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The Japanese monks who mummify themselves


Yamagata, Japan is home to hot springs, gorges, and waterfalls.  It is a prefecture covered with mountains, and it gets a tremendous amount of snow, making it a popular ski destination.  Mount Gassan (1,984 meters), one of the three sacred mountains of the region, gets so much snow that visitors can ski up until July, and Zao is one of the countries most sought-after hot springs, known for its healing qualities. 

Within temples hidden deep in the mountainous region of Yamagata, on steep slopes and in wooded valleys, sit a number of dead monks.  They sit in meditative posture, their skeletal remains covered in priestly robes, their hands clutching Buddhist prayer beads or other ritual instruments. 

Shinnyokai Shônin, at Dainichibô Temple

Although some have been dead for more than 300 years, most of these corpses still have flesh covering their hands and faces.  They engaged in a peculiar practice of self-mummification, a rite performed by members of the Yudono sect of Shugend­, a religious tradition that stresses ascetic training and self-sacrifice.  These individuals underwent a process known as sokushin j­butsu: becoming a Buddha in this very body.  
 
Shinny­kai, in c.1775, decided to mummify himself, a process that takes ten years.  He began what is called the 3,000 day training.  For 1,000 days, he ate nothing but twigs and berries, each day climbing to the top of Mount Yudono and back to a temple called Dainichib­, where his body now rests.  For the next 1,000 days, he ate pine bark and resin, which function as a preservative.  For the final 1,000 days, he drank tea made from urushi, which was used to make lacquer.  It was a toxic substance, but he did not drink enough at one time to kill himself.  Rather, toxins built up in the body, protecting it from desecration by insects or animals after his death.  In 1783, he dug a pit near Dainichib­ Temple and sealed himself in a wooden coffin within.  A bamboo breathing tube was in place to provide oxygen, and he meditated underground until his death.  He died while ringing a bell and praying to Amida Buddha at the age of 96.

Within walking distance from Dainichib­ is a temple called Churenji, which houses another self-mummified monk named Tetsumonkai (1768-1829).  While young, he killed two samurai in self-defense and fled to Churenji Temple, where he was sheltered by the head priest.  In time, he became a dedicated believer and was seen as an especially holy man.  He committed himself to curing the eye diseases that were occurring in Edo and offered his eyes to the deity of Mount Yudono.  Before his death he cut out his own left eye and threw it into the Sumida River, praying for a cure.  Later, he buried himself alive, becoming another self-mummified monk.  Today he is worshipped as a Buddha that can cure eye diseases.

Dainichib­ and Churenji Temples are both located near one of the most spiritual places according to Shugend­ faith: Yudono Mountain.  Yudono is one of the three holy mountains collectively called Dewa Sanzan.  The other two are Haguro and Gassan.  Mount Haguro symbolizes birth, Gassan death, and Yudono rebirth.

Between the shrine on Mount Yudono and Churenji Temple is an unusual and allegedly supernatural place called senninzawa, where many self-mummified monks trained in austerities.  It is three kilometers away from Yudono Shrine.  Sennin translates as ¡°hermit¡±, ¡°ascetic¡±, or ¡°unworldly man¡±, while sawa (pronounced zawa in combination with another word) means ¡°mountain stream¡± or ¡°swamp¡±.  Thus, the term can be translated as ¡°Swamp of Wizards¡±.  Generally, ascetic practitioners (Jp. Isse gy­nin) would train for several years at a monastery before beginning a secluded life at the Swamp of Wizards.  Those that trained at the Swamp often donned white robes and pointed hats, and they grew long beards and moustaches.

A man named Honmy­kai spent almost a decade in the Swamp of Wizards practicing austerities such as mokujiki (abstention of grains) before burying himself alive in 1683.  He was a samurai warrior and retainer of Lord Sakai, the daimy­ (feudal lord) of Tsuruoka.  After his lord became seriously ill, Honmy­kai became an ascetic at Yudono in order to pray for his recovery.  After many years of training in the Swamp, he supposedly gained superhuman powers, and in 1673, he decided to mummify himself.  After ten years of spiritual discipline and a restrictive diet, he buried himself alive in a stone chamber.  Upon death, his followers removed him from his coffin, dried his body with incense and charcoal, and then reburied the remains.  Three years later, he was disinterred and enshrined at a temple called Honmy­ji, a temple erected by Lord Sakai himself, who did recover, for his samurai retainer turned priest: Honmy­kai.

There are approximately twenty self-mummified monks in Japan; most of which are clustered around the three holy mountains of Yamagata.  Photography is not permitted at the shrine on Mount Yudono, and visitors are warned not to reveal what is seen there.  In the great hall of Dainichib­ Temple there is a statue of a deity called Fud­ My­­, one of the four Guardian Kings of Buddhism, with a sword shoved into his mouth, reminding visitors to remain silent about what they have witnessed.

Perhaps this is the reason that few know about these mummified monks.  Even in Japan, people first learned about the existence of these corpses in 1962.  Before that, their lives and deeds, as well as the painstaking process necessary to self-mummify, were known only by a few people that were either associated with the Yudono sect or the individual temples where bodies are displayed.

REFERENCES

Demi¦ville, Paul. 1965. ¡°Momies d¡Extrºme-Orient¡±. Journal des Savants. 144-170

Hijikata, Masashi. 1996. Nihon no Miira Butsu wo Tazunete. Tokyo: Shabunshou.

Hitoshi, Miyake. 2001. Shugend­: Essays on the Structure of Japanese Folk Religion. Michigan: Ann Arbor Center for Japanese Studies, The University of Michigan.

Hori, Ichiro. 1962. ¡°Self-mummified Buddhas in Japan: An aspect of Shugen-do (mountain asceticism) sect¡±. History of Religions 1(2): 222-242.

Jeremiah, Ken. 2006. ¡°Taya Cave¡±. Kansai Time Out. 352: 35

Jeremiah, Ken. 2007. ¡°Asceticism and the pursuit of death by warriors and monks¡±. Journal of Asian Martial Arts. (16)2: 18-33

Massimo, Raveri. 1992. Il corpo e il paradiso: Esperienze ascetiche in Asia Orientale. Venice, Italy: Marsilio Editori

Matsumoto, Akira. 2002. Nihon no Miira Butsu. Tokyo: Rokk­ Shuppan.

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