In a bygone era, more than a millennium ago, a mysterious sect known as Shingon emerged, blending elements from Buddhism, Old Shinto, Taoism, and various religions. Within this clandestine tradition, they were the pioneers of a practice that boggles the mind – the self-mummification of living bodies. This extraordinary act was undertaken as the pinnacle of religious devotion and discipline. Welcome to the intriguing world of Sokushinbutsu, a phenomenon that unveils the resilience of the human spirit.
The Genesis of Sokushinbutsu
Sokushinbutsu was first introduced to the world by a Japanese priest named Kukai. This mystifying practice involved an arduous process of desiccating the body over several years, culminating in the preservation of the monk’s corpse. The journey to self-mummification was nothing short of agonizing.
The Grueling Odyssey
Phase 1: The Commencement of Sacrifice
For the initial 1,000 days, monks embarked on an excruciating journey, abstaining from all sustenance except nuts, seeds, fruits, and berries. Simultaneously, they engaged in rigorous physical activities to shed excess body fat.
Phase 2: Bark, Roots, and Poison
The subsequent 1,000 days imposed even more stringent dietary restrictions, with monks consuming only bark and roots. Towards the end of this phase, they ingested a poisonous tea derived from the sap of the Urushi tree. This toxic elixir induced vomiting and a rapid loss of bodily fluids, acting as a preservative and eliminating the threat of maggots and bacteria that could lead to decay after death.
Phase 3: The Final Ordeal
Following over six years of relentless preparation, the monk entered a stone tomb scarcely larger than their own body. Here, they entered a profound state of meditation, locked in the lotus position until their demise. A small air tube provided a lifeline, allowing the monk to signal their continued existence by ringing a bell each day. When the bell fell silent, the tube was removed, and the tomb sealed for the final thousand-day period of the ritual.
The Moment of Truth
At the conclusion of this challenging journey, the tomb was unsealed to determine the success of the self-mummification. If the body was found in a state of preservation, the monk was elevated to the status of a Buddha. Their body was reverently removed from the tomb and enshrined in a temple, where it became an object of worship and veneration.
The Ban on Self-Mummification
This astonishing practice of self-mummification persisted until the 19th century when it was officially prohibited by the Japanese government. It is estimated that numerous monks undertook Sokushinbutsu, but only 28 are known to have achieved mummification. Many of these remarkable individuals can be visited in various temples across Japan.
The tale of Buddhist monks who self-mummified their bodies while still alive is a testament to the extraordinary lengths to which the human spirit can be driven in the pursuit of spiritual devotion. It is a practice that captivates the imagination, leaving us in awe of the profound commitment and sacrifice exhibited by these monks.