By now, many of you are familiar with the process of mummification. Mummification is primarily associated with ancient Egyptian culture whereby the bodies of the deceased were preserved through embalming and wrapping them in strips of linen. Mummification also occurred in other parts of the world through a natural process attributable to the dryness of the climate in the area where bodies were buried. Mummies have been discovered not only in Egypt but also in South American, Mexico, Central Asia and even Alaska. But did you know that Japan also has a history of mummification?
The Japanese form of mummification differs greatly from the mummification process we are familiar with in that it takes place while the person is still alive! Sokushinbutsu (即身仏) as it is referred to is a Buddhist practice of observing austerity to the point of death and mummification. This self-mummification process was mainly practiced in Yamagata between the 11th and 19th centuries. The monks who practiced it did not view it as an act of suicide but rather as a form of further enlightenment.
It is said that hundreds of Buddhist monks attempted to become Sokushinbutsu but failed. To date, only 24 mummies have been discovered.
A successful mummification required ten years or more to complete. The process began with eating a special diet consisting only of nuts and seeds for 3 years while taking part in a regimen of rigorous physical activity that stripped the monks of their body fat. This was followed by a diet of only bark and roots for another 3 years and the consumption of a poisonous tea made from the sap of the Urushi tree used in the lacquering process.
The tea caused vomiting and a rapid loss of bodily fluids, and most importantly, it made the body highly toxic to maggots. Finally, the monk would lock himself in a stone tomb slightly larger than his body, where he sat in 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. It would be another 1,000 days before the tomb could be opened to determine whether the mummification was successful. If the monk had been successfully mummified, he was regarded as a Buddha and placed in the temple for viewing. Unfortunately, in many instances, the tomb was opened only to reveal a decomposed body.
The Japanese government outlawed the practice of Sokushinbutsu in the late 19th century but it is said that the practice continued into the 20th century.
Of the 24 Sokushinbutsu, 16 can actually be viewed today. The most famous of these is the Shinnyokai Shonin of the Dainichi-Boo Temple (大日坊). Others can be found at the Nangakuji Temple, in the suburbs of Tsuruoka, and at Kaikokuji Temple in the city of Sakata.
It may seem morbid to foreigners but many Japanese worship the mummies for their faith and dedication.