Sokushinbutsu: Tales Of Living Buddhas’ Self Mummification

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Self-Mummified body of Body of Chukai (Image: © Dr Ken Jeremiah)

Sokushinbutsu: Tales Of Living Buddhas’ Self Mummification

Immuring themselves in an underground stone chamber, sealed tight, waiting to die: that is what more than 24 known individuals did in northern Japan from the 1200s until the 19th century, though it may have been done before that timeframe and even after the Meiji restoration in 1867.  The practice likely originated in India or China centuries before. This process is known as sokushinbutsu: becoming a Buddha in this very body, becoming a Buddha while still alive.  Individuals who engaged in this process adopted an ascetic life.  They often trained at a location called Senninzawa, and the name reflects those who trained there, as sennin can translate to “otherworldly humans” and sawa, pronounced zawa when combined with other words, means “mountain stream,” thus suggesting that individuals who went on to mummify themselves trained in a mountainous area near a stream.  This they did. 

The body of the monk, Honnyokai who achieved self-mummification (Image: © Dr Ken Jeremiah)

The body of the monk, Honnyokai who achieved self-mummification (Image: © Dr Ken Jeremiah)

The Tribulations Of The Sennin

Stones mark the accomplishments of the ascetics who trained there; some are so worn down that they are impossible to read, but others tell the tales (or mark the accomplishments) of ascetics who trained there, whether they were successful or not: Zenkai, who abstained from cereals in Shimekake for more than 1,000 days before dying and Unkai, who confined himself inside Yudono shrine for almost 25 years, doing nothing more than meditating.


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