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12 Things You Didn't Know About Sokushinbutsu, A.K.A. Self-Mummification

Updated October 28, 2019 517.5k views12 items

It seems impossible that someone could mummify themselves. But that's exactly what sokushinbutsu is. This self-mummification was a religious practice undergone by Buddhist monks in 11th to 19th century Japan. While the extreme process may seem brutal, the monks who attempted it viewed it as a way to achieve further enlightenment.

That doesn't mean self-mummification is easy. Monks deprived themselves of food and eventually entombed themselves while they were still breathing, all in pursuit of a higher state of being. Successful sokushinbutsu monks are considered living Buddhas.

Sokushinbutsu has been banned in Japan, but some of these Japanese mummy monks still survive today. The Dainichi temple mummies on display give an eerie window into this sacred ritual, with their carefully preserved bones and colorful robes. The monks' remains stand as the ultimate reflection of a life of self-denial.

  • Arsenic Water Helped Too

    Arsenic Water Helped Too
    Photo: Trojan / via YouTube

    Many monks who attempted self-mummification underwent the process near Dainichi-Boo. A nearby spring was discovered to contain high levels of arsenic. Like Urushi tea, this arsenic water probably hastened death while preventing decay.

    The most famous sokushinbutsu monk, Shinnyokai Shonin, is seated on Mount Yudono in the Dainichi-Boo Temple.

  • Monks Entombed Themselves Alive

    Monks Entombed Themselves Alive
    Photo: AllThings Creepy / via YouTube

    After an intense amount of starvation and meditation, monks would retire to a small tomb or chamber, not much bigger than their own bodies. The monks would typically end up about ten feet below the ground, seated in a lotus position. The coffin would be covered with charcoal, and a bamboo rod was inserted to allow the monk to breath.

    The monk would continue to meditate, ringing a bell to signify to others that he was still alive. Once the ringing ceased, it was assumed that the monk had died. The tomb would be sealed, and the corpse would be left underground for another 1,000 days.

  • Decay Indicates Failure

    Decay Indicates Failure
    Photo: Thomas Guest / flickr / CC-BY 2.0

    After 1,000 days, the monk's body would be excavated. Frequently, the body would be found rotting. In these instances, a monk's remains would not be fit for worship. The remains would be reburied after an exorcism, and the thousands of days of suffering and meditation would have been for naught.

    But if the body didn't show signs of decay, incense smoke would be used to treat the skin and ensure its longevity.

  • Few Monks Have Been Successful

    Few Monks Have Been Successful
    Photo: Beyond Science / via YouTube

    If a body was found preserved after being exhumed from a burial chamber, it would be worshipped. Mummified monks was seen as Buddhas, so they would be dressed in robes and placed in temples for viewing.

    Their eyes would be removed, but regardless, it is believed that the sokushinbutsu mummies can see into the souls of the living.