Sokushinbutsu – Japan’s Self-Mummified Monks

Sokushinbutsu were Buddhist priests who took their own lives in such a way that they became mummies and were revered for their spirit and dedication.

Popular in northern Japan, especially around the Yamagato Prefecture, the practice of becoming Sokushinbutsu is believed to a tantric ritual from Tang China, brought to the Land of the Rising Sun by the founder of Shingon Buddhism.

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Regarded as the ultimate test of self-denial, the procedure of becoming Sokushinbutsu had the Buddhist monks go through several years of self-induced torture. During the first stage of the process, a priest would take on a diet of seeds and nuts, while taking part in riguros physical exercises that stripped them of all their body fat. This stage lasted for 1,000 days.

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In the second part of the Sokushinbutsu process, the monk ate only the bark and roots of pine trees, and consumed a poisonous tee, made from the sap of the urushi tree. Commonly used to laquer bowls, the sap contained Urushiol, which caused him frequent vomiting and the loss of bodily fluids. This stage took another 1,000 days.

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Finally, the self-mummifying monk locked himself in a small stone tomb that barely allowed him to assume a permanent lotus position. The tomb was sealed and a small air tube remained the monk’s only connection to the outside world. He was given a bell, and each day he would ring it so that the people knew he was still alive. When the bell stopped ringing the air tube was removed and the tomb completely sealed.

While foreigners might think Sokushinbutsu monks had to be mad to go through such a long and painful process just to eventually kill themselves, they were actually raised to the status of Buddha and revered in Shingon temples across northern Japan. To them, this reward was more than enough.

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Until it was outlawed, in the late 18th century, it is believed hundreds of monks attempted to become Sokushinbutsu, but many of them failed. Only between 16 and 24 Sokushinbutsu mummies have been discovered in Japan. Although this practice has been illegal for sometime now, a new Sokushinbutsu was discovered in July 2010, right in Tokyo.

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