Luang Phor Pian was a highly respected Buddhist monk, so he was afforded full burial honors when he died in December 2017. One of the rites involved exhuming his body so that it could be dressed in clean robes. But when devotees opened Pian’s coffin nine weeks after his death, they were astonished by what they saw.
Buddhism is central to the people of Thailand’s culture. Indeed, some 95 percent of Thais follow the Theravada school of Buddhism, which is the country’s official religion. Theravada Buddhism also has many followers in the neighboring countries of Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos.
Theravada Buddhism, which originated in Sri Lanka as long ago as 250 BC, is regarded as being a more conservative strand of the religion. Furthermore, if you visit Thailand, you’ll see evidence of the nation’s dedication to Theravada Buddhism all around you.
Throughout the country, you’ll come across small shrines at the roadside and in front of people’s homes. Meanwhile, elaborate temples dot the landscape, and shaven-headed monks can be seen pretty much everywhere. With their orange robes, the monks are instantly recognizable and provide a constant presence in the country.
In fact, every male Thai is expected to spend a period of time as a monk. In the Theravada orthodoxy, this should be around three months. However, many modern Thais only don their robes for a matter of weeks, and in some cases only a few days.
This cultural imperative to become a monk – even if only for a short while – explains why there are some 38,000 temples in Thailand. And at any one time, these play host to around 300,000 followers. This huge network of temples accounts for an annual turnover of donations of up to $3.6 billion.
Part of many Thais’ daily routine is the giving of alms to monks. In return, monks act as celebrants at important religious occasions such as funerals. They are also tasked with promoting the teachings of the Buddha.
Although most Thai men spend at least a few weeks living as monks, there are also those that dedicate themselves for a far longer period. This path starts in childhood when young boys become what’s known as samanera, a position akin to an apprentice or trainee.
Many Thais will go on to become monks after a year or two spent as samanera. Typically, they will spend perhaps two or three years in the role before returning to secular life. Those that elect to commit even further usually focus on one particular aspect of Buddhism, such as meditation.
Luang Phor Pian, the monk we met earlier, was born in Cambodia but rose to eminence as a monk in the Lopburi region of Thailand. Pian had been married and was a father to seven sons and two daughters.
Pian ordained as a monk late in life, at the age of 50, at a temple called Wat Khampaeng in the Ban Mi district of Lopburi. Then, following many years of faithful service, the holy man fell ill and was admitted to hospital in the Thai capital, Bangkok.
On November 16, 2017, Pian died in hospital. His body was subsequently taken to Wat Khampaeng and laid to rest in a coffin as Thai tradition dictates. But that wasn’t the end of the story. His followers and fellow monks were to witness an extraordinary phenomenon when Pian was removed from his coffin some weeks later in January 2018.
Pian was taken from his coffin as part of a funeral ritual that includes changing the deceased’s clothes and replacing them with fresh robes. This practice takes place during the 100 days that the body is kept before cremation is carried out at the temple.
In fact, Thai funerals can be quite elaborate affairs, surrounded by complex rituals. The first step after death is to bathe the body – before dressing it and laying it to rest. The body will then be displayed in its coffin and monks will perform a traditional chant called the Abhidhamma.
However, when Pian’s body was removed for re-dressing, it appeared to show no signs normally associated with decomposition. Indeed, reports suggested that the body resembled that of someone who had only been dead for 36 hours. And what’s more, Pian appeared, even in death, to be smiling. This was regarded as highly significant.
Many devout Buddhists believed that the fact that Pian’s body had not decomposed, and that he seemed to be smiling in death, was hugely important. It indicated that this pious Buddhist had reached the highest state of perfection known as Nirvana.
In Theravada Buddhism, Nirvana is achieved by the termination of what is known as the “kleshas.” These are the negative traits such as jealousy and anger that pollute a person’s body. When these have been banished, an individual such as Pian can free themselves from the endless cycle of death and rebirth.
There have actually been other cases of Buddhist monks who have died and subsequently displayed no signs of decomposition. A notable example of this phenomenon came in 2015 when the corpse of a monk was found in Mongolia. The body was found wrapped in cow hides and sitting in the lotus position.
Moreover, a doctor to the Dalai Lama, Barry Kerzin, said that despite appearances, the monk was not actually dead. Rather he was in a deep meditative state known as “tukdam.” Kerzin went on to explain, “If the meditator can continue to stay in this meditative state, he can become a Buddha.”
Of course, science finds it difficult to accept that a cadaver does not decompose, as in the case of Pian. Or that a mummified body is still actually alive, but in a deep meditative trance, as in the case of the Mongolian monk. But perhaps religion still holds some secrets that contemporary science has no explanations for.