The Dewa Sanzan Mountains in Japan’s Yamagata Prefecture have been a Buddhist pilgrimage center for centuries. The place is full of sanctuaries, where today the faithful make annual pilgrimages and hikers, arduous hiking trails. But this place hides a secret. In some of the region’s temples, perfectly preserved mummies of monks, dressed in their robes and holding prayer beads in their parched hands, are displayed in a place of honor.
Around 1960, a group of local researchers arrived in the region attracted by rumors about the existence of these mummies and discovered six in five temples. As a result of the finding, a research committee was formed made up of several specialists from Japanese universities to study the phenomenon. A year later, a team of scientists and historians visited the temples and asked the monks for permission to study the mummies, since the excellent degree of preservation of the bodies was very striking, considering the high humidity of the Japanese climate. The researchers were determined to get to the bottom of the matter and uncover the details of the mysterious mummification process that took place there.
AUTOMOMIFICATION TO BECOME A BUDDHA
Mummification was not unknown in Japan; in fact some mummified corpses from the 12th century had been discovered. Part of the process involved removing the internal organs to prevent rapid decomposition. But when experts began studying the Yamagata mummies, they discovered, to their surprise, that their internal organs were intact and, more surprisingly, that they had begun to dry out before they died! Apparently, these monks mummified themselves, in a strange suicide ritual called sokushinbutsu (which literally means “attaining Buddhahood while alive”).
The researchers found that the internal organs were intact and had begun to dry out before death.
The Yamagata monks belonged to the Shingon school and were subjected to extreme ascetic practices. They thought that his death was an act of redemption and that suffering would allow them to reach the Tushita, a Pure Land, a place where they would achieve enlightenment through meditation, something that would allow them to watch over human beings. To reach these heights of spiritual power it was necessary that the bodies of the monks not disappear; they were to be preserved by mummification.
To carry out this process, the monk abstained from eating cereals and grain for a thousand days, and ate exclusively seeds and nuts – during that time, he dedicated himself to meditation and helping the community in the most difficult tasks. ; Once this stage was over, and for a thousand more days, the monk ate only seeds. This extreme fast caused the monk great suffering, a basic requirement to achieve enlightenment, and, at the same time, helped the mummification process since all the fat and water in the body were eliminated (thus preventing the proliferation of bacteria and insects). After the Death). It was also necessary to drink a tea prepared with the bark of a tree, the urushi, which contains a highly toxic chemical agent that remains in the body even after death. This poison caused recurrent vomiting, which helped eliminate body fluids.
The monks who were going to automummify themselves drank a tea prepared with the bark of the urushi that contained a highly toxic chemical agent.
After completing this “purge”, the monk was introduced into a narrow wooden box built for this purpose. There, sitting in the lotus position, he began his final meditation, while the box was closed, leaving a small gap through which a bamboo cane was inserted so that he could breathe. The monk carried with him some roots to continue feeding himself and a small bell, which he rang once a day to indicate that he was still alive. When it stopped ringing, the community removed the cane and the box was sealed. After a thousand days, the box was opened and it was checked whether the monk had reached sokushinbutsu. If so, the resulting mummy was placed in a conspicuous place in the temple and worshiped as a living Buddha. If she had not succeeded and her body was deteriorated, the monk was buried with full honors.
THE LAST SOKUSHIN BUTSU
It is not clear when sokushinbutsu began to be practiced in Japan, but it is believed that the first attempt took place around 1080, although it seems that it was not successful. Since then many monks have tried to achieve sokushinbutsu, but few have succeeded. Interestingly, those who have been most successful have been the monks of Yamagata, which is where more mummies have been located (approximately twenty). In fact, the last monk to successfully practice sokushinbutsu was Tetsuryukay in 1877.
Emperor Meiji banned self-mummification nationwide that year, but Tetsuryukay, who had been preparing for it for years, decided to go ahead with the process despite the ban. In 1878 his grave was sealed. After the prescribed time, his followers secretly opened the tomb and verified with joy that his teacher had reached sokushinbutsu. So, to avoid punishment for disobeying the imperial order, they changed the temple records and altered the date of Tetsuryukay’s death to 1862. Thus, the monk’s mummy was safely displayed at Nangakuji Temple, where the last sokushinbutsu of Japan can still be seen today.