Mummification is a fascinating way to preserve a person's remains, whether to be worshipped or because they're planning on using that body at a later date. But some people have gone to incredible lengths to prepare their own bodies for mummification while they were still alive.
Top image: Daijuku Bosatsu Shinnyokai-Shonin.
The most famous practitioners of self-mummification to modern readers are the sokushinbutsu—the Buddhas in the flesh—whose bodies have been found in Japan, primarily in Yamagata Prefecture. Some 24 individuals, mainly practitioners of Shingon Buddhism, have been found successfully self-mummified, their deaths dating between the 12th and early 20th centuries AD. However, the practice of self-mummification goes back further than that. In Science and Civilisation in China: Volume Five, the contributors speculate that self-mummification was originally a Taoist practice, and notes that, while the Japanese monks are the most famous self-mummifiers, cases of deliberate self-mummification have been recorded in China and India as well.
The practice of self-mummification among the monks of Yamagata came to light in the 1960s, after Kosei Ando and a team of researchers at Niigata University published Nihon no miira, an account of Japan's mummies, and Matsumoto Akira helped form the Japanese Mummy Research Group.
Mummies (miira) are not uncommon in Japan, but the far rarer practice of self-mummification, as you might imagine, is an extremely unpleasant one, attempted only by the most devoted of ascetics. So why go through all that trouble just to turn yourself into a particularly well preserved corpse? In Living Buddhas: The Self-Mummified Monks of Yamagata, Japan, Ken Jeremiah points out that many religions, including Christianity, have viewed the incorruptibility of the corpse as a sign of special grace or supernatural ability. There are many accounts (many of them likely apocryphal) of highly spiritual individuals dying during prayer or meditation and failing to decay after several days. Where sokushinbutsu was concerned, a successful act of self-mummification meant the successful execution of a final spiritual practice. If, after an attempt at self-mummification, the attempted practitioner was found decayed, it was taken as a sign that the spiritual goal had not been achieved.
So what was that spiritual goal? Jeremiah notes that the idea of preserving the body runs contrary to much of Buddhist scripture, which is less concerned with the physical body than with the spiritual component. However, it's important to remember that the sokushinbutsu of Yamagata were members of the issei gyonin sect of Shingon Buddhism, which married esoteric Buddhism with indigenous spiritual practices, and utilized aspects of Daoism and Hinduism. They were practitioners of shugendō, a spiritual practice closely linked with mountain dwellers, known as shugenja, who believed they attained special powers through ascetic acts. The biographies of successful sokushinbutsu (the ones that have known biographies; some information on the lives of sokushinbutsu have been lost or destroyed over time) include tales of everything from meditating under waterfalls and in caves to gouging out their own eyes.
Taoist practitioners of self-mummification saw the practice not as suicide, but as a path to immortality, and similarly, the sokushinbutsu saw the process as transcendance rather than death. Kosei Ando linked the practice to the bodhisattva Maitreya—the future Buddha who, in the meantime resides in Tuṣita Heaven —suggesting that sokushinbutsu employed their practice to aid Maitreya. They would remain in their mummified state, which was viewed as a death-like trance, for 5.67 billion years until they would be called upon to assist Maitreya for the benefit of all humankind. However, in the essay "In Search of a New Interpretation of Ascetic Experiences" from the book Rethinking Japan, Massimo Raveri seems to prefer the interpretation of Miyata Noboru, who sees a sense of optimism in the worship of the sokushinbutsu, whom it is said, will wake to "acclaim the new reincarnation of the Buddha in the world" and perhaps are the bodhisattva themselves. Whatever the specifics of their spiritual quest, the sokushinbutsu would have undertaken self-mummification as a form of spiritual transformation for the benefit of others.
Mummifying yourself is not a thing you do on the spur of the moment, especially in Japan's humid climates. In fact, there is a 3,000-day "training" process for turning an ordinary ascetic's body into a mummy's. The key element of the process is dietary; Japanese ascetics would commonly abstain from cereals, removing wheat, rice, foxtail millet, pros so millet, and soybeans. Instead, they would eat things like nuts, berries, pine needles, tree bark, and resin (which is why the diet of the sokushinbutsu was called mokujikyo, or "tree-eating." Over time, the diet would become more restrictive, starving the body of nutrients and eliminating the fat and moisture that can encourage bodily decay after death; X-rays of sokushinbutsu have even shown river stones in the guts of mummies. Jeremiah suggests that, beyond the weight loss, some aspects of the diet may have helped with the preservation of the body after death. For example, certain herbs and toxic cycad nuts may have inhibited bacterial growth. And at least some sokushinbutsu are said to have drunk a tea made from urushi, the sap of Toxicodendron vernicifluum, which is typically used to make lacquer. In addition to facilitating vomiting, the urushi may have functioned as a sort of embalming fluid, rendering the body toxic to potential flesh-eating invaders.
Once the ascetic was prepared to attempt to become a sokushinbutsu, it's said he would step into a tiny burial chamber and has himself buried alive, with a small opening to allow air inside the chamber. There he would sit, chanting sutra and ringing a bell to signal that he was still alive. Once the bell stopped ringing, the chamber would be completely sealed, and after three years it would be opened again to see if the attempt at self-mummification proved successful.
Hundreds of people are thought to have attempted this form of self-mummifcation, and it's not known how many were successful. However, you can visit some of the successful sokushinbutsu at their shrines. Famously, Daijuku Bosatsu Shinnyokai-Shonin, who mummified himself at the age of 96 in 1783, sits in the Ryusui-ji Dainichibou Temple in Tsuruoka City, Yamagata Prefecture. If, when your burial chamber was opened, your body was found preserved, then you could be worshipped as a sokushinbutsu. You could be dressed in robes and placed in a shrine where humanity could await your reawakening. Here, there is actually a small cheat in the self-mummification process; if the body was not decayed but not totally preserved, the skin would actually be treated with incense smoke to ensure it would last.
However, changing mores and laws meant that not all successful sokushinbutsu were enshrined. When the priest and ascetic Bukkai Shonin died in 1903, he was interred and was supposed to be exhumed after three years, but exhumation was illegal in Japan at that point in time. When Bukkai was eventually exhumed, it was in 1961 by a team of researchers, who found the ascetic quite well preserved.
And if your body was found rotting when the tomb was opened? Well, then no worship for your remains. An exorcism would be performed and the remains would be reburied. All those years of self-starvation those final days spent alone in a dark chamber, and your remains become an object of caution rather than worship.