"THE POWER OF PRACTICE - A TRUE STORY SURROUNDING A GREAT BON LAMA'S PASSING" - This article and interview were given to Tenzin Rinpoche by his friend, Sandy Sinha, of Sikkim, India and then edited by Aline Fisher, for VOCL.
In the Buddhist and Bon traditions, a lama may choose to die in a certain posture. The position of the body at death is believed to be very important in affecting the transference of prana or life-force from the body. The posture may affect through which chakra the prana will exit the body and thereby, in which of the six realms rebirth will occur. Masters prefer to die in the lotus posture. This is believed to aid them in transferring their prana through the crown chakra helping them to be reborn in the higher realms.
Here is a true story of a great Bon lama's passing, occurring not that long ago in Gangtok, the small hilly capital of Sikkim in the Northeastern part of India. Yungdrung Tenzing, who was about seventy years old, chose to die sitting in the lotus posture, what is known in Tibetan as "thugdham." He asked that people not touch his body for 3 days until which time he would leave his body. He then went through the outer signs of dying including the cessation of both his breath and the beating of his heart, but remained in that meditative posture for thirty-three hours. It was on August 31, 1973, at the Sir Thutob Namgyal Memorial Hospital in Gangtok, that this great lama passed away.
The news of this special passing spread quickly. People of Sikkim flocked to the hospital with their khatas (silk scarves) paying respect to the departed lama, draping them on his body at the end of the three day period. It is believed that lamas who pass away at their will (in thugdam) have miraculous powers, and a blessing from such a lama would be very beneficial.
The great Bon lama had been treated by Dr. Pemba Tonyot, a Sikkimese doctor. The following is an interview of Dr. Tonyot done by Sandy Sinha. The doctor, now 68 years old and retired, was a bit weak after a recent operation but showed interest in recalling and telling the story of the famous Bon lama's passing.
Sandy: Dr. Pemba, can you tell us what exactly happened that day?
Dr. Pemba: As far as my memory goes, this lama, who was very old, was brought in for treatment at the hospital. But then quite suddenly, the lama decided to give up his life sitting in the lotus posture. To be frank, I don't know much about these things. But I do know that incarnated lamas can sit in the meditative position for hours or days called, thugdam in Tibetan, and have the power to give up their lives at will.
Sandy: From a medical point of view how did you regard this
incident? Were you surprised? Did you object?
Dr. Pemba: As a Buddhist, I was not at all surprised by the lama's decision. Living here in Sikkim, I took it all very normally. In terms of medical science, I don't think there is an answer on this yet. It is difficult to say what happens. The body of a dying person should follow the usual progression of rigor mortis and decay. But I saw this lama who sat up in the lotus posture and had asked that no one touch his body. He had decided to die in that posture. While the hospital authorities don't allow such things in the hospital, there were so many people gathering to see the lama and offering khatas to demonstrate their faith and receive blessings, that we agreed and allowed it.
Sandy: Do you know of any other incidents like this?
Dr. Pemba: Yes, because I was the only doctor who knew Tibetan, the treatment of such lamas or Rinpoches was usually assigned to me. I knew one Tantric lama who practiced in retreat in caves in the hills of Sikkim for months or years. Once, he was admitted to my hospital and was under my treatment. He was in the general ward and he too went into thugdham position and gave up his life in that position. He was a Nyingma lama.
Once, I was assigned the treatment of the sixteenth Karmapa of Rumtek in Sikkim. He was under my treatment for three months and I was witness to his many miraculous powers, which could not be explained from the medical point of view.
And once, Dudjom Rinpoche, a great lama of the Nyingma sect, also regarded as a reincarnation of Guru Padmasambhava, was brought to the hospital. We found that he had appendicitis and that an operation was needed to remove his appendix. But he refused the operation. A devotee of Rinpoche's asked me to convince him that the operation was necessary to save him from the pain. I explained everything about appendicitis to Rinpoche but he did not agree to the operation. Instead he asked me to call another Rinpoche, Yangthang Rinpoche. Yangthang is a village in West Sikkim. Dudjom Rinpoche's devotees rushed to find Yangthang Rinpoche and upon his arrival Yangthang Rinpoche started doing some type of puja. He chanted mantras moving his hand as if throwing something on Dudjom Rinpoche's body. This process was repeated for three days and Dudjom Rinpoche was healed. From the medical point of view this is very hard to explain. Sikkim is full of such miracles.
In this next interview, Sandy Sinha spoke with Lama Yungdrung, a Bon lama and founder of the only Bon monastery in Sikkim. He, too, was witness to the passing of the great Bon lama, Yungdrung Tenzing, in 1973.
Sandy: Lama Yungdrung, what do you remember of that day?
Lama Yungdrung: I was in my puja room that day when someone came and informed me that a Bon lama had given up his life in the thugdham position at the hospital. I immediately went there and offered a khata over his body. He was sitting in the lotus position with lots of khatas over his body. He was almost submerged in a sea of khatas. There were lots of people gathered in the hospital to pay their respect and receive blessings from the departed lama. The king of Sikkim had also sent his secretary, Mr. Karma Topden, with some money and a khata to pay respects.
After some rituals by two Kagyu lamas, the lama was taken to the crematorium and was cremated. It was a bright sunny day and his body was burning with full flame. In the middle of the flame we noticed a green flame which was very auspicious.
Sandy: Can you explain how the lama would have acquired such control
over his life force?
Lama Yungdrung: Just as you need preparation for your life, you also need preparation for your death. In the Bon tradition, we go through nine ways of lifetime disciplines, which involves the recitation of mantras, prostrations, meditations and much more, to acquire such control. This is not very easy. Merely talking about it will not do. Practice is very important. In the case of this great lama, his years of practice were evident at his passing. Only those who through years of practice have acquired such spiritual strength can actually pass in the thugdham position. So these incidents are not ordinary occurrences.
Editor's Note: There is a picture near the end of Tenzin Rinpoche's book "Healing With Form, Energy and Light" of the great Bon lama, Yungdrung Tenzing, taken at the time of his passing.