Recently, many news sources announced the discovery of a 200-year-old Mongolian Buddhist monk’s mummy (Ba). While most of us are familiar with the Egyptians’ rigorous mummification rituals,not all mummies are produced the same way. Oftentimes, natural mummification can result from ideal environmental factors occurring after death. Certain Buddhist sects have incorporated practices that recreate these perfect environment in their rituals in order to encourage post-mortem preservation.
Death and Buddhism
In Buddhism, it is believed that there are four main forms of human suffering: birth, old age, sickness, and death. Buddhism is an attempt to overcome the pain of living through the achievement of Nirvana, which symbolizes the defeat of desire, attachment,and death itself. This triumph over death is reflected in the ability of certain individuals to control their reincarnations (e.g. incarnate lamas) or to stop the process of decomposition after death (Bernstein 5). Some believers claim that mummified monks have achieved a deep state of meditation that elevates them to a state in which they are neither alive nor dead (10). Although this practice exists in certain Buddhist sects, it is highly criticized in others, as it is believed to be anathema to the religion’s belief in impermanence.
The Sokushinbutsu are Japanese monks of the Shingon Buddhist sect who became mummies through a process that started before they were even dead. This was practiced from the 11th to the 19th century, and resulted in a few dozen mummies. It is thought that hundreds more aspiring monks failed to become mummies.
The process of self-mummification took nearly 10 years and was divided in three 1,000-day periods. The first involved a diet consisting of only nuts and seeds gathered around the temple complex. At the same time, the aspiring mummy had to endure rigorous physical activity such as “meditating under icy cold mountain streams for hours on end” (Lowe 2). This was done to significantly lower body fat.
In the second period, the diet is changed to a small amount of bark and roots from pine trees in order to decrease moisture in the body. Towards the end of this period, a tea made from the sap of the urushi tree, a toxic substance normally used to make lacquer, is ingested. This induced vomiting, sweating, and urination, which caused further dehydration. The accumulation of the toxic sap in the body also functioned as embalming fluid and ensured that insects could not proliferate and devour the body.
The third and final period required the mummy-to-be to be buried alive in a chamber only large enough to fit a person sitting lotus-style. Their only connection to the outside world was through a tube, which also provided their only source of oxygen. They were given a bell to ring every day to signal that they were still alive. Once the bell could not longer be heard, the tube would be removed and the chamber would be sealed shut. Whether a person had become a Buddha or not could only be determined, three years, once the body had been exhumed (Davis).
Although the practice is no longer legal in Japan, a few of the mummies uncovered are on display in temples around the country for those seeking religious enlightenment or macabre thrills.
BA, Oulimata. “Mongolian Buddhist Mummy, 200 Years Old, Is ‘Not Dead'” Headlines & Global News, Feb 07. 2015. Accessed Feb 8. 2015. http://www.hngn.com/articles/67228/20150207/mongolian-buddhist-mummy-200-years-old-dead.htm
BERNSTEIN, Anya. “MORE ALIVE THAN ALL THE LIVING: Sovereign Bodies and Cosmic Politics in Buddhist Siberia.” Cultural Anthropology 27, no. 2 (2012): 261-85.
DAVIS, Lauren. “The Gruesome and Excruciating Practice of Mummifying your Own Body.” io9, Feb 04. 2014. Accessed Feb 8. 2015. http://io9.com/the-gruesome-and-excruciating-practice-of-mummifying-yo-1515905564