Sokushinbutsu (Template:Linktext) were Buddhist monks or priests who caused their own deaths in a way that resulted in their mummification. This practice reportedly took place almost exclusively in northern Japan around the Yamagata Prefecture. It is believed that many hundreds of monks tried, but only between 16 and 24 such mummifications have been discovered to date. The practice is not advocated or practiced today by any Buddhist sect.
For 1,000 days (a little less than three years) the priests would eat a special diet consisting only of nuts and seeds, while taking part in a regimen of rigorous physical activity that stripped them of their body fat. They then ate only bark and roots for another thousand days and began drinking a poisonous tea made from the sap of the Urushi tree, normally used to lacquer bowls.
This caused vomiting and a rapid loss of bodily fluids, and most importantly, it made the body too poisonous to be eaten by maggots. Finally, a self-mummifying monk would lock himself in a stone tomb barely larger than his body, where he would not move from the lotus position. His only connection to the outside world was an air tube and a bell. Each day he rang a bell to let those outside know that he was still alive.
When the bell stopped ringing, the tube was removed and the tomb sealed. After the tomb was sealed, the other monks in the temple would wait another 1,000 days, and open the tomb to see if the mummification was successful.
If the monk had been successfully mummified, they were immediately seen as a Buddha and put in the temple for viewing. Usually, though, there was just a decomposed body. Although they were not viewed as a true Buddha if they were not mummified, they were still admired and revered for their dedication and spirit.
As to the origin of this practice, there is a common suggestion that Shingon school founder Kukai brought this practice from Tang China as part of secret tantric practices he learned, and that were later lost in China.
The practice was satirized in the story "The Destiny That Spanned Two Lifetimes" by Ueda Akinari, in which such a monk was found centuries later and resuscitated. The story appears in the collection Harusame Monogatari.
In popular culture
- In the Megami Tensei games, a practitioner of Sokushinbutsu known as Daisoujou makes numerous appearances. The character is portrayed as a preserved skeleton wearing yellow clothing and holding a bell.
- In the Inu Yasha series, a monk by the name of Saint Hakushin went through the process of Sokushinbutsu in times of famine and war in order to be able to protect his people forever as a living buddha. However, as he neared death he became disgusted that those he had spent his life protecting were now eagerly awaiting his death. Thus, though he successfully completed the process and served the people as a buddha for many years, he was willing to assist the demon Naraku with a powerful holy barrier.
- A monk in Osamu Tezuka's Phoenix series makes the attempt in the volume "Karma" (鳳凰編 ho-ō-hen)
- The topic appeared as a subject of a question in the British panel game QI XL.
- Hori, Ichiro (1962). "Self-Mummified Buddhas in Japan. An Aspect of the Shugen-Dô ("Mountain Asceticism") Sect". History of Religions 1 (2): 222–242. doi:10.1086/462445. http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0018-2710%28196224%291%3A2%3C222%3ASBIJAA%3E2.0.CO%3B2-O. Retrieved 2007-06-28.
- Mathews, Chris. "Ritual Self- Mummification."
- Buddhist Mummies of Japan
- The Self-Mummified Monks of Japan
Books and Articles About Self-Mummification
Hijikata, M. (1996). Nihon no Miira Butsu wo Tazunete. [Visiting Japanese Buddhist Mummies]. Tokyo: Shinbunsha.
Hori, I. (1962). Self-mummified Buddhas in Japan: An aspect of Shugendō (mountain asceticism) sect. History of Religions, 1(2), 222-242.
Jeremiah, K. (2010). Living Buddhas: The Self-Mummified Monks of Yamagata, Japan. North Carolina: McFarland Publishing Company.
Jeremiah, K. (2009). Corpses: Tales from the crypt. Kansai Time Out, 387, 8-10.
Jeremiah, K. (2007). Asceticism and the Pursuit of Death by Warriors and Monks. Journal of Asian Martial Arts, 16(2), 18-33.
Matsumoto, A. (2002). Nihon no Miira Butsu. [Japanese Buddhist Mummies]. Tokyo: Rokkō Shuppan.
Raveri, M. (1992). Il corpo e il paradiso: Le tentazioni estreme dell’ascesi. [The Body and Paradise: Extreme Practices of Ascetics]. Venice, Italy: Saggi Marsilio Editori.
- Daruma Forums - photos and descriptions of travelling to see Sokushinbutsu
- http://sites.google.com/site/selfmummifiedmonks/ -Some great pictures of self-mummified monks.
- http://www.mcfarlandpub.com/book-2.php?id=978-0-7864-4880-7 -A link to the only English-language book on the subject.
- Sokushinbutsu: The Torturous Self Mummification of Buddhist Monks