Bounding weightlessly across the Tibetan plains: Lung-gom runners

Note: The practice of lung-gom predates the arrival of Buddhism in Tibet; its purpose is to gather demons (Draco reptilians?) to a propitiating ceremony.  The training requires that the adept be confined to a dark room for three years, three months and three days.  I have reproduced this account in order to show that matter can be manipulated by the mind.  In this account, written years later in Europe, Alexandra David-Neel is clearly of two minds.  Her first observation of a runner describes a man who defied gravity; however, when writing her book, she doubts the testimony of her own eyes and calls the ability endurance.


Alexandra David Neel (third from left?) and traveling party

From Alexandra David-Neel’s Magic and Mystery in Tibet

Though the effects ascribed to lung-gom training vary considerably, the term lung-gom is especially used for a kind of training which is said to develop uncommon nimbleness, and especially enables its adepts to take extraordinarily long tramps with amazing rapidity.

Belief in such a training and its efficacy has existed for many years in Tibet, and men who travelled with supernormal rapidity are mentioned in many traditions.  We read in Milarespa’s biography that at the house of the lama who taught him black magic there lived a monk who was fleeter than a horse.  Milarespa boasts of similar powers and says that he once crossed in a few days a distance which, before his training, had taken him more than a month.  He ascribes his gift to the clever control of ‘internal air’.

However, it should be explained that the feat expected from the lung-gom-pa is one of wonderful endurance rather than of momentary extreme fleetness.  In this case, the performance does not consist in racing at full speed over a short distance as is done in our sporting matches, but of tramping at a rapid pace and without stopping during several successive days and nights.

Beside having gathered information about the methods used in training lung-gom-pas, I have been lucky enough to catch a glimpse of three adepts.  In this I was extremely fortunate since, though a rather large number of monks endeavour to practice some kind of lung-gom exercises, there is no doubt that very few acquire the desired result, and in fact true lung-gom-pas must be very rare.

I met the first lung-gom-pa in the Chang thang [an immense wild grassy plain of high altitude] of Northern Tibet. Towards the end of the afternoon, Yongden, our servants and I were riding leisurely across a wide tableland when I noticed far away in front of us a moving black spot, which my field-glasses showed to be a man.  I felt astonished.  Meetings are not frequent in that region—for the last ten days we had not seen a human being. Moreover, men on foot and alone do not, as a rule, wander in these immense solitudes.  Who could the strange traveller be?

One of my servants suggested that he might belong to a trader’s caravan which had been attacked by robbers and disbanded.  Perhaps, having fled for his life at night or otherwise escaped, he was now lost in the desert. That seemed possible; but as I continued to observe him through the glasses, I noticed that the man proceeded at an unusual gait and, especially, with an extraordinary swiftness.  Though with their naked eyes my men could hardly see anything but a black speck moving over the grassy ground, they too were not long in remarking the quickness of its advance.  I handed them the glasses and one of them, having observed the traveller for a while, muttered:

“Lama lung-gom-pa chig da” (“It looks like a lama lung-gom-pa”).

These words “lama lung-gom-pa” at once awakened my interest.  I had heard a great deal about the feats performed by such men and was acquainted with the theory of the training.  I had even a certain experience of the practice, but I had never seen an adept of lung-gom actually accomplishing one of these prodigious tramps which are so much talked about in Tibet.  Was I to be lucky enough to witness such a sight?

The man continued to advance towards us and his curious speed became more and more evident.  What was to be done if he really was a lung-gom-pa?  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, but at the very first words I said about it, the man who had recognized him as a lama lung-gom-pa exclaimed:

“Your Reverence will not stop the lama, nor speak to him.  This would certainly kill him.  These lamas when travelling must not break their meditation.  The god who is in them escapes if they cease to repeat the ngags, and when thus leaving them before the proper time, he shakes them so hard that they die.”

By that time he had nearly reached us.  I could clearly see his perfectly calm impassive face and wide-open eyes with their gaze fixed on some invisible far-distant object situated somewhere high up in space.  The man did not run.  He seemed to lift himself from the ground, proceeding by leaps.  It looked as if he had been endowed with the elasticity of a ball and rebounded each time his feet touched the ground.  His steps had the regularity of a pendulum.  He wore the usual monastic robe and toga, both rather ragged.  His left hand gripped a fold of the toga and was half hidden under the cloth.  The right held a phurba (magic dagger).  His right arm moved slightly at each step as if leaning on a stick, just as though the phurba, whose point was far above the ground, had touched it and were actually a support.

My servants dismounted and bowed their heads to the ground as the lama passed before us, but he went his way apparently unaware of our presence.

I thought I had done enough to comply with local customs by suppressing my desire to stop the traveller.  I already began to vaguely regret it and thought that at any rate I would see some more of the affair.  I ordered the servants to remount their beasts at once and follow the lama.  He had already covered a good distance; but without trying to overtake him, we did not let that distance increase and, with the glasses as well as with our naked eyes, my son and I looked continually at the lung-gom-pa.

It was no longer possible to distinguish his face, but we could still see the amazing regularity of his springy steps.  We followed him for about two miles and then he left the track, climbed a steep slope and disappeared in the mountain range that edged the steppe.  Riders could not follow that way and our observations came to an end.  We could only turn back and continue our journey.

On the morning of the fourth day after we had met the lung-gom-pa, we reached the territory called Thebgyai, where there are a number of scattered herdsmen encampments.  I did not fail to relate to the herdsmen how we had approached a lama lung-gom-pa as we joined the track that led to their pasture ground.  Now some of the men had seen the traveller when gathering their cattle together at sunset the day before we had met him ourselves.  From that information I made a rough reckoning.  Taking into account the approximate number of hours we had actually travelled each day at the usual speed of our beasts—leaving out the time spent camping and resting—I came to the conclusion that in order to reach the place where we met him, the man, after he had passed near the herdsmen, must have tramped the whole night and next day without stopping, at about the same speed as he was going when we saw him.

To walk for twenty-four hours consecutively cannot be considered as a record by the hillmen of Tibet who are wonderful walkers.  Lama Yongden and I, during our journey from China to Lhasa, have sometimes tramped for fully nineteen hours without stopping or refreshing ourselves in any way.  One of these marches included the crossing of the high Deo pass, knee deep in the snow.  However, our slow pace could not in any way be compared to that of the leaping lung-gom-pa, who seemed as if carried on wings.  And the latter had not started from Thebgyai.  Whence had he come and how far was he still going when we lost sight of him?

Both were a mystery to me.  The herdsmen thought that he might have come from Tsang, as some monasteries of that province have a reputation as schools for lung-gom training.  Yet they had not spoken to him, and tracks coming from various directions join up on the Thebgyai territory.

By chance, I caught a glimpse of another lung-gom-pa in the region inhabited by some independent tribes of Tibetan origin in the Szetchuanese Far West.  But this time I had not the opportunity of watching him tramp.

Alexandra David Neel with her adoptive son, Aphur Yongden

We were travelling in a forest, Yongden and I walking ahead of our servants and beasts, when at the turning of the path, we came upon a naked man with iron chains wound all round his body.  He was seated on a rock and seemed so deeply buried in thoughts that he had not heard us coming.  We stopped, astonished, but he must have suddenly become aware of our presence, for after gazing at us a moment, he jumped up and threw himself into the thickets more quickly than a deer.  For a while we heard the noise of the chains jingling on his body growing rapidly fainter and fainter, then all was silence again.

“That man is a lung-gom-pa,” said Yongden to me.  “I have already seen one like him.  They wear these chains to make themselves heavy, for through the practice of lung-gom, their bodies have become so light that they are always in danger of floating in the air.”

My third meeting with a lung-gom-pa happened in Ga, a region of Kham, in Eastern Tibet. I was again travelling with my small caravan.  The man appeared under the familiar and commonplace figure of an arjopa, that is to say a poor pilgrim, carrying his pack on his back.  Thousands of such fellows may be seen on all the tracks of Tibet, so we did not pay much attention to a member of such a large tribe.

These needy, solitary pedestrians have the habit of attaching themselves to any trader’s caravan or to any rich traveller whom they happen to meet on their way and following them.  They walk beside the pack animals; or if these are few and lightly loaded so that they trot together with the riders, the beggars, who of course fall behind, tramp on till they join the party at the evening camping.  This is not generally difficult, for during long journeys Tibetans start at daybreak and stop at about midday in order to rest and graze their beasts during the whole afternoon.

The trouble that the arjopa gives himself to hurry after the horsemen, or any odd help he is always ready to give the servants, is rewarded by a daily evening meal and occasional buttered tea and tsampa (barley flour) from the travellers.

According to this custom, the man whom we had met attached himself to our party.  We learnt from him that he had been staying at the Pabong monastery in Kham and was going to the Tsang province.  A pretty long journey which, done on foot and begging on the way, would take three or four months.  However, such tramps are undertaken by thousands of Tibetan pilgrims.

Our companion had already spent a few days with us when, in consequence of a slight break-down, it was nearly noon before we started.  Thinking that the pack mules would be late in crossing a ridge that lay ahead of us, I rode on with my son and a servant to look for water and a grassy place where we could camp before dusk.

When the master travels ahead, the man who accompanies him always carries a vessel to make tea and some provisions, so that the gentleman or the lama may have a meal while waiting for the arrival of the luggage and tents.  My servant had therefore joined us, and it was this fact, so trivial in itself, which caused the display of the lung-gom-pa’s abilities.

The way to the pass was longer than I had suspected, and I soon realized that the pack-mules would not reach the top of the ridge before nightfall.  It was out of the question to let them attempt to go down the other side of the range in the dark, so having reached a grassy spot near a brooklet, I stopped there.  We had already drunk tea and were collecting dry cow-dung to feed the fire when I saw the arjopa climbing the slope at some distance below us, progressing with extraordinary rapidity.  As he came nearer, I could see that he was walking with the same peculiar nimble springing gait which I had noticed in the lama lung-gom-pa of Thebgyai.

When he reached us, the man stood quite still for a while staring straight before him.  He was not at all out of breath, but appeared only half conscious and incapable of speaking or moving.  However, the trance gradually subsided and the arjopa came back to his normal state.  Answering my questions, he told me that he had begun the lung-gom training with a gomchen who lived near the Pabong monastery.  His master having left the country, he intended to go to Shalu gompa in Tsang.  He did not tell me any more and looked sad the whole evening.

On the morrow, he confessed to Yongden that the trance had come on him involuntarily and had been produced by a most vulgar thought.  As he was walking along with the servants who led my mules, he had begun to feel impatient.  They were going so slowly, he thought, and during that time we were, no doubt, grilling on the fire the meat he had seen my servant take with him.  When the three other servants and he himself would have overtaken us they would have to pitch the tents, to look after the beasts, and so there would only be time to drink tea and eat tsampa (barley flour) before retiring to sleep.

He visualized our little party.  He saw the fire, the meat on the red embers, and sunk in contemplation gradually became unconscious of his surroundings.  Then, prompted by the desire of sharing our meal, he accelerated his pace and in so doing mechanically fell into the special gait which he was learning.  The habitual association of that peculiar gait with the mystic words his master had taught him caused the mental recitation of the proper formula.  The latter led to the regulation of the breath in the prescribed rhythm, and the trance followed.  Nevertheless, the concentration of his thoughts on the grilled meat dominated everything.

The novice regarded himself as a sinner.  The mixture of gluttony, holy mystic words and lung-gom exercises seemed to him sacrilegious.

My lama-son did not fail to report the confidences he had received.  I felt interested and put different questions to the novice.  He was most unwilling to answer, but I managed to obtain some information which confirmed what I knew already.  He had been told that sunset and clear nights were favourable conditions for the walker.  He had also been advised to train himself by looking fixedly at the starry sky.

I suppose that, like most Tibetan mystics, he had taken an oath not to divulge the teaching imparted by his master and that my questions troubled him.

Some initiates in the secret lore assert that, as a result of long years of practice, after he has travelled over a certain distance, the feet of the lung-gom-pa no longer touch the ground and that he glides on the air with an extreme celerity.

Intellectual lamas do not deny the reality of the phenomenon brought about in the long run by lung-gom practices, but they care little for them.  Their attitude reminds us of that ascribed to the Buddha, in an old story.

It is said that the Buddha was once journeying with some of his disciples and met an emaciated Yogin, all alone in a hut in the middle of a forest.  The Master stopped and inquired how long the man had been living there, practicing austerities.

“Twenty-five years,” answered the Yogin.  “And what power have you acquired by such long and arduous exertion?” asked the Buddha.  “I am able to cross a river by walking on the water,” proudly replied the anchorite.

“My poor fellow!” said the Buddha with commiseration.  “Have you really wasted so many years for such trifling result?  Why, the ferry man will take you to the opposite bank for a small coin.”

David-Neel, Alexandra. Magic and Mystery in Tibet. London, Penguin Books, 1937.

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