Waking Dead

Can Monks Really Go Into 200-Year Trances?

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.”

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, 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.

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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.