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Self-mummification: Sokushinbutsu

by Debdutta Bose 2 years ago in religion
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We are all aware of the mummies of Egypt, and we are always wondering how the Egyptians were so much progress with medical science. But there was a practice of self-mummification amongst the Buddhist monks till the 19th century until Japan made it illegal. The Sokushinbutsu process is as it sounds, no other hand is needed to mummify the dead body. The person who wants to undergo such a process brings on him a harsh routine and strict diet along with a drink of poisonous tea.

We are all aware of the mummies of Egypt, and we are always wondering how the Egyptians were so much progress with medical science. But there was a practice of self-mummification amongst the Buddhist monks till the 19th century until Japan made it illegal. The Sokushinbutsu process is as it sounds, no other hand is needed to mummify the dead body. The person who wants to undergo such a process brings on him a harsh routine and strict diet along with a drink of poisonous tea.

Not only Japan, but India has its own self mummified body in the Himalayas. There is a corpse of 550-year-old Buddhist monks in the village of Gue, Spiti, Himachal Pradesh. The mummified body has been identified as the body of Shanga Tenzin, a Buddhist monk. It is believed that the village of Gue was under an attack of hoards of a scorpion. To relieve the villagers from such a gruesome nightmare, Shanga decided to self mummify himself. Folklores suggest that after he died, the scorpions left the village. The mummified corpse, however, when found was not leaning against anything. And still this day, the corpse sits upright. The monk died while he sat straight, and the Sokushinbutsu took place.

The most number of self mummified bodies were found in Japan, primarily in Yamagata prefecture. Around 24 self mummified bodies were found who were believed to be the practitioners of Shingon Buddhism. Their dates of death lie between the vast timeline from the 12th century to 20th century A.D. But various sources contribute to the fact about the origin of this process. The book “Science and Civilization in China: volume five” described this process as a Taoist practice. The practice of Sokushinbutsu among the monks came to be known after the practice amongst Yamagata monks came into light in 1960.

Image Source - Google, Copyright - Voyapon

To undergo oneself through Sokushinbutsu is not a task or decision that is taken out of the blue, given the strenuous process of it. There is a process by which a normal ascetic can turn into a self mummified body. It’s an elongated 3000-day training process. The key element as I have said earlier is dietary. The ascetics who decide to go through the process would refrain themselves from having cereals, wheat, rice, millet, and soybeans. Instead of these, they had nuts, berries, pine needles, tree bark, and resin. The consumption of tree eating process is called mokujikyo which is an integral part of Sokushinbutsu. As time passes by, the diet for Sokushinbutsu would become more restrictive, and the body would start digesting itself. The body would be devoid of any kind of nutrients, eliminating fat and moisture from the body, which would help the decay and decomposition to slow down. The bodies found in Japan of the Taoist monks underwent X-Ray. The X-Ray result showed that there were river stones in the guts of those self mummified bodies. Apart from this diet which accelerated the weight loss, they took certain herbs and toxic cycad nuts along with poisonous tea that is called Urushi found in the saps of Toxicodendron vernicifluum. They are catalysts that enabled potential flesh-eating invaders that ate up the muscles and fats.

Once the ascetic started the process and they would turn fragile, they would step into a burial chamber with a small opening that functioned as an air duct and a bell attached to it. They would ring the bell every day and then one day the bell would stop ringing, which will signify the ascetic has died. The grave would then be sealed completely and after a long period of time, the grave would be opened to see if the process was successful or not. This is the whole process of Sokushinbutsu. The self mummified body of Shanga Tenzin can still be seen in the Gau village of Himachal Pradesh. Researchers believe that there are more self mummified bodies that are hidden in the depths of Himalayas.

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Debdutta Bose

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