The Japanese Monks Who Mummified Themselves While Still Alive

The Japanese Monks Who Mummified Themselves While Still Alive

The Japanese Monks Who Mummified Themselves While Still Alive

A practice was pioneered over 1,000 years ago by a Japanese priest named Kukai, which was meant to demonstrate the ultimate act of religious devotion and dedication – self-mummification. 

The practice, called Sokushinbutsu, was observed over many years as a ritual which culminated in death and the complete preservation of the body. The monk was placed posthumously in a temple for other to see and honor.

Kukai (774 – 835 AD) was a Japanese monk, civil servant, philosopher, poet artist, and founder of an esoteric sect named Shingon, who combined elements from Buddhism, Old Shinto, Taoism and other religions.

He and his followers practiced Shugendo, a philosophy based on the achievement of spiritual power through discipline and self-denial. Towards the end of his life, Kukai entered a state of deep meditation and denied all food and water, eventually leading to his voluntary death.

Occasionally later the tomb was opened and Kukai, identified as Kobo-Daishi posthumously, was expected to be found to sleep, to have unchanging complexion and his hair strong and healthy. It is also claimed that the tomb was burned in Wakayama Prefecture.

Kukai meditating to his death on Mount Koya

Since that time, the process of sokushinbutsu developed and evolved, and the process of self-mummification came to be practiced by a number of dedicated followers of the Shingon sect. The practitioners of sokushinbutsu did not view this practice as an act of suicide, but rather as a form of further enlightenment.

In Living Buddhas: The Self-Mummified Monks of Yamagata, Japan , Ken Jeremiah points out that many religions have viewed the incorruptibility of the corpse as a sign of special grace or supernatural ability.

The process of self-mummification

The steps involved in mummifying one’s own body were extremely rigorous and painful. For the first 1,000 days, the monks ceased all food except nuts, seeds, fruits and berries and they engaged in extensive physical activity to strip themselves of all body fat.

For the next one thousand days, their diet was restricted to just bark and roots. Near the end of this period, they would drink poisonous tea made from the sap of the Urushi tree, which caused vomiting and a rapid loss of body fluids. It also acted as a preservative and killed off maggots and bacteria that would cause the body to decay after death.

In the final stage, after more than six years of torturous preparation, the monk would lock himself in a stone tomb barely larger than his body, where he would go into a state of meditation. He was seated in the lotus position, a position he would not move from until he died.

A small air tube provided oxygen to the tomb. Each day, the monk rang a bell to let the outside world know he was still alive. When the bell stopped ringing, the tube was removed and the tomb sealed for the final thousand day period of the ritual.

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.

A Shindon monk who achieved self-mummification

This ancient practice of self-mummification continued until the 19th century when it was outlawed by the Japanese government. Today, sokushinbutsu is not advocated or practiced by any Buddhist sect.

It is believed that many hundreds of monks attempted sokushinbutsu, but only 28 are known to have achieved mummification, many of whom can be visited 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 small city of Sakata.

Shinnyokai Shonin of the Dainichi-Boo Temple on the holy Mount Yudono

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