Sokushinbutsu: Self-mummified Monks

24Aug09

Sokushinbutsu-2Scattered throughout Northern Japan are two dozen mummified Japanese monks known as Sokushinbutsu. Followers of Shugendô, an ancient form of Buddhism, the monks died in the ultimate act of self-denial.

The actual practice was first pioneered by a priest named Kuukai over 1000 years ago at the temple complex of Mount Koya, in Wakayama prefecture. Kuukai was founder of the Shingon sect of Buddhism, which is the sect that came up with the idea of enlightenment through physical punishment. There were three steps in the process of self-mummification that Kuukai proposed, and the full process took upwards of ten years to lead to a successful mummification.

The first step is a change of diet. The priest was only allowed to eat nuts and seeds that could be found in the forests surrounding his temple; this diet had to be stuck to for a 1000 day period, a little under three years. During this time, the priest was to continue to subject himself to all sorts of physical hardship in his daily training. The results were that the body fat of the priest was reduced to nearly nothing, thus removing a section of the body that easily decomposes after death.

In the second stage, the diet became more restrictive. The priest was now only allowed to eat a small amount of bark and roots from pine trees. This had to be endured for another 1000 day period, by the end of which the priest looked like a living skeleton. This also decreased the overall moisture contained in the body; and the less fluid left in the body, the easier to preserve it.

A206Zpoa9Itzbymvrtjshammo1 500Towards the end of this 1000 day period, the priest also had to start to drink a special tea made from the sap of the urushi tree. This sap is used to make lacquer for bowls and furniture; but it is also very poisonous for most people. Drinking this tea induced vomiting, sweating, and urination, further reducing the fluid content of the priest’s body. But even more importantly, the build up of the poison in the priest’s body would kill any maggots or insects that tried to eat the priest’s remains after death, thus protecting it from yet another source of decay.

The last step of the process was to be entombed alive in a stone room just big enough for a man to sit lotus style in for a final 1000 day period. As long as the priest could ring a bell each day a tube remained in place to supply air; but when the bell finally stopped, the tube was removed and the tomb was sealed. When the tomb was finally opened, the results would be known. Some few would be fully mummified, and immediately be raised to the rank of Buddha; but most just rotted and, while respected for their incredible endurance, were not considered to be Buddhas. These were simply sealed back into their tombs.

The Japanese government outlawed Sokushunbutsu in the late 19th century, though the practice continued into the 20th.

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29 Responses to “Sokushinbutsu: Self-mummified Monks”

  1. 1 Nigeltown

    Love the new site frater

    • Thanks Nigeltown 🙂

      • I second that! This site is right up my alley 🙂

  2. Now *that’s* discipline. o.O

    Rather gruesome. 😡

    • Yeah – incredibly so! I can’t even stop myself having a second piece of cake!

  3. 6 Zenayda

    These dudes have fascinated me for quite a while. To think that you let your body suffer so badly for so long when there could be a slice of apple pie right next to you…. It’s insane.

    I’ve always wondered though – while they’re still alive, how badly do their bodies suffer? I can’t imagine that their brains would still function normally or that they would even have the energy to walk.

    • 7 steamengenius

      Zenayda: I can answer that question from my own personal experience.While not nearly as extreme as what these men endured,you’ll get a close idea.

      In 1998,right after my 18th birthday,I had gastric bypass surgery(stomach staple.)I was morbidly obese,as the doctors so lovingly phrased my condition,topping the hospital scales at over 650 pounds.The first year after,I lost weight very rapidly,living most of the year on a fluid diet.Long story short,something had gone wrong during the surgery but,since I had no insurence and was unemployed,the surgeon cancelled ALL my follow up appointments.refused to turn over my medical records when I tried to find a doctor to help me.By the end of the year,I had dropped almost 400 pounds.I suffered symptoms similar to bulemia or anorexia.anything I tried to eat,came right back up within minutes.Dozens of doctors examined and x-rayed and shoved cameras down my throat but never found anything.It was an extremely stressful,painful and frightening experience.I eventually lost ALL of my teeth because of the excessive vomiting,my bone-density dropped,leaving me VERY prone to injuries,broken bones,cracked ribs,infections,etc.
      The most destructive damage,in my opinion,was the mental and emotional F**K fest going on in what was left of my brain.I changed from a very loving, family oriented,and deeply spiritual kid into a violent,hateful,and extremely paranoid personality.I was a danger to myself and to my family.The depression and anxiety led me straight into addiction and heavy alcoholism.Inevitably,since my body couldn’t depend on me to feed it,it just started breaking down and feeding off itself.FINALLY,in JANUARY of THIS YEAR,weighing barely 115 pnds,barely able to walk and having black outs and fainting spells when I DID try to get around some,a gastro specialist offered to see me for free,as a favor to my uncle who was one of his med school professors(though I also believe he did it as a genuine act of kindness and compassion for a kid desparate for ANY way out by this point.)Two x-rays and two stomach scopes later,still no results.BUT,by chance,luck or whatever you believe in,he glanced an anomaly on one of the x-rays that had been overlooked for so long that the damage was complete.The digestive muscle in my stomach had been damaged during the first surgery and going unnoticed and untreated for so long,my entire stomach had been paralyzed.Friday the 13th of this past March,I had another operation to have my entire stomach removed.The surgery went perfectly but,since my body was so weak and I barely had a functioning immune system,I caught pneumonia the next day,lost consciousness,one of my lungs partially collapsed,and I spent about 3 weeks on a life support system.The doctor’s thought it was pointless,they were pretty sure I wasn’t gonna wake up.But my mom fought them off and when I woke up,a few nurses and a couple of the doctors were fired for neglecting the severity of the situation.but alas,I LIVE!!!

      • 8 Babyfacemagee

        Wouldn’t it have been easier to just have gone on a diet in the first place? A little self-discipline could haved saved you from all that suffering. Don’t mean to be a jerk but your story should warn others away from trying for the easy fix of surgery for a problem that is more mental than anything else.

        • 9 Phenome

          Nope, pretty sure you DO mean to be a jerk. Seriously, what kind of an asshole do you have to be to mock someone who’s nearly died due to botched surgery?

          • 10 JMK

            Diet would been safer. Call Richard Simmons next time.

      • 11 H

        You really have great determination to live on despite so many things happening in your life. But I want to know, what happen to you in the end?

  4. 12 emilycaa

    That is gruesome yet fascinating.
    I love the new site– I am a big fan of Listverse and have always gone to look up things I found on lists there after reading them, so now I can just start here instead. Awesome!

  5. 13 Openeyed

    The things people do in the name of religion NEVER cease to amaze me. Interesting new site by the way.

  6. 14 Lauren

    The final bit about the monks who rotted away was quite sad. They devoted their lives to that ritual, and after it all they didn’t even mummify properly? What a shame 😦

    Loving the new site btw 🙂

  7. Bizzare N gruesome.
    What they acheived after underwenting 4 somany thousands of days,physically suffering,ultimately what for!

  8. 16 louiseeee

    So I wonder how many actually achieved the rank of Buddha.

    • These individuals are known as Living Buddhas. There are eight mummified bodies on display in temples in Yamagata, and thirteen found in other parts of Japan. However, many had attempted the act that were unsuccessful. Check out the facebook site: “Self-Mummified Monks,” and a new book on the subject called “Living Buddhas: The Self-Mummified Monks of Yamagata, Japan.”

  9. 18 fraudbullet23

    Um why would they even want to mummify themselves or do suicide?

    • Because of their beliefs in reincarnation – they thought that this would lead to nirvana. Whether or not it did is something we will all have to wait until death to discover 🙂

      • Actually, their reasoning was a bit different. There is a new book on the subject that has just recently been published. It is the first book on the subject in English. Here is a link to it:
        http://www.mcfarlandpub.com/book-2.php?id=978-0-7864-4880-7

    • Their desire to mummify had to do with the accumulation of merit (in their bodies) due to their ascetic practices. They wished to leave their bodies behind for the benefit of humankind, but they wished to die, and leave this realm of existence, so that they could become attendants of Maitreya, the future Buddha, in the Tusita heaven. Here is a new book on the subject that clarifies the process: http://www.mcfarlandpub.com/book-2.php?id=978-0-7864-4880-7

  10. 22 imcrystalclear

    What discipline! I can’t imagine living a life that was spent focusing only on the end and dying. Then to NOT achieve what they had prayed to happen.

  11. 23 Jenna

    I can’t imagine sitting lotus style for more than an hour…let alone 1000 days.
    Although I suppose they wouldn’t have made it those 1000 days with no food or water. But still…

  12. I have been interested in self-mummification for a while. The first English-language book on the subject is being published soon. Here is a link to it: http://www.mcfarlandpub.com/book-2.php?id=978-0-7864-4880-7.

    I also have some great pictures of these individuals at this site: http://sites.google.com/site/selfmummifiedmonks/

  13. На самом деле прикольный блог! Спасибо и… разумеется, пишите еще!

  14. 26 Abhishek Ghosh

    The practice of self mortification is not unique to Buddhism. Jainism, an ancient religion which originated in India also has a tradition in which Jain monks stop eating and fast to death. Rarely practiced now, this penance is highly revered by Jains.

  15. 27 aaron

    i watched a special on this and one thing not mentioned here is that in addition to the bark and sap they also drank from a spring. the water was poison. it had traces of sinonide in it or however you spell it. lol

  16. This is insane, yet so intriguing in some extremely strange way. Am i the only one who imagined them self in these monks’ position while reading the article? That’s some freaky shit.

  17. 29 endymion

    I have known of the existance of these Sokushinbutsu for a while, but I have never read anything…
    I ordered the book aswell.

    It really stirred my soul to read this.
    it made me very sad, in a way, but these monks were aware of what they were doing, so i do not sympathise.
    To think that faith in something higher can be so strong.


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