When 90-year-old Chokpa Tenzin died in her Bengaluru home in September, her family members called an ambulance and the crematorium. But the bookings soon had to be cancelled as the hours passed and there were no other signs of death. Her body remained supple, without signs of stiffening. She was no longer breathing, but she looked calm, her skin remained warm, as if she was in a deep, eternal sleep.
As Tibetans, the family had heard about the post-death meditative state of thukdam—when highly-realised Tibetan monks die in a consciously controlled manner through meditation—but hadn’t witnessed the phenomenon. Thukdam is a state in which the person is declared clinically dead, but the body remains fresh for days or weeks without any signs of decomposition or discolouration.
“We have seen senior Buddhist monks (lamas) entering the state of thukdam after death. But witnessing an ordinary Tibetan in the thukdam state is extremely rare. It is not at all usual for common people to get into this advanced meditative state and stay in the subtle consciousness. She was in a clear light stage of deep meditation. Until the light goes away, rigor mortis does not set in. She was not completely dead,” said Dr Jampa Yonten, the Tibetan doctor who examined the deceased nonagenarian Chokpa Tenzin.
In Tibetan, this is called the “clear light stage” in which the “master’s consciousness remains in the body”, according to a paper in the Central Tibetan Administration’s website. Over the past few years, scientists have been collaborating with Tibetan monks to study this phenomenon.
According to Tenzin’s family, until her death on 16 September, their great-grandmother had no health issues. She was compassionate, content and a simple woman. In her last days, she kept telling them to clean the house as some monks would be coming.
Researchers from the National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences (Nimhans) arrived at the family’s house to examine Tenzin’s body. “We were perplexed to find the elderly woman in such a state. In the normal circumstances, rigor mortis sets in immediately once breathing stops. But that had not happened with her. We are studying this phenomenon,” said one of the researchers who preferred not to be named.
In the bustling narrow bylanes of east Bengaluru’s Ashok Nagar, it was a spiritual celebration for the Tenzin family, who lit 1,000 lamps every day in their Tibetan styled apartment.
A week later on 23 September, her body finally started showing signs of decomposition, indicating that she had exited the state of thukdam, following which she was cremated. “Her body’s light reduced over the days and when it started decomposing, it was a sign for us that she had finally passed,” said her relative Geshe Lobsang Choedar.
What intrigued the family was that the elderly woman, unlike her husband who had been a monk in Tibet, had never meditated, but had only chanted every day. The second surprise was that she entered thukdam and not her husband, who died in 2015.
“She fled Tibet as a young mother and moved to the Tibetan settlement of Mundgod in north Karnataka. She led a simple life there with her husband who would meditate a lot,” said her relative Phuntsok Tsering. Tenzin had been living with him and his partner Janchup Dolma for the last few years, and died in their home.
Dr Yonten explained that though Tenzin may not have spent hours meditating, she may have attained thukdam due to her other qualities, including compassion, the human virtue on which the Dalai Lama has always focused.
The phenomenon of thukdam has been gaining attention recently from researchers and scientists across the world who are trying to understand death. In July this year, Geshe Jampa Gyatso, a Tibetan Buddhist scholar in Taiwan, had entered thukdam after being declared dead, prompting a study by scientists from Taiwan’s research centre Academia Sinica.
Buddhist scholars and Russian scientists have been working together for the last two years to understand thukdam better after the 14th Dalai Lama evinced interest in understanding the neurophysiological mechanism of meditation. Last year, six scientists from Moscow State University and the St Petersburg-based Institute of Human Brain spent time in Karnataka’s Tibetan settlement of Bylakuppe to study the brains of monks in a deep meditative stage. The research is expected to open the doors to precise understanding of thukdam.
During his visit to India last year to meet the Dalai Lama, Dr Richard J Davidson, acclaimed neuroscientist who founded the Center for Healthy Minds at University of Wisconsin in the US, told these writers in an interview: “My centre is keen on exploring this unique phenomenon called thukdam, which challenges the very definition of the dying process. We are working with the Tibetan monks and intellectuals to pursue our understanding.”
Research surrounding how Tibetan Buddhist practitioners understand subtle consciousness and how they use it at the time of death is also underway at Emory University in the US. Besides examining the mechanism of thukdam, scholars at the university are looking into how cultural practices at the moment of death can influence the way individuals in a society live and die, and more importantly, how society members care for someone with a terminal illness.
Tenzin Namdul, a PhD student at Emory University doing research on thukdam, explains how such a cultural practice renders an alchemical element to death. “Death, though viewed as an existential fear across cultures, is used not only in illuminating a fundamental concept like impermanence and in countering attachment, but also joyfully looked forward to engage in a contemplative technique like thukdam. Hence, thukdam aids in cultivating both resilience towards death and compassion toward others. Likewise, I stress that such a practice also helps society members, such as Buddhist practitioners, Tibetan doctors and family members in caring for dying persons with utmost compassion, deprived of fear and anxiety,” he says.
The writers are founders of Antardwani, a Bengaluru-based think tank focussed on health and education