Sokushinbutsu (即身仏) refers to a practice of Buddhist monks observing austerity to the point of death and mummification. It is a process of self-mummification that was mainly practised in Yamagata Prefecture in Northern Japan by members of the esoteric Shingon (“True Word”) School of Buddhism.
Shingon Buddhism (真言宗 shingon-shū) is one of Japan’s mainstream schools of Buddhism and one of the few remaining esoteric branches, based on the teachings of Kūkai (空海, posthumously known as Kōbō-Daishi 弘法大師, 774–835) who brought this practice from Tang China as part of secret tantric practices. The practioners of sokushinbutsu did not view this practice as an act of suicide, but rather as a form of further enlightenment.
It appears that self-mummification was practised in Japan from the 11th century to at least the late 19th century. While Egyptian mummies were posthumously embalmed, Buddhist monks underwent a special rite known as nyūjō (入定) that would turn them into “Living Buddhas”: for one thousand days they would engage in strict ascetic exercise and live on a special diet consisting of water, seeds and nuts in order to shed body fat. For the next thousand days, they would feed on roots and pine bark and start to drink urushi tea（漆樹, made from the sap of the Chinese lacquer tree, Toxicodendron vernicifluum). The toxic sap, normally used to lacquer bowls and plates, served to repel maggots and other parasites and would later prevent decay of the body. In the next stage, the monks would be buried alive in a stone tomb barely big enough to allow them to sit in the lotus position. They were able to breathe through a tube and would ring a bell once a day to signal their still being alive. Once they failed to ring, the tube was removed and the tomb sealed.
After another one thousand days, the tomb was opened to see if the body had been successfully mummified. Those few who had actually succeeded had immediately attained Buddha-hood and were put on display at their temples, while those, whose bodies were decomposed, remained entombed, nonetheless highly respected for their denial and endurance. So far, 24 “Living Buddhas” have been documented.
The practice was banned by the Meiji government in 1879 as assisted suicide. Today, the practice is not advocated or practiced by any Buddhist sect, and is banned in Japan.
Mummies are still on display at
- Ryusui-ji Dainichibou Temple (瀧水寺大日坊) in Tsuruoka City, Yamagata. Prefecture, where the body of Daijuku Bosatsu Shinnyokai-Shonin (1687-1783), who after a life of asceticism turned into a “Living Buddha” at the age of 96 after 42 days of fasting, can be seen.
- Nangaku-ji Temple (南岳寺) in Tsuruoka.
- Kaikou-ji temple (海向寺, Jisan Shingon sect) in Sakata City, Yamagata Prefecture.
- Zoukou-in temple (蔵高院, Zen Soutou sect) in Shirataka City, Yamagata Prefecture.
Here is the Shingon-approved self-mummification process a few easy steps!
- For three years, eat nothing but nuts and berries. This caused monks to lose a lot of weight, keeping pesky fat off of the body for the mummification process.
- For the next three years, only eat bark and roots. Eating only these things removed a lot of moisture from the body, moisture that could cause the body to decay instead of mummify.
- Drink a special tea. By drinking tea made out of urushi tree, a substance which is poisonous and usually used to lacquer bowls. This made the body poisonous and made it harder for bacteria to eat away at the body.
- Bury yourself alive. Seal yourself in a giant stone tomb. The monks gave the mummy-to-be a bamboo pipe for air and a bell. The mummy-to-be rang the bell every day to let his fellow monks know that they were alive. When they didn’t hear the bell ring, they knew that the monk had died.
Mountains, Mummies, and Modern Art: Ascetic Practice in Yamagata Prefecture
For over a thousand years, Yamagata Prefecture, on the Sea of Japan side of the northern Tōhoku region, has drawn pilgrims and mystics to its mountains. As the native Shintō faith intertwined with imported Buddhism, Yamagata became the site for scores of shrines and temples, some of which remain to the present day.
Pilgrimage to the Three Holy Mountains
The holiest of all the sites in the region are the three sacred mountains of Dewa, or Dewa Sanzan (literally: “three mountains of Dewa”): Gassan, Haguro, and Yudono. These peaks boast what is thought to be Japan’s longest history of mountain worship, stretching all the way back to Prince Hachiko, a sixth-century royal who devoted his life to religion, establishing centers of worship on all three mountains.
The slopes of Mount Haguro, the lowest and most accessible of the three sacred peaks, are particularly rich in shrines, Jizō statues, and other religious iconography, along with a stunning five-story wooden pagoda built without nails in 1372, itself a reconstruction of a similar monument built over a thousand years ago. Historical figures like the great poet Matsuo Bashō and the twelfth century warrior monk Benkei are also said to have lingered on this hallowed ground.
After the area was visited in the late seventh century by their spiritual forebear En no Gyōja, the three Dewa peaks became a site of great importance to the yamabushi (literally, “those who lay in the mountains”), a sect of ascetic adherents of Shugendō, an ancient religion combining aspects of Shintō and Buddhism.
These mountain mystics, clad in white and saffron robes and bamboo skullcaps, revere the fearsome-looking divinity Fudō Myōō and devote themselves to the contemplation of nature and study of martial arts. In the village at the base of the mountain are numerous lodgings that still host these pilgrims, serving traditional vegan shōjin ryōri in the austere quarters of the often thatched-roofed buildings.
Self-Denial in Pursuit of the Inner Buddha
The monks from the area around nearby Mount Yudono became famous for an even more rigorous strain of asceticism, with rather macabre results.
The temple Dainichibō stands near a prehistoric cedar tree beneath which, according to Chief Abbot Endō Yūkaku, Mimorowake—son of the first century Emperor Keikō—is buried. The original temple is said to have been established in 825 by Kūkai, the pioneer of esoteric Buddhism. Among his many teachings, Kūkai espoused the concept of sokushin jōbutsu: that all living things carry within them the potential to attain Buddhahood.
Over the centuries, with this aim in mind, some devout followers attempted to mummify themselves prior to death through a punishing six-year regime. For three years they kept to a meager diet of nuts and berries while exercising relentlessly to eliminate body fat. This was followed by a further three years eating only bark and roots. In the final phase, they drank preparations made from the arsenic-laden water of a local spring and the lacquer-like sap of the urushi tree, eliminating intestinal bacteria and essentially varnishing their innards.
At the culmination of the process, a monk would enter a narrow stone pit and assume a position of prayer. This tomb was covered with a stone slab through which protruded a bamboo pipe to enable the subject to breathe. Each morning, if still alive, he rang a small bell. When the chimes finally ceased, the other priests would remove the pipe and seal the tomb, leaving it for a thousand days.
Frozen in Prayer for All Eternity
When the lid was opened, in most cases, the tomb contained a rotten corpse. But if everything had gone according to plan, there would be a perfectly preserved mummy, still in the lotus position. Thissokushinbutsu would be transferred to the temple, dressed in lavish vestments, and revered as a Buddha—one who had not died, but had rather entered a state of perpetual prayer for the benediction of mankind.
Along with an incredible collection of antique statues, some dating back to the Nara period (710–94), Dainichibō is home to the sokushinbutsu Shinnyokai-shōnin, a priest said to have achieved Buddhahood in 1786, at the age of 96. The nearby temple Chūrenji (also founded by Kūkai) also hosts a sokushinbutsu named Tetsumonkai-shōnin, as well as a series of sumptuous murals—some antique, some modern—decorating the ceilings of its many chambers.
In all there are some two dozen sokushinbutsu worshipped at temples throughout this region. Although monks attempting the feat became so numerous in the nineteenth century that the Meiji government outlawed the practice, Yamagata Prefecture remains the only place where successfulsokushinbutsu exist.
Living Buddhas: The Self-Mummified Monks of Yamagata, Japan: http://www.amazon.com/Living-Buddhas-Self-Mummified-Monks-Yamagata/dp/0786448806/ref=asap_bc?ie=UTF8
Sokushinbutsu of Dainichi Temple: The self-mummified monks of Japan http://www.atlasobscura.com/places/sokushinbutsu-dainichi-temple
The Japanese Art of Self-Preservation http://www.damninteresting.com/sokushinbutsu-the-ancient-buddhist-mummies-of-japan
The “Incorruptible” Hambo Lama Itigelov: http://www.skepticblog.org/2008/11/13/the-incorruptible-hambo-lama-itigelov/
Dying to Live Forever: The Reasons behind Self-Mummification http://www.ancient-origins.net/history/dying-live-forever-reasons-behind-self-mummification-003166
Asceticism and the Pursuit of Death by Warriors and Monks http://www.journalofasianmartialarts.com/product/asia/religious-philosophical/asceticism-and-the-pursuit-of-death-by-warriors-and-monks-detail-371
Buddhist mummies: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buddhist_mummies
Toxicodendron vernicifluum: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Toxicodendron_vernicifluum