Background: Esoteric Buddhism and Shugendō Mountain Asceticism
In 804, an illustrious Japanese Buddhist monk called Kūkai traveled to Tang China in order to study Esoteric Buddhism. In 806, after being initiated as a master of the esoteric lineage, Kūkai returned to his homeland with numerous Esoteric Buddhist texts, the majority of which were new to Japan. In time, Kūkai diligently formulated a cohesive doctrine of pure Esoteric Buddhism based on the knowledge he had attained in China. As such, he became the main expounder of Esoteric Buddhism in Japan and eventually founded his own school of Esoteric Buddhism – Shingon.
Among the esoteric practices brought from China by Kūkai was a secret tantric one; an extreme ascetic (and suicidal) practice of self-mummification known as sokushinjōbutsu – “attaining Buddhahood in the flesh”. The practitioners of sokushinjōbutsu who succeeded in mummifying their bodies were known as sokushinbutsu – “those who attained Buddhahood in the flesh.” These terms were not “imported” from China along with the practice itself, but borrowed from the native Japanese tradition of mountain asceticism – Shugendō.
Shugendō was present in Japan since the 7th century, more than a hundred years before Kūkai even established his esoteric school. As a religion, Shugendō was highly syncretic, combining elements from Buddhism, Shinto, Taoism and various local beliefs such as mountain-worship. Asceticism played a central role in Shugendō and its followers spent years in “sacred” mountains where they performed austerities akin to those of the Himalayan mystic: cold-water ablutions, extreme fasting and prolonged starvation, meditation in caves, exposure to freezing temperatures and so on.
The ultimate goal of these mountain austerities was “to transform a profane man into a sacred man by mystic training at a sacred mountain”; in other words: “to become a Buddha in the flesh” – sokushinjōbutsu. Thus, centuries later, Shugendō mountain asceticism provided a solid foundation for the self-mummification practices of Shingon monks who gave sokushinjōbutsu a different, more sinister meaning. The first esoteric self-mummifications in Japan occurred deep in the “holy” mountains of Dewa Sanzan (in Yamagata, northern Japan).
The Process of Self-Mummification
When alive, one keeps sitting without lying down:
When dead, one lies down without sitting up.
In both cases, a set of stinking bones!
What has it to do with the great lesson of life?
Hundreds if not thousands of Shingon adepts attempted to become sokushinbutsu between the 11th and 19th centuries, but only 24 are known to have succeeded. Becoming a sokushinbutsu was an arduous task; it was extremely morbid and it took up to ten years. The monk who embarked on this ambitious quest had to endure 2,000-3,000 days of self-mortification, observing rigorous ascetic exercises and following a very strict diet called mokujikigyō (lit. “tree-eating”). The diet was of utmost importance to the self-mummification process because it was meant to eliminate all body fat.
A large component of the monk’s small meals consisted of roots, tree bark and pine needles – hence the name “tree-eating” – while absolutely no cereals were allowed; resins, seeds, nuts, berries and some other unusual substances were also permitted by the mokujikigyō diet. Calculated, planned and executed correctly, this dietary practice led to death by starvation within ten years. Over the course of practicing sokushinjōbutsu, the self-mummifying monk gradually reduced his intake of food while increasing the rate and period of fasting.
Liquid intake was strictly controlled and gradually reduced as well, in order to dehydrate the body and cause the organs to shrink. After a thousand days of “tree-eating”, the monk started drinking urushi tea for at least another thousand days. The tea was poisonous, made from the sap of the Chinese lacquer tree. Normally, the sap was used to lacquer bowls and plates, but consumed as tea it was meant to poison the flesh and repel maggots and other parasites. It also aided in preserving the body.
When the starving monk felt that his end was drawing near, he looked for a suitable place to be buried alive. The grave of the monk was usually an underground stone chamber barely big enough to allow him to sit in a meditative position. It was usually a pit grave with a long bamboo tube sticking out of it, functioning as an air vent which allowed the monk to breathe fresh air. Interred within his grave, chanting sutras in utter darkness, the dying monk had only a bell which he rang until he died. Other monks checked the grave every day until the bell stopped ringing.
Once the bell stopped ringing, signaling the death of the monk, the tomb was sealed for three years. If the monk’s attempt at self-mummification was successful, his cadaver was enshrined as a “Living Buddha” within a temple, becoming an object of worship. Successful self-mummification was considered a sign of high spiritual merit. Failed attempts were simply reburied after an exorcism was performed. Only 24 sokushinbutsu are recorded across the span of eight centuries, most of them in the mountains of northern Japan. The city of Tsuruoka in Yamagata Prefecture is home to six of them, one in the city-proper and the other five in nearby temples.
Paradoxically, the path of sokushinjōbutsu was not seen as an act of suicide, but as a form of further enlightenment which testified to the practitioner monk’s dedication, selflessness and willpower; self-mummification was an admirable and inspirational act of self-sacrifice for the benefit of all sentient beings. The monks who succeeded – the sokushinbutsu – were (and still are) known as Living Buddhas. They continue to be treated as if they are still alive and they are revered by devoted Buddhists as actual living-and-breathing Buddhas.
Esoteric self-mummification was also understood as a path towards immortality. The sokushinbutsu became incarnations of the most-high Buddhist teachings through their extreme ascetic practices and the spiritual merit they attained from these practices. The incorruptibility of their mummified remains was the ultimate expression of the non-dualistic nature of Budhahood: the sokushinbutsu are perfect, neither decaying nor accumulating impurity. They are in a state of suspended animation, having transcended both life and death which now coexist in the sokushinbutsu. Merely their physical presence is enough to generate benefits for all sentient life, without the need for any activity.
Kūkai, the founder of the Shingon school which produced most (if not all) of the sokushinbutsu, was the first Japanese monk who attempted esoteric self-mummification. He ended his life willingly by gradually reducing the intake of food and water until stopping it altogether, while continuing to meditate and chant sutras. He did not bury himself alive, however, nor did he perform other ascetic exercises associated with the later sokushinbutsu. Similar, self-mummification practices have also been recorded in China and Tibet. They are not documented as well as the Japanese sokushinbutsu phenomenon.
The practice was outlawed by the Meiji government in 1879 when serious efforts were made to modernize the country. Since then, no more cases of self-mummification are known to have occurred. The old sokushinbutsu, however, are still enshrined in various temples today, where they are worshiped as living relics and as living Buddhas. Firm believers hold the eschatological conviction that one day, in the distant future when the end-time arrives, the sokushinbutsu will awake and assist mankind in its darkest hour.
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