Sokushinbutsu - The ancient Japanese monks mummified to death

Sokushinbutsu and the ancient Japanese monks that mummified themselves to death

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Over 1,000 years ago, a practice was pioneered by a Japanese priest named Kukai, which was intended to demonstrate the ultimate act of religious discipline and dedication – self-mummification. The practice, known as Sokushinbutsu, was a ritual observed over numerous years, which culminated in death and the complete preservation of the body. If successful, the monk was posthumously placed in a temple for others to see and honor.

Kukai (774 – 835 AD) was a Japanese monk, civil servant, scholar, poet, artist, and founder of an esoteric sect known as Shingon, which combined elements from Buddhism, Old Shinto, Taoism, and other religions. He and his followers practiced Shugendo, a philosophy based on achieving spiritual power through discipline and self-denial.  Towards the end of his life, Kukai went into a state of deep meditation and denied all food and water, eventually leading to his voluntary death. He was entombed on Mount Koya in Wakayama prefecture. Some time later, the tomb was opened and Kukai, known posthumously as Kobo-Daishi, was supposedly found as if sleeping, his complexion unchanged and his hair healthy and strong.

Kukai meditating to his death on Mount Koya

Kukai meditating to his death on Mount Koya ( smallbrushfetish)

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

A Shindon monk who achieved self-mummification ( wikia)

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

Shinnyokai Shonin of the Dainichi-Boo Temple on the holy Mount Yudono ( Atlas Obscura )

Featured image: The body of Shinnyokai Shonin, found in Oaminaka, Japan. He had practiced self-mummification. Photo Credit: Ken Jeremiah

References:

Japan's Self-Mummified Monks Age Gracefully – Huffington Post. Available from: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/atlas-obscura/japans-selfmummified-monk_b_1025733.html

Sokushinbutsu: Self-mummification In Shingon Buddhism – IntrovertJapan.com. Available from: http://introvertjapan.com/2013/11/03/sokushinbutsu-the-self-mummification-of-shigon-buddhism/

Sokushinbutsu: Mummifying Yourself While You’re Still Alive – Tofugu.com. Available from: http://www.tofugu.com/2011/08/18/sokushinbutsu-self-mummifying-buddhism/

Sokushinbutsu – Wikia. Available from: http://it.creepypasta.wikia.com/wiki/Sokushinbutsu

The Gruesome and Excruciating Practice of Mummifying Your Own Body – io9. Available from: http://io9.com/the-gruesome-and-excruciating-practice-of-mummifying-yo-1515905564

Comments

This is mental. The endurance and ascetism needed for this is completely incomprehensible. I feel a great deal of respect for these men but I don't pretend to understand them. It is both a testimony to the strength humans have and the surely strange motivations we garner too. What have I really learned from this practice though? I'm not quite sure. I'm not sure at all. 

This makes my skin crawl.

 

I have been thinking about it all day.

Of course it demonstrates the srength of mental power , but why? Of all things they could have with so much willpower, his is what they choose.?

For fame?? These monks who are supposed to be humble.  Nay I don't think so..

I think I'll never forget this.

 

Sunny Young

I second this motion!

I am sorry to say but IMO this is pointless, if existence(life) only served to achieve the most painful death, why bother at all? Whatever is the purpose of Life I can't imagine it being something like this.

I think this is an example of a philosophy going Amok, which is the case with any Religion, anything which involves belief ends up in a Dead End often quite literally.

There is no proof of Nirvana, Heathen, Hell, Reincarnation(although probably much more than the rest), etc.

And what exactly is "Enlightenment" ? And why bother with it in the first place? Yes, knowledge, wisdom, intuition are all noble virtues but this "enlightenment" what does it do you can't get anywhere else? Seems to me to be just another gimmick (like Heathen) to con you into doing stuff you would otherwise not want to do, like self immolate or self mummification.

I don't think you can "buy" your way into Heaven or Nirvana or to Enlightenment, with "buy" I mean working overtime on achieving it, torturing your self, killing your self, zealously observing rituals, performing any specific tasks solely designed to get you there etc.

Live your Life! The Journey is more important than the End. How you die, as long as it "just happens", is of no consequence to your afterlife if such a thing exists, you are far more likely to "mess it up" by trying too hard like those guys.

These monks were trying to reach the highest forms of Enlightenment by denying themselves everything of the "Real" world. By eliminating food, water, the only left would be the mind and spirit. Since those two are housed in the body, their non-decaying state shows that they have reached full Enlightment and no longer affected by outside forces. They never considered it suicide because they really haven't died, they've transcended. Technically, any monk who attempted to do this to become famous would fail since they were still holding onto the trappings of the material world.

Don't forget similar ascetic practices are found in the stories of the western Catholic saints. In Eastern philosophies there are many, many paths that one could take to reach Enlightment. Everything from the techniques practiced by these Shingon monks, the altruist Shakyamuni warrior monks, and even to sexual Tantric practices. Any of these school and the hundreds of other schools of thought if done properly will take a person to buddha-hood. To a Buddhist, this is a proper reflection of how varied reality can be.

Does anyone know why the chap in the middle is rocking out his eternity in a fetching pair of shades? My best guess is that when you see other spontaneously mummified corpses, the eyes tend to end up a bit gooey... Sorry for that image! The article was great and the comment above very insightful (thank you, Mr Strauss), by the way.

imo , to partake in the elements and become energy for non human life sources would be the ultimate consideration of life . Ending in preservation of vessel is not natural , I don't think , for our life form I am thinking . Harmony is denial of self , but to render uselessness for nonhuman energy strikes me as not the ultimate destination.

They were doing this in India a lot longer ago than 1000 years.

The middle guy looks like a ghoul from Fallout 3

Imagine a life so useless and empty that all the adherents have to do is mummify themselves while those around them actively seek guidance to God? No help here...Oh well !

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