12 Things You Didn't Know About Sokushinbutsu, A.K.A. Self-Mummification
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.
It's A 3,000 Day Process
The process of self-mummification typically requires 3,000 days of ritualistic training. This preparation period is necessary for a monk to transform his body into a lasting relic.
The most important physical aspect of this process focuses on diet. Japanese monks attempting to achieve self-mummification would first stop consuming grains and cereals. For the first thousand days, they would only eat nuts and berries.
Monks Adhered To Mokujikyo, Or A "Tree-Eating" DietPhoto: Simon Johnston / via Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 2.0
In the next thousand days, monks would solely consume things like pine needles, tree bark, and resin. This is why the sokushinbutsu diet was called “tree-eating,” or mokujikyo. If that wasn't intense enough, some x-rays of sokushinbutsu mummies have even revealed river stones within the stomachs of mummies.
After two thousand days of strict dieting, the monks' bodies begin to waste away, undergoing extreme starvation and dehydration.
Starvation Staved Off Decay
The extended period of starvation fulfilled the "necessary requirement of suffering," and also solidified the basis of mummification. As the monk starved, his body rid itself of fat and water - both materials that encourage decay after death.
In short, starvation made the monk's body resistant to bacteria and insects.
They Drank Toxic Urushi TeaPhoto: Quelcrime / via Wikimedia Commons / CC0 1.0
While undergoing starvation, it was common for monks to ingest toxic nuts and herbs to inhibit the growth of bacteria in their bodies. A popular drink was tea made from the bark of the Urushi tree, also known as the Japanese Varnish Tree. The sap from this tree contains abrasive chemicals that can cause a rash much like poison ivy.
Drinking this tea hastened the monk's death while helping to preserve his body from the inside out.
Arsenic Water Helped TooPhoto: 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
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.