsog Gelek Rabten, the late King of Lingtsang (d. 1981?): “Gesar was born at sKyid gSos Yag Gi Kha mDo, near Sa Tsha dGon, by the Dzachu river, in the Lingtsang area. At the place of Seng Phrug sTag rTse, the palace of Gesar, is now situated the ‘Gu Zi dGon. The Ja mKhar Ring Mo palace is now the bZang Grags Pho Brang, the palace of the king of Lingtsang. dNgul Ch’u’i Khro rDzongs, the palace of Gyatsa Zhalkar, is now the palace of the King of Dege, known as dNgul Zla dGon Ch’en Lhun Grub sTeng.” However, according to many Drung sources, (i. e., EG Vol. I, p. 337-340) the Pho Brang Seng ‘Brug (or Seng Phrug) sTag rTse, the main palace of Gesar, was in Ma valley.
Heart of Asia by Nicholas Roerich (1874-1947) (Inner Traditions International), p.102/25: “Ladakh is regarded as the birthplace of Gesar Khan.” Although this view is improbable, it shows that many places claim having given birth to Gesar.
[v] Some sources say that Gesar’s father was a divine presence, and not the human being Senglon.
[vi] The Monguors of Kansu-Tibetan Frontier by Louis M. J. Schram (The American Philosophical Society, 1954), p. 24(b)/48: “Potanin notes a tradition according to which the Shirongols had built a large realm, the capital of which was at Lanchou (capital of the province of Kansu); after three mighty emperors governed the realm in succession it was destroyed by Ghesar (the mythical Tibetan hero).” Were the Gurkar (Kerker?) of Hor and Shirongol the same? Shirongol (or Mongour) was a tribal group originally from Mongolia that settled in Kansu province.
[vii] Oracles and Demons of Tibet by Rene de Nebesky-Wojkowitz (Akademische Druk-u. Verlagsanstalt, Graz/Austria, 1975), p. 101, and some other Western sources say that Pe har, the chief Dharmapala of Samye Monastery, was subdued by Gesar and so on. But Pehar was subdued and converted as a Dharmapala by Guru Rinpoche in the 9th century a.d. Gesar of Ling is different from Gesar Mag, a country mentioned in the chronicles of the Chögyal Dynasty.
[viii] Ne Shar Lo rGyus Jo Glang Gangs A’od by Sangye Tendzin, p. 6: The Sharpas of Nepal originally came from Kham. They fled to Nepal through central Tibet because of the upheavals caused by the wars of Ling.
[ix] The late King of Lingtsang [quoted earlier] told me: “My family lineage is derived from Dralha Tsegyal and the library of my palace had the list of all my forefathers, from Dralha to myself.” Dralha Tsegyal was the son of Gyatsa Zhalkar, the half brother of Gesar.
[x] LPS, p. 45-74 and 84-86 and other sources state: rLang Byang Ch’ub ‘Dre bKol visited Ling many times and became the teacher of Gesar. He died at the age of 108.
[xi] Sog Li Tri rTa rDzong by Drungter Nyima Rangshar (Si Khron Mi Rigs dPe bsKrun Khang). P. 218.
[xii] Besides the events of Gesar mentioned in LPS, one of the earliest known surviving writings on Gesar may be a ritual text that was written in Mongolian, in 1600 a.d. See Introduction to EG by R. AStein.
[xiii] Ri Bo Himala’i bsTan bChos by Gedun Chöphel (1905-1951) (Si Khron Mi Rigs dPe bsKrun Khang, China), p. 350/7.
[xiv] For Mind Ter, see, Hidden Teachings of Tibetby Tulku Thondup Rinpoche. (Wisdom Pub.)
[xv] gSer Ch’os A’og Min bGrod Pa’i Them sKas by Tragthung Dorje (Do Khyentse, 1800-1866) (Si Khron Mi Rigs dPe bsKrun Khang, China). p. 56/10.
[xvi] GNN p. 26b/3.
[xvii] NSTB Vl. I, p. 960/3 and others.