Between 1081 and 1903, roughly 20 surviving Shingon monks succeeded in sokushinbutsu, or becoming “a Buddha in this body,” by mummifying themselves.
The monks sought to dehydrate the body from the inside out, removing fat, muscle, and fluids before being buried in a pine box to meditate during their final days on Earth, using a rigorous diet foraged from the neighboring Mountains of Dewa, Japan.
Mummification in Different Parts of the World
While this ritual may appear to be unique to Japanese monks, mummification has been practiced by numerous cultures. Many religions around the world accept an imperishable corpse as a signal of unique capacity to connect with a force that transcends the physical plane, as Ken Jeremiah explains in his book Living Buddhas: the Self-Mummified Monks of Yamagata, Japan.
While the Japanese Shingon monks of Yamagata are not the only religious sect to practice mummification, they are among the most well-known, as several of its practitioners have successfully mummified themselves while still living.
Monks on the path of sokushinbutsu thought that by doing this sacrificial act in emulation of a ninth-century monk named Kükai, they would gain admission to Tusita Heaven, where they would live for 1.6 million years and be granted the ability to protect humankind on Earth.
They went on a path as committed as it was difficult, mummifying themselves from the inside-out to prevent decomposition after death, needing their physical bodies to follow their spiritual selves in Tusita. The process takes at least three years to complete, with the method developed over generations and tailored to the humid atmosphere that is often inappropriate for mummification.
Ways to Transform Into a Mummy
The objective of this severe diet was twofold. First, it began the biological preparation for mummification by removing all fat and muscle from the body. It also prevented future degradation by denying crucial nutrition and moisture to the body’s naturally occurring microorganisms. On a more spiritual level, the monk’s morale would be “hardened” by the extended, lonely food searches, punishing him and fostering reflection.
This diet lasted 1,000 days on average, though some monks would repeat it two or three times to better prepare for the next phase of sokushinbutsu. Monks may have added a tea produced from urushi, the sap of the Chinese lacquer tree, to initiate the embalming process, as it would render their bodies toxic to bug invaders after death.
The monks would continue their meditation practice while without consuming anything more than a small amount of salinized water. As death approached, devotees would be placed in a small, confined wood box, which fellow votaries would lower into the ground about ten feet below the surface.
Monks covered the coffin with charcoal and left the buried monk a little bell to notify others that he was still alive, equipped with a bamboo rod as an airway for breathing. The buried monk would meditate in complete darkness for days and strike the bell.
Above-ground monks concluded the underground monk had perished when the ringing ceased. They would then seal the tomb and leave the body to lie for 1,000 days.
Followers would examine the body for indications of decomposition after excavating the coffin. Monks would wrap the bodies in robes and set them in a temple for worship if the bodies remained intact, believing that the deceased had reached sokushinbutsu. Monks buried people who were displaying signs of deterioration in a simple manner.
Sokushinbutsu: The Art of Dying
No one practices sokushinbutsu anymore, as the Meiji government outlawed the practice in 1877, calling it outdated and depraved.
The last monk to succumb to sokushinbutsu did so in an unauthorized manner, dying in 1903.
Bukkai was his name, and in 1961, Tohoku University archaeologists exhumed his remains, which are currently buried in Kanzeonji, a seventh-century Buddhist monastery in southwest Japan. The majority of Japan’s 16 sokushinbutsu are found in the Yamagata prefecture’s Mt. Yudono region.
- Aaron Lowe (2005). “Shingon Priests and Self-Mummification” (PDF). Agora Journal. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2013-08-29. Retrieved 2012-12-14.
- Sokushinbutsu”: Japan’s Buddhist Mummies”. 26 January 2022.
- Tullio Federico Lobetti (2013). Ascetic Practices in Japanese Religion. Routledge. pp. 130–136. ISBN978-1-134-47273-4.