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Buddhist Mummies in Japan

Written by Maciamo on 11 November 2003 (updated in June 2009)

It may come as a surprise to a lot of visitors to Japan, and sometimes to Japanese people themselves, that Japan has its own mummies. They are called sokushinbutsu (即身仏), unlike the Egyptian or other mummies called miira (ミイラ, a word originally from Portuguese).

Contrarily to Egyptian mummies, the Japanese ones were not embalmed after the person's death. The term sokushinbutsu means "living Buddha". To reach this status Buddhist monks are trained for most of their life to the strictest religious austerities of the Mokujiki, living only on water and nuts and meditating all day. This process make them lose as much body mass as can be done while staying alive.

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Once they feel ready the ascetics fast completely for weeks, then are buried alive in a wooden box in the earth and left to meditate, leading to a progressive mummification and eventually death. They are then dug up by their pupils 1,000 days later and if they appearance has stayed unchanged, they are given the status of sokushinbutsu. Needless to say that it must have been horribly painful, except of course if you are a Buddhist monk and "suffering" is just an illusion to you.

The practice was encouraged during periods of famine as a way to cope without food following the way of the Buddha. Nowadays the practice of sokushinbutsu is prohibited by law, as it is a form of suicide.

These mummies are still considered by some locals as kami-sama, a word typically translated as "god" or "deity". It may seem odd to Westerners, but the term is actually quite broad and can be applied to the spirits of Nature in Shintoism, or to the divine status of Japanese emperors and some exceptional men. It has nothing to do with the omniscient and omnipotent monotheistic view of God.

Ryusuiji's Mummy
Nangakuji's Mummy
Zoukouin's Mummy

Japanese mummies are found around the Yamagata Prefecture, in the Tohoku region (northern Japan). There may not be more than 6 of them. The most famous is the one from Ryusui-ji Dainichibou temple (瀧水寺大日坊, Shingon sect) in Tsuruoka city. It is the mummy of the monk Daijuku Bosatsu Shinnyokai-Shonin (1687-1783). After 70 years of life as an ascetic, who became a sokushinbutsu at the age of 96, after 42 consecutive days of fasting.

Other mummies can be seen at the Nangaku-ji temple 南岳寺) also in Tsuruoka, a third one at the Zoukou-in temple (蔵高院, Zen Soutou sect) in Shirataka city,, and a fourth at the Kaikou-ji temple (海向寺, Jisan Shingon sect) in Sakata city.

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