It’s a rainy morning in the picturesque Tashi Lhunpo Monastery in Karnataka’s Bylakuppe town, about 70km from Mysuru and home to one of the largest Tibetan settlements in India.

Six Russian scientists are closely observing a Tibetan monk in deep meditative state. The scientists from Moscow State University and St Petersburg-based Institute of Human Brain are here to study thukdam, a post-death meditative state practised by highly realized Buddhist masters.

Buddhist scholars and Russian scientists have been working together for a little over a year to understand thukdam better, and last month, they spent a fortnight together investigating altered states of consciousness at the Talhun Russian Science Centre at Tashi Lhunpo Monastery.

Thukdam is meditative practice in which realized Tibetan Buddhist masters die in a consciously controlled manner. Though they are declared clinically dead, their bodies remain fresh for days or weeks without any signs of decomposition, putrefaction or skin discolouration. It is described as an invocation of the subtle consciousness. Thukdam is a Tibetan word with “thuk" meaning mind and “dam" standing for samadhi or the meditative state.

The team is looking into two aspects of thukdam. “The first is the scientific aspect to find out how they can stabilize and control the human mind with thukdam being the key factor," said professor Svyatoslav Medvedev, who is leading the delegation of scientists from Russia. Meditation is an altered state of mind and the scientists are studying the brains of monks who are in a deep meditative stage.

“We learnt from lamas of different monasteries that thukdam is not just a post-death meditative state. One can also achieve the same state of mind in one’s lifetime. So we are studying monks who are meditating on subtle consciousness or trying to invoke their subtle consciousness," said Medvedev, the founder and former director of NP Bekhtereva Institute of the Human Brain at the Russian Academy of Sciences in St Petersburg. The second aspect of their investigation is to understand the neurophysiological mechanism of meditation, or how the practice works in relation to the functioning of the nervous system.

“Right now, there are no answers to the phenomena of thukdam. It’s this mystery that the scientists are here to study. We Buddhists also want to know more about it," said Ngawang Norbu, head of Sera Jey Science Centre in Bylakuppe.

An inquiry into a post-death Buddhist meditative practice
An inquiry into a post-death Buddhist meditative practice

Medvedev first met the 14th Dalai Lama a decade ago and discussed working together. In 2018, a Russian delegation came to India to meet the Dalai Lama. “His Holiness talked to us about thukdam and said he was keen to know the neurophysiological mechanism of meditation. He asked me if I could carry out research on thukdam," he says.

Russia then invited a group of monks to the country in September to familiarize them with the nuts and bolts of the scientific research. The two-week trip was an eye-opener for the eight monks from the settlements of Bylakuppe and Mundgod. None of them had prior experience with this kind of research. They learnt to set up the EEG (electroencephalogram to measure electrical activity in the brain), figured out how brain signals work during meditation and understood the nuances of neurophysiology and the function of consciousness at the Institute of Human Brain.

For Tenzin Wangchuk, a monk in his late 20s, it was his first overseas trip after he came to Bylakuppe from Tibet when he was barely 10 years old.

“We went to Moscow and St Petersburg for pre-project training. We understood what exactly the Russian scientists would do when they are here," said the monk from Mundgod’s Drepung Loseling Monastery.

“The Russian philosophy of science is different from that of the West. They are holistic in their approach. We need to move away from the individualistic approach to solve the problems of the mind," said Lobsang Phuntok, a monk from the Sera Jey Monastery, who was also part of the group.

Thukdam is a very sensitive research subject and we need to be absolutely precise in our findings," said Medvedev. The project will be carried out in two labs—one in Bylakuppe, the other in the Tibetan settlement of Mundgod near Hubballi in Uttara Kannada. The first lab in Tashi Lhunpo Monastery was inaugurated in September.

The Tashi Lhunpo Monastery, the traditional seat of the second most important spiritual leader of Tibet, the Panchen Lama, was founded in 1447 at Shigatse in Tibet by the first Dalai Lama, Gyalwa Gendun Drup. The Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1950 and the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) destroyed many of Tibet’s monastic institutions. In 1960, the Chinese Army dismantled the Tashi Lhunpo Monastery, and many precious scriptures and stupas were destroyed. In 1972, the Tashi Lhunpo Monastery was re-established in Bylakuppe under the patronage of the 14th Dalai Lama, and is now home to about 400 monks.

“We have been in conversation with the scientists from Russia for two years. Three monasteries in Bylakuppe—Tashi Lhunpo, Sera Jey and Sera Mey—and four in Mundgod are collaborating with the Russian scientists. This kind of collaboration will lead to better understanding of the human mind and help bridge the gap between Western and Buddhist psychology," said Zeekyab Tulku Rinpoche, abbot of the Tashi Lhunpo Monastery.

In the lab, a group of monks meditates on emptiness and subtle consciousness or contemplate different subjects to enter the deep meditative state, while the scientists hook them to the machines and study the signals in their brains.

“The research is expected to open the doors to precise understanding of thukdam. It is not a one-time research. We need to continuously observe and study what exactly happens during thukdam," said Telo Tulku Rinpoche, representative for His Holiness the Dalai Lama in Russia, Mongolia and The Commonwealth of Independent States.

Seethalakshmi S. & Rahul Nandan are Bengaluru-based writers who were assigned by Mint to report this story

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