Sokushinbutsu is the process of self-mummification that begins while the person is still alive. It was a practice observed by monks who were mostly members of the Shingon sect of the Japanese Vajrayāna (one of three routes to enlightenment, the other two being Hīnayāna and Mahāyāna) school of Buddhism. It is believed that hundreds of monks attempted sokushinbutsu, but only 24 mummified remains have been discovered to date.
Shugendō is a mountain-dwelling version of Buddhism that rose from the amalgamation of Vajrayana, Shintoism, and Taoism during the 7th century that embraced the practice of severe self-discipline and abstention from all forms of indulgence for religious reasons. One of these practices was sokushinbutsu or sokushin jobutsu: it connotes mountain austerity to attain Buddha-nature in one’s body. The monks from the Three Mountains of Dewa region (Yudono, Haguro, and Gassan) perfected the sokushinbutsu practice. The area remains sacred in the Shugendō tradition to this day.
Self-mummified monk. | Screengrab from YouTube video by AllThings Creepy
It is believed that Kūkai (774–835), the Japanese Buddhist monk who founded the Shingon sect, introduced sokushinbutsu to Japan as part of secret tantric practices he learned from China. Sokushinbutsu involves great self-discipline, since a monk undergoes the mummification process that can take anywhere from eight to ten years. Monks would go on a strict diet called mokujikigyo, literally meaning, “eating a tree.” This special diet consists of whatever is predominantly found in the mountains, such as pine needles, seeds, nuts, and resin.
For three years, the monks would observe mokujikigyo while taking part in a regimen involving rigorous physical activity. This controlled system stripped the monks of their body fat. For another three years they would continue to only eat bark and roots and begin drinking poisonous tea made from the sap of the urushi tree, usually used to make lacquer bowls. This caused vomiting; the body would rapidly lose fluids. Also, it would kill maggots that caused the body to decay after death. The final act of a dedicated monk would be to lock himself in a stone tomb in the lotus position.
The tomb had an air tube and a bell attached to it. The entombed monk would then ring the bell each day to signal that he was still alive. When the bell would cease to ring, the monk would die in a state of meditation chanting the nenbutsu (mantra about Buddha), and the air tube would be removed and the tomb sealed. The monk’s bodies would be naturally preserved with skin and teeth intact without decay and with no need for artificial preservation. Many Buddhist Sokushinbutsu mummies have been found in northern Japan who are centuries old and are revered and venerated by many followers. Sokushinbutsu was outlawed by the Japanese Government in the late 19th century.
Air chute of tomb. | Screengrab from YouTube video by AllThings Creepy