The Tibetan Lung-gom-pa runners
Like so much about Tibet, Lung-gom-pa running remains something of an enigma.
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Enlightenment through physical endurance
This practice involves intensive spiritual training, including the repetition of mantras and breath control exercises, with the aim of achieving a heightened state of consciousness and pursuing spiritual enlightenment.
Legend has it that practitioners of lung-gom-pa are able to run for extended periods of time, covering vast distances in a single day, as a result of their training.
The training practices of the lung-gom-pa runners in Tibet involve secluding oneself in a remote cave for three years, where the majority of time is spent practicing breathing exercises and chanting Buddhist mantras.
The practitioners also engage in repeated leaping upward from a cross-legged sitting position without using their hands.
After three years, the practitioners return to the world in a heightened state of consciousness, having gained the ability to run vast distances and potentially win races, though the act of winning may have become meaningless to them by this point in their training.
Harnessing spiritual energy
The term “lung” refers to air or vital energy, while “gom” signifies meditation or focused concentration. By transcending the physical limits of the body through the use of these techniques, lung-gom-pa practitioners are able to achieve a state of heightened consciousness and spiritual enlightenment.
Prior to the arrival of Westerners in Tibet in the early 20th century, lung-gom-pa training was only conducted at two monasteries: Nyang-to Kyi-phug and Samding.
The Way of the White Clouds
The training process of lung-gom-pa practitioners was described in detail by Lama Anagarika Govinda, a German-born Buddhist monk, in his memoir “The Way of the White Clouds“, which was based on his travels to the Nyang-to Kyi-phug monastery in Tibet in 1947.
Govinda writes that a would-be lung-gom-pa enters the monastery having forsaken all claims to his previous life, including his name.
Absolute anonymity is a prerequisite for training. If the initiate is approved, he is sealed inside a simple meditation hermitage for three to nine years.
During his time in seclusion, he is allowed no human contact. Food is passed to him through a small opening in the wall. He spends his days meditating, chanting and deep breathing. For physical exercise, he paces his chamber and practices the art of levitating, or “yogic flying” as it is known today.
He sits in a cross-legged position, fills his lungs with a deep breath, and then leaps into the air without using his hands. He repeats this exercise over and over again. As time passes, he is able to deeply synthesize his breath and movement.
After the prescribed amount of years has passed, a lung-gom-pa is released from his seclusion.
The lung-gom-pa “has become so light and subtle … that he can move with the speed of a galloping horse, while hardly touching the ground.”
Lama Anagarika Govinda
The Maheketang & the demons
According to an ancient Tibetan legend, a runner must be sent every year to the far corners of the country to collect spiritual demons that haunt the land.
Such a runner is called a Maheketang and is selected from the lung-gom-pa runners at Samding or Nyang-to Kyi-phug monasteries.
Every year, the Maheketang sets out in November, crossing the central part of Tibet in six weeks. The Maheketang invites the demons to return with him to the monastery where they are subdued with a religious rite.
The running Lung-gom-pa
Unfortunately, Govinda never saw a lung-gom-pa runner in action. One Westerner, however, did manage to stumble across a working lung-gom-pa while crossing a remote Tibetan plateau in 1924.
Alexandra David-Neel, an early 20th-century French explorer, was the first European woman to reach Lhasa, Tibet’s remote and forbidden capital. She was also the first, and perhaps only, Westerner to observe a running lung-gom-pa.
David-Neel’s surreal encounter is recounted in her memoir Magic and Mystery in Tibet. It remains one of the few eyewitness descriptions of a lung-gom-pa runner on record.
“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 [Chang Thang in northern Tibet] … 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… 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.”
A secret training
In 1950, shortly after Govinda’s visit to Tibet, Lung-gom-pa training retreated underground when the Chinese invaded and destroyed the majority of Tibetan monasteries.
Both Nyang-to Kyi-phug and Samding were victims of the destruction and with them went the concentrated training of lung-gom-pa runners.
The training, if still conducted today, takes place largely in secret. Tibetan monks are reluctant to speak about Lung-gom-pa with outsiders for fear of detracting from the real goal of the practice: spiritual enlightenment.