Sokushinbutsu and Buddhist Mummies Enlightenment through mummifying yourself while you're still alive

    Talking about mummies usually conjures up images of ancient Egypt with giant Pyramids, Sphinxes, and Pharaohs. But there are tons of different mummies all over the world, even in Japan! A weird sect of Japanese Buddhism not only turned their monks into mummies, but mummified themselves while they were still alive. How on earth did that work?

    Promotional image for The Mummy

    In a sect of Japanese Buddhism called Shingon Buddhism, there was a small group of monks in the Yamagata prefecture that mummified themselves. They called those who succeeded sokushinbutsu 即身仏そくしんぶつ

    It all started hundreds of years ago, in the 1700s there was a horrible famine in Japan. One Shingon monk decided the best way to end this famine was to bury himself alive. (Why? Who knows.) So the monk buried himself alive, and the famine came to an end. 3 years later, his fellow monks unearthed his body and found that he’d been mummified!

    A mummified body dressed in Buddhist robes
    The monk in question.

    These monks felt that they should obviously not only try to mummify themselves, but that they could improve upon the mummification process. They experimented and tested out different methods and eventually settled upon what they thought was the best process.

    Here is the Shingon-approved self-mummification process a few easy steps!

    1. For three years, eat nothing but nuts and berries. This caused monks to lose a lot of weight, keeping pesky fat off of the body for the mummification process.
    2. For the next three years, only eat bark and roots. Eating only these things removed a lot of moisture from the body, moisture that could cause the body to decay instead of mummify.
    3. Drink a special tea. By drinking tea made out of urushi tree, a substance which is poisonous and usually used to lacquer bowls. This made the body poisonous and made it harder for bacteria to eat away at the body.
    4. Bury yourself alive. Seal yourself in a giant stone tomb. The monks gave the mummy-to-be a bamboo pipe for air and a bell. The mummy-to-be rang the bell every day to let his fellow monks know that they were alive. When they didn’t hear the bell ring, they knew that the monk had died.

    Unfortunately for the monks, this process didn’t really work all that well. Out of the many monks that attempted this long and painful process of self-mummification, only a handful (maybe two dozen) were able to successfully become mummified.

    Sometime in the 1800s the Japanese government outlawed ritual suicide, putting a stop to these monks’ self-mummification.

    Art Imitates Life

    While there haven’t been any sokushinbutsu for a few hundred years, the Shingon monks have definitely left their mark on the world. A few years back, a performance artist from a group of artists called “Chim↑Pom” put on an exhibition called “Making of the Sokushinbutsu.” The artist fasted for days and meditated while on display in a museum.

    A very skinny man sitting cross-legged
    Apparently fasting gives you a sweet ‘fro.

    I hope I’m not the only one who finds this more than a little disturbing. The performance group claims that the artist was fine after the end of the whole ordeal, but that doesn’t stop me from being pretty freaked out.