A number of myths dominate the Western intellectual landscape regarding the history and practice of Chinese Buddhism. Many of these myths are even perpetuated within Japanese scholarship upon the subject. Eurocentric bias, cultural misidentification and blatant racism are often to blame. However, China is a vast country which continues to manifest its own culture (and destiny) regardless of the nonsense said about it in the surrounding countries. Within Chinese Buddhism, for instance, it is not uncommon to find examples of Buddhist nuns and monks ‘dying’ whilst a) sat uptight in the cross-legged meditation posture, and b) to continue hold this posture unassisted after the physical dying process has finished. Indeed, there are many famous examples of this kind in China today, with even ‘enlightened’ lay-people being able to perform this feat!
Moreover, even within modern China, for the devout Buddhist the ability to ‘leave the body’ in this manner is seen to be of great spiritual significance (similar to the shocking examples of the Vietnamese Buddhist monastics in the 1960s – who possessed the spiritual maturity and ability ‘not to move’ during the process of setting-fire to themselves in protest to US and Catholic interference in their country). Chinese Buddhism is often thought to have inherited this practice not from India (where some people believe it never existed), but rather from the very similar (if not identical) Daoist practice. This entire procedure is referred to as ‘Seated Transformation’ (坐化 - Zuo Hua) and involves the departing practitioner to retain the meditation posture with full and clear psychological awareness – whilst the breath is slowly brought to a standstill. This process functions through the conscious awareness integrating into the ‘space’ between each breath – so that the breath is finally left behind.
Situated near to the Indo-China Border is the Indian village of ‘Gue’, located in the Spiti region of the State of Himachal Pradesh in North India. As Indian collaborates with the US intrusion into Chinese territory – this area is used by the Indian government as a staging post for the 14th Dalai Lama and his ‘movement’. However, during 1975, an earthquake struck this area of Northern India and opened an old tomb that contained the mummified body of the Buddhist monk Sangha Tenzin – who was sat upright and very well preserved. In 2004, the local police excavated the tomb and removed the mummy. On discovery, it astonishing to find that the mummy was well preserved, with his skin intact and a crop of hair on his head. The mummy was eventually placed in a temple and is open to the public – despite the area being very remote and difficult to travel to.
This Buddhist monk is said to be around 500-years old and he has a name that is partly Sanskrit (Sangha) and partly Tibetan (Tenzin). He was placed in a ‘stupa’ after he died, and it is this structure that collapsed during the 1975 earthquake. His name was written on the stupa and he appears to have been protecting the area with his spiritual presence. Interestingly, Chinese Buddhist monks were performing this feat over a thousand years prior to this date (c. 1500 CE) with ‘Hui Neng’ (the Sixth Patriarch of Ch’an Buddhism) still sat upright in a temple in Southern China (d. 713 CE)! Even within the Theravada Buddhist tradition of Thailand there are stories of so-called ‘samadhi suicides’ whereby a Buddhist practitioner enters such a profound state of disembodied bliss that they never re-enter their physical bodies again! Hundreds of years later, these bodies are found still sat upright in remote corners of the isolated jungle, and when ‘touched’ usually collapse into piles of dust...
Although the example of ‘Sangha Tenzin’ has attracted all kinds of Western speculations about how he actually managed to ‘mummify’ himself – claiming he starved himself, or ate special food – contradictory processes all apparently carried-out whilst absurdly ‘running’ a lit candle over his body! - the reality is that within Chinese Buddhism (a tradition all but ‘ignored’ by the West) - the ability to leave the body through ‘Zuo Hua’ is carried-out only as a product of advanced spiritual attainment that requires no other ability than to have realised the goal of one’s chosen spiritual path! In other words, to ‘die’ whilst sat upright appears all the way through the Chinese Ch’an literature and is generated through the auspices of ‘spiritual’ will-power alone! There is no trickery involved and examples of naturally dying whilst sat upright is still seen within modern China!
When ‘new’, or recently produced, the ‘Seated Transformation Great Cylinder’ (坐化大缸 - Zuo Hua Da Gang) is usually clean, freshly varnished and exhibits pristine Buddhist (symbolic) artwork (although never in an extravagant fashion). Although not ‘sad’ or deliberately ‘sombre’ these ceramic ‘Jars’ are generally designed to be ‘uplifting’ and ‘positive’. The seated (or sometimes ‘standing’) images of the Buddha or monk is common in various numbers, often holding different hand-positions (or ‘mudra’), as is lotus flowers, Chinese ideograms, birds and other meaningful markings, etc. The primary idea represented is not the ‘sadness’ usually associated with physical death, but rather the ‘happiness’ associated with the ‘transcendence’ of the usual limitation's humanity faces when reaching the end of individual life-spans. Quite literally, the advanced Ch’an practitioner, regardless of whether they are a monk or nun, or lay-practitioner – transitions through the ‘dying process’ so that their bodies retain an upright, seated meditation posture. This eternal expression of the ‘Dharmakaya’ is then carefully placed into the ‘Great Cylinder’, which is then sealed and respectfully placed in a suitable area for a peaceful ‘storage’. This is often a quiet part of a temple, monastery, cave or even a domestic home – as the ‘Jars’ are sealed air-tight. Of course, just as the West has strict hygiene laws regarding the handling, storage and treatment of deceased bodies, so does modern China. There is a balance between religious rights and public health which is carefully (and respectfully) maintained. Occasionally, and for various reasons, these ‘Jars’ are opened years later to reveal a body that has not decayed. Sometimes, a Buddhist monk or nun might pass-away whilst sat alone in the remote forest or on top of a distant mountain - where their perfectly intact body is discovered (by accident) years later - and usually removed and respectfully placed in a ‘Great Cylinder’ or ‘Burial Jar’. In the case where a body has been sat upright for hundreds of years (often in a remote cave), sometimes it collapses with the slightest of ‘touches’ (even a faint breath) as its structure turned into dust long ago (and believed to be held together by the ‘purity’ of the intent of the practitioner). From my own experiments with seated meditation over the years, it seems that the bones and joints must be ‘perfectly’ placed so that they are in complete alignment. All unnecessary muscular tension must be removed from the body so that each bone and joint naturally ‘supports’ the bones and joints above and below its anatomical position. For this ‘alignment’ to be achieved, the mind must be ‘calm’, ‘still’ and ‘expansive’. Conscious awareness must ‘permeate’’ every molecule and atom of the physical body – both ‘inside’ and ‘outside’. The body then ‘transitions’ during the dying process so that the ‘Dharmakaya’ or ‘Buddha-nature’ manifests and ‘supports’ the body in retaining its upright position. When the mind is not settled or expansive, and the body is not aligned – then as soon as conscious effort ceases – the body will fall-over at the point of physical and psychological death. ACW (27.10.2020)
(Translated by Adrian Chan-Wyles PhD)
On April 4th, 2012, the Venerable Old Monk Jie Quan (戒全) experienced the dying process whilst sat upright in the cross-legged meditation posture. This occurred at the Fayun (法云) Temple situated in the north-eastern area of Hebei province. Three years later – on March 9th, 2012 – his burial jar was opened to reveal that his body had not decayed in anyway. His ‘Root Master’ was Grand Master Xu Yun (虚云) [1840-1959). He was born in 1916, and his family was from the Nanchang area of Jiangxi province, and his surname was ‘万’ (Wan), and his fore-names were ‘兆’ (Zhao) and ‘炯’ (Jiong). At 15 years of age, his head was shaved at the ‘Zheng Jue’ (正觉) Ch’an Temple by the Venerable Li Su Guo (礼夙果) - this is where he left the world and became a Buddhist monk. In 1937, he travelled to the ‘Gulin Lu’ (古林律) Temple in Nanjing for further training as a Buddhist monk. In 1958, Master Jie Quan received Dharma-Transmission from Master Xing Fu (性福) and became the 10th Generation Successor of the ‘Wei Yang’ (沩仰) Ch’an Lineage. In 1990, Master Jie Quan received Dharma-Transmission from Master Ben Huan (本焕) and became the 45th Generation Successor of the ‘Lin Ji’ (临济) Ch’an Lineage. He served as ‘Senior monk’ (首座 - Shou Zuo) on at least 8 different occasions – and ‘Head Monk’ (住持 - Zhu Chi) on 3 other occasions. On April 4th, 2012, Master Jie Quan sat down, adjusted his robes and passed away peacefully. His ‘Dharmakaya’ body now sits upright on permanent display at the Fayun Temple.
Original Chinese Language Article:
Adrian Chan-Wyles (釋大道 - Shi Da Dao) is permitted to retain his Buddhist Monastic Dharma-Name within Lay-society by decree of the Government of the People’s Republic of China, and the Chinese Buddhist Association (1992). A Buddhist monastic (and devout lay-practitioner) upholds the highest levels of Vinaya Discipline and Bodhisattva Vows. A Genuine Buddhist ‘Venerates’ the ‘Dao’ (道) as he or she penetrates the ‘Empty Mind-Ground' through meditative insight. A genuine Buddhist is humble, wise and peace-loving – and he or she selflessly serves all in existence in the past, present and the future, and residing within the Ten Directions – whilst retaining a vegetarian- vegan diet. Please be kind to animals!
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