Sokushinbutsu – The self-mummifying monks of ancient Japan      

When you see a well preserved mummy sitting in a lotus position probably the first though is: “ah those crazy Japanese! They made another gruesome horror film? Well although it is indeed crazy and gruesome it’s not a movie this time!

Sokushinbutsu is the name of a 1000 year old Japanese practice of devoted Buddhist monks in which they would undergo a long and strenuous ritual whose culmination would be the self-mummification of his body.

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It was started by Kukai (774 – 835 AD), a versatile Japanese scholar, artist and Buddhist monk, the founder of an esoteric sect known as Shingon, one of the major sects of Buddhism in Japan.

Sokushinbutsu was based on a practice that was a combination of Shintoism, ancient Japanese belief-system, Taoism and Buddhism, among others. Shugendo, as it was known, literally means “the path of training and testing” or “the way to spiritual power through discipline”. Monks believed that the ultimate goal was to achieve enlightenment by becoming one with the gods by understanding of the relationship between humanity and nature, centered on an ascetic, mountain-dwelling practice.

The basic premise of Buddhism is that the whole of the phenomenal world — everything you can see, hear, touch, experience — is just an illusion that prevents you from seeing what is really true; that you are part of a greater being that stands separate and beyond our phenomenal world. As long as you don’t see this, you will be continually reborn back into this world in an endless series of illusionary lives. So the goal of Buddhist priests is to separate themselves from this world enough that at death they become one with the greater being known as Buddha instead of being re-born into this world yet again.

What this adds up to is that some Buddhist sects — most notably the Shingon sect — attempt to train their priests to deny the importance of their physical selves through a variety of self-mortification, such as the classic example of sitting for hours under ice-cold waterfalls while meditating. Ideally, as a priest becomes more like Buddha, they will be far less concerned about themselves than others;

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One classic tale is the story of how Gautama (Buddha) chose to be reborn as a rabbit so that he could throw his body on a fire to feed a devotee that was starving. Personal life and death does not matter; but being kind to your fellow beings and guiding them towards self-realization of their greater connection to Buddha does.

Kukai, towards the end of his life, went into a state of deep meditation and denied all food and water, eventually leading to his voluntary death. He was entombed on Mount Koya in Wakayama prefecture. Years later, the tomb was opened and Kukai, known posthumously as Kobo-Daishi, was supposedly found as if sleeping, his complexion unchanged and his hair healthy and strong.

Since then his disciples and followers started practicing sokushinbutsu and further developed it. So how does one achieve self-mummification? In short: not easily!

There were three steps in the process of self-mummification that Kukai proposed, and the full rigorous process took upwards of ten years to lead to a successful mummification.

The first step is a change of diet. The priest would eat only nuts and seeds that could be found in the forests surrounding his temple; this diet had to be stuck to for a 1000 day period, a little under three years. During this time, the priest was to continue to subject himself to all sorts of physical hardship in his daily training. The results were that the body fat of the priest was reduced to nearly nothing, thus removing a section of the body that easily decomposes after death.

In the second stage, the diet became more restrictive. The priest was now only allowed to eat a small amount of bark and roots from pine trees. This had to be endured for another 1000 day period, by the end of which the priest looked like a living skeleton. This also decreased the overall moisture contained in the body; and the less fluid left in the body, the easier to preserve it.

Towards the end of this 1000 day period, the priest also had to start to drink a special tea made from the sap of the urushi tree. This sap is very poisonous for people and was used to make lacquer for bowls and furniture. Drinking this tea induced vomiting, sweating, and urination, further reducing the fluid content of the priest’s body. But even more importantly, the buildup of the poison in the priest’s body would kill any maggots or insects that tried to eat the priest’s remains after death, thus protecting it from yet another source of decay.

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The last step of the process was to be entombed alive in a stone room just big enough for a man to sit lotus style in for a final 1000 day period. As long as the priest could ring a bell each day a tube remained in place to supply air; but when the ringing finally stopped, the tube was removed and the tomb was sealed.

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At the end of this period, the tomb would be opened to see if the monk was successful in mummifying himself.  If the body was found in a preserved state, the monk was raised to the status of Buddha, his body was removed from the tomb and he was placed in a temple where he was worshiped and revered. If the body had decomposed, the monk was resealed in his tomb and respected for his endurance, but not worshiped.

Estimates of the number of self-mummified priests in Japan range between sixteen and twenty-four priests. Impressive though this number is, many more have tried to self-mummify themselves. The grand majority of priests who have tried to do this have failed; In fact, the practice of self-mummification — which is a form of suicide, after all – was outlawed by the Meiji government in the late 19th century.

Many of the successfully mummified monks could be visited as they are displayed in various temples in Japan. The most famous is Shinnyokai Shonin of the Dainichi-Boo Temple on the holy Mount Yudono. Others can be found in Nangakuji Temple, in the suburbs of Tsuruoka, and at Kaikokuji Temple in the city of Sakata.