Rainbow Body and Resurrection

Spiritual Attainment, the Dissolution of the Material Body, and the Case of Khenpo A Chö

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Francis V. Tiso
  • Berkeley, CA: 
    North Atlantic Books
    , January
     2016.
     408 pages.
     $32.49.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781583947951.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Father Francis V. Tiso is known for his pioneering achievements in the comparative studies of sainthood with regards to the life of the Tibetan yogin Milarepa and for studying the origins of Milarepa’s hagiographic tradition. Unlike his previous publications, Father Tiso’s new book is a more personal work, spanning a set of themes which suggest the author’s involvement in a quest for a “nondual” experience and a universalistic meaning of death and the afterlife overarching the traditions of Catholicism and Tibetan Buddhism—the two religious perspectives that have shaped Father Tiso’s life and career.  

Tiso’s work brings up a great diversity of topics, themes, historical periods, and ancient civilizations—from an exposition of historical trajectories and connections between a number of religious practices, through occasional hints at quantum physics and discussions of paranormal phenomena, to death and dying throughout different cultures—to mention only the most prevalent ones. All of these are grouped around records of the life, death and cult of contemporary Tibetan mystic Khenpo Achö (d. 1999). Tiso sees these themes as not only directly linked with the case of Khenpo Achö; he is suggesting that the miraculous death of Khenpo, as attested by his disciples, can be better understood with the support of the explorations mentioned above. At the same time, Tiso is looking for analogies between the supernatural signs manifested at Khenpo Achö’s death—known as “the rainbow body” (Tibetan ‘ja’ lus)—and the resurrection of Jesus Christ. 

Tiso finds many daring and original analogies and continuities between the Tibetan Dzogchen tradition, in which the rainbow body is contextualized, and the figures, texts, and practices mostly from Christian Syro-Oriental churches, but also Manicheanism and the Tamil Siddha tradition, to connect rituals of and contemplative instructions on “luminosity” with the Tibetan rainbow body phenomenon. The bold historical analogies and the proposed transfers, extensions and exchanges from Egypt to China put forward by a scholar of Tiso’s standing deserve to be validated with both further discussion and study. My concerns with this book lie with aspects of the ethnography of Khenpo Achö.

The author himself offers two readings of the ethnographic portion of Rainbow Body and Resurrection. The first reading presents the material collected in the course of Tiso’s expeditions to Eastern Tibet and India to find Khenpo’s disciples, teachers, colleagues, and witnesses to his passing as an intimate memoir of a journey of contemplation on the nature of faith, sainthood, truth, and death. The fieldwork provides Tiso with an opportunity to speak about his own experiences, emotions, and personal spiritual quest. The expressivity of his confessions is paired with great finesse in portraying contemplative mental states. Not only in this chapter, but throughout the book, Tiso reveals a certain poetic sensibility which enables him to aptly capture the shifting realm of interior experiences. That similar language is traditionally used to describe the inner world of the meditator within Tibetan ritual lineages connects with the centerpiece of this book, the case of the mystic Khenpo Achö. This lyrical gift does not only serve to fulfill an aesthetic purpose; toward the end of the ethnographic chapter, Tiso raises important questions about the essence of renunciation, asceticism, and mysticism across cultures (in chapter 3 he also contextualizes these queries within the history of Christian traditions and biblical studies). It is notable how these passages point to the links between charisma, postmortem relics and hermitism.

The second reading of the material collected on the case of Khenpo Achö is meant as an anthropological investigation. Here is where I find that Rainbow Body and Resurrection is rather sketchy in terms of ethnographic depth, and reveals deeper problems with regard to methodology in both data collection and interpretation. To begin with, the charismatic field of Khenpo Achö remains largely unexplored. Father Tiso does offer a textual-historical background of the case, examining the esoteric tradition of Dzogchen, which helps to locate the rainbow body of Khenpo Achö within its ritual tradition. However, other than the record of his religious practices and studies, we do not learn much about the broader social field within which Khenpo Achö lived, died, and was revered for achieving the rainbow body. Second, in his pursuit of the “evidence for the paranormal” (46), Father Tiso distances himself from the body of research and critical approach that have been developing since at least the 1960s and which deals with the practice of Buddhism within community. Tiso’s dialogues with Lama Akhyug Rinpoche, a relative and co-practitioner of the miraculously deceased Khenpo Achö, may serve as a metaphor for this ethnographic project. In these interviews, the ethnographer/ author is basically attempting to win the then most senior living Dzogchen master in Eastern Tibet over to his own interpretation of the rainbow body.

My final point of critique concerns placing the case study within such a vast historical and cross-cultural context. There are many who will welcome this broad perspective on a contemporary local miracle. Others will be less convinced by a rather one-dimensional ethnography which hastily departs from today’s Eastern Tibet, and leads us to ancient Syria, Egypt, and China.

Were this book intended as a strictly scholarly publication, it could become controversial for a number of reasons, some of which were mentioned in this review. However, as a bold and deeply personal inquiry into the universally pivotal matters of death and dying, it presents a beautifully crafted discussion which, while revealing that Father Tiso is proficient in diverse religious and cultural traditions, may serve as a departure point for larger conversations.

About the Reviewer(s): 

M. Maria Turek is a postdoctoral research and teaching fellow in the Department of Mongolian and Tibetian Studies at Bonn University.

Date of Review: 
October 12, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Father Francis V. Tiso holds an AB in Medieval Studies from Cornell University, a Master of Divinity degree from Harvard University, and a doctorate from Columbia University and Union Theological Seminary where his specialization was Buddhist studies. He also has a degree in Oriental Languages and Cultures from the Istituto Universitario Orientale in Naples. He was Associate Director of the Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops from 2004 to 2009, where he served as liaison to Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, the Sikhs, and Traditional religions as well as the Reformed confessions. He is the author of Liberation in One Lifetime(North Atlantic Books, 2014), which includes his translations of several early biographies of the Tibetan yogi and poet, Milarepa.

Keywords: 

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