There are a great many religions of all types throughout the world with just as many ways for the faithful to show their devotion. These can be as simple as praying, or involve complex, intricate rituals and selfless sacrifice. Then there are the practices that to an outsider may seem truly bizarre, extreme, or even grotesque.
For members of the esoteric Shingon School of Buddhism, the true path to enlightenment involved gradually turning oneself into a mummy while still alive. The act of self-mummification was called sokushinbutsu, and was mainly practiced in Yamagata Prefecture in Northern Japan from the 11th century up to the late 19th century.
The Shingon School School of Buddhism is one of the few remaining esoteric branches of Buddhism, and is based on tantric teachings brought from China by the monk Kūkai, posthumously known as Kōbō-Daishi.
While the more well-known mummies of ancient Egypt were embalmed posthumously, sokushinbutsu was a long, arduous, and painful process, performed while the monk was still alive and fully conscious.
In order to attain the state of sokushinbutsu, monks went through a rite called nyūjō, which lasted one thousand days and involved several steps that were each more grueling than the last. If they were able to complete the rite successfully, they believed they would become a “Living Buddha,” and the resulting mummies were called “Living mummies.”
Prospective living mummies began with a demanding ascetic exercise program and lived solely on a meager diet of water, seeds and nuts that was specifically designed to rapidly and drastically burn away body fat. After that, the monks would endure a strict diet of roots and pine bark and start to drink a special tea called urushi for three years.
Urushi tea was made from the toxic sap of the Chinese lacquer tree, which was typically used to lacquer bowls and plates. The tea served two purposes. First, the toxins from the sap in the tea induced intense vomiting that expelled copious amounts of body fluids. This was a desired effect, and served to further dry out the body while keeping the subject alive. The second purpose was to repel maggots and other parasites upon the monk’s inevitable death, as well as to prevent decay of the body.
By the end of three years of this regimen, the prospective living mummy was more or less a walking skeleton, with practically no body fat. There was more to come, though. In the next stage of the rite, the monk would be entombed in a stone receptacle barely big enough to sit in, whereupon they were buried alive. The monk within the stone tomb would remain in the lotus position for the rest of his days and breathe through a tube. Each day, the buried monk would ring a bell once to signal that they were still alive. If a day passed when the monk failed to ring on schedule, it was seen to signify death, whereupon the tube was removed and the tomb subsequently sealed.
For another one thousand days, the tomb remained buried, after which it was exhumed and opened to see if the body had been successfully mummified. If it had, then the mummified monk was seen to have attained Buddhahood and their body was put on display and revered.
Though this may all seem like just a slow torturous suicide to outsiders, the monks of the sect did not see it as such. To them it was merely one way to reach enlightenment and show their resolve and devotion. The act of self-mummification signified to them the ultimate act of austerity and self-denial as it required an enormous amount of self-discipline and a total mastery of one’s self control and bodily sensations.
As a result, the lucky ones who successfully achieved the state of sokushinbutsu were highly admired and respected. A great many embarked on the painful road to self-mummification, but sadly most could not complete the rite. Some lacked the necessary self-control, willpower, and endurance to complete the process and gave up, while others simply did not properly mummify upon death. In these cases, the tomb would be opened and the body would be found to have decomposed. When this was the case, the monk would remain buried in the ground but still highly respected for having had the fortitude to carry the rite out until death.
Out of the many monks who started the process, only 24 truly successful “Living Buddhas” have been documented and only 16 are available for viewing. The most famous of these is perhaps one called Shinnyokai Shonin, of the Dainichi-Bu Temple on Mount Yudono. This temple was once a popular place to undergo the self-mummification procedure since the high levels of arsenic in the local spring are thought to have perhaps aided the process. Most of the living mummies found come from here.
Currently, the act of self-mummification is not advocated or practiced by any sect in Japan. Indeed, the rite was banned by the Meiji government in 1879, although it is believed that some covertly carried out the process into the 20th century.
It is amazing to think of the monumental willpower and self control the living mummies had to display to achieve this state. It is certainly inspiration for those who cannot even follow a simple diet.
These living mummies are lingering reminders of a mysterious ancient era. Looking into the desiccated face of one, it is hard to fathom just what must have been going through the monk’s mind in those last hours sitting in their underground tomb before their breathing tube was pulled and they were left to the cold earth. Did they embrace their decision in the end? Did they find the enlightenment they were seeking? We can only look and imagine as their inscrutable mummified faces stare back.
There they will remain with their secrets long after we leave, timeless and never changing, as the world goes on around them oblivious to the forgotten trials of ultimate devotion of Japan’s living mummies.