Vanity thought #1171. Undead lama. Resolution

I was going to conclude Dashi Darzho Itigilov story with mind blowing revelations how it can help in our practice. That’s how it felt when I first dived into it a few days ago. Now the time has passed and I have lost the focus, I don’t remember what was it exactly that I found so mind blowing about it. I will still try to reconstruct my initial pro-arguments but they probably won’t be inspirational. Maybe it’s a good thing, all considered.

First of all, out of all explanations of his phenomenon I chose the Buddhist one – Dashi Dorzho is in deep samādhi and have achieved nirvāṇa of some sort, I think it’s the only version that has any spiritual use for us. He could have died sometime ago, before or after his body was lifted from the burial, that doesn’t matter, he spent decades in that pine box while still alive and meditating, that’s a real miracle.

The practice is not unusual in Buddhism, monks of various sects have been doing similar things for thousands of years, only recently the states got involved into this and outlawed such “assisted suicides”.

In Japan the monks would ask to be placed in a box and buried with an open air-duct and a string to ring a bell. They would meditate for a while without any drink or food, and once the bell stops ringing the air duct would be closed. Whether they were dead, in samādhi, or ready to die of asphyxiation no one knew for sure and so the government banned the practice altogether.

In China there are special diets to prepare monks for such burials. They would eat only pine needles, for example, or nuts and tree bark, or something similar. This would eventually kill all the bacteria in their guts and so their bodies wouldn’t decompose after death. Presumably it would be death in a sense they leave their bodies at will rather then starvation but who knows.

Dashi Dorzho’s body had elevated levels of bromine, which scientists think came from eating beans. They surmise that bromine slows blood circulation and other such processes but doesn’t affect brain, thus helping the practitioner to slow down his bodily activities while maintaining full consciousness. That’s the important point regardless of what help Dashi Dorzho used to achieve it – full consciousness.

The best part is that if he could do it, then so should we. He wasn’t special, he didn’t do anything special, he was quite an active and energetic man with lots of ambitions. Then he put them all aside and went into this samādhi. Of course he wasn’t your general man off the street glued to his smartphone and he was quite an extraordinary personality even by local Buryat standards but still.

Buddhists monks go through a lot of rigorous training. They have a very strict sādhana, they study a lot of literature and they chant a lot. Practically, they don’t do anything else. Their minds are fairly insulated from the rest of the world and they are very disciplined, which means their intelligence has more control over their minds than general population. This is when they start doing “magic”.

In our classification they become accomplished jñānīs, which shouldn’t be impossible in Kali Yuga, but here is Dashi Dorzho to prove otherwise. Our first reaction would probably “So what? Jñāna yoga is still not recommended, not to mention it has nothing to do with bhakti.” It’s a reasonable response but bhakti isn’t a cheap magic trick, it’s supposed to bring all the results of karma and jñāna and supplant them in every aspect, too.

A successful bhakti yogi should be able to go into deep meditation and appear externally lifeless just as Dashi Dorzho did, for as long as necessary. We can say “Wait, it’s Kali Yuga, so…” – but success in bhakti is beyond the influence of Kali! He has no power over devotees. He might have limited power over us but we aren’t there yet, we aren’t truly liberated from the influence of material nature. Real bhakti starts only after liberation, so we SHOULD reach the level of Dashi Dorzho and surpass him.

It seems implausible in our current condition but if he could do it by meditating on emptiness it should be so much easier for us – by chanting Hare Kṛṣṇa. He had no place for his consciousness but to stop it from indulging in sensory activities, we have the Holy Name to meditate on. We SHOULD be able to do better than him, there’s no real reason why we can’t.

We have plenty of ācāryas in our tradition who achieved such powers, from Haridāsa Ṭhākura to Six Gosvamis to Jagannātha Dāsa Bābājī. We could say that Śrīla Prabhupāda and Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī weren’t like that, they were preachers and engaged in active service until last days of their lives, but we also have Bhaktivinoda Ṭhākura who withdrew himself from the world towards the end and pretended to have a stroke so that his meditation would be uninterrupted by outsiders.

And what about “work now, samādhi later” dictum? When we first hear it we are all living through “now” period but for many of us the time of “later” is also not very far, and some have fully deserved it. Perhaps “deserve” is not the best word here, there’s nothing particularly glorious in having a body that can’t be engaged in active service and can only sit and chant, but if this time comes we should be ready.

Things that appear impossible in our twenties need to be taken seriously in our sixties and seventies. We need to prepare ourselves for the time when we must withdraw our minds from all activities and concentrate solely on the Holy Name. That’s when Dashi Dorzho’s example might become inspirational.

If that is the level of control over our minds that is needed for successful chanting then it will be provided, Kṛṣṇa promised as much in Bhagavad Gītā (BG 10.10):

    dadāmi buddhi-yogaṁ taṁ
    yena mām upayānti te

We, as human beings, are not disqualified from receiving it. Dashi Dorzho got it, after all, and he did it on his own, without Kṛṣṇa’s help.

It should also be noted that Dashi Dorzho’s status, even in the best case scenario, isn’t at the topmost level. Yes, he might be in deep meditation, but there were lots of Buddhist teachers who reached nirvāṇa before him and they all died, Buddha died himself, too. Keeping connection with the body while in samādhi is not necessary and a kind of imperfection, especially from bhakti point of view. Our bodies should be either fully engaged in service or we should leave them behind and join Kṛṣṇa in the spiritual world. There’s no point in sitting in an underground box, or a cave, or being a vegetable in a hospice. It doesn’t please Kṛsṇa, doesn’t serve anyone, and only brings troubles to our caretakers.

We should be able to disconnect our consciousness from our external senses but then we’d better reconnect them with Kṛṣṇa, if we become so powerful. At this point, however, it’s the ability to forget our bodily needs and our bodily consciousness that is more important. Maybe not for all of us and not right now but we should see it as a necessary next step.

So, our equivalent of Dashi Dorzho could be chanting three lakhs of rounds every day, and probably not counting anymore. We should learn to sustain our lives purely by chanting, and by “our lives” I mean our spiritual existence, not what happens to our bodies. Bodies can look like Dashi Dorzho’s, we shouldn’t care at all.

One could say that now it’s probably not the time to worry about it but achieving this kind of absorption in the Holy Name will take years and decades so starting on this path is never too early.

Vanity thought #1170. Undead Lama cont’d

I laid out most of the known facts in this case yesterday, it’s time to try and answer the question “What does it all mean?”

Is Dashi Dorzho Itigilov dead? Is he alive? Is it something in between? It depends on who you ask, of course, and everyone would be somewhat right, so we should keep in mind limitations and implications of each answer. There isn’t one that would satisfy all criteria and there isn’t one that would help to correctly predict what will happen in the future.

According to science he is dead. His body remains at a steady low temperature and there are no recognizable signs of life. They could have found some if they had the body in the hospital hooked to all kinds of equipment but since it hasn’t happened they go by less sophisticated tests. Main scientific problem here is not life or death but the absence of decay.

The argument that if the body doesn’t decay then it’s alive is not very compelling from scientific POV. There could be other reasons for this remarkable preservation and if they are unknown at this point they simply put it down to this – unexplained absence of macroscopic decay. They’ll leave the question of life and death to speculation, perhaps admitting that the difference is unclear even theoretically.

For the loyal Buddhists the body is alive, or Dashi Dorzho is alive, for they generally see the difference between the body and the soul. Well, they don’t accept existence of the soul but that is their ontological problem – they have reincarnation but unclear on what exactly reincarnates from one body to another.

Dashi Dorzho, btw, is accepted as a reincarnation of one of their previous “Hamba Lamas” and they have the story to back it up – he once led them to recover buried belongings of the lama who died seventy five years earlier. They assumed he knew because it was one of his previous lives.

According to Buddhist version Dashi Dorzho went into deep meditation, into the state of samādhi, and achieved nirvāṇa. If you think about it, they are not very clear on the difference between life and death either, and neither are we. Has his soul left his body? We can’t say for sure. If the connection is still there, he is “alive”. Can he use his body? Apparently not, not in the way we expect living bodies to be used.

We don’t know how people in deep meditation relate to their bodies anyway. From the stories of Rāvaṇa and Hiraṇyakaśipu we know that they performed great austerities for hundreds of thousands of years and their bodies were practically destroyed but their souls were still there and once they got their boons they restored their bodies to even better capacity than before.

Could it happen with Dashi Dorzho, assuming he achieved yogic perfections that would allow him to control his body in any way he wants? Why not?

The key here is his intentions. Does he want to stay in this body? Does he have any plans for it? Why is he still sitting there? Is it karma, or can he leave his body at will?

All these questions can be answered differently. The absence of decay could be considered a strong indicator that Dashi Dorzho is indeed a powerful yogi with great capabilities but little interest in actually using them.

It should be said that legends now attribute mystical powers to Dashi Dorzho even while he was still actively alive. He could walk on water, for example, and on one occasion he parted the waters to cross a lake. Apparently, it’s even recorded in a police report. He also had the power to transfer himself great distances at once – he would exit the building, close the door, and instantly be miles away, hardly visible on the horizon.

Buddhists accept this kind of stuff on faith. Scientists accept this kind of stuff as local mythology. We remain skeptical. It’s possible, theoretically, but not likely in practice, and the sources of the stories are highly questionable. The non-decaying body, OTOH, is there for everyone to see. A yogi being in deep trance is the best possible explanation here.

Indians would probably scoff at this “miracle”, they have no shortage of powerful yogis there, but in reality finding a real life example of these powers is very hard. There are stories and rumors and gossip but no actual bodies in samādhi. We don’t doubt it was a common thing in history but now is not history, now it’s Kali Yuga, it’s far more likely to come across a fraud than an actual yogi. Dashi Dorzho is not a fraud, however. He sits there and minds his own business.

Actually, he performs public service, accepting visitors and giving his blessings. Even Putin, Russian president, went to see him. Putin even slipped away for an unscheduled private moment with Dashi Dorzho that lasted twenty minutes. No one knows what he asked for or what he told Itigilov, aides said he was simply saying good-byes. Right.

This kind of service doesn’t require much action, just faith on the part of the worshipers and minimal confirmation of their beliefs. People realize Dashi Dorzho won’t actually shake their hands, won’t wave at them, won’t pat them on the head even if he is considered alive. They can come and squeeze his hand themselves, though most just hold onto ceremonial ribbons monks place in his hands for this purpose.

People are quite happy knowing that Dashi Dorzho’s body becomes a lot warmer on his “service days”, from 18 to 34 degrees Celsius. It’s an almost normal body temperature (36.6) so he becomes as alive as possible under circumstances. People are content that Dashi Dorzho sweats and his forehead needs to be wiped off and his clothes changed. They don’t care if that could be just a physical phenomenon caused by long exposure to salt.

They don’t care if the body has lost some of its initial elasticity, it’s still soft enough to impress anyone. They don’t care if it doesn’t look really alive but rather as someone who died just recently – it doesn’t look like it died eighty something years ago so it’s good enough.

What will happen to it in the future? Currently, Dashi Dorzho might be on the preaching mission and his presence might be very useful for post-Soviet revival of Buddhism but at some point he might consider leaving his body for good. He’s been engaged in this service for twelve years already. How long could he plan to go on like this?

Does he have any bigger plans? He actually could, he might consider displaying actual, indisputable signs of life one last time, nothing could stop him if he is as powerful yogi as he looks. Raising body temperature through meditation is a known Buddhist technique and almost a parlor trick in some Chinese monasteries. Who’s to say that Dashi Dorzho can’t force his limbs to move, for example, or eyes to open?

Question is – would it be for the sake of the faithful or as a proof for the atheists? No one will be surprised if Dashi Dorzho won’t move a finger for the science as a matter of principle, and faithful don’t really need him exerting big efforts, they accept his incredible advancement already, their faith is at all time high and it doesn’t need any more magic. And if they start losing their faith they might not deserve magic from Dashi Dorzho’s perspective either, so nothing will be shown.

Another question – what will happen when he actually leaves and the body dies? Will it finally starts to decay? Will it stop serving its purpose? Will it be retired?

I suppose that the body won’t rot but would gradually stiffen and mummify, and in that sense Dashi Dorzho might have already left but no one noticed. As an object of worship it might go on forever – there are Buddhist mummies who are on public display, enshrined in their temples, it’s not that unusual.

So, everyone will eventually get what they want – scientists will continue to claim he was dead all along and non-decay is just a little insignificant matter. Buddhists could claim that he is still alive until all signs of life they see now disappear for good, which might take years and decades. General public will keep their curiosity unanswered.

Or there could be a day when everyone agrees that Dashi Dorzho has finally left this world and his body would be treated as a mummy, not as a live one. This scenario is most likely, imo.

Whatever the outcome, it’s not really important for us as Kṛṣṇa’s devotees. We can just go on chanting as if nothing happened, but there are lessons we could learn here and I intend to discuss them in a separate post.

Vanity thought #1169. Undead lama

For a few days I’ve been looking into a curious case of one undead lama. I think I’m ready to put it together, so here it goes.

His name is Dashi-Dorzho Itigilov and he is from Buryatia, a region in the Russian Far East, on the border with Mongolia. Buryats claim to have lived there for three thousand years and they have always been Buddhist. Their school is similar to Tibetan Vajrayana but they do not pledge allegiance to Dalai Lama, they have their own leaders. BTW, it’s not clear whether they are truly separate people or just a subgroup of what is known as Khalkha, the largest Mongolian ethnic group that descended from one of the mountain ranges surrounding Himalayas from the north. Historians don’t know where the name Khalkha came from but they obviously haven’t read Śrīmad Bhāgavatam…

Anyway, Dashi Dorzho was born in the middle of the 19th century, no one knows where. He appears to be an orphan, which is very unusual for Buryats who keep a good track of their children and families. Some, therefore, claim that he simply appeared as a five year old boy with a skull in his hand, a sign of an enlightened person, Buddha.

He studied in Buddhist monasteries and gradually rose through the ranks, at the age of sixty he was elected as the chief Buryat lama, his position confirmed and recognized by the Russian emperor. Apparently he did a lot of good work for the state, building hospitals, raising funds and supplies for the Russian army that was always at war with someone. He opened the first Buddhist temple in Saint Petersburg, then the Russian capital, which technically makes it the first Buddhist temple in Europe, too. For his work he got several medals and awards from both Russian and Mongolian governments. Then he resigned, which is normal for Buryat lamas, unlike Tibet where there are no elections and no resignations.

After communist revolution things were rather slow to change in Buryatia but eventually he realized that Buddhism was in grave danger. He sent most of the lamas across the border to Mongolia before Stalin came down with his purges. He didn’t leave himself, though, simply stating that communists won’t catch him in time, and they didn’t.

He left his body in 1927, and this is where the story actually starts.

He gathered his disciples and told them to recite a prayer for the souls of the departed. They hesitated, as he was still alive, so he started the chant himself and gradually everyone joined in. Buddhist chants that I heard can last for hours, this one was probably no different. Dashi Dorzho “left” his body in the middle of the prayer.

His instructions were unusual, however. He wasn’t to be cremated, his body was to be put in a pine box and buried, then opened up after 30 years (or 75 years according to different accounts). Monks did as instructed.

Then purges came in. The temple where he lived all his life was razed to the ground, witnesses said that the field was completely flattened, with torn pages from the books dotting the ground. Lamas were imprisoned or executed, Buddhism was on the verge of extinction.

Stalin died in 1953, thirty year date was coming four years after that, but then there was an earthquake in the region and monks decided it’s better to check on the Dashi Dorzho a bit earlier, just to make sure that everything was alright. Exhuming bodies was illegal and no one even thought of asking Soviet authorities permission on religious grounds so it was done in secret. Everything was indeed okay, the body taken out, dressed into new clothes, and then returned to the same pine box. Then, in 1973, the place was flooded so the monks had to check on the body again. That’s when they filled the box with salt, probably to dry it out and protect from future water damage.

Finally, after 75 years, it was time to lift it up again, for good. Communism was gone, new Russian authorities were a lot more cooperative, new temples were being built everywhere, and the state actually took interest in the case and sent several officials to monitor and report on the proceedings.

The body was taken to the main Buddhist temple in the region and it’s being kept there until today, in a glass box that is open to the public several times a year on special holidays.

Now, about the body. Everyone has his own opinion about it. Local Buddhists, scientists, state authorities media, etc. Everyone is pushing his own narrative and we are no different. Naturally, I want to be “objective” here, more objective than anyone else, but we should remember that we come from a tradition where Vyāsadeva still lives in the Himalayas and Aśvatthāmā still roams the Earth. We might not look very objective to outsiders if we try to argue our views here.

Anyway, local Buddhists are convinced the Dashi Dorzho is still alive and won’t hear anything otherwise. He is simply in the state of samādhi, they say, he is not dead. Media goes along with this because it sells and quotes results of the scientific examinations for support.

Well, official report talks only about a “corpse”, nothing else. “Corpse this” and “corpse that”, they are not crazy to write anything different in the official papers. In private conversations and interviews scientists who conducted the examination are not so certain, however. The body was examined several times until Buddhist authorities forbade it in 2005.

That was a story in itself. Medical examiners naturally undressed the body to study it closely but someone leaked the photos to the press and when revered Dashi Dorzho was presented naked for everyone to see Buddhists thought it was enough and scientists were not to be trusted. The fact that they treated Dashi Dorzho as officially dead didn’t help either. At the moment the body is not allowed to be filmed or photographed even on public occasions but plenty of photos are still on the internet, of course.

Unlike any corpse of that age known to science, Dashi Dorzho’s body is still soft, his skin is elastic, his joints are working, there’s no sign of decay whatsoever – all the fingers and toes, all the nails, hair, ears, nose, everything is still preserved. Eyes are not dry, they haven’t leaked out, they are EYES. Some people claim that they’ve seen Dashi Dorzho open them and they could see a living person looking back at them.

Scientists have taken samples of his hair, skin, and nails, and examined them in laboratories – chemically, they are no different from samples taken from living people. They’ve studied proteins and cells and they were still as alive as cells could be. One often quoted bit is that the “corpse” looked as if it died no longer than 36 hours ago. Except it’s been almost eighty years at the time.

The body still has blood in it. Once the body was scratched in an accident and blood oozed out though it was more like a gel than a liquid.

They didn’t use the stethoscope to listen for heartbeat, no one thought it was necessary at the time, there was just one new age dude who examined “brain waves” and found brain pulsating four times a minute or something but we can’t take that stuff seriously without using proper equipment.

Now the body is kept in the glass box, it sits in the lotus posture by itself, doesn’t need to be propped, there’s no refrigeration of any kind even though in summers outside temperature reaches 40 degrees Celsius, which like a hundred Fahrenheit. Nothing happens to it.

Well, not exactly, occasionally the body sweats, and its weight fluctuates, but that could be attributed to the effects of being kept in salt for nearly thirty years – it can react to moisture in the atmosphere, sometimes absorbing, sometimes releasing it. Sound plausible. It’s more difficult to explain fluctuations in the body temperature. Usually it’s around 18 Celsius (64 F) but on public holidays, when Dashi Dorzho greets the visitors and gives blessings, it rises to 34 C (93 F), almost normal.

So there. What to make of it? Scientifically the case of Dashi Dorzho is impossible and there are no known cases in Buddhism either, at least not from this age. There are plenty of Buddhist mummies around the world but they are all dead. We can find several techniques to reach the state of mummification without using any embalming but they never produce soft bodies with moving joints, intact eyes, and blood still in the veins.

I don’t think I’ll include any pictures here, they don’t do Dashi Dorzho justice. On most of them his nose appears to be disfigured but that is not the case if you look at all of them closely. Salt also has damaged some of his skin and so it doesn’t look alive in places and that needs to be overlooked, too. In all the photos his mouth is closed but in his current condition it looks as if he needs a piece of cloth to hold it. By “current” I mean fully dressed up for greeting visitors. In regular corpses rigor mortis settles in the jaw very very fast, under two hours. Dashi Dorzho has been “dead” for 87 years now. Or we could say he’s 162 years old.

So, these are the facts, the only thing I forget to mention is that there’s no sign of any kind of embalming, no signs of any surgery, and the body never gave out any decaying odors, not even when first taken out of the box.

There are all kinds of implications here, of course, and I’ll address some of them in another post, this one is getting too long now.