The monk is thought to have performed a gruesome meditation ritual involving self-mummification that took over six years. Encased in a gilded statue his 1,000 year old mummy was revealed to be still perfectly posed in a meditation posture by CAT scan images performed at the Meander Center in the Netherlands. In addition to the Cat scan bone samples were taken for DNA testing and an unknown substance was removed from the thoracic cavity by a gastrointestinal specialist with an endoscope. While the scientists already knew there was a mummy inside the reliquary their examination revealed unprecedented information about this deadly form of meditation.

mongolian monk

Recovered mummy of a monk stolen from his resting place in Mongolia


The problem is that many Buddhists believe that the monk inside the statue is actually in a deep meditative state called Thukdham. Dr Barry Kerzin,  Buddhist monk and physician to the Dalai Lama, is worried that a similar monk stolen from his resting place will be prevented from completing his meditation by routine police forensic examination. Dr. Kerzin says that he’s had the privilege to care for some of the forty monks believed to have entered the Thukdham state within India during the last fifty years. One of them, his eminence Lobsang Nyima, welcomed doctors and scientists to observe his passing in 2008 but only if they took precautions not disturb the master’s body while it was in this state of meditation.

Besides their perfect poise, there will be other signs that show they are resting in the state of the Ground Luminosity: There is still a certain color and glow in their face, the nose does not sink inward, the skin remains soft and flexible, the body does not become stiff, the eyes are said to keep a soft and compassionate glow, and there is still a warmth at the heart. Great care is taken that the master’s body is not touched, and silence is maintained until he or she has arisen from this state of meditation. – The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying

Personally I’ve never understood much of Tibetan Buddhism. Bardo and extraordinary states beyond Samadhi and jhana are exotic concepts that stretch the limits of my philosophy. It’s not just Tibetan Buddhism. I’m also skeptical about claims that Catholic saints remain in similar states of blessed preservation. There are indeed more things on heaven and earth Horatio but it is also true that a simple explanation is often the best one. For many years it was believed that Rosalie Lombardo, a young girl who died of pneumonia in 1920, was in a state of suspended animation. Over the course of the day her eyes would slowly open and close again. (See video below) It was an optical illusion caused by the changing light in the chapel where her glass casket was located. Rosalie’s lifelike preservation has more of chemistry than magic about it.

Even so the issue is one of respect for other faiths and cultures. Issues just like the ones Tibetan Buddhists have with the disturbance of their dead lead to the enactment of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. The scientists in the Netherlands might do well to remember that just because the Chinese government (A regime notably hostile to all thing Tibetan) felt free to sell the reliquary that doesn’t mean the people who still revere this monk aren’t the actual owners.