Wednesday, August 3, 2011

✈Worldwide Wednesdays: Sokushinbutsu - The Self-mummification of Buddhist Monks

Where shall we travel to today?....

Sokushinbutsu, JAPAN
Sokushinbutsu (即身仏) were Buddhist monks or priests who caused their own deaths in a way that resulted in their mummification. This practice reportedly took place almost exclusively in northern Japan around the Yamagata Prefecture. It is believed that many hundreds of monks tried, but only between 16 and 24 such mummifications have been discovered to date. The practice is not advocated or practised today by any Buddhist sect.

This is juku Bosatsu Shinnyokai Shonin
 who died in 1783
Pic by barista
For 1,000 days (a little less than three years) the priests would eat a special diet consisting only of nuts and seeds, while taking part in a regimen of rigorous physical activity that stripped them of their body fat. They then ate only bark and roots for another thousand days and began drinking a poisonous tea made from the sap of the Urushi tree, normally used to lacquer bowls.

This caused vomiting and a rapid loss of bodily fluids, and most importantly, it made the body too poisonous to be eaten by maggots. Finally, a self-mummifying monk would lock himself in a stone tomb barely larger than his body, where he would not move from the lotus position. His only connection to the outside world was an air tube and a bell. Each day he rang a bell to let those outside know that he was still alive.

When the bell stopped ringing, the tube was removed and the tomb sealed. After the tomb was sealed, the other monks in the temple would wait another 1,000 days, and open the tomb to see if the mummification was successful.

While foreigners might think Sokushinbutsu monks had to be mad to go through such a long and painful process just to eventually kill themselves, they were actually raised to the status of Buddha and revered in Shingon temples across northern Japan. To them, this reward was more than enough.

If the monk had been successfully mummified, they were immediately seen as a Buddha and put in the temple for viewing. Usually, though, there was just a decomposed body. Although they were not viewed as a true Buddha if they were not mummified, they were still admired and revered for their dedication and spirit.

As to the origin of this practice, there is a common suggestion that Shingon school founder Kukai brought this practice from Tang China as part of secret tantric practices he learned, and that were later lost in China.

The practice was satirized in the story "The Destiny That Spanned Two Lifetimes" by Ueda Akinari, in which such a monk was found centuries later and resuscitated. The story appears in the collection Harusame Monogatari.

Pic credit

Pic credit

Until it was outlawed, in the late 18th century, it is believed hundreds of monks attempted to become Sokushinbutsu, but many of them failed.  As mentioned earlier, only between 16 and 24 Sokushinbutsu mummies have been discovered in Japan. The most famous is Shinnyokai Shonin of the Dainichi-Boo Temple on the holy Mount Yudono. The majority of the monks who underwent self-mummification did so near this temple. It has been shown that a local spring had high levels of arsenic, and this may have helped the monks in the mummification process. Others can be found in more banal locations such as in Nangakuji Temple, in the suburbs of Tsuruoka, and at Kaikokuji Temple in the small city of Sakata.

Although this practice has been illegal for sometime now, a new Sokushinbutsu was discovered in July 2010, right in Tokyo.


1 comment:

  1. This is an interesting topic. I read a couple articles about it, and I recently read the only book in English on the subject called "Living Buddhas: The Self-Mummified Monks of Yamagata, Japan" by Ken Jeremiah. It is definitely worth reading.


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