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 practitioners 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 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, customarily 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 breathe 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 thousand days, the tomb was opened to see if the body had been successfully mummified. Those few who had 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
- Ryusui-ji Dainichibou Temple (瀧水寺大日坊) in Tsuruoka City, Yamagata
Prefecture, where the body of Daijuku Bosatsu Shinnyokai-Shonin (1687-1783), who after a life of asceticism turned into a “Living Buddha” at the age of 96 after 42 days of fasting, can be seen.
- Nangaku-ji Temple (南岳寺) in Tsuruoka.
- Kaikou-ji temple (海向寺, Jisan Shingon sect) in Sakata City, Yamagata Prefecture.
- Zoukou-in temple (蔵高院, Zen Soutou sect) in Shirataka City, Yamagata Prefecture
Shinnyokai-shōnin, the sokushinbutsu of Dainichibō (Yamagata Pref.; photo credit)
Daijuku Bosatsu Shinnyokai-Shōnin (真如海上人)