Mysteries of the Mummified Monks

Kevin Mackoy
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Self-mummification, specifically the practice of Sokushinbutsu among Japanese Shugendō monks, presents a profound example of religious discipline and sacrifice. Shugendō, a syncretic form of Buddhism, incorporates elements from various religions, including animism, Shinto, and Taoism. The ultimate act of asceticism for these monks was to achieve self-mummification, a grueling process that symbolized reaching a state of enlightenment and was regarded as a path to becoming a living Buddha.

The self-mummification process was a painstaking ritual that lasted approximately nine years, divided into distinct phases, each requiring extreme self-discipline. Initially, the monks adopted a diet limited to nuts, seeds, fruits, and berries, combined with rigorous physical exercise. This phase aimed to eliminate all fat from the body, a crucial step for successful mummification. Subsequently, for another thousand days, the diet was further restricted to bark and roots, significantly reducing the monk’s body mass.

A critical component of the process involved the consumption of a special tea made from the sap of the Urushi tree. This tree’s sap contains Urushiol, the same substance found in poison oak and ivy, which is toxic and causes severe dehydration and vomiting. In addition to hastening the body’s dehydration, Urushiol acted as a preservative, playing a crucial role in the mummification process.

In the final stage, the emaciated monk would enter a stone tomb barely large enough to accommodate their body, sitting in the lotus position. This tomb included an air tube and a bell, which the monk rang daily to signal they were still alive. Once the monk passed, the air tube was removed, and the tomb was sealed for another thousand days. After this period, the tomb was opened to check if the mummification was successful. If so, the monk was revered as a Buddha.

This practice continued until the 19th century when it was outlawed by the Japanese government. Interestingly, archaeologists have recently discovered self-mummified monks, indicating that not all were removed from their tombs, possibly due to unsuccessful preservation. The most recent discovery was in 2010 in Tokyo. Today, about two dozen of these monks are displayed in Japan, serving as a testament to this extraordinary ritual.

Shugendō’s ban during the Meiji Restoration and its contemporary practice in Tendai and Shingon Buddhist sects highlight the enduring influence of this unique form of Buddhism. It is interesting to note that Buddhism, founded by Siddhārtha Gautama, born in what is now Nepal, has branched into various practices and beliefs, with Shugendō being a remarkable example of the lengths to which spiritual enlightenment was pursued.

The Ancient Art of Self-Mummification: Sokushinbutsu

Self-mummification, a practice known as Sokushinbutsu, was performed by the Shugendō monks in Japan until the 19th century. This method was an act of extreme asceticism, carried out over approximately nine years, with the monk remaining alive for the first six. The practice symbolized ultimate spiritual discipline, with the monks aiming to achieve enlightenment and Buddhahood through this process. Sokushinbutsu was outlawed by the Japanese government in the 19th century due to its severe nature.

Apart from deliberate mummification, nature has also created mummies. Cases like “Ötzi the Iceman” and the Chinchorro cadavers demonstrate spontaneous preservation in extremely cold or arid environments, respectively. These natural mummies provide invaluable insights into ancient cultures and environments, underscoring the diverse methods of body preservation.

The Painful Journey to Self-Mummification

The process of Sokushinbutsu was not only time-consuming but also intensely painful and physically demanding. It involved a stringent diet and dehydration to eliminate body fat and moisture, which are crucial for decomposition. The monks’ commitment to enduring this painful process was driven by their spiritual beliefs and the pursuit of eternal preservation.

The practitioners of Sokushinbutsu were Buddhist monks who followed the ascetic practices of Shugendō. These monks chose to mummify themselves alive, a unique practice in the history of mummification. Their mummified remains were often enshrined and venerated as embodiments of the monks’ spiritual journey and discipline.

Modern Instances of Mummification

While traditional mummification practices have largely ceased, modern instances still exist. Notable examples include the mummified body of Vladimir Lenin, preserved using contemporary techniques. Lenin’s mummified remains, displayed in Moscow, demonstrate the continued, albeit rare, practice of body preservation in modern times.

The Science Behind Natural Mummification

Natural mummification can occur under specific environmental conditions, such as extreme aridity or cold. The oldest-known Egyptian mummy, believed to have been naturally mummified around 3500 BC, exemplifies this process. The environmental conditions required for natural mummification highlight the delicate balance between humidity, temperature, and the preservation of human remains.

The traditional mummification process, as practiced in ancient Egypt, typically took around seventy days. This process involved detailed anatomical knowledge and ritualistic practices. The embalmers, often priests, played a crucial role in preparing the body for its journey to the afterlife, according to ancient Egyptian beliefs.

The Aroma of Mummies

An intriguing aspect of mummies is their distinct smell. Described as woodsy, sweet, with notes of pine, bitumen, beeswax, and even a citrusy hint of pistachio, the aroma of mummies offers a sensory glimpse into the materials used in the mummification process and the environmental conditions of their preservation.

Historical Timeline of Sokushinbutsu Practice

The practice of Sokushinbutsu dates back to the 11th century. Between 1081 and 1903, around 20 living Shingon monks are known to have successfully mummified themselves in an attempt at Sokushinbutsu, seeking to become “a Buddha in this body”​​.

Known Cases of Successful Self-Mummification

There are only between 16 and 28 known successful cases of self-mummification. Interestingly, only 16 of these mummified monks can currently be visited. These monks primarily belonged to the elderly sect of the Shingon Buddhist tradition​​.

Attempts vs. Successful Mummifications

While it is believed that many hundreds of monks attempted Sokushinbutsu, only 28 are known to have achieved successful mummification. These monks have been enshrined in various temples across Japan, with the most famous being Shinnyokai Shonin of the Dainichi-Boo Temple on Mount Yudono​​.

Surviving Mummies and Historical Records

Shinnyōkai Shōnin, who lived from 1688 to 1784, is one of the self-mummified Buddhas. Currently, twenty-one of these unique mummies still survive in Northern Japan, with an additional nine known from historical records​​.

Geographical Distribution of Sokushinbutsu

In total, Japan has 18 surviving Sokushinbutsu. A significant number of them, approximately a baker’s dozen, can be found in Japan’s northern Tohoku region, most being in or around Yamagata Prefecture. This concentration highlights the regional prevalence of this practice within the Buddhist community in Japan​​.

These statistics provide a glimpse into the rare and arduous practice of Sokushinbutsu, illustrating its historical significance and the dedication of the monks who undertook this extreme form of spiritual discipline.

The practice of Sokushinbutsu, as carried out by the Shugendō monks of Japan, stands as a testament to the extraordinary lengths of spiritual and physical discipline in Buddhist tradition. The few successfully mummified monks, revered as Buddhas, symbolize a profound commitment to religious beliefs and the pursuit of enlightenment. This ancient practice, while no longer in practice today, continues to fascinate and educate us about the historical depths of religious devotion and the human capacity for endurance.