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Sokushinbutsu is an extreme asceticism practice that focuses on how to avoid the body’s decomposition. From that perspective, the mummification of the living is proof of faith and preparation, the mummified monk becomes a Buddha. This practice has been influenced by the founders of the Shingon, Kūkai (774–835), esoteric teachings, who reached himself this state around 1,200 years ago.

The principal purpose of this type of mummification is to preserve the body from decomposition. In their thoughts, the conservation of the flesh allows them to reach extreme wisdom, access paradise, and obtain a better reincarnation.

Many Buddhist countries own this type of mummy and in particular Japan.

Sokushinbutsu Monk Mummy

The Sokushinbutsu Monk’s goal is to encounter enlightenment during this life, with that body, and no longer go through other reincarnations.

He wants to become completely detached from that five senses perceptible world. From that point of view, this world, which represents an illusion, prevents us from grasping the truth, and from feeling ourselves as part of the great universal whole.

Being able to achieve this objective requires a strong will to struggle with pain and the fear of death.

Sokushinbutsu Monks

Officially, considered a form of suicide, this practice has been banned by the Japanese government since the 19th century, but it has continued to be performed until the 20th century.

The mummification process consists of several steps. The first stage lasts 1000 days. During this period, to eliminate all fat from his body, the monk practices intense physical activity and follows a poor diet based on water, nuts, and seeds.

Then, to rid of the bodily fluids, the monk hardens his diet for another 1000 days and eats only pine roots, needles, and bark. Through exercises and meditation, they maintain active the body and mind.

Monk's Mummy
Altar of offerings for Monk's Mummy
Sokushinbutsu Monk's Mummy

They dehydrate and poison themselves to protect the body from necrophagous insects.

That is a difficult step because the monk drinks exclusively a beverage made from the urushi tree’s sap. This drink is toxic to the body and causes nausea and diarrhea.

Weak, the monk finishes the rite enclosed, walled alive, in the lotus position, having only a little space to allow air circulation. Every morning, the monk rings a bell to inform his disciples that he is alive.

When the bell no longer sounds, they fill-up quickly the last space in the wall to avoid the presence of oxygen that accelerates the decomposition.

After 1000 days, they open the tomb to verify if the mummification process has been successful or not.

Between the 12th and 20th centuries, among hundreds of mummification attempts, only 24 succeeded. Today it is possible to contemplate 18 of these monks’ mummies in temples scattered across Japan.

A large majority can be admired around the Dewa Sanzan in Yamagata Prefecture. The Shōnai region owns six mummies and the Okitama region two. Niigata prefecture possesses four sokushinbutsu mummies, while Fukushima, Gifu, Ibaraki, Kanagawa, Kyoto, and Nagano prefectures own one mummy each of them.

Monk's Mummy

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