There have been at least 17 Buddhist monks from the Shingon sect who managed to mummify themselves between 1081 and 1903. The number might be even higher, as many of the mummies were never uncovered from the alpine tombs.
The climate in Japan is not the best for mummification, as there no peat bogs, no alpine peaks perennially encased in ice, also summer is hot and humid, however these facts didn’t stop the monks from finding the way to mummify themselves with help of rigorous ascetic training in the shadowy peak in the mountainous northern prefecture of Yamagata.
The monks used the practice in emulation of a ninth-century monk named Kukai or Kobo Daishi, the founder of the esoteric Shingon school of Buddhism in 806. But in 11th century a hagiography of Kukai claimed that the monk didn’t actually die in 835 but crawled into his tomb and entered a special state of meditation – nyūjō, it is so profound that induces suspended animation. According to this hagiography, the monk plans to come back to life in 5.67 million years.
The first attempt to become an alive mummy, a sokushinbutsu, or “a Buddha in this very body,” was performed in 11th century. A man named Shōjin tried to follow Kūkai into the meditation state by burying himself alive. He also hoped to come back to life, when Shōjin’s disciples went to retrieve his body, rot had set in. Since that time two more centuries full of trials and errors have passed before someone figured out how to mummify himself.
The whole process of mummification is long and takes around three years of preparation before death. The key element in the preparation is a diet called mokujikigyō , which literally means “tree -eating training”. For thousands of days this kind of diet limits the practitioners to eat only what can be found in the mountains, like buds, roots and nuts. According to some sources, berries have also become a part of the diet as well as tree barks and pine needles. Besides the diet practitioners spent a lot of time meditating.
If you look at the spiritual side, such a regime was intended to toughen the spirit and put a person far from the usual human world. From the biological point, such a strict diet removed the fat from the body and moisture, while at the same time withholding nutrients from the body’s natural biosphere of bacteria and parasites . This could prevent the body from decomposition after death. The whole cycle of preparation takes thousand days, and once accomplished practitioners believed to be ready to enter nyūjō. But in reality monks did two or even three such cycles to totally prepare themselves. After the final cycle, they totally cut out the food, drank a limited amount of water for hundred days and meditated while waiting to die.
Many believe that some practitioners used to drink a special tea from Toxicodendron vernaculum tree bark . The tree has such a name cause it was used to make traditional Japanese lacquer, urushi. The barks contain a toxic compound, and if the monks really drank it, the tea would both hastened the death and made body less hospitable to the bacteria which lead to decomposition.
Once the devout felt the upcoming death, his disciples would put him into a pine box three meters deep in a predetermined spot. Afterwards they would pack charcoal around the box, put the bamboo airway through the lid and bury their master alive. The monk, sitting and continuously meditating would regularly ring a bell letting the rest know he is still alive. Once the bell ceased, the disciples would open the tomb and confirm the death, remove the bamboo airway and seal the tomb.
Thousand days later the monk would be investigated for the signs of decay. If the signs were found, his body would be exorcised and re-interred with a little fanfare. If no, then the body would be a true sokushinbutsu and enshrined.
The last person who became a sokushinbutsu did it illegally. The monk – Bukkai died in 1903 and three decades after the ritual act was criminalized during the Meiji Restoration, as the new government deemed it barbaric.
The best preserved mummified monk can be found at Dainichibō. His name is Shinnyokai and he entered meditation state in 1783 at the age of 96. Like the rest he sits in the lotus pose behind the glass in the box within the temple that looks after him. The Shinnyokai’s robes are changed every six years. The old ones are cut into small pieces and you can buy them as a protective amulet.
The other sokushinbutsu, Tetsumonkai, rests near Churenji, who entered the state in 1982 and his life is the best documented. He once served as a head priest at Honmyoji, where he also looked after another sokushinbutsu Honmyōkai, the oldest self mummified monk in Yamagata. He was buried alive in 1681, May 8.These three monks are so far the closest to Mt. Yudono and the sites of their respective training. Dainichibō and Churenji are being displayed even for tourists.
featured image: Will Scullin @ Flickr CC BY 2.0