“Sokushinbutsu”: the self-mummification ritual and the myth of non-death
Although the Japanese climate is not exactly conducive to mummification, somehow a group of Buddhist monks from the Shingon sect discovered a way to mummify themselves through rigorous ascetic training in the shadow of a particularly sacred peak in the mountainous northern prefecture of Yamagata.
If for Christians the death represents the moment of transition towards eternal life, which should be much better than the brief earthly existence, for Buddhists life and death chase each other in an eternal cycle of reincarnation, from which it is possible to go out only following the difficult road that leads to Nirvana.
Even if the concept changes according to the different Buddhist schools, Nirvana is freedom from desire, and therefore also from pain.
To reach Nirvana, between the 11th and 19th centuries, the monks of the Shingon school in Japan practiced sokushinbutsu, or becoming “a Buddha in this body”: a long and very painful path of purification that was to bring enlightenment, or reach the state of Buddha. Through a strict diet foraged from the nearby Mountains of Dewa, Japan, the monks worked to dehydrate the body from the inside out, ridding the self of fat, muscle, and moisture before being buried in a pine box to meditate through their last days on Earth.
Unlike those of ancient Egypt, which were prepared with a complicated post-mortem process, in the centuries between 1081 and 1903, several monks succeeded in the task of gradually transforming their bodies into a mummy.
This terrible practice was implemented to emulate a ninth-century monk named Kūkai, known posthumously as Kōbō Daishi, who founded the esoteric Shingon school of Buddhism in 806.
In the 11th century a hagiography of Kūkai appeared claiming that, upon his death in 835, the monk did not die at all, but crawled into his tomb and entered nyūjō, a state of meditation so profound that it induces suspended animation. According to this hagiography, Kūkai plans to emerge in approximately 5.67 million years to usher a predetermined number of souls into nirvana.
Over time, many monks attempted to become sokushinbutsu or “Buddha in his own body”.
This is because, as Ken Jeremiah writes in the book Living Buddhas: “the Self-Mummified Monks of Yamagata, Japan, many religions around the world recognize an imperishable corpse as a mark of exceptional ability to connect with a force which transcends the physical realm.”
The first recorded attempt at becoming a sokushinbutsu, or “a Buddha in this very body,” through the act of self-mummification took place in the late 11th century. In 1081, a man named Shōjin attempted to follow Kūkai into nyūjō by burying himself alive. He too was hoping to come back in a far distant future for the good of mankind, but when his disciples went to retrieve his body, he was already rotten. It would take nearly two more centuries of trial and error before someone figured out how to mummify himself.
Seeking redemption for the salvation of mankind, monks on a path toward sokushinbutsu believed this sacrificial act would grant them access to Tusita Heaven, where they would live for 1.6 million years and be blessed with the ability to protect humans on Earth.
Needing their physical bodies to accompany their spiritual selves in Tusita, they embarked on a journey as devoted as it was painful, mummifying themselves from the inside-out to prevent decomposition after death.
The process of self-mummification was long and arduous, and involved three phases. A thousand days of ever-increasing deprivation, which should not interfere with ritual meditation and the necessary physical exercise, spent following a diet based only on the consumption of water, nuts and seeds that could be harvested in the woods. In order to begin the self-mummification process, the monks would adopt a diet known as mokujikigyō, or “tree-eating.”
During the second phase, the monk had to feed only on bark, roots, and pine needles. A source also reports finding river rocks in the bellies of mummies. This diet so poor had the purpose to strengthen the spirit and at the same time to eliminate the fatty layers of the body and the liquids, cause of the decomposition after the death. Towards the end of the second cycle the intake of a toxic tea was foreseen, brewed of urushi, the sap of the Chinese lacquer tree. The Toxicodendron verniculum tree bark is a kind of sumac, the Japanese lacquer tree, called such because it is used to make traditional Japanese lacquer, urushi. Its bark contains the same toxic compound that makes poison ivy so poisonous. It caused a substantial loss of liquids through strong sweating and excessive diuresis, but not only: the larvae and worms that usually feed on corpses would not have liked the tissues contaminated by the toxin.
At this point not drinking anything more than a small amount of salinized water, the monks would continue with their meditation practice. After two thousand days (about 5 and a half years), when the body was reduced, not metaphorically, “skin and bones”, the third and final step began: the monk entered a small stone crypt, sufficient to accommodate him in the position of lotus. The temporary tomb was sealed, and only a bamboo cane allowed a minimum air exchange. In those extreme conditions, the monk continued to meditate, and made his confreres understand that he was still alive by ringing a bell. When no more noise was heard, the tomb was opened to ascertain the actual death of the monk and to remove the “air intake”.
For another thousand days the body remained closed in the temporary sepulcher, and then, finally, after unearthing the coffin, followers would inspect the body for signs of decay. If the bodies had stayed intact, monks believed that the deceased had reached sokushinbutsu, and would thus dress the bodies in robes and place them in a temple for worship.
If the corpse instead showed signs of decomposition, the disciples practiced a ritual exorcism, and then sealed the crypt again, where the monk would rest forever.
Even if the first attempt at sokushinbutsu took place in 1081 and ended in failure, since then, a hundred more monks have attempted to reach salvation by self-mummification, with only around two dozen succeeding in their mission.
The Meiji government criminalized the process in 1877, viewing it as anachronistic and depraved.
The last monk to die of sokushinbutsu did so illegally, in 1903. His name was Bukkai, and in 1961 researchers at Tohoku University would exhume his remains, which now rest in Kanzeonji, a seventh-century Buddhist temple in southwest Japan. It was almost intact.
The oldest and best preserved of these mummified monks can be found at Dainichibō. His name is Shinnyokai, his skin is an ashen grey, pulled taught over the bones of his hands, wrists, and face. His mouth is stretched into an eternal grin, his face turned towards his lap. Shinnyokai’s elaborate robes are ritually changed every six years and the old robes are cut into small squares and placed inside padded silk pouches that can be purchased for ¥1,000 as protective amulets.
Another sokushinbutsu, Tetsumonkai, resides at nearby Churenji and his life is perhaps the best documented. He was a commoner who killed a samurai and ran away to join the priesthood, an act that allowed him full legal protection. Later, he visited the capital city Edo, present-day Tokyo. There he heard about an ophthalmic disease afflicting the city and gouged out his own left eye as an act of merit that might counteract the malady. Incredibly, Tetsumonkai is one of several sokushinbutsu to auto-enucleate: remove one’s own eye as a charitable act.