Higher Human Forms: Corpse of a Buddha

Gilded mummy of 126 year old monk Wuxia. Karl Johaentges/LOOK-foto

When we think of body modification, we tend to focus on living flesh. But given humanity's obsession with mortality and subsequent treatment of the dead, it comes as no surprise that the human cadaver also serves as a focus of modification.

In many funeral traditions, it's enough to preserve the deceased and restore a lifelike appearance. Yet, when we explore the mummification rites of East Asia, we find an example of transhuman cadaver modification to reflect the deceased's transcendent soul.

Taoist Sorcery & Buddhism

Venture into the world of Ch'an Buddhism: a school of Chinese Mah?y?na Buddhism dating back to the 6th century CE. When Buddhism first spread into China, it merged with preexisting Taoist beliefs -- including the belief that, upon his death, a Taoist sorcerer's body serves as a kind of physical anchor as his soul wanders the realm of spirits. As Robert H. Sharf points out in "The Idolization of Enlightenment: On the Mummification of Ch'an Masters in Medieval China," the notions of undying sorcerer and enlightened Buddha fuse as one.

And so we see a rich tradition emerge in which a deceased's monk's incorruptible body (mummified by either environment or funeral rite) stands as testament to the spiritual purity of its departed soul. Some spiritual or karmic remnant, it would seem, sticks behind in the "flesh icon" of the monk's former body.

Postmortem Transhumanism

Sharf mentions a host of mummification techniques, but the most remarkable example concerns not only the preservation of the deceased monk's body, but its transformation into a body more befitting a Buddha.

Referencing the work of Holmes H. Welch, an early 20th century expert on East Asian culture, Sharf states the following: "Usually they were gilded. Sometimes the lobes of the ears were lengthened and a dot was placed between the eyebrows. Golden skin, long lobes, and the urna dot were among the 32 sacred marks of a Buddha. The implication was therefore that in his lifetime the monk whose corpse the visitor saw before him had attained buddhahood."

And so, in the funeral traditions of Ch'an Buddhism, both the body and soul of the deceased achieve a higher human form.

Higher Human Forms is an ongoing blog series profiling the many fascinating ways in which humans have reshaped their bodies throughout human history. To quote plastic surgeon Joe Rosen, "The body is a conduit for the soul, at least historically speaking. When you change what you look like, you change who you are."

About the Author: Robert Lamb spent his childhood reading books and staring into the woods — first in Newfoundland, Canada and then in rural Tennessee. There was also a long stretch in which he was terrified of alien abduction. He earned a degree in creative writing. He taught high school and then attended journalism school. He wrote for the smallest of small-town newspapers before finally becoming a full-time science writer and podcaster. He’s currently a senior writer at HowStuffWorks and has co-hosted the science podcast Stuff to Blow Your Mind since its inception in 2010. In his spare time, he enjoys traveling with his wife Bonnie, discussing dinosaurs with his son Bastian and crafting the occasional work of fiction.