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Atlas Obscura

Davey Young

The Japanese climate is notexactly conducive to mummification. There are no peat bogs, no arid deserts,and no alpine peaks perennially encased in ice. The summers are hot and humid.Yet somehow a group of Buddhist monks from the Shingon sect discovered a way tomummify themselves through rigorous ascetic training in the shadow of aparticularly sacred peak in the mountainous northern prefecture of Yamagata.

Between 1081 and 1903, atleast 17 monks managed to mummify themselves. The number may well be higher,however, as it is likely some mummies were never recovered from the alpinetombs.

These monks undertook such apractice in emulation of a ninth-century monk named Kūkai, known posthumouslyas Kōbō Daishi, who founded the esoteric Shingon school of Buddhism in 806. Inthe 11th century a hagiography of Kūkai appeared claiming that, upon his deathin 835, the monk did not die at all, but crawled into his tomb and enterednyūjō, a state of meditation so profound that it induces suspended animation.According to this hagiography, Kūkai plans to emerge in approximately 5.67million years to usher a predetermined number of souls into nirvana.

The first recorded attemptat becoming a sokushinbutsu, or “a Buddha in this very body,” through the actof self-mummification took place in the late 11th century. In 1081, a man namedShōjin attempted to follow Kūkai into nyūjō by burying himself alive. He, too,was hoping to come back in a far distant future for the good of mankind, butwhen Shōjin’s disciples went to retrieve his body, rot had set in. It wouldtake nearly two more centuries of trial and error before someone figured outhow to mummify himself and, they believed, cheat death to enter a state ofeternal meditation.

The process ofself-mummification is long and arduous, taking at minimum three years ofpreparation before death. Central to this preparation is a dietcalledmokujikigyō, literally “tree-eating training.” This diet can be tracedthrough Shugendō to the Taoist practice of abstention from cultivated grains.

For a thousand days, themokujikigyō diet limits practitioners to only what can be foraged on themountain, namely nuts, buds, and roots from trees. Some sources also reportthat berries may have entered the diet, as well as tree bark and pine needles.Time not spent foraging for food was passed in meditation on the mountain.

From a spiritualperspective, this regimen was intended to toughen the spirit and distanceoneself from the common human world. From a biological point of view, thesevere diet rid the body of fat, muscle, and moisture while also withholdingnutrients from the body’s natural biosphere of bacteria and parasites. Thecumulative effect was to arrest decomposition after death.

At the completion of athousand-day cycle on this diet, practitioners were considered spirituallyready to enter nyūjō. However, most monks completed two or even three cycles tofully prepare themselves. After the final cycle, the devout would cut out allfood, drink a limited amount of salinized water for a hundred days, andotherwise meditate upon the salvation of mankind while waiting to die.

Many believe that someadherents at this stage drank tea made from Toxicodendron verniculum tree bark.A kind of sumac, the Japanese lacquer tree is called such because it is used tomake traditional Japanese lacquer, urushi. Its bark contains the same toxiccompound that makes poison ivy so poisonous. If ingested by these monks, urushitea would have both hastened death and made the body even less hospitable tothe bacteria and parasites that aid in decomposition.

When the devout felt deathapproaching, his disciples would lower him into a pine box at the bottom of pitthree meters deep in a predetermined spot. They would then pack charcoal aroundthe box, insert a bamboo airway through the lid, and bury their master alive.Sitting in total darkness, the monk would meditate and regularly ring a bell tosignal that he was still alive. When the ringing ceased, the disciples wouldopen the tomb to confirm their master’s death, remove the bamboo airway, andseal the tomb.

A thousand days later, themonk would be disinterred and inspected for signs of decay. If any such signswere found, the body would be exorcised and reinterred with little fanfare. Ifnot, the body was determined to be a true sokushinbutsu and enshrined.

The last person to become asokushinbutsu did so illegally. A monk named Bukkai died in 1903, more thanthree decades after the ritual act was criminalized during the MeijiRestoration because the new government deemed it barbaric and backwards.

By then Japan had enteredthe modern age, and most people considered Bukkai more madman than sage. His remainswere not disinterred until 1961 by a team of researchers from TohokuUniversity, who were amazed by Bukkai’s pristine condition. Though he enterednyūjō in Yamagata, his remains now rest in Kanzeonji in neighboring NiigataPrefecture. There are 16 extant sokushibutsu in Japan, 13 of which arepreserved in the Tohoku region. Seven of the eight found in Yamagata remain inthe vicinity of Mt. Yudono, making it the ideal place for a pilgrimage.

The oldest and bestpreserved of these mummified monks can be found at Dainichibō, mentioned above.His name is Shinnyokai, and he entered nyūjō in 1783 at the age of 96. Like allthe others, he sits in the lotus position behind glass in a box on small shrinewithin the temple that looks after him. His skin is an ashen grey, pulledtaught over the bones of his hands, wrists, and face. His mouth is stretchedinto an eternal jackal’s grin, his face turned towards his lap.

Shinnyokai’s elaborate robesare ritually changed every six years, twice as often as all the othersokushinbutsu. The old robes are cut into small squares and placed insidepadded silk pouches that can be purchased for ¥1,000 as protective amulets.Testimonials sent in by people swearing by these talismans’ miraculous effectsare plastered around the base of Shinnyokai’s shrine.

Another sokushinbutsu,Tetsumonkai, resides at nearby Churenji, also mentioned above. Tetsumonkaientered nyūjō in 1829 at the age of 71, and of all thesokushinbutsu, his lifeis perhaps the best documented. Tetsumonkai was a commoner who killed a samuraiand ran away to join the priesthood, an act that allowed him full legalprotection. Later, Tetsumonkai visited the capital city Edo, present-day Tokyo.There he heard about an ophthalmic disease afflicting the city and gouged outhis own left eye as an act of merit that might counteract the malady.Incredibly, Tetsumonkai is one of several sokushinbutsu toauto-enucleate—remove one’s own eye—as a charitable act.

Tetsumonkai once served ashead priest at Honmyōji, a short drive from where his remains are now kept.Here he was charged with looking after anothersokushinbutsu, Honmyōkai, theoldest self-mummified monk in Yamagata. The samurai-turned-priest Honmyōkaispent a mindboggling 20 years in ascetic training until May 8, 1681, when hisdisciples lowered him, delirious with hunger, into a pit behind the temple andburied him alive. A massive, moss-covered stone epitaph marks the site whereHonmyōkai entered nyūjō amid a grove of pine trees only a few dozen metersbeyond the hall where his remains are now displayed.

These three sokushinbutsuare by far the closest to Mt. Yudono and the sites of their respectivetraining. Dainichibō and Churenji are accustomed to tourists, and on weekendsvisitors are likely to encounter gaggles of retirees being ushered on and offthe air-conditioned coaches that stop by these temples on their way to or fromMt. Yudono. The ¥500 admission Dainichibō and Churenji each charge, along withsales from protective amulets and other trinkets, keep the temple doors openand their history alive. Honmyōji charges no admission and receives fewerguests, but they’re still happy to show off their wish-granting mummy. Thetemples are happy with the attention and even went so far as to issue asokushinbutsu stamp card in 2015, along with Nangakuji in the nearby city ofTsuruoka, to encourage visitors to stop by all four temples.

Nangakuji housesTetsuryūkai, who was mummified in 1878, a decade after the practice was madeillegal. Tetsuryūkai died of illness before he could complete his training andso is not technically a sokushinbutsu. His body is artificially treated inorder to better preserve it, and the relatively simple shrine surrounding hisremains offer the closest look one can get of a mummified monk in Yamagata.Tetsuryūkai’s failure to properly enter nyūjō is written all over his face, theskin of which is peeling away from his nasal cavity.

Kaikōji houses twosokushinbutsu. Chūkai, who died in 1755, and his former disciple, Enmyōkai, whodied in 1822, now sit side by side in eternal meditation. Despite theirdifference in age you’d think they were brothers. They have the same taut,glossy and blackened skin, as well as the same bony hands, sunken eyes, andgaping toothy mouths.


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