A few years ago I told you about Dashi-Dorzho Itigilov, a Siberian Lama whose body has been preserved for 87 years. Itigilov's body remains in the state just following death, with soft skin, flexible joints, and liquid blood still in his veins. Recently a new body was discovered, on the black market (I found the black market once, but that's a different story). The man is currently unidentified, but there is speculation that he might have been Itigilov's teacher. The new body appears to be in much worse condition, very dessicated with dark grey skin, but still in a fantastic state of preservation for a body believed to have died 200 years ago. Buddhist art professor from Ulaanbaatar Ganhugiyn Purevbata says that the man is not dead, simply in a deep state of meditation. I'm not ready to say that this unidentified man, or Itigilov for that matter, will spring to life at any moment, but it does allow us to look at the fine line between life and death.
New research from Dr. Sam Parnia is showing that death is not a moment in time, it is a process, and a process that can be reversed many hours, or sometimes days, after a person is traditionally classified as dead. When the 16th Karmapa, Rangjung Rigpe Dorje died in 1981 his heart remained warm for three days following the time he was legally classified as dead. Lama Surya Das, American Dzogchen Buddhist master, says that this state is called tukdam, a period of a few days after death during which the body remains in the same position and does not begin to decay. The mind is said to be in such a deep state of absorption that the body remains preserved, neither dead nor alive, until the person leaves the body behind. After a few days the body will fall over and begin to decay like normal. Up to this point we have hard documented evidence of bodies remaining preserved for a few days, but the idea that a monk can remain in this state for a century or more, according to Surya Das, is just mythology.
The idea of self-mummification (sokushinbutsu in Japanese) to create a "living Buddha" that will last forever might seem at the outset to be a contradiction of impermanence (anicca), but it is better understood in terms of skillful means (upaya). The mummified body, lasting for hundreds of years, serves as a symbol to future generations. The laity need their symbols of hope, their totems, to worship and keep them going in this world of suffering. Some may aspire to become monks, and future monks may themselves may aspire to study the dharma more diligently, and may even take on the difficult practice of self-mummification to serve as inspiration to still future generations.
If you would like to know more there is a documentary floating around the ether somewhere called Mystery of the Tibetan Mummy which tells of a 500 year old self-mummified Tibetan lama and goes into a little detail of Dzogchen practices and the history of sokushinbutsu. If you manage to find a copy feel free to leave a link in the comments section. (I have it on my computer, but I'm not about to incur the wrath of the youtubes for uploading copyrighted material, even if it aired only once and Discovery Channel has no intention of making any more money off of it.)