Documentary on Death in Tibet Explores Space Between Science and Belief

Sarah Jessup
December 13, 2022

On December 6 at Columbia’s School of the Arts Dodge Hall theater, 50 members of the Tibetan studies community showed up on a rainy night to watch a film about dying. Or not dying, as it turned out. The documentary follows the first ever scientific research into “tukdam” by renowned neuroscientist Richard Davidson’s team from the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, which juxtaposed meditators’ death stories and Tibetan understandings of the death process, including ideas about consciousness and the mind-body connection that are very different to those of mainstream science. The event was cohosted by the Modern Tibetan Studies Program and the School of the Arts at Columbia University.

In what Tibetans call “tukdam,” an experienced meditator can be dead–the brain is believed to be “dead,” unable to register sensory impressions– yet after entering this state, a person’s body will remain seated upright, with their skin remaining supple and bright, sometimes for up to three weeks before the body finally breaks down and the process of decomposition begins.

Unfolding in cinematic dialogue between scientific and Tibetan perspectives, the film unravels Western certainties about life and death, and shows how differently death can be construed in different cultural contexts. In this encounter between worlds, the scientists' methods and views are challenged by Tibetan beliefs, where death has been a central preoccupation for centuries.

The film was directed by Donagh Coleman, a PhD student at the University of California, Berkeley, who received the 2022 Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation Dissertation Fellowship in Buddhist Studies for this research project. Bill McGrath, assistant professor of Buddhist Studies from the Department of Religion at NYU, facilitated the discussion after the film.

Gray Tuttle, Leila Hadley Luce Assistant Professor of Modern Tibetan Studies in the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures, and Lauran Hartley, Director of the Modern Tibetan Studies Program at Columbia gave opening remarks.