Happy belated Valentine’s Day, mutual lovers and secret spirit-sharers. I hope your heart is full and mind open, wings of spirit unfolding and soul nourished and at home.
Nina Simone sings:
“I wish I could share
All the love that’s in my heart
Remove every doubt
It keeps us apart
And I wish you could know
What it means to be me
Then you’d see and agree
Every man should be free”
I have been thinking about civil rights and society, and human rights in general, all winter, and hope you are too, and moreover eschewing and uprooting the roots of hatred and violence in your hearts and mind, body and soul. Fundamentalist-inspired violence and extreme dogmatic views seems like the bane of this modern world, bringing us all down. Let’s not just sit around twiddling our meditation and texting thumbs, let’s join the we-volution for a better world and brighter future to be possible!
We is the new iye.
Speaking about the weather, I just returned from Ram Dass’ house on Maui to blizzards pilin’ upon blizzards here in the Pilgrim State– What’s Wrong With This Picture? And yet, my heart is afire after co-meditating daily with the old Spiritual Lion himself, and being here now together after all these decades. He remains committed and devoted as ever to “passing Loving awareness on, soul to soul” and to being one with one and all, guru and God. May this year be one of spiritual harmony and attunement, convergitation and communitation. And when our time comes, as it eventually must to all of us, may we pass gently into the Light in a gorgeous manner!
How the traditional death and mummification of a Buddhist monk turned into a wild Western fantasy
Recent reports from Mongolia that a recently discovered, 200-year-old mummified monk is not actually dead, but in a deep form of meditation, naturally sparked a good deal of skepticism in Western media.
Rumors of the monk’s non-death, however, have been greatly exaggerated.
First, the only person to have actually claimed the monk is “not dead” is an art professor in Ulaan Baatar. Reading the statement closely, it’s quite likely that the professor, Ganhugiyn Purevbata, was explaining the iconographic symbolism of the monk’s posture: the lotus position, the open left hand, et cetera. “This is a sign” may be better rendered as “this is a symbol.”
Second, it is a common practice in Vajrayana Buddhism (which includes most forms of Tibetan Buddhism, as well as many found in Mongolia) for the bodies of well-known teachers to be entombed sitting in lotus position, and preserved in salt. Indeed, most of the past Dalai Lamas have been preserved in this way, and can be seen to this day in the Potala Palace in Lhasa. It would not be unusual for a respected Vajrayana teacher to be buried in this way.
So where has all this “not dead—just meditating” stuff come from?
“There are no Zombie Lamas,” said Lama Surya Das, a Western-born Tibetan lama who has written several bestselling books on contemporary spirituality. “These aren’t just superstitions from the old world—that this person is immortal in his mummy-body. The point is that this monk was an enlightened meditation master who approached death consciously and with intention, who died in meditation, in posture, sitting up.”
“There are no Zombie Lamas.”
Following death, Surya Das explained, is the traditional period of tukdam, in which the body is biologically dead but the mind may or may not be. “Tuk means ‘Buddha-mind,’ and dam means ‘one with.’ So tukdam is absorption in the Buddha-mind. Tukdam starts when death occurs, and remains for some time—a few days, a week or two at the most. Eventually, the body slumps, and starts decaying, and it’s packed in salt and preserved.”
Most likely, this process is what took place in the case of the Mongolian monk. He entered a state of deep meditation, died, and then resided in the post-death tukdam state before being preserved.
I asked Surya Das—who I’ve known for many years and who, perhaps uniquely among certified Tibetan lamas, speaks with a strong Brooklyn accent and peppers his speech with jokes—what the purpose of such a bizarre practice might be.
For the dying person, Surya Das explained, the point is “to practice the teachings, point the way, model another way of being and of conscious dying and transitioning, and thus … benefit all beings, especially his followers.” In other words, it’s one final act of teaching: showing how powerful contemplative practice can be, how it is possible to meditate even on one’s final breath.
And for the community, Surya Das drew an analogy to preserving “the bones and relics of the great Catholic saints.” Essentially, he said, “people have traditionally believed that physical remains embody or carry some of the spiritual essence and blessings of the original saintly or sagely holy person. … So the body was left, as the master died that way, intentionally and purposefully seated in meditation, even after his tukdam was complete and the signs of physical death manifested more vividly.”
Nor are such practices only maintained in the steppes of Mongolia. Amazingly, Lama Surya Das said that he most recently witnessed a tukdam right in New York City, in the summer of 2014, when the widow of a famous lama passed away, “and sat in tukdam for ten days to two weeks,” while various rituals were performed.
In a nice touch, this all took place at a Buddhist center on West 16th Street, just a couple of blocks from The Daily Beast’s office.
Kenneth Folk, a well-known American Buddhist meditation teacher, had a somewhat more cynical view of the media coverage. “We in the West are often fascinated by Eastern thought, especially Buddhism, and many of us have fallen in love with the image of the Tibetan monk,” he said. The exaggeration in Western media is part and parcel of an orientalist fascination with “those wonderful cave-dwelling ascetics.”
For contemporary teachers like Folk, the real question is the opposite: “What are the real nuggets of Buddhist thought and practice that stick around even after we let go of magical thinking?”
This was Surya Das’s point as well. “This is not about zombies—although what is a zombie, really? Does it refer to the
walking dead, or walking around in this world without a heart or soul? That is the real question.”
And to that, a 200-year-old mummy provides no answers.