Do you ever think to yourself – “God, how truly wonderful it would be if I buried myself underground, lived off of nuts, roots, and water, whilst ingesting poison for three years and three months?” Well, someone in Japan did. “Hold my beer,” they said as they put the masochists of the world to shame.
The practice of sokushinbutsu (buddhahood in this very body) was thought to have been brought over from China by Japanese monks. The practice begins with the monk slowly reducing their diet from grains such as lentils, rice, soybeans, and sesame, to eating only nuts, grass, and roots found in the local mountains, thus removing any body fat, and helping prepare them for the mummification. They also ingest a poisonous tree bark which, besides from slowly killing you, also has the added health benefit of drying out your organs so they don’t decompose once you become an undead holy husk. Once the monk feels they approach death, they go in an underground pit where they chant the nenbutsu (a buddhist mantra). Eventually, they would also abstain from water, helping further shrink and dry out their organs and body. This process would take usually take around 3,300 days. There would be a small bell in the chamber, and the imprisoned monk would ring it every morning to signal he is still alive. When he stopped ringing the bell, the other monks would know he is dead. They would wait three years and three months, and then proceed to clean and dress the monk in new robes. The self-mummified monk would become a holy relic at a temple, where people would come to pray for health, guidance, and good fortune.
“Cool story, but why though,” I hear you ask. This particular sect of buddhists believed that by doing this practice they would become one with the cosmic Buddha, and their sacrifice would help alleviate the misfortunes of those living around them.
The most famous of these monks is probably Tetsumonkai. He famously killed a Samurai, who, while drunk, dismissed Tetsumonkai’s warnings that the dam at the local river was about to collapse due to a recent flood. The two fought and the samurai was slain. To escape punishment for his crimes, he became a monk. He was a devoted monk, and as early as his 20s, he had decided that he wanted to become a sokushinbutsu in order to help the people. When a nearby volcano erupted and showered the surrounding area with ash, many people got an eye disease. He took his own left eye out and cast it into the Sumida River as an offering to the deity of Mt. Yudono so that the people’s eye disease may be cured. At the age of 71, or 91, texts differ, he began the process of becoming a sokushinbutsu.
There are 18 of these mummies across Japan. The most famous of these can be found in Tsuruoka, Yamagata prefecture, Japan. They can be found at Dainichibo, Honmyou, Kaiko, and Nangaku temple. There are monks present which will tell you the history of the sokushinbutsu. Unfortunately for you English-speakers, that’s only available in Japanese. However, there are English-speaking staff at Dainichibo who can give you know-how of what’s what.
Tetsumonkai’s robes are changed every 6 years by local monks. You can view the ceremony, however, the changing of his underwear is done behind a screen, presumably to preserve his divine, uh, integrity. Though you would think once you’ve starved and poisoned yourself for years, died and become a god, a little exhibitionism wouldn’t be a problem, but hey, we’re all slaves to propriety it seems, gods and all. The old robes are cut up into small pieces and put inside talismans you can purchase to secure your health and good fortune – the latter seeming rather superfluous, as once you know what these guys went through, any fate seems a fortunate one in comparison. Mission achieved, I guess.