Imagine that an enemy has grabbed you, thrown you on the ground, pinned you on your back, wrapped your left arm tightly around your own neck, and you are struggling to escape as they use it to choke you unconscious.
Now imagine that your best friend has grabbed you, thrown you on the ground, pinned you on your back, wrapped your left arm tightly around your own neck, you are struggling to escape as they use it to choke you unconscious—and you are having wicked big fun.
Hold that thought.
Ling Gésar retreat
I recently attended the first ever public Ling Gésar Tibetan Buddhist martial arts retreat. Ling Gésar was a heroic Buddhist warrior-king; he is the subject of numerous epic poems and also religious termas.
This retreat was based on a Gésar terma that is closely connected with the Aro gTér. This terma is almost entirely Dzogchen long-dé. It consists of methods of training to be a Buddhist warrior, including Gar-tak, a system of martial arts.
The week-long retreat presented a huge variety of material, most of it quite unlike anything previously revealed publicly in any Tibetan Buddhist tradition. To grasp it fully, you’d need to be both an accomplished martial artist and an accomplished Dzogchen meditator; and I am neither. This page is based on my novice experience and understanding; others might give quite different accounts.
What I hope to communicate is that
- Some people will find this seriously cool.
- It will not be a good fit for most other people (although they might find it interesting to read about).
- This is indeed Buddhism—although it might sound like the opposite at first.
Long-dé is the section of Dzogchen concerned with the “subtle body”—experiences of “energy” or indescribable sensations. Mind, energy, and the physical body are linked so that each affects the others.
Many systems—Buddhist and others—use this linkage to affect the mind through energy. According to Tibetan Buddhism, the mind “rides” the energy like a horse. A skilled rider can direct energy to take mind where the rider wants to go. In Buddhism, that would generally be to rigpa—transient enlightenment. This “energy work” is the “completion phase” of Tantric Buddhism; it is the necessary last step before enlightenment.
Of course, if you are unskilled, your energy takes you somewhere else—often into depression or agitation. At the crudest level, everyone understands this, from experience with coffee, for instance.
The problem with the subtle body is that it is usually too subtle. Under most circumstances, the qualities of energy that are useful to develop are so slight that they go unnoticed.
For this reason, it is easy to get away with saying ridiculous things about the subtle body. The New Age is full of nonsense about energy, maybe involving flower essences and angelic guides.
To learn to ride the subtle body, you have to intensify the energy so it is no longer subtle and the relevant sensations are unmistakable. Different systems have many methods for this. They use the mind or the body, or both, to affect energy; then energy is used in turn to affect mind or body.
Completion phase Tantra uses highly technical methods to gradually build up energy in specific complex patterns; this delicate construction takes many years.
Dzogchen long-dé works instead with whatever form of energy arises spontaneously. Many methods shake the hell out of the subtle body, rapidly producing intense, strange, unpredictable sensations.
Whereas in Tantra the meditation instructions provide a detailed energetic circuit diagram, the long-dé instructions are mainly descriptions of sensations you might experience at some time if your energy happens to manifest in that way. Then the practice is to be open to recognizing those experiences whenever they do. Adding violent energy to the system makes it more likely that unusual experiences will occur.
The Ling Gésar system incorporates diverse methods that can produce powerful energetic effects almost instantaneously. One of these is sPrul 'khor—a vigorous system of Tibetan yoga, illustrated above.
The violent physicality of combat, in martial arts practice, can also produce intense sensations—some unlikely to be felt elsewhere. Most may be meaningless and useless; but others are valuable for meditation or fighting or both. The retreat teachers spent a couple of hours each day pointing these out.
And this is Buddhism?
It might seem that violence is inherently anti-Buddhist. I’ll say more about that below. Let’s set that aside for a moment, and imagine that martial arts aren’t opposed to Buddhism.
Still, why make martial arts the main topic of a Buddhist retreat? Is there any connection? Many connections were made over the week. Let me just point out two—ones that may be easy to understand experientially, even if you have no martial arts experience.
When you have been fighting for sixty seconds—which can seem much longer—you stop thinking. There is no room for it. This can sometimes happen during any form of intense exertion; blood is routed out of your brain and into your muscles. But there is more to it in fighting. When someone is trying as hard as they can to put you in a “submission position” in which they could kill or cripple you, and there would be nothing you could do about it, your body automatically goes into “fight or flight” mode. A burst of adrenalin puts your brain into an instinctual state that stops thought.
A no-thought state is the goal of many Buddhist meditation practices. Typically you’d need at least an hour a day of practice, for many months, perhaps several years, to get there. You can get to that point in your first sixty seconds of martial arts sparring. Then you can access no-thought as often and for as long as you like, limited only by anaerobic exercise capacity.
Another goal of Buddhist meditation is to break down the experience of a distinction between self and other. It might seem that combat, being adversarial, would heighten that distinction. A common experience, however, is the opposite. When locked in struggle, “me” and “my opponent” may disappear. There is just the intense sensation of bodies straining against each other and the poetry of motion, without any “doer” involved.
Of course, these non-thought and no-self experiences do not automatically propel you along the Buddhist path. If they did, UFC champions would all be Buddhas. These are Buddhist methods only in a Buddhist context, in which you have sufficient experience of meditation, and sufficient understanding of Buddhist view, to recognize their significance as they occur.
This is characteristic of Dzogchen. Its fundamental meditation practice is not very different from that of other forms of Buddhism. Its distinctive additional methods accelerate the basic meditation, taking you immediately to the experience of emptiness or rigpa. But these methods only work if you have a solid base of silent sitting meditation.
So what about aggression?
Buddhism of all sorts is opposed to aggression: destroying things because you don’t like them. Many forms of Buddhism see violence as inherently aggressive and condemn it. I have four things to say about this: violence is not necessarily aggressive; aggression is workable; you cannot effectively oppose aggression without experiencing it in yourself; and destruction is sometimes ethically necessary.
In martial arts training, students must be friendly; they must trust and respect each other, and see each other as “on the same side,” even when fighting a match. If you thought your sparring partner might deliberately cause you a serious injury, the dynamic would be entirely different. That is a situation few sane people would choose, and in which it would be difficult to learn anything.
During this retreat, the teachers deliberately created an atmosphere they called “combative conviviality.” Personally I found this the most remarkable aspect of the whole experience.
Violence is not necessarily aggressive. A martial arts match is a form of enjoyable play. The combatants, although doing their utmost to violently dominate and subdue each other, are also working hard to care for each other, to prevent real harm. Anger is unhelpful and out of place here. Affection is not.
Everything is workable
Sutric Buddhism sees aggression as entirely unworkable. Sutra is the path of renunciation. A Sutric Buddhist renounces aggression in all forms, and avoids any situation that might give rise to conflict.
Tantric Buddhism is the path of transformation. Tantra puts strong emotions, whatever they may be, to work. Its slogan is that “everything is workable.” Aggression is not separate from enlightenment—although it is a distorted, mistaken form. Tantra contains methods that separate the intense emotional energy of aggression from the intention to destroy. That energy can be redirected toward other goals, such as religious realization.
Martial arts sparring is one way to transform your aggressive impulses, putting them to use for physical fitness, enjoyable play, and (in the Gésar Gar-tak system) religious practice.
Violence is not somewhere else
Violent conflict is a fact of human nature. We can wish it did not exist; we can try to prevent it. What we cannot do is wish it out of existence. We also should not pretend that it is “somewhere else”—that we have no capacity for violence, and only bad people do.
To effectively oppose conflict, we need to understand it. We cannot fully understand it without experiencing and accepting it in ourselves. We may be able to choose never to be violent—but most people will become violent when put under sufficient pressure. We can train our ability to resist violent impulses by repeatedly experiencing them in a safe environment, where they do no harm.
the first principle:
defense of others
Although some systems of Buddhist ethics condemn violence absolutely, many recognize that there are times when it is required. There are even times when it is ethically necessary to kill people—to prevent a worse catastrophe. According to one Buddhist Sutra, the Buddha (in a previous life) hacked a psychopath to death with an axe, as the only way of preventing his murdering five hundred other people. My page on “Buddhists who kill” explains this in detail.
As a Buddhist practice, Gésar Gar-tak martial art is not a system of “self-defense.” Its first principle is the defense of others.
If you take this ethical imperative seriously, you might wish to learn something about how to subdue dangerous people with minimal harm, or even how to kill, should that be necessary. A practical system of martial arts could be one approach to that.
Essentialized martial arts
So far this has been about the Gésar terma as Buddhism. Now I will say something about its implications for the martial arts.
There are many interesting analogies between the historical and social dynamics of Buddhist lineages and martial arts lineages. Actually, the two are often the same; most Asian martial arts lineages have Buddhist roots, and many retain ties to particular Buddhist school. Famously, for instance, Kung Fu is centered on the Shaolin Zen monastery.
Martial arts and Buddhism both tend to gradually accumulate elegant complexity. Over time, martial arts lineages seem to lose track of their original purpose of efficiently controlling, disabling, or killing enemies. They evolve into elaborate dance styles. These can be appreciated aesthetically as art, but no longer function as martial arts.
Mixed martial arts tournaments pit different systems against each other. They show what actually works in combat. The complicated, elegant stuff doesn’t.
Buddhism—especially Tantra—also tends to produce ever-more-elaborate rituals and philosophies and meditation methods. These are extraordinary as art works. They remind me of Rococo cathedrals, in which the luxuriant decorations on the statues adorning the architectural ornaments are enhanced with convoluted floral embellishments. However, the original goal of efficiently attaining enlightenment often seems to get lost.
Dzogchen—particularly relative to Tantra—cuts through all these curlicues. It is simple, direct, and swift. It concentrates on the essential principles and functions of Buddhist practice, heading straight for the goal and ignoring attractive diversions.
Gésar Gar-tak similarly aims straight at the heart of combat. It concentrates on essential principles, such as the relationship between striking and grappling.
The Gésar teachers are developing a system of martial arts training that drops beginners directly into full-contact sparring, and instructs them immediately in the essential skills needed to win matches. (By contrast, most Asian martial art training methods spend a couple of years teaching elaborate stylized forms before sparring begins; and may entirely omit fundamental aspects of combat skills.)
As long-dé, Gar-tak’s foundation is the various ways fighting can feel, rather than particular physical skills such as stances, kicks, throws, or pins. The felt sense of how the fight is going and where it can be guided usually takes a decade of traditional training to develop, because it is not explicitly taught. Gar-tak training transmits this understanding from the beginning.
The Gésar terma also connects the experience of combat with religious principles from the beginning. Most martial arts developed in a religious context, but in most cases their spiritual aspects are not taught to beginners.
Modern fighting systems may also accelerate progress through immersion. However, like some stripped-down Western Buddhist approaches, they risk throwing the baby of traditional transmission methods out with the bathwater of excessive elaboration. Generally they omit spiritual principles altogether. The Gar-tak approach incorporates both the traditional forms and principles, and the immediate feedback of playful (yet deadly serious) tactility.
Not for everyone
The Ling Gésar terma overall is available to everyone. It includes motionless meditation and physical exercises that are quite gentle. It contains approaches that are non-combative, in which fighting plays no part.
On the other hand, martial art sparring will not be a good fit for most Buddhists. It requires both physical fitness and mental toughness.
Pain, numerous bruises, and total exhaustion are guaranteed. Minor injuries—from sprains to small bones breaking—are not uncommon. Serious injury or death are improbable, but not impossible.
Aro retreats can be quite emotionally intense; this went beyond that. I think most participants were faced at times with fear, pain, confusion, unexpected anger, and the groundlessness of “what on earth am I doing here?” This would not be a good environment for the emotionally fragile. On this occasion, everyone managed their feelings competently, and carried themselves well. An atmosphere of enthusiasm, precision, and respect was maintained throughout.
Now is the time
If this Gésar Gar-tak retreat sounds attractive, I recommend that you go to the next one. Do not wait. The Gésar terma is unfolding now for the first time. The teaching methods are semi-formed; in flux. Each of the next several retreats is likely to be unique. Being part of this from near the beginning is exciting in a way that may not be accessible a couple of years from now. The training method is also progressive, and it may be difficult to catch up with the initial group of students if you do not get started soon.