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mandala To share and promote interest in Tibetan culture, people and land

The Epic of King Gesar

by Ivy Hsu
June, 1998
Chinese (BIG5) version

King Gesar ruled the kingdom of Ling in eastern Tibet around eight centuries ago. He was believed to be one of the manifestations of Guru Rinpoche*. Like many folklore heroes, his legend was passed on through the generations in the form of beautiful songs. Many of the literary works on the stories of Gesar are known in Tibetan as Drung. Curiously, some of the Drung were passed on by singers who recalled those events vividly from their past lives as subjects of the kingdom of Ling. The following song depicts the world that Gesar was born into:

The World Before King Gesar

One of our readers brought the name of King Gesar to our attention by asking if we could write an article about him. After some research I found a book by Douglas J. Penick [1], which I highly recommend with its excellent presentations of the songs. On one level, one can read the epic of King Gesar's many adventures as if reading a fantasy novel, enjoying the excitement and suspense in a world full of demons and supernatural power. I tend to approach the story not focusing on whether it is a factual account of history, but seeing it as one reflection of the Tibetan people's philosophy on religion and life.

In the following I try to retell one of Gesar's stories:

One of King Gesar's missions on earth was to defeat the demonic kingdoms that surrounded Ling. The lord of the kingdom to the north was Lutzen, a twelve-headed demon who ruled by terror. Gesar defeated him by cleverly soliciting the help of the demon's beautiful wife. Upon the demon's death, Gesar sang a song as instructions in liberating him in death. Guidance for one in the dying process is quite important in the Tibetan belief [2]:

Gesar's Liberating Song for the Demon Lord Lutzen

After the victory, however, Gesar was tricked by the demon's wife and lost his memory under her spell. In his absence, Ling was conquered by Kurkar, the demon lord of Hor. Ling's brave warriors were slaughtered by Kurkar, and its people were ruled by the reign of terror. Even Gesar's own wife, Sechan Dugmo, was captured and forced to marry Kurkar.

There is a very interesting description of what demonic power that Kurkar and his two brothers, Kurser and Kurnag, hold over their subjects: Kurkar was handsome, appealing, and magnetic. In his way, he took possession of people's minds. Kurser's influence caused people to desire possessions and to fear their loss. Kurnag was fierce and violent, causing people to fear him and to depend on his protection at the same time. (Doesn't the power of these three reflect certain inner demons in our minds?)

Six years after Ling's defeat, King Gesar's senses was finally awakened by one of his warriors, whose head was cut off in the battle, so he took rebirth in the form of a headless falcon in order to look for his king. When he returned to challenge the power of Kurkar, though, he found his wife standing on the demon's side. In the first two years of her capture, Sechan Dugmo resisted marrying Kurkar. But over time, Kurkar showed her great kindness and she grew to love him. Now she could not bear to see her husband returning.

Gesar defeated Kurkar and his army at last and brought Sechan Dugmo back to Ling. The last thing he did before leaving Hor, which may be a bit disturbing from the modern point of view, was to kill the three-year-old son of Sechan Dugmo and Kurkar. When he finally returned to her, she was bitter, ashamed, grief-stricken, and afraid. The following is what he said to her:

Sechan Dugmo, queen and wife,
Remorse at what each of us has done,
Anger at what each of us has seen the other do,
Sorrow that true love has proved so fragile,
Sadness that passing love has been compelling and disastrous,
Doubt that even genuine love can be restored,
Fear that neither decency nor joy has a place
In such deceitful and dangerous terrain,
All these things, O dear companion of my heart,
Seem to separate us so, and yet,
We share them utterly.

I found much truth in the sentiments that he conveyed about two loved ones who have hurt each other. I was also deeply moved by the gentleness and compassion in his reconciliation.

The following song is a part of his teaching to the people of Ling after his return:

Dear friends, when a raindrop falls into a still pond,
It dissolves inseparably in its own nature,
And nothing has occurred.
But when the same raindrop falls into the same pond,
Ripples shine and dance on the water's skin.
From these two ways of seeing one thing
Come the true magic that raises and destroys kingdoms,
That increases joy or misery, brilliance or degradation.

I hope this story interests some of our readers to learn more about Gesar's legend and teaching.


* Tibetans commonly refer to Padmasambhava as Guru Rinpoche. He introduced Buddhism into Tibet.

  1. "The Warrior Song of King Gesar" by Douglas J. Penick.
  2. "The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying", by Sogyal Rinpoche.