Starving to Death: The Strange Mummifying Practice of Japanese Buddhists

Sokushinbutsu was a strange practice of starving to death followed by Japanese monks to achieve buddha.

It’s common for monks to give up every worldly thing they own and live the life of a hermit but to give up food and water till you starve to death and become a mummy, how exactly does one do that, and more importantly why would someone do it?

The practice is known as Sokushinbutsu, or becoming “a Buddha in this body.” Between 1081 and 1903 more than 20 monks mummified themselves in an attempt to achieve Sokushinbutsu. Many monks tried to mummify themselves but as far as only 24 such mummifications have been discovered to date.

Throughout Japan, there are around 20 Sokushinbutsu monks and 17 of them are open to viewing.

The monks worked to dehydrate the body from the inside out, ridding the self of fat, muscle, and moisture before being buried in a pine box to meditate through their last days on Earth. It use to take at least 3 years to mummify themselves.

How was Sokushinbutsu Practiced?

It was done in phases. The practice would last for years and only a very few had made it to the end.

The first phase would last about 1,000 days. And they would begin the self-mummification process by embarking on a very rigorous low-calorie diet. The priest would eat a special diet consisting only of nuts and seeds while taking part in a regimen of rigorous physical activity that stripped them of their body fat.

In order to begin the self-mummification process, the monks would adopt a rigorous diet foraging through nearby forests these monks would survive only on tree roots nuts berries tree bark and pine.

In the second phase of the process, the practitioner would be imbibing the urushi tea. Now, urushi tea is highly toxic. However, it was believed to the lacquer, basically, the tissues and organs from the inside out in order to favor the mummification process. And because of its toxicity, the flesh was so poisonous that even maggots would not consume it.

When they were nearly dead, they would go into a small chamber just big enough to sit in the lotus position. It would be sealed up except for a reed that allowed a little air in. And inside, the monk had a bell.

The buried monk would meditate in total darkness and ring the bell to indicate that he was alive. When the ringing stopped monks above the ground assumed that the underground monk had died. They would proceed to seal the tomb where they would leave the corpse to lie for another thousand days.

After 1,000 days, they would open it to see if the mummification was successful. If the bodies had been mummified, they were regarded as living Buddhas. They would be redressed in priestly robes and displayed in special temple halls.

If they had not been mummified, an exorcism was performed, and they were simply buried.

What was the Purpose?

One of the central beliefs of Buddhism is reincarnation. It was believed that those who successfully complete the self-mummification process would become higher beings. The idea was they didn’t think they were dying. They perceived this as a state of suspended animation.

It was no death for them. It wasn’t life. It was somewhere in between. They needed the body preserved to enter this other dimension of reality and to continue life, although it’s not life as we would interpret it.

Practitioners of self-mummification saw this practice not as suicide but as a path to immortality.

Many perceive Buddha as a person but according to Buddhism, it’s a state. Any living being can achieve buddha if he walks on the path to enlightenment. Perhaps this was what they were trying to do or at least they believed.

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