Rainbow Body Research
an email. For any reader who does not know, IONS is short for the Institute of Noetic Sciences. I think you will find this information
fascinating (though some would find it contraversial). I am interested in your reactions and participation in a discussion on this blog. Please post your comments.
There is a Benedictine monk named David Steindl-Rast who has proposed investigating the "rainbow body," a phenomenon in which the corpses of highly developed spiritual individuals reputedly vanish within days of death, he received an enthusiastic response from Marilyn Schlitz, IONS' director of research.
In a new joint initiative with the Esalen Institute, IONS is
expanding its research on "metanormal capacities" or behaviors,
experiences, and bodily changes that challenge our understanding of
ordinary human functioning because they raise crucial questions about
the developmental potential of human beings.
"Brother David told us that he had taken this project to various
institutions and foundations looking for support," recalls
Schlitz. "His intention was to corroborate these claims, and
accumulate data that would not only help us understand more about the
rainbow body, but also look at its broader implications. He had been
told that this type of research is unacceptable within mainstream
science. But I said, 'This is exactly the kind of project we're
interested in at IONS. As long as the research can be conceptualized
within a rigorous critical frame, we are open to examining any and
all questions that can expand our idea of what is possible as
Steindl-Rast's own curiosity about the rainbow body began when he
heard various stories of Tibetan masters who had, through their
practices, reached a high degree of wisdom and compassion. It was
reported to him that when they died, rainbows suddenly appeared in
the sky. "And I was told that after several days their bodies
disappeared. Sometimes fingernails and hair were left. Sometimes
nothing was left."
These stories made him reflect upon the resurrection of Jesus Christ,
which is central to his own faith. "We know that Jesus was a very
compassionate, selfless person. When he died, according to the
gospels, his body was no longer there."
A large number of people are open to the concept that the body, too, is significant in the spiritual realm, and that certain spiritual experiences are universal.
In 1999, Steindl-Rast decided to explore the strange phenomenon of the rainbow body and a possible connection to the resurrection of Jesus. "I sent a fax to a friend in Switzerland, who is a Zen Buddhist teacher. I
knew that many Tibetans live there, and so I asked him if he could
inquire about the rainbow body. Two days later, I received a fax back
stating that a Tibetan had unexpectedly approached him, and when the
rainbow body was mentioned, the Tibetan said, 'It happened to one of
my teachers just recently, and a famous lama who witnessed the events
wrote an account about them'."
At this point, Steindl-Rast contacted Father Francis Tiso, an
ordained Roman Catholic priest who has not only studied ten
languages, including Tibetan, but is also familiar with Tibetan
culture. (Francis Tiso holds the office of Canon in the Cathedral of
St Peter, Isernia, Italy, and is assigned to the Archdiocese of San
Francisco, where he is parochial vicar in Mill Valley.)
"I was aware," says Steindl-Rast, "that Father Tiso occasionally went
to Tibet, so I asked him if he was planning to travel there in the
near future. He told me he was leaving that very day."
Steindl-Rast asked if he would stop in Switzerland and interview the
Tibetan. Despite the short notice, Tiso took a detour to Switzerland,
and thus the research journey began.
The rainbow body is a complex phenomenon that will probably take
years of study. "If we can establish as an anthropological fact,"
says Steindl-Rast, "that what is described in the resurrection of
Jesus has not only happened to others, but is happening today, it
would put our view of human potential in a completely different
Recent Rainbow Body Experiences
Through his Swiss contact, Tiso received the name of the monk whose
body had vanished after his death: Khenpo A-chos, a Gelugpa monk of
Khams, Tibet, who died in 1998. Tiso was able to locate the village,
situated in a remote area where Khenpo A-chos had his hermitage. He
then went to the village and conducted taped interviews with
eyewitnesses to Khenpo A-chos' death. He also spoke to many people
who had known him.
"This was a very interesting man, aside from the way he died,"
observes Tiso. "Everyone mentioned his faithfulness to his vows, his
purity of life, and how he often spoke of the importance of
cultivating compassion. He had the ability to teach even the roughest
and toughest of types how to be a little more gentle, a little more
mindful. To be in the man's presence changed people."
Tiso interviewed Lama Norta, a nephew of Khenpo A-chos; Lama Sonam
Gyamtso, a young disciple; and Lama A-chos, a dharma friend of the
late Khenpo A-chos. They described the following:
A few days before Khenpo A-chos died, a rainbow appeared directly
above his hut. After he died, there were dozens of rainbows in the
sky. Khenpo A-chos died lying on his right side. He wasn't sick;
there appeared to be nothing wrong with him, and he was reciting the
mantra "Om mani padme hum" over and over. According to the
eyewitnesses, after his breath stopped his flesh became kind of
pinkish. One person said it turned brilliant white. All said it
started to shine.
Lama A-chos suggested wrapping his friend's body in a yellow robe,
the type all Gelug monks wear. As the days passed, they maintained
they could see, through the robe, that his bones and his body were
shrinking. They also heard beautiful, mysterious music coming from
the sky, and they smelled perfume.
After seven days, they removed the yellow cloth, and no body
remained. Lama Norta and a few other individuals claimed that after
his death Khenpo A-chos appeared to them in visions and dreams.
Other Rainbow Body Manifestations
Francis Tiso remarks that one of his most intriguing interviews was
with Lama A-chos. He told Tiso that when he died he, too, would
manifest the rainbow body. "He showed us two photographs taken of him
in the dark, and in these photographs his body radiated rays of
Because Lama A-chos emphasized that it was possible to manifest the
rainbow body while still alive, not just in death, Tiso plans to
return to Tibet with professional camera equipment to try to
photograph this radiating light.
Other incidents of metanormal occurrences upon death are also being
studied. For instance, two of Tiso's colleagues, were present for the postmortem process of Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, who died eight years ago. "This man was a very large-boned individual," says Tiso, "and it was reported that seven weeks after
his death the flesh was reduced. That could have been done by chemical substances. However, the bones also shrank."
Shrinkage of the body occurred with another guru, Lama Thubten. His
miniature-sized frame is now kept in a monastery in Manali, India.
Tiso has ascertained that incidents of bodies shrinking or
disappearing shortly after death were documented centuries ago, such
as in the classic story of Milarepa, a Buddhist saint from Tibet who
lived in the eleventh century. Milarepa's biography was translated
into French by Jacques Bacot in 1912, and into English by Walter
Evans-Wentz in the 1920s.
"In the ninth chapter of this literary classic," explains Tiso, who
wrote a dissertation about the Buddhist saint, "it states that his
body completely disappeared shortly after his death."
Even the earliest biographies of Milarepa, says Tiso, attest to this
phenomenon. In addition, accounts exist about the great eighth-
century tantric master Padmasambhava and how his body vanished.
The Significance of Practice and Culture
When conducting this type of research, says Tiso, it is important not
only to interview as many people as possible, but also to study
biographies and any written explanations of these events. When he
arrived in Tibet to investigate the death of Khenpo A-chos, Tiso was
fortunate enough to obtain the bulk of his biography by Sonam
Phuntsok within an hour of his arrival.
What is at stake, explains Tiso, is not simply verification of a
phenomenon, but understanding the values, spiritual practices, and
culture in which this phenomenon is embedded. "We need to examine
these institutions and practices in a new light in order to recover
for humanity some very profound truths about the expansion of the
human consciousness and our potential as human beings."
This opportunity is present in the Nyarong region in Tibet, where
several incidences of the rainbow body are said to have occurred. The
research team is now studying their way of life, especially their
spiritual practices. Tiso has also obtained copies of spiritual
retreat manuals, which have been particularly helpful.
Lama A-chos told Tiso that it takes sixty years of intensive practice
to achieve the rainbow body. "Whether it always takes that long, I
don't know," acknowledges Tiso, "but we would like to be able to
incorporate, in a respectful way, some of these practices into our
own Western philosophical and religious traditions."
At the same time, continues Tiso, the research team plans to expand
the scope of this research beyond the confines of the Tibetan
culture, so they can compare the rainbow body phenomenon with the
resurrection of Jesus Christ. To our knowledge, says Tiso, the bodies
of most Christian saints did not disappear or shrink after their
deaths. "Highly realized saints in Catholic and Orthodox Christianity
tend to move in the direction of incorruption, so that the body does
not decay after death."
However, he adds, bodily ascensions are mentioned in the bible and
other traditional texts for Enoch, Mary, Elijah, and possibly Moses.
And there are numerous stories of saints materializing after their
death, similar to the widespread phenomenon known as the "light-
"In my church of Saints Cosmas and Damian in Italy, we have a large
number of accounts, going back centuries, that indicate that these
saints appeared in dreams and visions, rescued people from harm, and
cured them of diseases. Even today, people still tell me they have
these visions," says Tiso.
In 1984, when Tiso was meditating with his eyes open in a chapel in
Italy, he, too, had an extraordinary vision. Jesus Christ, he says,
appeared before him in the form of a violet light-body. At that time,
Tiso was considering taking a teaching position in the United States,
but in this vision Christ indicated he should stay in Italy. "It was
important not to make a mistake at that point in my life," reflects
Tiso. "I did stay in Italy, where I was eventually ordained, and I
lived in a hermitage chapel for almost twelve years."
Tiso has also had several Tibetan teachers appear to him in dreams.
When he gives public lectures he speaks frankly about these
experiences, because he feels it is important for people to
understand that they are more common than we think. "I think that as
people mature in their spiritual practice, they begin to have
This research is clearly controversial because it tackles the age-old
questions of life after death, the immortal soul, and reincarnation.
Furthermore, it suggests that the alleged resurrection of Jesus
Christ was not an isolated case, but shines as an example of what may
be possible for all human beings.
Both Tiso and Steindl-Rast emphasize that these experiences are said
to occur only in highly evolved individuals who are the embodiment of
compassion and love. They speculate these qualities conscience and
consciousness are a driving force of evolution. "It is my great hope
that the rainbow body research will make us more aware of this
possibility," says Steindl-Rast.
Tiso holds the opinion that in today's world, where consumerism,
exploitation, and economic injustice are still out of control, there
is an urgent need to reinforce the more loving, altruistic, and
spiritual dimensions of the human being.
As for the rainbow body, Tiso and his team hope to actually witness
and scientifically document the entire experience while it is
"What is important" says Schlitz, "is that we broaden our scope of
what we believe is possible. We want to discover if there are ways we
can begin to develop spiritual practices that, even though they might
not lead us to personally experience the rainbow body, could lead us
to some other manifestation of our highest potential."
Gail Bernice Holland is an associate editor of IONS Review, and
former editor of Connections. She is the author of A Call for
Connection: Solutions for Creating a Whole New Culture (New World
Library, 1998). Contact: email@example.com
I invite your comments on this blog regarding your thoughts, experiences and beliefs regarding this article. I welcome your input.