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Author of this essay:

Ven. Ming Zhen Shakya
(Originally Published April 18, 2009)

The Science Channel's Mystery Of The Tibetan Mummy
By Ming Zhen Shakya

Who, among us, has not been afflicted with apophenia? Who has not succumbed to pareidolia or surrendered to the callow demands of hagiography?


It's just as I thought. We're all guilty.

Of course, we know that the peculiar indentations in that rock on the Martian surface merely suggest a human face and are not the features of a half-buried man. Any intelligent person can understand this.

But what is that ring on his right shoulder?


And it is absurd to see the Virgin Mary in this grilled cheese sandwich.

(The Virgin Mary would have covered her hair. She looks more like Susan Sarandon to me.)

Klaus Conrad coined the term "apophenia" back in 1958, assigning it to an old familiar phenomenon: our tendency to find meaningful connections between meaningless events.

Pareidolia is a bit different. Here we see a religious image - created without the conventional tools of art - appear spontaneously in an unexpected place. We not only recognize the figure but we assign a purpose to its appearance. What was the Virgin trying to tell us when she put her face on that grilled cheese sandwich? If she was trying to renew our faith in mankind, she succeeded. We will put the sandwich on eBay.

As to hagiography, although technically just the study of saints, it has taken on a pejorative cast and now indicates the irrational conferring of sainthood upon an individual who does not necessarily warrant such worshipful attention.

There's more than a little of all this in the The Science Channel's program, The Mystery of the Tibetan Mummy.

We have come to expect from Sci a "shock or awe" style of writing in which interviews with reputable scientists are edited in such a way that lends the gravity of their credentials to the evanescent fogs of spooky stuff, a sensationalistic approach more consonant with presentations of UFOlogy, medieval prophets, maniacal nanobots, and Elivis sightings. In Sci's Mystery of the Tibetan Mummy if we expect that its writers will once again prove that irrationality rushes in to fill the vacuum of mystery, we shall not be disappointed.

The program begins by showing us a stunning view of the Himalayas while the narrator dramatically intones, "In a lost corner of Tibet, the mountains stand guard over a mystery. A corpse, like no other, a body, centuries old that never decayed. Localists worship him like a god. But no one knows who he was or why his untouched body remains perfectly preserved. What was his secret? Could he have actually mummified himself? To find out, an international team of scientists will journey to distant frontiers."

We see a caravan of scientists, one of whom asserts, "The mummy fascinates me because I think it holds the key to understanding ancient superhuman powers." Ancient superhuman powers? Can it be that those Toyotas are following ruts left by a Chariot of the Gods?

The scientists are an Italian Radiographer, Bruno Tonello, who will take - with portable equipment - astonishingly clear X-ray films of the mummy; a no-nonsense British forensic anthropologist, Margaret Cox, who will take a sample of the mummy's hair back to England where Oxford will Carbon-14 date it to the fifteenth century; and the expedition's leader, an American, Victor Mair, a professor of Chinese Language and Literature, who is looking for that key to the superhuman stuff.

The mummy, frankly, is somewhat disappointing. He is small, the size of a boy, not a man. And he does not look god-like. His lower lip droops to one side in a rather unflattering manner. He is in a squatting posture, his knees up to just below his face. He wears a meditation band - which happens to be one of the most ingenious devices the spiritual life has ever produced. His band, however, has a slightly different function.

A meditation band, of a wider dimension than the mummy's, is usually worn when the meditator is sitting in the "full lotus" posture, i.e., the right foot is on the left thigh and the left foot is on the right thigh or vice versa. With only slight pressure, the cloth band circles the body, going around the mid-spine and cradling the splayed knees, providing as it does a feeling of comfort that borders on the miraculous. The meditator totally relaxes in an erect posture, completely supported by the band.

But this mummy is not sitting in lotus. His narrow band goes under his upright thighs and circles his spine at the neck, detouring to loop around his neck like a garrote before it continues down under his thighs where the two ends are tied together behind his knees. His lower legs are not bound; and should his knees weary and lean outwards, the band will be placed under tension, tightening the noose around his neck - and we all know what that means.

When the scientists examine the mummy, inexplicably, they are baffled by the band. Either they are prudishly deferring to an imagined need for propriety or else they need to get out of the house more. There is one - and only one - explanation for the band around the neck. It is meant to reduce the supply of oxygen to the brain and to heighten, thereby, orgasmic ecstasy. Oxygen deprivation, hypoxia, depending on the intent and the method employed, produces hallucinations and euphoria. Endorphins are released, enhancing the orgasmic experience. This dangerous ligature method is known, forbidden, and unnecessary in the religious life; for once an adept attains the true state of meditation, disciplined breathing techniques will automatically slow down his breathing to barely perceptible levels as he enters the "blissful" state of samadhi. No one needs pulleys and levers to assist the divine embrace.

Of course, there are always impatient fools who strive to experience exalted spiritual states before they have learned the basics, but they proceed in secret. In the secular life such dangerous sexual choking is often practiced, sometimes with scandalous results as, for example, one famous case that was dramatized in the 1976 Japanese film In the Realm of the Senses. Periodically, news of this ligature technique will travel through adolescent networks causing a spate of teenaged deaths. Parents would enter their son's bedroom to wake him and instead find him dead, with pornography beside him, and the cord he thought he could control, tight around his neck. Among others, Oprah and Dr. Phil have devoted programs to these deaths. Regardless of the setting, when the technique is fatally mismanaged, it is given the forensic designation: "Auto-erotic asphyxiation."

The circumstances of the mummy's discovery are dramatically re-enacted while, in voice-over, the narrator explains that the "legendary" mummy was discovered in 1975 when, at an altitude of 12,000 feet (3.66 km) two indian border officers were clearing a road after a quake had caused a landslide, a common occurrence in those mountains. That the mummy, positioned so close to the road, had not been seen before that time would suggest that a previous quake had entombed it. But that possibility is not considered. "A scroll was also found nearby," he adds, "but it disintegrated before it could be read, its message lost forever." Hmmm.

The mummy, significantly, is not housed in any of the nearby monastic buildings, but in a hut made by the villagers who also, along with visitors, leave currency and coin in the little shrine. Dr. Mair interviews the local abbot to ask about the "mummy's secrets." He's surprised when the translator listens to the Abbot's response and turns to Mair, saying simply, "Actually they're not really sure if it is a holy lama or if it is just a normal village person. And also they are not sure about how old it is." The tone of the response indicates that they are not interested in the mummy.

The Abbot is willing to discuss the reasons for formal mummification and the various processes used; but Mair's attempts to get more information about the mystery mummy fail to elicit a response. Mair does not understand that if the mummy had been a monk, the cord around its neck would have dragged it into heterodoxy.

In any normal investigation, the Abbot's refusal to regard the mummy with any kind of reverence would be considered a set-back. Mair is trying to determine this mummy's spiritual career, but he doesn't seem to notice the obvious fact that this mummy has been effectively rejected by those clerics who would have been his Dharma brothers.

The narrator's tremulous voice echoes in our ears. "For a thousand years, Buddhist monks have gathered in these remote, inaccessible valleys to study the great wheel of rebirth and the art of dying. According to ancient manuscripts, these monks could tap into unimagined powers - long lost secrets of the human mind!. It was said their bodies could take to the air [we see a large bird of prey circling overhead] and transform into rainbows!" [we see a monk sitting on a platform as his body dissolves into a dazzling golden light that funnels through his fontanelles to begin a skybound rainbow arch.

At the shrine, Margaret Cox understands that there is a problem with the cord. She offers the only possible way out of the dilemma. Perhaps the cord had been placed around the mummy at a later time. (The cord could have been used to support the bones when the mummy was being moved.) Cox takes a sample of the cord along with the hair. Both will be carbon-14 dated. Injecting some science into the show, she explains the physiology of decomposition. "What normally happens when somebody dies is that the gut bacteria that they have within their body will spread around the body using the vascular system as a superhighway, and that initiates an enzymatic destruction of tissues as well. Clearly they haven't happened in the normal way [here]."

Mair, who always seems to be reading from a script while someone with a gun stands off-camera, determines something that he probably ought to tell the abbot. He suspects that the mummy was a meditating monk! And the narrator puts his imprimatur on the suspicion, granting it validity, it was "a holy man, a Buddhist cleric!" Since Sci has decided that the mummy was a monk it seems only fitting that the career of Tibetan monks be examined. We see dramatic re-enactments of the stages in a monk's life.

Mair recalls having seen illustrations of monks using meditation bands. As we see paintings of Buddhist figures sitting in meditation - none of whom has a cord around his neck - the narrator piles on the kudos. "The team is stunned to think the monk may have meditated to his death." Mulling over Dr. Cox's comments about decomposition, he says, his voice laden with awe, "Clearly something strange has happened to this monk.. something that halted the natural processes of decay."

That "something" might be that he was at an altitude of 12,000 feet where it is always cold, the oxygen level is 40% less than normal, and the aridity of the surrounding air is extreme. And if the mummy had been fasting for a long time, his gut would have been empty, further impeding the process of decay. Add to that the likely geologic event that sealed him in his little meditation space, and we might indeed have a reason for preservation.

Cox and Tonello head back to Europe. Mair goes to another monastery to investigate meditation bands. There he learns that there is an advanced form of meditation, called dzog chen, one that the narrator tells us is very secret. "A master of these practices only transmits them verbally and only to one monk at a time as the techniques are meant to create immense physical power."

Mair is now hot on the trail of that key to ancient superhuman stuff. He wants scientific information... none of this jumping to conclusions for him. So he leaves India to go find a reliable source of information about meditation. We blink a few times to process this. He wants to know more about advanced meditation... so he leaves India. He explains, "The only place in the world I know of where they are studying this phenomenon scientifically is Boston." Boston?

At Harvard, Dr. Herbert Benson, author of The Relaxation Response, discusses the mind's control over bodily functions, specifically, the monks' ability drastically to lower oxygen intake and to raise skin temperature. We see scenes of Tibetan monks, without so much as a shiver, defy hypothermia by wearing wet sheets over their naked torsos. It is impressive but it has nothing to do with the mummy and the cord. And if we really want to get technical, it doesn't have anything to do with meditation, either. These powers are attained through hypnosis, a phenomenon that is scientifically studied all over the globe. The Tibetan monks, after a long period of dedicated training, acquired the ability to induce and control self-hypnosis. This indicates their suppression of ego, the necessary removal of its obstructions from their Path so that they may proceed to spiritual exaltation. There are many ways to crush an ego; this is their way. It is not in itself transcendence.

Mair goes to Japan and sees the self-mummified body of a Buddhist holy man who had fasted on tree bark and nuts for three years before beginning an intense period of meditation. As he grew weaker and neared his end, he placed himself in a wooden box which he instructed his assistants to bury. Sixty years later he was disinterred. Evidently, the long fast had shrunk his vital organs and sufficiently reduced the bacteria in his gut to spare his body from decomposition. Now Mair wonders about the Tibetan mummy, "Could it be that he starved himself to death as part of a meditational process?"

Back in India, he receives a telephone call from Dr.Cox who relays Oxford's findings. High nitrogen levels in the hair suggest that the individual had been malnourished for at least several months before his demise. Both the hair and the cord were dated to the late fifteenth century. They had existed five hundred years ago... "about the time that Columbus discovered America," adds the narrator for the benefit of those Americans who missed that lectur.

In fact, prolonged periods of fasting do have hallucinogenic effects - which is the reason most religions prescribe fasting to generate "visionary" experiences.

During World War II, convicts in U.S. prisons participated, as their voluntary contribution to the war effort, in an experiment to see how hunger would effect a soldier's ability to resist divulging military secrets. On or about the fifth day of fasting, the men began to hallucinate. Tests determined that their bodies were producing a chemical akin to LSD as a reaction to slow starvation. This causal peculiarity also helps explain why an anorexic patient who weighs 80 pounds can look into a mirror and see reflected back someone who is morbidly obese. It also explains why people - especially clerics - who begin a fast often resist ending it. A superior may have to admonish the monk to cease attempting to martyr himself and to resume a normal diet.

According to Sci's producers, in Victor Mair's mind, these pieces fit together. But what was the monk's motive? Mair reviews the stages of spiritual discipline, crediting the mummy with having mastered them; and, since the monk qualified for those "secret" instructions, he obviously received and followed them. Mair additionally learns about the use of suffocation, self-asphyxiation that "improves the experience of meditation." Immediately he goes to a meditation cave; and with a cord he carefully demonstrates the proper way to commit unintentional suicide.

"The meditation cord is wrapped around my neck in such a way that it's partial strangulation. It decreases the oxygen flow," he confides, adding, "on the other hand, it heightens the experience of meditation and it makes me more conscious of what I'm doing, because if I relax, for example, if my knees go out to the side I'm gonna choke myself."

As we wonder how he knows that it heightens meditation, he hops to another conclusion: "If you're doing this you really have to be trying to accomplish something important; and I think what our mummy was trying to do - and obviously he succeeded - was to self-mummify!" And the narrator confirms the conclusion: "Victor is finally getting a picture of the monk's final moments."

Mair's supposition that the band was used to force the monk to stay consciously engaged is wrong. The person who is foolish enough to try the technique irrationally assumes that he can achieve a rippling effect, an intensify-release, intensify-release, kind of prolonged orgasm. The high mortality rate doesn't give a clue about success. Also, staying consciously engaged is not to meditate. Consciousness is one of the Skandhas, the five elements of personality which create the illusion of an individual self, notions which must be transcended in order to attain a higher, egoless state of awareness.

Mair also does not appreciate the difference between the mind control techniques of thought-blanking, self-hypnotic exercises and the state of true meditation. When youngsters are routinely admitted to monastic orders, the regimen is tailored to the progress of their maturation. They spend long hours acquiring the ability to get control of their thoughts and their adolescent bodies. "Teenagers," as Rob Reiner once famously said, "are hormones with feet." The same regimen is counter-productive for adults who enter the Path. Adults begin by crying out to the Buddha for salvation. Life has overwhelmed them. They are not particularly worried about zits or sudden sexual urges.

Mair sends his imagination back five hundred years to create a scenario - which the narrator relates as fact: "The monk, facing a terrible famine in the 15th century, decided to make the ultimate sacrifice to fight off the people's suffering by turning his body into a holy relic. In seclusion, he began his dzog chen meditation, using the belt to constrict his breathing. And slowly he suffocated himself until he died, believing his meditation would continue forever as a blessing for an infertile land. In the cold dry climate his emaciated body endured as a kind of holy monument and an inspiration to those who would follow."

The odyssey ends with Mair kneeling reverently before the mummy. Not content to allow the anonymous fellow to languish in sainthood, he confers the highest state possible upon him: " He did something that the average human being can't do. He set out to become a buddha in this life, and he achieved it."

What can we say? It is disturbing to see how casually The Science Channel has sacrificed fact to the gods of entertainment. It is also disturbing to think about the number of adventurous kids who will experiment with the technique using the precise instructions Sci has furnished.

Finally, there is nothing secret about the techniques mentioned in the program. For example, The Doctrine of the Psychic Heat, is given with complete details in Dr. W. Y Evans-Wentz' authoritative text, Tibetan Yoga and Secret Doctrines, published by Oxford University Press since 1935. Amazon has both new and used copies for sale. The book, which covers many other techniques, is indispensable to any serious Buddhist, in or out of the Vajrayana school.

All one hundred-eighty steps of the Psychic Heat discipline are given and explained within the text and in copious footnotes. But as the Tibetan abbots insisted, it is an advanced discipline and it requires an advanced stage of spiritual accomplishment to understand and perform. Relating these stages to the tattvas or principles of ascendency, and removing from consideration the achievements of self-hypnosis, we can locate them on a number line. The first state of spiritual transcendence, true meditation, is Tattva #5; samadhi's orgasmic ecstasy, or divine union, is Tattva #4; Trinitarian entrance through ego extinction and direct experience of the inner Buddha Amitabha, or satori, is Tattva #3; Spiritual androgyny achieved in a transsexual and profoundly sensual visionary meditation called the mysterium coniunctionis, the Bodhisattva experience, or the Union of Opposites, is at Tattvas #2&1; and the delivery of the Child Maitreya is at the point of Origin. On the negative side of the number line is the Void.

Many of the book's terms are given in stilted language. For example, the "gift waves" which the devotee asks his divine guru to send "telepathically" (as the footnotes describe the process) is in essence a series of visions experienced universally by mystics of all religions.

As to the regimen's 180 steps, after giving ten preliminary requirements, the Psychic Heat's instructions (as given for males) begin at Number 11: briefly,

#11. Visualize your body as being completely empty.

#12. Say a prayer to your divine guru requesting that your consciousness be transformed.

#13. Imagine yourself to be a female goddess.

#14. Imagine that (as a female goddess) you have exterior substantive form but are internally empty.

#15. Imagine that your body grows gradually bigger until it encompasses the universe.

#16. Imagine then that your body shrinks to the size of a sesame seed.

#17. While retaining the body of a female, imagine that your meridian channels are empty.

And we have only 163 more steps to go.

Humming Bird
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