A study led by Erik Bruijn, a Buddism art and culture expert, looked into mummified remains of a monk that were found encased in a 1,000-year-old Buddha statue
The CT scan revealed that all of the monk’s organs had been removed, despite the fact that researchers already knew the statue included remains from the 11th or 12th century.
There are many elderly patients treated at the Meander Medical Center in Amersfoort, the Netherlands, but none nearly as ancient as the 1,000-year-old patient who visited the facility in early September 2014 for testing and a checkup.
In an effort to apply cutting-edge medical technology to solve an age-old issue, researchers brought a 2,000-year-old Buddha statue to the hospital. The statue had previously been on loan to the Drents Museum in the Netherlands. Hidden inside the gold-painted figure was a secret – the mummy of a Buddhist monk in a lotus position.
Shown outside of China for the first time in 2014, the statue had been the centerpiece of a recently completed exhibition at the Drents Museum that featured 60 human and animal mummies from around the world.
To learn more about what the hospital called its “oldest patient ever,” the Chinese statue was delicately placed on a gurney for doctors to perform an examination under the supervision of Buddhist art and culture expert Erik Bruijn, a guest curator at the World Museum in Rotterdam.
Radiologist Ben Heggelman slid the ancient artifact slowly into a high-tech imaging machine for a full-body CT scan and sampled bone material for DNA testing. Gastroenterologist Reinoud Vermeijden used a specially designed endoscope to extract samples from the mummy’s chest and abdominal cavities.
Now it is known that the tests have revealed a surprise – the monk’s organs had been removed and replaced with scraps of paper printed with ancient Chinese characters and other rotted material that still has not yet been identified. How the organs had been taken from the mummy remains a mystery.
Beside, researchers discovered rolls of paper scraps covered in Chinese writing left in the place where the monk’s organs used to be.
The body inside the statue is thought to be that of Buddhist master Liuquan, a member of the Chinese Meditation School who died around A.D. 1100. How did Liuquan’s body end up inside an ancient Chinese statue? One possibility explored by the Drents Museum is the gruesome process of self-mummification in which monks hoped to transform themselves into revered “living Buddhas.”
In Asia, particularly China, self-mummification was a frequent practice among Buddhist monks. It was most prevalent in Japan. According to the book “Living Buddhas” by Ken Jeremiah, monks who were interested in self-mummification spent upwards of ten years following a particular diet that gradually starved their bodies and increased their chances of preservation.
In order to limit body fat and moisture, which can cause bodies to rot, monks avoided eating anything made from rice, wheat, or soybeans and substituted slowly decreasing amounts of nuts, berries, tree bark, and pine needles instead. To prevent bacterial growth, they also consumed sesame seeds, cycad nuts, and herbs. They drank a poisonous tree sap that was used to make lacquer so that the toxicity would repel insects and pervade the body as an embalming fluid.
After years of adhering to the strict diet and nearing starvation, a monk was then buried alive in an underground chamber. Breathing through a bamboo tube, the monk sat in a lotus position and chanted sutra in the darkness.
He demonstrated his continued existence by ringing a bell within the tomb each day. The air tube was taken out and the tomb was shut after the last peal. The tomb was opened by disciples three years later. The body had been mummified and transferred to a neighboring temple to be worshipped. An exorcism was carried out and the monk was reburied if the body did not mummify.
Mummified monks are thought to be in a deep state of meditation known as “tukdam” by some devout Buddhists, rather than being dead. The chances of the self-mummification process succeeding were slim, yet it occasionally did.
Before that, in January 2014, a mummified monk in a lotus position, believed to be around 200 years old, was discovered wrapped in cattle skin in a house in a remote province of Mongolia.