The Practice of Self-Mummification

Some religious practices are quite interesting to learn about, and then there are those that are horrifying to many of us. It’s called “Sokushinbutsu”, a religious practice that has luckily come to pass. It may seem crazy to most of us today, but this practice was not so alien centuries ago. Also known as self-mummification, this tradition was one that Buddhist monks often underwent in Japan.

The first question one would likely ask is why? Why would a person purposely choose to go through a torturous process when they didn’t have to? The reason- enlightenment. Buddhist monks believed that the process was a way to achieve the highest form of enlightenment there is. They believed their sacrifice was for all mankind. To achieve self-mummification was to become a worshipped individual in their eyes.

This journey isn’t done on a whim. In fact, the willing monks commit to 3,000 days of training, about eight years altogether, to prepare them for the transitional period of transforming their living body into one that will be, hopefully, a lasting relic. Their first focus was on their diet. The monks committed to a diet of just nuts and berries for the first 1,000 days. The next 1,000 days were known as the “tree-eating” phase, as the monks would only eat tree bark, bine needles, and resin.

The reason for this extreme and bizarre diet was to waste their bodies away through starvation and dehydration. Water and fat are materials that promote decaying after a person dies, which is why the monks strove to rid their bodies of as much of both as they could. A tea made out of Urushi tree bark was also a large part of their diet, as this tea contained abrasive chemicals that would speed up the process of death while aiding in the preservation of the body.

When the preparation time came to an end, the monks would willingly place themselves in a chamber that was barely bigger than their bodies. The chamber would be placed about ten feet into the ground and covered with charcoal. A bamboo rod would be placed to allow the monk to breathe while inside. As the monk remained in this position, meditating, they would ring a bell to signify that they were still alive each day. When the ringing stopped, it would be assumed that the monk had passed away. The chamber would be kept underground for a remaining 1,000 days, after which it was excavated and opened. If the body didn’t show signs of decay, the skin would be treated with incense to help preserve it. The body was now ready to be worshipped.