To students of nature’s extraordinary phenomena, the rainbow body of Tibetan Buddhism is very intriguing. We underestimate the marvels of the human body. I was blown away watching the world’s greatest gymnast, Simone Biles leap and somersault through space with a grace beyond anything I’ve ever seen. And there are stranger phenomena, all pushing against the known limits of the possible.
For example, well documented cases of so-called inediacs—folks that really go on diets! They quit eating, drinking, and eliminating—totally—for long periods, in some cases, for years. Then there are the aboriginal clever men, the shamans, the mediums, and the mystics whose methods of bodily transportation are unusual: bilocation, for example; the Tibetan fast runners; apports and teleportation; the ecstatic levitations of Catholic and Buddhist saints; the reports of luminous, supernaturally fragrant, and fire-immune bodies.
Bodies sometimes behave in strange ways in the neighborhood of death and dying. There is one extreme phenomenon well documented by Joan Carroll Cruz in her book The Incorruptibles, which collects cases showing that the dead bodies of some saintly people do not show the standard signs of decay, ill odor, or rigor mortis.
The rainbow body of Tibetan Buddhism is something else. The reports here are about effects that seem the opposite of what happens to Christians. Instead of the dead body remaining fresh, fragrant, and flexible, insisting on the appearance of life, the dead body begins to shrink and get small and then disappears without a trace.
The phenomenon has been studied first hand in a fascinating book by Francis V. Tiso called Rainbow Body and Resurrection (2016). Tiso learned Tibetan and tracked living witnesses of a recent case of the Lama Khenpo A Chö who died in 1998. Tiso provides a translation of a brief biography of this Buddhist holy man who taught and practiced meditation almost incessantly with the one goal of immersing himself in the void of “primordial awareness.”
Tiso was able to interview four witnesses of the death of Khenpo and of the contraction and disappearance of his corpse. As customary the body was covered with a yellow sheet and placed in a box for one week, after which it was supposed to be cremated. Let me summarize what the four witnesses reported who were present and conducted the burial. Many monks and lay people where he died also witnessed some of the more spectacular phenomena.
Khenpo died with his rosary in hand as he recited his mantra. “Immediately after that all the appearance of bodily aging (he was 82) such as wrinkles, shriveling, etc., instantly disappeared. His face became youthful—smooth and pinkish” (p.36). The fragrance normally detected about Khenpo suddenly increased. All the people nearby making prostrations noticed what Christians call the odor of sanctity. “Above is house,” again from an eyewitness, “five colorful rainbows appeared for many days. Sometimes they pervaded the whole expanse of the sky, as was directly witnessed by all the monks and lay people of Lurap.” Toward sundown of that first day a sunlike light appeared in the east, “and was seen by all of us.” In addition to the rainbows, “after three or four days, they heard a very melodious song” but no source of the music was found.
Tiso asks all four witnesses about the shrinking and disappearance of the body. The answer: “The body was shriveling. It was becoming smaller and smaller. On the spot, it disappeared.” It was turning whiter and whiter. The complete disappearance was established by observation on the eighth day. By that time the body had completely dematerialized. All that remained were rainbows, mysterious music without words, and a fragrant presence. All that remained was the yellow cloth that covered his body. Not a hair or a nail clipping of the man remained. Such is the case of the Tibetan rainbow body at death.
How to account for the difference between the Catholic phenomenon of the incorruptible body and the Tibetan Buddhist phenomenon of the rainbow body? I would suggest the cause of the difference lies in the different philosophies. The one tradition celebrates a vision of a glorious spiritual body in heaven being our fate; the other tradition focuses on the symbol of the void and total detachment from all things finite and particular. Both approaches point perhaps to complementary visions of enlightenment.
One last observation about the politics of enlightenment. While Tiso was interviewing his witnesses he discovered that Sonam Puntsog who wrote the short bio of Khenpo quoted was jailed by authorities. The state apparently was uneasy with the idea that miracle-making human beings like Khenpo actually exist.