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Religion Sokushinbutsu: Japanese Mummies

  1. Sokushinbutsu (即身仏) refers to a practice of Buddhist monks observing austerity to the point of death and mummification. It is a process of self-mummification that was mainly practised in Yamagata Prefecture in Northern Japan by members of the esoteric Shingon (“True Word”) School of Buddhism.

    Shingon Buddhism (真言宗 shingon-shū) is one of Japan’s mainstream schools of Buddhism and one of the few remaining esoteric branches, based on the teachings of Kūkai (空海, posthumously known as Kōbō-Daishi 弘法大師, 774–835) who brought this practice from Tang China as part of secret tantric practices. The practioners of sokushinbutsu did not view this practice as an act of suicide, but rather as a form of further enlightenment.

    It appears that self-mummification was practised in Japan from the 11th century to at least the late 19th century. While Egyptian mummies were posthumously embalmed, Buddhist monks underwent a special rite known as nyūjō (入定) that would turn them into “Living Buddhas”: for one thousand days they would engage in strict ascetic exercise and live on a special diet consisting of water, seeds and nuts in order to shed body fat. For the next thousand days, they would feed on roots and pine bark and start to drink urushi tea (漆樹, made from the sap of the Chinese lacquer tree, Toxicodendron vernicifluum). The toxic sap, normally used to lacquer bowls and plates, served to repel maggots and other parasites and would later prevent decay of the body. In the next stage, the monks would be buried alive in a stone tomb barely big enough to allow them to sit in the lotus position. They were able to breath through a tube and would ring a bell once a day to signal their still being alive. Once they failed to ring, the tube was removed and the tomb sealed.

    After another one throusand days, the tomb was opened to see if the body had been successfully mummified. Those few who had actually succeeded had immediately attained buddha-hood and were put on display at their temples, while those, whose bodies were decomposed, remained entombed, nonetheless highly respected for their denial and endurance. So far, 24 “Living Buddhas” have been documented. The practice was banned by the Meiji government in 1879 as assisted suicide.

    Mummies are still on display at
    Video:



    Related links:
    Gallery:

    shinnyokai-shonin.jpg
    Shinnyokai-shōnin, the sokushinbutsu of Dainichibō (Yamagata Pref.; photo credit)

    daijuku-bosatsu.jpg
    Daijuku Bosatsu Shinnyokai-Shōnin (真如海上人)

Comments

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  1. Guest
    I have to give these men a lot of credit. Few people have that kind of willpower and bravery. No, I enjoy life to much to do this, but maybe at 96 I would try. But compared to what we consider brave these days, like dying in a war someone was conned or forced into, or being an overpaid cop dying on duty (about a 1000-1 against!) and so on, there is just no comparison. These monks are truly special.

    And who can really say..maybe they are still meditating in supreme enlightment..who’s to say what life really is? Is it just bodily functions like heartbeat and breath? Or something much more sublime? It’s a valid question.

    alan
  2. Guest
    I would think after the first 1,000 days they would be so weak that they would die before completing this rite. For one thousand days they would engage in strict ascetic exercise and live on a special diet consisting of water, seeds and nuts in order to shed body fat. For the next thousand days, they would feed on roots and pine bark and start to drink urushi tea (漆樹, made from the sap of the Chinese lacquer tree, Toxicodendron vernicifluum). The toxic sap, normally used to lacquer bowls and plates, served to repel maggots and other parasites and would later prevent decay of the body. They definitely showed complete dedication and perseverance. Most people cant make it to church once a year! lol

    Pemichel
    1. Guest
      People those days didn’t eat more than a few ounces of food a day anyway if that so it probably wasn’t that much of a diet change for some of those guys.

      Humans these days eat 10x-20x more food at each meal than a person actually needs if they just need to survive.

      nerb
    2. Guest
      nerb – Modern Buddhist monks in Japan and Korea eat around 1000 calories a day, about one dry cup of rice and a few vegetables or a little fruit, and some green tea maybe. That’s about 1/3 what regular people eat, but I’m seriously interested in the source of your statement of 10-20x. Where did you get that information? I’m not doubting you here, at all.

      I think the two reasons people need so much food nowadays is forebrain activity (which meditation quiets) and stress from modern life. If you ever visit a remote mountain temple, you immeditately feel yourself slowing down and your brain getting quieter. These are special places, and some of them are 1500+ years old.

      alan