Dying to Live Forever: The Reasons behind Self-Mummification
Sunada Tetsu (1768-1829) was arguably the most famous individual who successfully mummified himself. Early in life, he was not religiously inclined. He loved a prostitute in Akagawa, Tsuruoka’s pleasure quarters, and although the incident’s specifics are unclear, one day he fought two samurai over the girl. They drew their swords, and he killed them. To escape punishment, which would have been death, he fled to Churen Temple in Oaminaka.
The Life and Death of Sunada Tetsu
There, he embraced the Shugendo faith and became an ascetic. His austere training was an inspiration to other like-minded people, and they followed him. They toured Japan, repairing temples and building bridges, and they helped all they could.
An eye disease was blinding people in Edo (modern-day Tokyo), and Tetsu lacked the means to (secularly) help them. Praying for a cure, he cut out his own eye and threw it into the Sumida River. After years of continuous asceticism, he buried himself alive. He said:
“As long as I have a body, even if I work myself to the bone, I can still bring salvation to humankind. However, if I die, I cannot. To continue bringing salvation to humankind, I have to leave my body in this world and become a sokushinbutsu (one who has attained Buddhahood in the flesh).”
Tetsumonkai’s hand scroll. (Credit: Ken Jeremiah)
How Did Tetsumonkai Prepare for Self-Mummification?
Tetsumonkai, as others called him, engaged in a strange diet called mokujikigyo (tree-eating), which involved eliminating grains. Over the course of 3,000 days, he reduced the amount of food ingested so at the end, he would starve to death. He supplemented his meager intake with strange substances like pinesap, pine needles, butterburs, and bark, thinking that such items would help to preserve his body.
In 1829, when he was 62 years old, there was a banquet, and all of his friends and disciples gathered. He remarked that it was great to die surrounded by such great people. The next day, he stepped into a coffin in Churen’s main hall with a bell. It was sealed and then lowered into an earthen hole. A small bamboo tube provided oxygen, and he chanted and rang the bell until he died.
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Once his followers heard silence, they did something unusual; they pulled him out and dried his body with candle fires and incense. (Normally, such bodies were untreated.) Then, they reburied him for three years, after which they unearthed and redressed him before enshrining him in the main hall at Churen Temple.
Becoming Sokushinbutsu: Living Buddha
Since he had mummified, he was called sokushinbutsu: Living Buddha. It was thought that he had attained a state called nyujo, which was like suspended animation: neither alive nor dead. Many wanted to achieve this state of being, though less than 20 in Japan are considered to have been successful. The reasons behind such a desire are complex, and they connect to the Chinese Daoist pursuit of immortality, which influenced Ch’an (Zen) Buddhism and other faiths.
Some visitors sit in front of Tetsumonkai, Churen Temple, Japan. (Credit: Ken Jeremiah)
The early Chinese believed that the soul was composed of multiple parts (called hun and po), and after death, these parts dissipated, therefore never perpetuating the existence of the deceased. The only way to keep them together and thus continue (living) in a spiritual form was to leave the body intentionally, as a cicada leaves its husk, and intentionally exiting the body required awareness at the moment of death.
Some Ch’an monks died and then naturally mummified in a meditative posture, and it was believed that they had accomplished this feat. Many Chinese ideas entered Japan and were absorbed by the Shugendo tradition (which was itself assimilated into Shingon Buddhism).
The monks who chose to mummify themselves similarly believed that they must be mindful when the transition from life to death began. They thought of it like a dream. If you do not know you are dreaming, you are just swept up into your surroundings, but if you recognize that you are in a dream, you can consciously control your actions; you might even be able to affect the dream’s substantive nature. This is called lucid dreaming.
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The sokushinbutsu (self-mummified monks) viewed death similarly. To maintain awareness, and to keep their spiritual essence intact, they caused their own deaths. This explains one of their actions. A different idea justified their bodily preservation.
When people joined the Shugendo faith, they became issei gyonin, a term that means “one who is an ascetic for his or her entire life.” Adherents trained at a special place near Mt. Yudono called Senninzawa (literally, hermit’s mountain stream). Stone markers record their deeds. They mention those who secluded themselves on mountains for a thousand days, and others who fasted (from cereals) for three thousand.
Such individuals sometimes performed even more incredible austerities, like setting fire to their fingers, cutting off body parts, or torturing themselves in other ways. These practices, justified by an interpretation of Lotus Sutra passages, were thought to create merit: an energy source that infuses the physical body.
The Self-Mummified Monk Enmyokai (d. 1822). (Credit: Ken Jeremiah)
A similar idea exists in Catholic Christianity. Its clergy preserves the bodies of saints and venerables, believing that they are reservoirs of divine power. In early Christianity, the faithful slept near perceived holy bodies because they thought such proximity would facilitate their entrance into heaven. They also believed that miracles could occur by praying near holy corpses.
According to the self-mummified monks’ beliefs, merit is the energy within the body that could permit such miracles. They also believed that a correlation exists between the spirit and body. If the body is stressed, the spirit strengthens. Since this energy could benefit humankind, they embraced asceticism to increase spiritual strength.
However, they faced a conundrum. If they did not quit their bodies, they could not serve Maitreya, the Future Buddha, in the Tusita Heaven. But if their bodies were destroyed, the merit that infused them could not benefit others. For this reason, they adopted a diet that encouraged bodily preservation, and then buried themselves alive.
How Difficult was it to Perform Self-Mummification?
Self-mummification was a complicated process, and few who attempted it were successful. Many perished before their interments. Ishinkai (d. 1831) died before completing a 2,000-day cereal fast, and Zenkai (d. 1856) did not make it through 1,000 days.
The hand-scroll of a monk called Testusenkai, which commemorates a 2,000-day fast. (Credit: Ken Jeremiah)
Besides those who died, others changed their minds during the lengthy auto-mummification process. It is a difficult thing to plan one’s own death through years of self-imposed torture. Only truly unique individuals could have the dedication and focus needed to attain this incredible goal.
Of the many people who attempted the process, approximately 30 were successful. Seventeen of their bodies are extant, and ten are still enshrined in northern Japanese temples. They include Togashi Kichihyoei (1623-1681), a samurai retainer who became a priest and took the religious name Honmyokai, and the farmer Shindo Nizaemon (1688-1783), who became Shinnyokai.
Living Buddhas Assisting Humankind
Their bodies, along with others, are preserved. Some have flesh on their faces, torsos, and hands, while others are mostly skeletons. Even if one had successfully mummified, time eventually destroys. It keeps affecting bodily destruction, as everyone will one day return to dust.
Nevertheless, such monks are still seated in a meditative posture, dressed in priestly garments. They are considered living Buddhas, the equivalent of Saints, Bodhisattvas or Arhats, and according to locals, their spirits are still present, assisting humankind.
Top Image: The body of Shinnyokai Shonin, found in Oaminaka, Japan. He had practiced self-mummification. Credit: Ken Jeremiah
By Ken Jeremiah
Updated on April 16, 2021.
Hijikata, M. (1996). Nihon no Miira Butsu wo Tazunete. [Visiting Japanese Buddhist Mummies]. Tokyo: Shinbunsha.
Jeremiah, K. (2010). Living Buddhas: The Self-Mummified Monks of Yamagata, Japan. North Carolina: McFarland & Co., Inc.
Matsumoto, A. (2002). Nihon no Miira Butsu. [Japanese Buddhist Mummies]. Tokyo: Rokkō Shuppan.