From Buddha World

The Siberian Buryat lama Dashi-Dorzho Itigilov (1852–1927) aroused considerable interest in recent years, as his body was retrieved in a perfect state of mummification in 2002. Monks whose bodies remain incorrupt without any traces of deliberate mummification are venerated by some Buddhists who believe they successfully were able to mortify their flesh to death. "Buddhists say that only the most advanced masters can fall into some particular condition before death and purify themselves so that his dead body could not decay." Many Mahayana Buddhist monks were reported to know the time of death and left their last testaments and their students accordingly buried them sitting in lotus posture, put into a vessel with full of such as coal, wood, paper or lime and surrounded by bricks, and be exhumed after usually 3 years. The preserved bodies would be painted with paints and sticked with gold. Victor H. Mair claims that hundreds of mummified bodies of Tibetan monks were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution or were cremated by the Lamaists in order to prevent their desecration.[citation needed] Also according to Mair, the self-mummification of a Tibetan monk, who died ca. 1475 and whose body was retrieved relatively incorrupt in the 1990s, was achieved by the sophisticated practices of meditation, coupled with prolonged starvation and slow self-suffocation using a special belt that connected the neck with his knees in a lotus position. Bodies purported to be those of self-mummified monks are exhibited in several Japanese shrines, and it has been claimed that the monks, prior to their death, stuck to a sparse diet made up of salt, nuts, seeds, roots, pine bark, and urushi tea. Some of them were buried alive in a pine-wood box full of salt.


Sokushinbutsu were Buddhist monks or priests who allegedly caused their own deaths in a way that resulted in their being mummified. This practice reportedly took place almost exclusively in northern Japan around the Yamagata Prefecture. It is believed that many hundreds of monks tried, but only between 16 and 24 such mummifications have been discovered to date. For 1,000 days (a little less than three years) the priests 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. They then ate only bark and roots for another thousand days and began drinking a poisonous tea made from the sap of the Urushi tree, normally used to lacquer bowls. This caused vomiting and a rapid loss of bodily fluids, and most importantly, it made the body too poisonous to be eaten by maggots. Finally, a self-mummifying monk would lock himself in a stone tomb barely larger than his body, where he would not move from the lotus position. His only connection to the outside world was an air tube and a bell. Each day he rang a bell to let those outside know that he was still alive. When the bell stopped ringing, the tube was removed and the tomb sealed. After the tomb was sealed, the other monks in the temple would wait another 1,000 days, and open the tomb to see if the mummification was successful. If the monk had been successfully mummified, they were immediately seen as a Buddha and put in the temple for viewing. Usually, though, there was just a decomposed body. Although they weren't viewed as a true Buddha if they weren't mummified, they were still admired and revered for their dedication and spirit. As to the origin of this practice, there is a common suggestion that Shingon school founder Kukai brought this practice from Tang China as part of secret tantric practices he learned, and that were later lost in China. The practice was satirized in the story "The Destiny That Spanned Two Lifetimes" by Ueda Akinari, in which such a monk was found centuries later and resuscitated. The story appears in the collection Harusame Monogatari.

Mummification in other Buddhist traditions

While mummification does occur as a funeral custom in a variety of Buddhist traditions, it is not a common practice; cremation is more common. Many mahayana buddhist monks knew the time of death and left their last testaments and their students accordingly buried them sitting in lotus posture, put into a vessel full of coal, wood, paper and/or lime and surrounded by bricks, and be exhumed after usually 3 years. The preserved bodies would be painted with paints and sticked with gold. Many were so respected that they were preserved by their students. They were called corporal bodhisattvas. Many were destroyed during the cultural revolution in China, some were preserved, such as Huineng and Kim Kiaokak, and some have been discovered recently. One such was Shi Cihang in Taiwan. Other notable examples of Buddhist mummification (Dashi-Dorzho Itigilov in Siberia, Loung Pordaeng in Thailand, and a 15th-century Tibetan monk from Northern India examined by Victor Mair in the documentary "The Mystery of the Tibetan Mummy". While the documentary suggests that the monk may have consumed poisonous matters on purpose, there is no proof of such practice for any of the mentioned persons, so the poisonous substances occasionally found in their remains may have been applied to their corpses by their followers.

Popular culture

In the Megami Tensei games, a practitioner of Sokushinbutsu known as Daisoujou makes numerous appearances in the games. The character is portrayed as a preserved skeleton wearing yellow clothing and holding a bell. In the Inu Yasha series, a monk by the name of Saint Hakushin went through the process of Sokushinbutsu in times of famine and war in order to be able to protect his people forever as a living buddha. However, as he neared death he became disgusted that those he had spent his life protecting were now anxiously awaiting his death. Thus, though he successfully completed the process and served the people as a buddha for many years, he was willing to assist the demon Naraku with a powerful holy barrier.

Buddhist Texts
Buddhist Texts