Higher Human Forms: The Self-Mummifying Monk

Monks bring food to Kobo Daishi. © Gideon Mendel/Corbis

Humans have long sought heavenly reward through death, from Valhalla-bound Vikings and Islamic Shahids to Christian martyrs and Heaven's Gate cultists. Yet no other model of ritualized self-destruction rivals the Sokushinbutsu of Japan, who engaged in a process of ascetic self-mummification that spanned years of extreme body modification.

The practice lasted from about 774 C.E. until the 20th century, and aside from 19 mummified members of the 12th century Fujiwara clan, it constitutes the only mummification rite in Japanese culture. Before we explore the details of the ritual, however, we should recognize the purpose.

Bodhisattva of the Future

As Ken Jeremiah relates in "Buried Alive: The Forgotten Practice of Self-Mummification," certain Shingon Buddhists sought to serve Miroku Bosatsu (AKA Maitreya), the Bodhisattva of the future who will arrive on Earth some 5,670,000,000 years from now.

Miroku Bosatsu
© Christophe Boisvieux/Corbis

But of course 5.6 billion years is a long time, so how's a devoted monk to reach his futuristic Buddha? Even the Buddhist soul, on its continuous journey of reincarnation, might land in the wrong realm when Miroku Bosatsu finally arrived.

The answer was to self-mummify as a "living Buddha," which Jeremiah explains as a means to reach Miroku Bosatsu in the Tusita Heaven, his current residence. Through a slow and meditative approach to the death point, he explains, the monk may self-guide their soul through the void to a realm of his choosing.

In her paper "Mummification in the Ancient and New World," anthropologist Anna Maria Rosso classifies Shingon self-mummification as a case of entering a kind of undead suspension in which the monk's body is preserved for resurrection upon Miroku Bosatsu's arrival.

Either way, the goal is to transcend death and gain enlightenment, and perhaps it's meant to be something in-between: a quantum state of neither death nor life. It's worth noting that Kobo Daishi (774-835), the founder of Shingon Buddhism, is said to remain in an such a state within Gobyo Mausoleum.

How to Self-Mummify

From a body modification standpoint, the goal was to gradually reduce one's psychical body to a withered state of living mummification, and then to die as a dry, incorruptible corpse.

Enmyokai Shonin.
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In order to achieve this state, would-be Sokushinbutsus first practiced a starvation diet known as mokujikigy?, which consisted of nuts, berries, tree bark and roots. This phase could last between 3 and 10 years, however long it took to whittle the body down to a skin-and-bones state. Atlas Obscura also mentions the poisonous sap from the urushi tree, which the monks consumed to purge their bodily fluids and repel scavenging parasites.

Finally, reduced to a state of walking death, the self-mummifying monk was buried alive for three years with only bamboo breathing tubes to sustain them in the darkness. Here they meditated, recited sutras and periodically rang a bell as they gradually died from dehydration.

Three years later, monks would exhume the dead necronaut. If his body was uncorrupted, then the mummy was dressed in robes and put on display for veneration. If the body had rotted, however, an exorcism was performed and the corpse buried.

Less than 30 Japanese monks are known to have completed this grueling journey to the death point, and we have no idea if they finally found Miroku Bosatsuon the other side.

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.