“I’m not dead yet”: For centuries, some Buddhist monks followed self-mummification, which meant a rigorous diet followed by lying in a tomb, ringing a bell each day they were still alive

Stefan Andrews
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As Buddhism spread across Asian countries over the past centuries, various forms of Buddhist schools and teachings emerged as the religion came into contact with many local cultures. Some Buddhist monks observed that all life is sacred, and their school taught followers to move around the temple with the utmost caution, that they should not even by accident squash an ant or any other tiny insect. Other schools and teachings have, however, adopted fairly bizarre beliefs and practices, like learning how to self-mummify in order to achieve an advanced level of enlightenment. This did not produce your typical mummy such as those embalmed in ancient Egypt.

Self-mummifying was attempted, most notably in the Japanese Yamagata Prefecture in the north of the country, starting in the 11th century and lasting until the 19th century, when the Japanese government ruled this was a form of assisted suicide. But there were still devotees of the process who self-mummified, even after there was an active decree against that.

The obscure practice first saw the light of day thanks to a monk known as Kūkai, the founder of the Buddhist Shingon school during the early 9th century. This was an esoteric school, more or less. Two centuries after Kūkai died, his hagiography surfaced and said that he had not passed away but rather entombed himself in a special meditative state. Upon his reemergence, millions of years in the future, he would help others ascend into the state of nirvana, the hagiography reportedly claimed.

Yamagata Shingon monks are today counted among the ones who most frequently attempted to become living Buddhas, in their own flesh. The monks subjected themselves to severity before entering the meditative state in their tombs, where their lives ceased and some of them turned into mummies–Sokushinbutsu.

Luang Phor Daeng Payasilo, the mumified monk, at Wat Khunaram, Ko Samui, southern Thailand. Photo:Per Meistrup CC BY-SA 3.0

Before they were to self-mummify, there were steps to take and cycles to fulfill. For instance, in the beginning, each devotee followed a rigid raw diet to prepare the body for the process. The first special eating ritual lasted for a thousand days and was followed by another cycle of a thousand days, all designed to dehydrate the body and, more importantly, to eliminate all bacteria and maggots that feast in our remains as we decompose after death.

The Buddhist monks did not see this process as anything like suicide, rather they saw it as the pathway to ultimate enlightenment. If they were to achieve the Sokushinbutsu form after the preparation stages, if their corpse was found intact a thousand days after their death, this meant that the spiritual quest had been accomplished.

So, the preparation began with a limited diet in which monks were allowed only water, fruits, nuts, and seeds that were collected in the forests and mountains. Such a raw diet choice helped the body lose bulk and muscle. In the next phase of the preparation, they proceeded with consuming things like roots and bark from pine trees. A tea made from urushi, the toxic sap of lacquer tree, was also consumed.

The tea especially helped cleanse the body’s internal organs of any parasites, to prevent the disintegration of the corpse as the time approached. When the preparation process was completed, the monks placed themselves alive into their tombs, which merely had enough room to fit them sitting in the lotus pose. In the tombs, the monk had a tube that allowed them to breathe, plus a bell which they rang each day to notify the temple they are still not dead. As soon as ringing halted, it was assumed the devotee had passed. People opened the tomb, removed the air tube, and sealed the site for another thousand days.

After that, the graves were reopened and the monks were checked for signs of decay. Some sources claim there are about 24 “surviving” Living Buddhas, whose mummification process was confirmed a success. Others say there were many more but they were lost in the maze of time. If a mummy was found inside a tomb, it was taken out of it, dressed in lavish robes, and displayed in temples for worship. The rest of the monks whose remains had disintegrated were paid a more simple tribute; they were left entombed but were still praised for their endurance, resilience, and effort.

Sokushinbutsu (mummy) of Huineng, in Shaoguan, Guangdong, China.

Just a portion of the existing monk mummies can be seen in temples across Japan. And one of the most praised mummies of all is that of Shinnyokai-Shonin, who lived from 1687 until 1783. Shinnyokai subjected himself to becoming a Sokushinbutsu when he turned 96 and allegedly after 42 days of total abstinence. He rests in a lotus position and is situated in a separate shrine at the Dainichi-Boo Temple, a site associated with monks who pursued self-treatment. Shinnyokai is dressed in an embellished garment that is regularly changed during special rituals. His old garments are used to produce amulets that are then sold to visitors who come to the temple.

The last person to accomplish Sokushinbutsu did so after the government banned this form of brutal self-treatment in the latter years of the 19th century. It concerns a monk named Bukkai who died in 1903, and who, as he subjected himself to the enlightenment process, was called a madman by contemporaries. His remains were kept untouched until the early 1960s, when university researchers finally proceeded to inspect him, only to find them to be in an exceptionally well-preserved condition.

Related story from us: The Chinese Sleeping Beauty: analyzing the best-preserved mummy ever discovered, scientists know what she ate hours before her death

Today, Sokushinbutsu is a thing of the past, but the interest in seeing one has never ceased, and visitors flock to those temples storing a mummy. Besides Japan, cases, where priests have willingly subjected themselves to mummification, have been recorded in other countries such as China and India.