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Almost exactly two years ago I was first given the rare privilege and honor of observing and touching The Most Precious Body of Pandito Khambo Lama Itigelov, the 12th Khambo Lama of all Russia. At that time his body had been removed from the ground slightly over a year earlier, after having been buried for seventy-five years. The body was, and is, kept on the upper floor of the main temple at the Ivolginsky Datsan, sitting in a glass box, that I understand has a refrigeration unit to keep it at the same temperature as it was in the ground and to filter the air from impurities. I was in the company of Dr. Carl George, professor emeritus of Union College, and Dan Plumley, director of the Totem's Peoples Project. The experience was provided through the graces of Pandido Khambo Lama Damba Ayusheyev, the 24th Khambo Lama. At that time the three of us were, as I recall, the second non-lamas and non-Buddhists to have physically touched the body. The skin was soft and flexible to the touch, the body firm, the joints movable, the hair soft, the skin light in color and the features easily recognizable as the person once alive as evidenced by a photograph taken some years before he died. In many ways the body appeared asleep sitting in the lotus position in which he was found. His ears stuck out, his nose had not drooped, his hair and eyes and not grown, nor had his body shown any signs of decay - as would be normal and expected, especially of a body that had not received any physical preparation for preservation or burial. Further, his body having been found sitting upright was highly unusual in itself.
Seventy-eight years ago, when he was seventy-five, Lama Itigelov gathered his students, announced his plan to die, retired, crossed his legs sitting in the lotus position, and began changing the prayer for death - and died. His request was to be buried, to have his body looked at in thirty years, and, it was later learned, to do so again in seventy-five years. The first time it was done as he wished, his clothing changed to newer garments, and his body then reburied. Finding his body the second time was far harder as the gravesite was destroyed during Soviet times and no marker left to indicate its site in the vast open near treeless valley where once a thriving community stood. Further complicating the task of finding the gravesite was that so many lamas were killed during the Soviet era as well as all Buddhist temples destroyed save one, and that used as a barracks for workers on the Trans Siberian Railroad. Thus few physical records or people then living remained to point the way. The chances of finding a needle in a haystack would have seemed far easier.
A combination of prayer, a sign of three plants growing together - plants rarely if ever so found, a hillside lush with grass during a drought, and the advice of an old man who recalled witnessing the burial as a very young boy combined to enable the lamas with near pin point accuracy to determine a spot amongst thousands of acres, dig down and find the box in which still sat the Lama Itigelov, with a fair amount of color still remaining in his skin as evidenced by photographs and video taping shot at the time.
The 12th Khambo Lama is believed to be the reincarnation of the Lama Damba Dorja Zayayev the first Khambo Lama who was born in 1702. Lama Damba Dorja Zayayev lived to be seventy-five. Seventy-five years after his death, Lama Itigelov was born, who also lived to be seventy-five. Buddhists believe that the condition of Lama Itigelov's body, understood to be like no other in history, is evidence that he reached the state of emptiness. Of consequence, he has become a source of inspiration to many lamas and novices following the spiritual path and others of the Buddhist faith.
There are those who feel that the body should have been immediately or near immediately reburied. There is some question as to what exactly were the wishes of the 12th Khambo Lama as so much was lost or destroyed during the Soviet era. While I understand the Most Precious Body was remarkably the same this past winter as I first experienced it, since then the skin has darkened, the body seems a bit smaller, the face not as clearly recognizable, and the skin far firmer and cooler to the touch as I can bear witness having recently been given the honor of so touching again. I have heard from several in the Buddhist community that the body may soon be buried; that this may be his wish. If so, the power and the miracle will be no less.
The reburial of the Most Precious Body may shift attention to his remarkable body of writings, more than fifty on Buddhism, to the rebuilding of the Anninsky Datsan, located near the village of Chorinsk, where he spent twenty-three years of his life in training, and to the revitalization of the Tamchinshy Datsan, where he received his medical training. Located about 10 kilometers as the crow flies from the village of Chorinsk (about 250 kilometers northeast of Ulan Ude), the ruins of the Anninsky Datsan are set in a vast open bowl surrounded by distant hills. A few white stupas dot the slopes and peaks marking sacred spots.
Just outside the datsan walls are three stupas built to honor the Twelfth Khambo Lama's three teachers, highly revered for their teachings and writings. A small working temple, recently built within the datsan walls, preserves their clothing, a powerful relic with great healing and centering energy.
At the Tamchinsky Datsan, two temples are still standing - the only ones of sixteen there not destroyed, indeed the only two temples in all Russia not leveled during the Soviet era - so stoutly built 275 and 265 years ago that they withstood a huge explosion when a nearby Russian Army munitions depot was set off in a lightning storm nearly leveling half the village. The datsan became a refuge with many flocking within or sheltered behind the temple walls while shards of roofs, bomb fragments and other material flew about destroying much in their path. The Tamchinsky Datsan is located in the small village of Tamcha, on the southern end of Goose Lake. Many hope that it will be revived as a center of learning and once again breath life into the nearly decimated community. The third important datsan in Lama Itigelov's life is the Ivolginsky Datsan, where he served as Khambo Lama. It has been rebuilt, is home to the Buddhist University, and constantly expanding with a new temple currently under construction. There the current Khambo Lama lives and directs the effort to rebuild Buddhist temples, all without any government funding and now three quarters realized.
Pandito Khambo Lama Itigelov's body returned to this world almost exactly a year following the terrible events of 9/11, and the third anniversary of his return took place shortly after the terrible events in New Orleans. Many here see this as a beacon of love and peace coming into the world, a light that they hope and believe will help counter so much darkness. Buryatia has one of the poorest economies in all of Russia. It is also one of the northern most outposts of Buddhism and, as such, seems to be fulfilling a prediction of a place so located where new hope will begin. People here point to many signs signaling such a step being taken. Further all this is taking place along the eastern Shores of Lake Baikal, long considered a place of healing sacred to all Russians, indeed sacred to the world. Political forces in Moscow are considering the dissolution of Buryatia's status as a republic and marrying it to the region controlled by the far larger and more prosperous city of Irkutsk, located on the western side of Baikal. If this were to happen, the Buryat people, who now make up nearly 45% of the Republic's population, will become small minority and loose much political clout in their own government, a fact distressing to many and quite possibly a driving reason behind such marriage in a country that has seen many republics with a high ethnic populations seek to break away with often drastic results. Some hope that the spirit of Khambo Lama will also protect the fragile rebirth and growing identity of this region keeping it intact, indeed bringing back a few parts of Buryatia cut away in the mid-twenties, the largest located on the western side of Baikal.
All in all many hopes and dreams are being placed on the shoulders of a man whose body was laid to rest 78-years ago.
I'm not a Buddhist nor a Buddhist scholar, but I have been provided with rare set of experiences that have enabled me to bear witness to the Most Precious Body three times; to travel, touch and feel the power of the clothing of his three teachers; to witness a Fire (cleansing) Ceremony and call for the God Dimchik, at the Gate of the Gods, both at Alkhanay, the sixth most sacred site in Buddhism; follow the pilgrimage at Alkanay of His Holiness the Dalai Lama; bathe in the healing waters and feel the warmth and energy of the Dome Stupa built there in the mid-nineteenth century; attend the dedication of the stupa to the First Khambo Lama and the dedication of the stupa to the Twelfth Khambo Lama, the only westerner at the first event and one of just a couple at the second and two days later at the religious event marking the third anniversary of the return of his body. In hindsight I can look back to the several times I met His Holiness the Dalai Lama in New York, when director of arts and productions for the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, which included being present when he met Mother Teresa for the first time, this in a small room a Christ Church, Oxford, England. Now I am here for six months, a situation predicted by Lama Lycksok of the Chorinsk Datsan fifteen months ago, and been given an opportunity to bear witness and feel the energy of renewal that is infusing this land and its people.
For Further Information
Those wishing to purchase videos, other materials, seek further and definitive information about the Twelfth Kambo Lama, or assist in the rebuilding of the datsans and research into and translation of his writings are best served by contacting the Pandito Khambo Lama Itigelov Institute in Ulan Ude, Republic of Buryatia. Their offices will be relocating later this month, and to prevent junk faxes or spam, I suggest those so interested contact me via NCPR and I will email you contact information.
2005 North Country Public Radio, St. Lawrence University, Canton, New York 13617-1475