Sunday, July 21, 2013

The Lung-Gom-Pa Runners of Tibet

Alexandra David-Neel, Magic and Mystery in Tibet.  New York: Dover, 1971.  (Translation of the 1929 publication, Mystiques et magiciens du Thebet.)

Lama Anagarika Govinda, Way of the White Clouds.  New York: Overlook Press, 2005.  

The first references in the West to the lung-gom-pa runners of Tibet are the eyewitness accounts of Alexandra David-Neel, published in 1929, and the spiritual autobiography of Lama Anagarika Govinda, recorded a decade or so later.  

Born in Germany in 1998 as Ernst Lothar Hoffman,  Lama Govinda describes in some detail the range of practices that are grouped under the umbrella of lung gom pa.  Multi-day cross-country "tramps," as David-Neel calls them, were just one manifestation.   The related practice of tumo, for example, involved the control of body temperature and the ability to produce internal heat, allowing the adept to walk about in the coldest weather with nothing but a light toga.  

Lung, says Lama Govinda, refers to air as well as vital energy or psychic force, the term thus denoting both a physical and mental phenonmenon (Buddhism considers illusory the distinction between these dualities).  Gom-pa signifies meditation, the mental and spiritual discipline needed to advance in one's practice.  So, lung-gom-pa in combination could be translated, according to Lama Govinda, as a disciplined concentration on the control of vital energy.  

"Extraordinary swiftness"

Lama Govinda's autobiographical the Way of the White Clouds is philososphical and poetic.  David-Neel's narrative is no less so, although her characteristic mode of discovery is exuberant, headstrong, restlessly active, as she explores a land that had been all but barred to all foreigners, let alone to self-styled "lady lamas" from France.

Travelling by horseback through Northern Tibet in the 1920s,  David-Neel spotted a tiny figure, no more than a "black spot" at first, moving rapidly towards her across the high grassy tableland.  She was astonished.  She and her servants were travelling across an essentially uninhabited landscape and had not met another person for two weeks.   

The man was running, after a fashion, proceeding "with an extraordinary swiftness."  As he drew near, she saw that he was not so much running as levitating with each step, lifted into the air as if "endowed with the plasticity of a ball."  She observed the man's face, perfectly calm, seemingly unaware of their presence, his eyes fixed on a distant point "somewhere high up in space."  

David-Neel's servants dismounted and bowed, telling her that this was a "lama lung gom pa" and that to accost him, to break his trance, would kill him.  

Skeptical, but chary of compromising her status as a "lady lama," David-Neel resisted acting on the spirit of insatiable curiosity and utter fearlessness that runs throughout her narrative: "I wanted to observe him at close quarters, I also wished to have a talk with him, to put him some questions, to photograph him...I wanted many things."  

"Moving Slopes and...Horses' Hoofs"

Lama Anagarika Govinda pursued his studies of Buddhism first in Ceylon and India, then in Tibet in the 1930s and 1940s.  In his autobiographical account of his time in Tibet, The Way of the White Clouds, he records an uncanny experience on the shores of Lake Pangong (below).  It almost resulted in his death but in retrospect revealed to him the secrets of the lung gom pa runners.

The climate of Tibet, he writes, is the closest place on earth to the surface of another planet, a place where "all accepted rules of nature seem to be changed."  So extreme is the contrast between sun and shade, one can, he reports, develop sunburn and blisters on one side of the body, and chilblains on the other.    There is no medium, no comfortable twilight zone, for "the air is too rarified."  It is also unpredictable.  Tempests can appear suddenly out a clear blue sky.

Nonetheless, on one particularly fine day, Lama Govinda set off clad lightly, wearing sandals, without food or water, planning to spend a day tramping and painting.  His immediate object was the short of Lake Pangong.  Along his hike, he has an encounter with a herd of kang, wild horses that are shy of humans and rarely seen.  

Approaching the lake, he has to pick his way across a field of boulders.  Between the boulders are deep grooves, forcing one to take large, awkward steps in order to avoid getting stuck.  Leaving the boulders for relief nearer to the shoreline, he narrowly avoids getting pulled down to freezing waters by a moving slope, a small avalanche of stones, that drops off at an angle of 45 degrees into freezing waters that would surely kill him in minutes.

He scrambles back to the boulder field.  It is then that he notices, in the deep grooves between the rocks, a strange and, on reflection, gruesome sight: a large number of horse hoofs, minus any trace of the horses.  It is if an entire herd has vanished.  There are no bones, no skins, no other remains but the hoofs.

The day wears on.  He hardly notices either the distance covered or the passage of time.  Clouds gather, darkening the sky.  By the time he has turned back for the return to camp, the sun is already sinking and the air is rapidly cooling.  He is now hungry, increasingly cold, far from camp, and uncertain of the way back.  

Darkness falls in earnest.  Resisting the urge to sit down and rest, likely fatal in these rapidly dropping temperatures, Lama Govinda begins at this moment to run.  In a pitch black night without stars or moon, he must traverse the same field of boulders where he earlier spotted the horses' hoofs.  And he must avoid the shifting shore, the sheer drop into icy lakewater, and perhaps whatever strange fate claimed the vanished herd of horses.  

It is then that his steps become long, sure, and rapid, despite the darkness and treacherous terrain.  He is aware of no obstacles, no fear.  Govinda later recounts that he "had reached a condition in which the weight of the body is no more felt and in which the feet seem to be endowed with an instinct of their own, avoiding invisible obstacles and finding footholds...." 

Only after several yeas have passed, as he reads for the first time, and with growing excitement, the earlier account of David-Neel, is he able to understand his experience as one in which he had "unwittingly conformed to the rules of," and in an inspired flash mastered, lung-gom-pa running.  

A rope of air

Generating enough body heat internally to sweat, although naked, in icy subzero air; levitating one's body through the air and running rapidly, without pause, for days and nights at a time: can any of this possibly be real?   

I suppose we first must know with some precision what we mean by the question.  

Govinda and David-Neel are learned, critical, authors and, I am convinced, trustworthy guides and witnesses.  David-Neel saw something out there on the high grassy tablelands of Tibet.  Something happened to Lama Govinda on the shores of Lake Pangong that day.  

Other parallels give pause to my own skepticism.  As Peter Nabokov documents in his Indian Running, the esoteric training, or hokep, of Yoruk runners includes a number of elements similar to the lung-gom-pa: a series of exercises to master breathing, until the rushing air becomes a "rope" on which a runner is rapidly pulled; mental focus on a single point, such as a star or a mountain, inducing a trance-like concentration; and the uncanny ability to surely navigate a demanding trail even in the dark.  

Yoruk runners, too, are said to be able to cover large distances rapidly--and to do so with a preternaturally long, levitating stride. As Nabokov notes, it is said that "runners reaching this state of consciousness could skim over the tops of close-growing manzanita bushes on the southern slopes of the Siskiyou Mountains.”

Vanished traces

The Tibet of which David-Neel and Lama Govinda write is gone now.  The Chinese invasion of 1950 and subsequent systematic cultural cleansing have largely swept away the otherworldly realm they describe: a land of lamas, hermits, necromancers, monastaries, magicians, bandits, ghosts, animated corpses, and mysterious floating lights.  

Like Lama Govinda's mysterious horses' hoofs, their words are all that remain to us of the lung-gom-pa runners of old Tibet.

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1 comment:

  1. Hi Matthew - What a beautiful, eloquent, evocative account! I'm a 62 year old British woman living in Ecuador and very recently, due to cataracts, have embarked on night-walking without a light, to retrain my vision. I've also stated to walk barefoot where possible. Even more recently, I've become inspired to run again & while running barefoot along a river trail today was reminded of the Tibetan running meditation. Googling it I came across your article. For several years I was quite fascinated by Tibetan Buddhism and studied a lot in Nepal and India. The two books you mentioned I found irresitibly intriguing. How sad that almost all of that is lost...