The Tibetan Rainbow Body & the Christian Resurrection

Published on March 26, 2001

The following article is a summary of a talk given by Fr. Francis Tiso at Mercy Center and posted on the internet in “Stirrings.”   

Father Francis Tiso

Father Francis Tiso

On Center Day March 26, Fr. Francis Tiso, associate pastor at Our Lady of Mt. Carmel in Mill Valley and Tibetan Buddhist scholar, spoke on his research in Nepal and Tibet. His first project focused on the preservation of Himalayan religious art. Three years later he investigated the Tibetan phenomenon of the Rainbow Body for possible comparison with the Christian concept of resurrection.

In 1997 Fr. Francis catalogued thangka paintings as well as statues and wall paintings in the remote and sparsely populated Tarap Valley of Dolpo in Northern Nepal. He said the Bonpo religion there claims to be descended from the earliest indigenous religion of the Himalayas of this area, but the iconography is similar to that of Tibetan Buddhism. He speculated that it may be an early form of Buddhism that absorbed older practices. Fr. Francis gained rare permission to study and photograph both the Bonpo and Buddhist images there and to participate in rituals led by the lamas. In his research on style, he examined hundreds of playing-card-size paintings depicting isolated details of particular deities. A lama holds up these pictures for disciples to study on initiation to help them mentally construct the entire image later. This visualization is used to enter into relationship with the deity.

Last summer Fr. Francis traveled to the province of Kham in eastern Tibet to study the manifestation of the Rainbow Body. The Benedictine monk Brother David Steindl-Rast had wondered about possible similarities between this experience and the resurrection of Jesus. Br. David learned from Tibetans about a recent occurrence of the body of a Tibetan lama disappearing within seven days of his death. Thanks to Br. David’s intervention, Fr. Francis received a grant to investigate. Fr. Francis said the Catholic church has collected a large body of documentation to verify miracles, charisms, and unusual bodily changes of the saints and has rigorously tested the evidence in the “causes” of canonization. He set out to gather such reliable data on paranormal Tibetan experiences by interviewing eyewitnesses of the death of Khenpo A-chos.

Khenpo-A-chos died in the summer of 1998, without any signs of illness (old age). After extensive training in both the Nyingma and Gelug schools of Tibetan Buddhism, he was known for his inclusive teachings, even to the toughest bandits. For most of his monastic life, instead of living in the great monastery, he retreated to a tiny, remote hermitage to practice mantras and visualizations. Khenpo’s nephew and closest disciple said that sometimes he saw the Khenpo circumambulating the hermitage, even though he was locked inside. One year before the Khenpo died, a rinpoche advised him to have a thangka painted of Ganden, the paradise the rinpoche predicted the Khenpo would soon be going to. The Khenpo did so to remove the last traces of karmic aspiration, which freed him to attain the next life. When asked about his uncle’s teachings, his nephew said he was a humble man who spoke mostly about the importance of cultivating compassion.

A week before the Khenpo died, a flat rainbow appeared over his house. Those present at his death told Fr. Francis that they saw the wrinkles on his skin disappear and the skin become smooth and shiny like that of a young boy’s. Another disciple said the skin actually became luminous. Fr. Francis said this meant he was able to change his cellular structure and release light. Everyone present noticed a sweet fragrance, like perfume. Outside the hermitage they saw rainbows in the sky, which was filled with a very fine rain. In a few days they also heard music, as if someone were singing outdoors, but they could not understand the words. A lama the Khenpo’s disciples consulted told them to cover the body with a yellow cloth and not touch it. The disciples could see through the cloth that the body was shrinking but saw no signs of decomposition and no insects, although the weather was warm. On the eighth day they looked in the box and the body had completely disappeared, leaving only the cloth (his clothing had been removed when he died), which had no marks on it.

Many disciples reported dreams or visions of the Khenpo after his death. They also said they had heard of the manifestation of the Rainbow Body happening to other lamas who studied Buddhism very deeply. They believed it showed the lamas’ high state of realization.

Fr. Francis said that the meaning of the Rainbow Body is beyond that of a yogic attainment. It is ultimately a manifestation of compassion, of a real bodhisattva’s ability to show people that the path is worth taking, that the sacrifices are worth it, and that their endeavor has universal power to reach out beyond the confines of the body or time.

Fr. Francis was deeply affected by his meeting with the fierce lama(1) the disciples had consulted about the Khenpo’s death. This lama told Fr. Francis he must study for many years before he could truly understand the Rainbow Body, saying, “You don’t see the Rainbow Body with the eyes of the body but with the heart.” The lama passed around pictures of himself in meditation that showed his body emitting light. In one picture his body split into three forms, all radiating light.

Fr. Francis encountered writings of early fathers of the Christian church and in the early Buddhist canon that described humans as originally beings of light. He says that this and the Tibetan experiences suggest that the doctrine of resurrection of the body might refer not to a fleshly but a luminous reality, an interpretation that agrees more with the descriptions in I and II Corinthians. He said that the Rainbow Body shows the possibilities inherent in the human body, which seems to be a distillation apparatus into which all the energies of the universe flow in the direction of enlightenment.

Fr. Francis was struck by the devotion of the Tibetan lamas, who have figured out how to maintain their practices in the face of Communist opposition. He hopes their example inspires Westerners, who complain about the distractions and temptations of the world getting in the way of their spiritual practice.

Article taken from internet: Stirrings–2001.

1-Another source writing about this interview said this was H.H. Khenpo Achuck Rinpoche (Achiu Kambu) or H. H. Lama Achuk Jamyang Lungdok Gyaltsen who has sometimes also been referred to as Lama A-chos.

Father Tiso now works as Associate Director for the Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington, DC. Their contact information is: 3211 4th Street, N.E.; Washington DC 20017-1194; PHONE (202) 541-3022; and E-Mail: commdept@usccb.org