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A Russian Lama's Body, and His Faith, Defy Time

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    NHNE News List Current Members: 702 Subscribe/unsubscribe/archive info at the bottom of this message. ... Thanks to Joseph Dillard. ... A RUSSIAN LAMA S BODY,
    Message 1 of 1 , Oct 1, 2002
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      NHNE News List
      Current Members: 702
      Subscribe/unsubscribe/archive info at the bottom of this message.


      Thanks to Joseph Dillard.


      By Steven Lee Myers
      New York Times
      Tuesday, October 1, 2002


      VOLGINSK, Russia - A miracle has occurred here in Siberia. Or it may be a
      hoax. Others believe science can explain it. It is a question, it seems, of

      The story begins in 1927, when a spiritual leader of Russia's Buddhists
      gathered his students and announced his plans to die. The leader,
      Dashi-Dorzho Itigilov, the 12th Pandito Hambo Lama, then 75 and retired,
      instructed those gathered around him to "visit and look at my body" in 30

      He crossed his legs into the lotus position, began to meditate and, chanting
      a prayer for the dead, died.

      The years that followed were difficult for all faiths in Russia, including
      the Buddhists here in Buryatia, a rugged, impoverished Siberian region on
      the Mongolian border. The Soviet Union, under Stalin, repressed most
      manifestations of religion, executing hundreds of lamas and destroying 46
      Buddhist temples and monasteries.

      After World War II, Stalin relented somewhat and allowed the Buddhists to
      rebuild their monastery outside Ivolginsk, along a low, desolate valley 22
      miles from Buryatia's capital, Ulan-Ude. But religious practice remained
      tightly restricted.

      When the 30 years had passed -- it might have been 28; the details are murky
      -- Itigilov's followers did what he had asked, exhuming his remains from a
      cemetery in Khukhe-Zurkhen.

      What they found, as the story goes, was Itigilov's body, still in the lotus
      position, still perfectly intact, having defied nature's imperative to

      Stalin was dead, but Soviet power remained absolute, and so the Buddhists
      reburied Itigilov -- and the secret -- in an unmarked grave, packing his
      wooden coffin with salt. (That may be important, or not.)

      "Nobody could talk about it then," said the current Pandito Hambo Lama, the
      25th, Damba Ayusheyev. "To bring him back to the temple -- it was forbidden,
      impossible. So he was put back."

      Unlike supreme Tibetan lamas, who are considered reincarnations of previous
      lamas and are enthroned for life, Pandito Hambo Lamas are elected by other
      lamas, serve relatively short terms and are free to step down.

      The story might have ended with the reburial had not a young lama, Bimba
      Dorzhiyev, turned his curiosity for history into a quest to resolve the
      mystery of Itigilov.

      He found an 88-year-old believer, Amgalan Dabayev, whose father-in-law had
      been there when the coffin had been opened and who himself had seen
      Itigilov. He led them to the grave.

      On Sept. 11, 75 years after Itigilov's death, the body was once again lifted
      from the earth. This time there was a record of the event: a dozen
      witnesses, including two forensic experts and a photographer.

      The lamas who opened the coffin wore surgical masks, but they need not have.
      Itigilov's body remained preserved.

      The current Hambo Lama ordered the body brought to Ivolginsk, where it was
      greeted with fanfare, ringing bells and lulling chants. He ordered the body
      placed on the second floor of one of the monastery's four temples, where it
      remains today, secreted behind heavy curtains and locked doors.

      The monastery's 150 students keep a vigil on the first floor, praying around
      the clock, though only the lamas may see the body.

      "To me it is the greatest miracle in life," said Hambo Lama Ayusheyev, the
      spiritual leader since 1995. "It turns out there are things on which time
      has no power."

      The 12th Hambo Lama was born in 1852 in Czarist Russia and orphaned early,
      according to the Buddhists' history. At 16 he studied to become a lama and
      served in several monasteries in Buryatia. In 1911 he was nominated along
      with nine other candidates to become the Hambo Lama and he was ultimately
      appointed by the czar's governor in Irkutsk.

      During his time as Hambo Lama, Itigilov is said to have strengthened the
      faith, especially among the Buryats, a nomadic people of Mongol descent who
      have lived in the region for more than 30 centuries. He published religious
      tracts and teachings and united many of the religion's factions.

      Most of Russia's Buddhists -- estimated today at one million -- adhere to
      the "yellow hat" sect that is predominant in Tibet. The Dalai Lama is their
      highest spiritual leader.

      In the years since the Soviet collapse, Buryatia has remained a republic of
      the Russian Federation. Across Russia the Buddhists have begun to thrive
      again, rebuilding lost temples, opening schools and attracting new
      followers, even among ethnic Russians.

      The Ivolginsk monastery is Russia's Lhasa, attracting hundreds of believers
      a day to its temples and monuments. Hambo Lama Ayusheyev said he had not yet
      decided what to do with Itigilov's body, but others say it will become a
      relic that will attract still more visitors.

      In Moscow, Vladislav L. Kozeltsev, an expert at the Center for Biomedical
      Technologies, the institute that keeps the body of Lenin -- who died in 1924
      -- in state on Red Square, said the salt in the coffin might have slowed the
      decay but could not alone explain the preservation of the lama's body.

      Other factors may include the soil and the condition of the coffin. More
      likely, Mr. Kozeltsev said, Itigilov suffered from a defect in the gene that
      hastens the decomposition of the body's cellular structure after death.

      He added, "You cannot rule out some secret process of embalming." Hambo Lama
      Ayusheyev says the body was preserved because Itigilov achieved a heightened
      state of existence through meditation known as shunyata, or emptiness.

      He acknowledged that there would be skepticism. When greeted with it, he
      relented on his own order and led a visitor into the temple, up a flight of
      narrow wooden stairs, past a locked door and into the darkened chamber where
      Itigilov sits atop a simple table, surrounded by candles and metal bowls
      holding oils.

      The lamas have dressed his body in a golden robe, with a blue sash laid
      across his lap. His eyes are closed, his features blurred, though the shape
      of his face and his nose certainly resemble the 1913 photograph. His hands
      remain flexible, his nails perfectly trimmed. His skin is leathery but soft.
      His head is still covered in short-trimmed hair.

      "Many people don't see what's obvious," Hambo Lama Ayusheyev said. "Many
      people won't understand even if they see him."



      THE INCORRUPTIBLES (7/2/2001):


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