Episode 11: Sokushinbutsu and the Mummification Method Not Often Discussed
Ii-wey! Natural or intentional is usually what comes to mind when discussing the process of mummification. Certain environments, deserts, high altitudes or arid cold for example, will naturally dry the deceased, arresting the process of decay as a result. Intentional mummification requires human intervention after a person has died and most often, the Egyptian mummies come to mind. However, there is a third process that is not as well known.
Sokushinbutsu is a Japanese term that refers to a Buddhist mummy that remained incorrupt, or without decay after death. From about the 7th century through the end of the Edo period (1603 – 1868) in Japan, a monk sought enlightenment by committing to a strict regime that took anywhere from 3,000 days to about ten years. Aaron Lowe explains in his essay “Shingon Priests and Self-Mummification” that the process was broken down into three phases of 1,000 days in which “each period is characterized by physical and mental changes caused by phase-specific austerities and excruciating pain. The process is not some mystic secret, but rather a calculated scientific means for ridding the body of material that cannot cross over into nirvana.” In the first phase, the monk would be restricted to eating pine needles, resins and seeds.
In the second phase, the monk’s body fat would be almost zero. The amount of food would be decreased and as the monk neared the end of the phase, tea made from the urushi tree sap would be introduced into the monk’s restricted diet. The tea is poisonous but “its build up in the system prevents insects from speeding up the decomposition process.” Also, because the sap is a lacquer substance, the consumption coats the inside of the monk’s organs.
In the last 1,000 days, the monk would be given a bell and sealed into their tomb. A small opening in the upper part of the tomb seal would remain where a small tube would provide air. Throughout, the monk would chant a Buddhist mantra and each day would ring the bell, indicating they were still alive. When the bell was no longer heard, the tube was removed the tomb completely sealed up. After 3,000 days (which is just over eight years), the tomb would be opened and the body removed and examined. Monks that were successfully preserved were revered, not unlike the incorrupt saints in the Christian faith.
For centuries, this practice was considered a path to enlightenment and it is believed that many hundreds of monks put themselves through this process. It is difficult to know how many monks were successful in their path; only a couple of dozens of successfully mummified monks have been found. For those who engaged in this practice, they did not associate their actions as an act of suicide; it was a religious journey in which they would one day wake to assist Maitreya to save humankind. Japan banned this practice in 1879.
This process is believed to be rooted in an earlier Taoist preparation of self-mummification. This practice was not limited to Japanese Buddhists; this tradition can be traced to China and India (Himalayan region) as well. While it was a grueling and painful process, it was one that they freely endured; they were willing to sacrifice their life, in the belief that someday they would help humankind.
Image found via Google search and credited to the website: tsuruokakanko.com.