Cultural perspective can’t help but have a profound impact on the way one perceives the world, and cultural differences make for vastly varying interpretations of life and historical events; one man’s spiritual blessing can be another man’s darkest nightmare. Take the recent case of the mummified monk from Mongolia: What locals see as a miracle, Westerners might regard as bizarre—even terrifying.
The remarkably well preserved corpse, sitting in a lotus position, was rescued by Mongolia authorities as it was about to be sold on the black market; they believe the body was stolen from a remote region in the north, and the thief is in custody.
The monk was found wearing traditional Buddhist robes.
As scientists struggle to determine how the body, most likely over one hundred years old, is so well preserved (a phenomenon that can be only be partially explained by Mongolia’s frigid climate) senior Buddhist scholars and theologians have their own ideas, some claiming that the monk is, in fact, still alive. They describe a state of extreme meditation known as “tukdam”.
Ganhugiyn Purevbata, professor of the Mongolian Institute of Buddhist Art at Ulaanbaatar Buddhist University explains how the positioning of the body is telling:
Lama is sitting in the lotus position vajra, the left hand is opened, and the right hand symbolizes of the preaching Sutra. This is a sign that the Lama is not dead, but is in a very deep meditation according to the ancient tradition of Buddhist lamas.
Dr. Barry Kerzin, a Buddhist monk and physician to the Dalai Lama explained “tukdam” further:
If the person is able to remain in this state for more than three weeks – which rarely happens – his body gradually shrinks, and in the end all that remains from the person is his hair, nails, and clothes. Usually in this case, people who live next to the monk see a rainbow that glows in the sky for several days. This means that he has found a ‘rainbow body’. This is the highest state close to the state of Buddha. If the meditator can continue to stay in this meditative state, he can become a Buddha. Reaching such a high spiritual level the meditator will also help others, and all the people around will feel a deep sense of joy.
The monk was found as it was about to be sold at black market.
While the identity of the monk can’t be proven conclusively, he is believed by locals to be the teacher of Lama Dashi-Dorzho Itigilov, a Buddhist monk who was also found mummified. In 1927, Itigilov (from neighboring Buryatia in the then Soviet Union) supposedly told his students he was going to die and that they should exhume his body in 30 years. The lama sat in the lotus position, began meditating and died. Supposedly, the locals, fearing Soviet interference, left him underground for much longer than 30 years. Legend has it that, when finally unburied in 2002, Itigilov’s corpse was unusually well preserved.
While Western-educated mono-theists may scoff at these claims, reports of monks dying during meditation, thereby reaching a state of “tukdam”, are not uncommon with some 40 reported cases over the last 50 years in India alone.
Now try to imagine for just a moment that this story happened in America and was reported in the mainstream media: Reports of a “living” 100 year old corpse could easily set off fears of a zombie apocalypse, evoking images of shambling bodies with decayed, toothy grins.
But before you disregard the Eastern explanation for the mummified monk from Mongolia, remember that spirituality and language are both highly subjective. All world religions struggle to provide answers to unknowable concepts like souls and the Afterlife. For a Buddhist, claiming that this monk is “not dead” can be taken literally, or metaphorically as a means of describing transcendence and/or the ability to exist in more than one world simultaneously. No matter what, writing the monk of as “just a corpse” is culturally insensitive and, frankly, closed-minded.
In Behind the Mask, Leslie Vernon discusses using meditation to appear dead.
Eventually, monk from Mongolia may find himself interred in a Buddhist temple where he can be worshipped throughout eternity.
What do you think about the mysterious case of the Mummified Monk from Mongolia? Sound off in the comments section!
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