The Anniversary of His Holiness

Tuesday this past week marked the anniversary of the death of His Holiness Lungtok Tenpai Nyima, the revered 33rd abbot of Menri Monastery, a central character in our book. In the book he is referred to as Sangye Tenzin, the name he used before becoming abbot. Tibetan monks typically change their names over the course of their lives, receiving a name to replace their birth name when they are ordained and appending honorifics as they ascend the Bon hierarchy.

I intended to publish this blog with an excerpt from the book, and what we saw at the funeral, on Sept. 14, the anniversary of his death in 2017. (August 31, year of the fire garuda on the Tibetan lunar calendar) Tropical storm Nicholas thwarted my intentions. Near hurricane-force winds knocked out power at our house for most of the week, so I was unable to post this blog until now.

Here are two paragraphs from the book:

By 2014 his health began to fail. As he neared death three years later, His Holiness began making preparations. He asked that Tibetan children from the school at the monastery be brought to his bedside. He gave each a piece of candy as a goodbye gift. The next day, he blessed all those from the Bonpo settlement, calling the elderly his old friends, and wished them farewell. They stood in single file chanting his blessing prayer, waiting to spend a few moments with the revered holy man. The third day he held an audience with all the Menri monks. Later that day, as death approached, he placed himself in meditative posture. As he sat in meditation, his breath ceased and his head dropped, according to monks who witnessed his last breath. After 49 years as abbot, he died Sept. 14, 2017, still in meditative pose. He was 89.

After a doctor pronounced him dead, a monk made the traditional call to meditation with three trumpets from a conch shell as others in the room chanted prayers. As the conch shell sounded, His Holiness raised his head⁠1, witnesses said. By their account, his head remained erect for five days before finally drooping to his chest. The unusual circumstances surrounding his death are found in traditional accounts of the deaths of Bon masters who have achieved enlightenment. Because His Holiness was deemed to have realized enlightenment, the traditional rituals to speed his spirit on its journey were not needed. They were replaced by elaborate ceremonies and special rituals celebrating his life.

Jackie and I attended the Oct. 2, 2017, cremation ceremony. A day before the ceremony, we arrived at a hotel in Solon, a large city near Menri Monastery, after a nine-hour journey from New Delhi. We made the trip in a hired van along with six other Americans and a doctor from Singapore. The van driver got lost as soon as he left Delhi, adding an extra three hours to the ride.

We dropped our bags off at the hotel and went directly to the monastery. The temple was festooned with long strings of multicolored lights. Thousands of the Bon faithful crowded the monastery grounds, jamming the large courtyard in the temple plaza and packing the narrow corridors among the surrounding buildings. Most were Tibetans, but hundreds came from North America and Europe. We took our place in a long line waiting for a final view of His Holiness’s body, still sitting in meditation posture.

Late that night we retreated to the hotel to catch a few hours of sleep before returning at 3 a.m. to participate in the ceremonies. In the plaza, monks led the faithful in chants. Next to the temple sat a special brick oven, or chorten, built recently built by monks supervised by His Holiness’s nephew, Khedup, for the cremation ceremony. The crowds began jockeying for a spot to view the ceremony well before dawn. I found a spot on a rooftop overlooking the chorten next to a group of Bonpos from Poland. Jackie picked a spot along the temple wall close to the chorten among a throng of Tibetans.

At least a hundred or more monks wearing conical red, white and blue hats, filed into the garden next to the chorten and began chanting. After a long interval, monks blowing sacred horns led a procession accompanying a gold and scarlet litter, borne on the shoulders of six monks, containing the body of His Holiness. Monks lowered the body into the chorten through an opening in the top. Two monks lit the kindling inside the chorten and stoked it through an opening in the side. After fire consumed the body, thousands of offerings that had filled the temple were tossed into the fire, including platers laden with fruit, sculptures of molded tsampa known as tormas, and long wooden boards bearing prayers written in pure gold and silver.

After the ceremony, the monastery fed all of the visitors in a large dining hall. People were reluctant to leave, instead waiting in a long line for a place at one of the tables. After leaving the dining hall, we were fortunate to meet Roomily Kapoor, the Indian woman who was an important figure in the establishment of the Bonpo community at Dolanji.

We felt privileged to be a witness to and a part of this incredibly rare and emotional event.

Eventually, monks tore down the chorten and, in its place, erected an eighteen-foot stupa, or shrine, carved from five blocks of snow-white Makrana marble, as flawless and pure as the marble used to build the Taj Majal. The room where he died was turned into a museum displaying the few artifacts from his life. A wax statue of His Holiness 33 sitting in perpetual meditation crowns the exhibit.

Some of the offerings for the cremation ceremony sit in the main Menri temple.
Invitation to the cremation ceremony signed by Geshe Dawa Dhargyal, then Bon Foundation general secretary. He was chosen in January 2018 as the 34th abbot of Menri.
The chorten smokes as the cremation fire burns.
Crowds in temple plaza.

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