The old and new testaments of the bible, as well as ancient Greek and Egyptian texts, include stories of those who defied death via forms of ascension, but to many, the most compelling tales of transcendence are accounts from the Tibetan Buddhist rainbow body tradition.
While ascension stories are from the distant past, i.e. Enoch and Lazarus (Old Testament) are debated as to whether they are fact or myth, examples of rainbow body events from this century are documented and available. Some believe that ascension and attainment of the rainbow body are the same things, but arguably, there are differences — the Tibetan Buddhist rainbow body is the result of years of specific, disciplined practice with a motive of profound compassion for all beings.
In Tibet and Central Asia, the Buddhist rainbow body tradition goes back to the 8th century, beginning with the great master Padmasambhava, but 20th and 21st-century documentation show that this is no myth or legend — practitioners, from the highest lamas to the most humble laypeople, have attained rainbow body.
L. The 16th Karma Rangjung Rigpe Dorje. R. Photo of Karmapa during the Black Crown Ceremony.
Modern Proof: The Death of Rangjung Dorje, the Sixteenth Karmapa
As first-world people, we like straight-forward definitions and categories — but Tibetan Tantric Buddhism, which integrated aspects of the earlier, shamanic Bon tradition, embraces no such view. Every instance of death with signs of rainbow body attainment is unique, and no one can accurately predict what will happen after a great master’s breath and heartbeat stop.
Generally, the individual, who entered meditation before death, continues to maintain the meditation posture — they do not topple, slump, or display rigor mortis. The body, particularly the area around the heart, stays warm. This was recorded by medical science in the case of the Sixteenth Karmapa, Rangjung Dorje, who died in a Chicago hospital in 1981.
Head of the Kagyu Lineage of Tibetan Buddhism, the Karmapa shared the same status and importance as the Dalai Lama, head of the Gelugpa Lineage. He traveled to the West in 1974 with the wish to transfer the teaching of the dharma to places it would flourish — earlier, he had prophesied that Tibet would not gain independence from the Chinese and that the Tibetan refugees of the Cultural and People’s Revolutions would not be allowed to return.
The following account is from Karmapa’s attending physician, Dr. David Levy. He said that after noting indications of heart failure on the monitors, the medical team tried to revive Karmapa, but gave up after about 45 minutes. “We began to pull out the tubing, but I suddenly saw his blood pressure was 140 over 80. A nurse screamed, ‘he has a good pulse!’” Levy said.
The team members were incredulous. An older Tibetan lama in attendance patted Levy on the back as if to say, “it’s impossible, but it happens.” Levy said, “it was clearly the greatest miracle I had ever seen.”
Levy reported that 48 hours after the time of death, Karmapa’s chest was still warm. “My hands were both warm, but his chest was warmer,” he said. “If I moved my hands towards the side of his chest, the body was cold, but the area around the heart stayed warm.” He also reported that there was no odor or decay, which typically set in quickly after death. “He stayed in deep meditation for three days, then it ended — he became cold and the process of death set in. The atmosphere changed as well,” Levy said.
These unusual post-death occurrences are accepted as normal in the case of those who reach high levels of attainment — because of this, Tibetans observe a clear precept to never move or touch a body for at least three days after the moment of death, particularly in case of realized beings and meditation masters.
The Karmapa also displayed signs of rainbow body years before his death. In the 1970s, Karmapa traveled throughout the U.S. giving the public Black Crown Ceremony empowerment. This teaching is only given by those of the Karmapa lineage and has been passed to the present via an unbroken lineage from the early 1400s.
During the key moment in the empowerment, while Karmapa was holding the black crown over his head, an attendee snapped a picture. When the film was developed, the image of the Karmapa was transparent — the brocade of his seat can be clearly seen through the ghost-like image of his body. Those in attendance saw nothing out of the ordinary at the time. This image has been widely circulated since and is considered a vivid demonstration of the rainbow body.
Where Did It Come From? Padmasambhava and the Rainbow Body Tradition
Before he died, the Buddha Shakyamuni prophesied he would “return as one even greater than myself.” Later, known as “the second Buddha,” Padmasambhava appeared in Central Asia during the 8th century A.D.
As the story goes, during the year of the Earth Monkey in the kingdom of Oddiyana (Swat Valley, Pakistan), an eight-year-old child appeared in a red lotus blossom in Lake Dhanakosa. The child showed the major and minor marks of a buddha, and immediately displayed miraculous activity.
The king of Oddiyana, Indrabodhi, was childless. He heard about the extraordinary child and took him into his palace to raise him as a prince, naming him “Padmasambhava,” or “Lotus Born.” Eventually, Padmasambhava married and ruled as a prince, but soon realized that mundane political life and spiritual cultivation did not mix — since his appearance, his inborn purpose had been to liberate all sentient beings from suffering.
Whether it was intentional or not, Padmasambhava caused the death of the son of a villainous minister — but unknown to his father and the court, Padmasambhava liberated the boy from the cycle of karma at the moment of death. Nevertheless, Padmasambhava was banished from Oddiyana.
Beyond duality, Padmasambhava perceived the banishment as a precious opportunity to practice meditation; he performed his practices in cemeteries as a constant reminder of the utterly temporary nature of existence — that everything born would die, even the world itself. Padmasambhava quickly gained miraculous powers. Afterward, traveling in India, Padmasambhava took teachings from every master and scholar he met. His realization deepened until he understood the nature of all things from a grain of sand to the sun, moon, and universe.
Meanwhile in the Kingdom of Zahor (Eastern India) a beautiful princess, Mandarava, was born. While still very young, Mandarava renounced her royal status and birthright to practice meditation and the dharma, the teachings of the Buddha Shakyamuni, despite intense pressure to enter a political marriage.
While there are conflicting accounts of how they met, Mandarava joined Padmasambhava in his travels and achieved realization with him in the Maratika Caves. But her father, the king of Zahor, sentenced the two to death by fire. A pyre was built and Mandarava and Padmasambhava were placed on the fire, but the flames transformed into a lake, and in the center, in a blooming lotus, sat the uninjured Mandarava and Padmasambhava. The king, stunned by the miracle, blessed them.
Padmasambhava went on to perform countless miracles, including leaving hand and footprints in stone. In his travels he encountered worldly demons, but rather than killing them, he transformed them into protectors of the dharma and its practitioners. He traveled to Tibet, bringing the Buddha’s teachings and banishing the indigenous religion based on sacrificial offerings. He spent 50 years there teaching the dharma to his 25 disciples and traveling throughout the Himalayas, but he learned that cannibalistic fiends called rakshasas were preparing to invade India.
He announced to his students he would soon be departing to tame the rakshasas. They pleaded with him to stay, but he would not be persuaded. He gave them each final teachings, then departed — in his biography, multiple witnesses describe miracles, including; seeing Padmasambhava mounting a beam of sunlight and soaring into the sky, leaving in a swirling cloud of light, riding a lion into the sky, and becoming smaller and smaller until he disappeared.
He did not age or die — he simply left. But of all the teachings he left behind, Dzogchen is considered the most profound and complete. Ultimately, all 25 of his disciples attained the rainbow body, as did many of their students; but the questions remain: what is the rainbow body, and how is it achieved?
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The Method: Dzogchen Meditation
The word “Dzogchen” is derived from the Tibetan “Dzogpachenpo.” “Dzogpa” means “complete,” and “chenpo” means “great.” While these teachings are nuanced and complex, in essence, after receiving “pointing out” instructions from a qualified teacher, the practitioner works through stages of meditation to realize the “self-perfected state of our primordial nature.” Dzogchen has been called “the cream and heart juice of all teachings.”
The first stage, Trekcho, is the persistent cutting through the psychic karmic debris that obscures the primordial awareness within all of us; resistance, resentment, arrogance, pride, vanity, discursive thoughts of judgment and disapproval, delusion, jealousy, and hatred. The second stage, Togal, is a direct dissolution of all karma.
The Treckho stage is required to reach the Togal state. Togal is considered instantaneous, immediate realization with an intense, “point-blank” quality. “It requires enormous discipline, and is generally practiced in a retreat environment. It cannot be stressed too often that the path of Dzogchen can only be followed under the direct guidance of a qualified master,” said Sogyal Rinpoche, author of the “Tibetan Book of Living and Dying.”
There are mixed accounts of the origins of the Dzogchen method; the shamanic Bon tradition that predated Buddhism in Tibet says the teaching came with the Bon founder, Tonpa Sherap, 18,000 years ago. Other masters have said that Dzogchen teachings were received from off-world beings further back in time than is conceivable. As far as Tibetan Buddhism is concerned, the practice came to Tibet via Padmasambhava and has been passed down in an unbroken lineage since then.
In a review of “Rainbow Body and Resurrection” by Michael Sheehy, the author writes: “In Dzogchen cosmology, the cosmos is envisioned as being utterly open and translucent. Movement ensues when the element of air stirs up wind that oscillates rapidly into fire; from fire emerges water, and from water, the solidity of rock and earth are stabilized. With this gravitational collapse into the elemental forces that comprise the cosmos, a spiraling reconfigure matter into worlds wherein embodied beings form.” Think of high vibratory states slowing down until they become dense matter.
While descriptions seem academic and conceptual, there is a simplicity at the heart of Dzogchen (although this explanation is overly simplistic — apologies to Dzogchen students and masters everywhere). From that view, all that we perceive, including our own bodies, is formed by the “Legos,” or building blocks of reality — earth, water, fire, air, and space.
The elements dance together to create an infinite variety of appearances, but beneath the physical lies the true nature of the elements as light/energy. Those who achieve realization via Dzogchen are able to perceive the essence of everything, including themselves, as pure light in perpetual motion. The rainbow reference comes from the colors of the elemental lights; white (space), red (fire), blue (water), green (wind or air), and yellow (earth). As Sheehy says, “Under certain circumstances, the cosmic evolutionary process of matter’s gravitational collapse into solidity can turn itself back into a swirling radiating configuration. Tibetan traditions suggest that meditative technologies can reverse this process of collapse,” or journey from high-vibratory energy to dense matter. In other words, successful Dzogchen practitioners can reverse the manifestation process, refining dense matter to pure light/energy. Notably, some form of elements can be found at the foundation of every tantric, esoteric, alchemical, or shamanic tradition.
Types of Rainbow Body
In commemoration of the death of his teacher in 2013, Dzogchen Khenpo Choga Rinpoche wrote to his students, “My precious teacher, Lama Karma Rinpoche, has passed. I received the extraordinary news from my friends in Tibet that the sacred body of my kind teacher has dramatically shrunk in size. Lama Karma was about 5’9” tall, but two weeks after he passed, his seated body has now shrunk to about 8”, which means his body, including his skeleton, shrank nearly 80 percent.”
Choga Rinpoche went on to explain that his teacher had attained the “Small Rainbow Body,” referring to the shrinking of Lama Karma’s body after death — but “small” is not “lesser.” Choga Rinpoche wrote, “According to Dzogchen tantra, this kind of miraculous display is a sign that he has attained the supreme accomplishment of the buddha in this very life.
“If his body continues to shrink and totally disappears, this miracle will be categorized as Light Body, or Atomless Body. This light body can happen gradually or instantaneously, with or without an eyewitness.”
Further on, Choga Rinpoche described the “Medium Rainbow Body,” saying, “The Dzogchen master’s body dissolves as rainbow light of many different shapes, colors, and different sizes of rainbow spheres, rainbow rays, and rainbow ribbons until the physical body has totally dissolved into rainbow light, leaving nothing besides hair and nails.” Rinpoche cites the examples of Master Nyaklha Rangrik Dorje (“His body is still preserved and is the size of a hand”) and Tasha Lamo, a woman practitioner whose body shrank to about four inches in 1982.
Rinpoche made it clear, though, that all these miracles are signs of “the same supreme accomplishment. Their attainments are exactly equal. These practitioners have attained Buddha in this very life,” he wrote.
While these manifestations are fascinating, we must remind ourselves that genuine practitioners do not attempt attainment for the sake of public spectacle or self-aggrandizement — their common motivation is a profound commitment to the freedom and happiness of all beings. Any merit gained by the dissolution of karma is dedicated to the benefit of the “other” rather than the self.
This view is fundamental to Buddhism and is the beginning and endpoint of rigorous disciplines undertaken for the benefit of all beings.
“Miraculous” activities, such as passing through walls, leaving foot and handprints in stone, reviving the dead, and appearing in multiple locations at the same moment, are considered mere “by-products” of accomplishment; they are not the point, only signs along the way.
To become infatuated with these powers is to risk pride and arrogance. True Dzogchen practitioners hide their accomplishments to avoid attention and distractions. Chasing these abilities, or siddhis, without compassion and dedication to the freedom of all beings, borders on sorcery — the pursuit of supernatural powers for the benefit of self.
The Rainbow Body of Khenpo Acho Rinpoche
Born in 1918, Khenpo Acho was from Eastern Tibet. From 1956 onward, he entered retreat and stayed there for most of the rest of his life. He was known throughout the region as a great yogi and meditation master, and his death was the subject of an article by the Institute of Noetic Sciences in 2002.
“On August 29, 1998, Khenpo Achö, eighty years of age, attained physical dissolution. One day at noon, lying in bed, without having suffered any recent illness, he attained buddhahood, his heart of clear light reality perfected beyond the intellect. As his body dissolved into light, his wrinkles vanishing, he seemed like an eight-years old child with a beautiful complexion.
“After a week had passed, when people came to know of his death, they performed his death puja secretly [rainbow body practices are forbidden by the Communist Chinese] in order to deceive the authorities, and at that time, rainbows appeared inside and outside, and a pleasant aroma pervaded the place. His body gradually diminished in size, and at the end, he attained buddha; not even his nails and hair were left behind. It was just like a bird flying from a rock— people nearby have no idea where it might have gone,” said a witness.
L. Tashi Lamo R. Tashi Lamo’s body after death
Tasha Lamo’s Rainbow Body
While little is said of female masters in the Tibetan Vajrayana tradition, women are certainly capable of achieving the realization that results in rainbow body. Tasha Lamo was the mother of Lokgar Rinpoche of Nyingma Katok Monastery. She became a nun in her later years, and was known as a great practitioner. After she died in India, her body shrank to about 12 inches.
Photograph of Lama Achuk
Lama Achuk Rinpoche’s Rainbow Body Photo
Achuk Rinpoche was a revered meditation master — a “maha siddhi,” or one of great accomplishment. Born in 1918, he was noted for miraculous activity such as leaving hand and footprints in rock. When he died in 2011, his body shrank from 1.8 meters to one inch tall. Even years prior to his death, Rinpoche displayed signs of rainbow body — the image of light appearing on a pink lotus was the result of a student’s simple photo of his master. None of the phenomena seen in the photo were apparent when the picture was taken.
The Rainbow Body of Ogyen Tendzin
Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche, a meditation master from eastern Tibet, was one of the first Tibetan lamas to openly teach Dzogchen in the West. He tells the story of his uncle, Ogyen Tendzin, who achieved Rainbow Body at death.
Namkai Norbu Rinpoche describes watching his uncle in meditation as a child. “I would try to get him to play with me because I was bored,” he said. When he was older, Rinpoche said he spent several weeks studying with his uncle. “I received my first Dzogchen teachings from my uncle when I was seven years old.”
Later, after the Cultural Revolution, Ogyen Tenzin ended up living in a small house with a student bringing him food each week. He was practicing Dzogchen alone. Namkhai Norbu writes that one day, “The student and a Chinese official knocked on Uncle’s door and it didn’t open. They thought maybe my uncle fled. Knocking down the door, they saw his robe on the bed, but as was apparently not there, they looked inside the robe and found a small body. They knew my uncle was no longer alive, but had become a small body. They shut the door and went away.”
After a few days the Chinese official returned and found that the body was gone — only hair and nails remained. “The Rainbow Body still exists even today — it is not only something from ancient times,” Rinpoche said.