Sokushinbutsu was the practice of self-mummification observed by the ancient devout of the Shingon Buddhism sect, an esoteric, often secretive school of Buddhist thought. Though it was outlawed in the 19th century, the ritual of Sokushinbutsu was a grueling self-mummification process undergone with the goal of becoming a “living” Buddha.
The Process of Sokushinbutsu
The process of Sokushinbutsu involved 1000 days of eating a diet of nuts and seeds combined with rigorous physical exercise, which would eliminate most if not all body fat. After that another 1000 days eating only bark and roots while drinking a poisonous tea to render the body inedible to maggots. After this, monks retreated into a small underground tomb where they meditated until death, their body hopefully eternally preserved. Though most attempts at sokushinbutsu ended in failure, about two dozen monks succeeded. Their remains are on display across Japan and they are revered as Buddhas.
Though the process of self-mummification would be considered suicide by most minds of today, in ancient Japan it was thought of not as something negative, but a devote “renunciation of the body.”
Suicide in Japan
Since Buddhism doesn’t place the same taboo on suicide as many western religions, a practice like sokushinbustu is much better tolerated in the East than the West. Ancient Japanese culture especially, embraced suicide as an appropriate response to one’s problems. Ancient samurai would rather face death than dishonor, and self-termination was preferred to defeat at an enemy’s hand. Even those not among the samurai class would take their lives if they could not reconcile their private feelings with their public responsibilities. Forbidden lovers committed double suicide believing that if they called out to the Amida Buddha (a messiah-like Buddha) in their final moments, their spirits would be reunited in his paradise in the afterlife. Such “love suicides” were romanticized throughout classical Japanese literature. The most famous story is Chikamatsu Monzaemon’s “the love suicide of Amijima.”
Religious suicide was even revered. Sokushinbutsu was only one form. Those seeking the paradise of the Amida Buddha would drown themselves in the sea off Tennoji, which became famous for such “bodily renunciations.” Participants sought to die in a manner that allowed thoughts of the Amida Buddha to consume their last moments and die with his name on their lips, which would ensure reincarnation in his paradise. Those who “renounced” their body this way were often cheered on by a crowd of spectators come to share in the “blessing.”
Other instances of religious suicide were carried out in seeking the deity Kannon’s paradise, Fudaraku. It was believed to be an actual physical place in India, though this meant it was so far removed from Japan that attempting the journey was as much a death sentence as sokushinbutsu. Knowing this, pilgrims to the earthly paradise would cast themselves adrift in the ocean on their quest to find Fudaraka, sealed away in a rudderless boat and trusting in Kannon to deliver them there. Though that’s not to say that journeys to India were impossible. Several monks made the journey to the land of Buddhism’s origins, including Kobo Daishi himself, Shingon’s founder, who received its teaching there. These journeys however, were made in order to further learning in Buddhism rather than seeking a land of eternal bliss.
It may seem strange to Western minds to commit suicides like Sokushinbutsu to achieve a better “nextlife,” but the same could be said of Western religions. Death is not the end, just the beginning of an even longer, more important afterlife. Had not suicide been sin, it could easily be understood why deeply devoted individuals would want to “cast off their flesh” and inherit eternal life a bit quicker than otherwise planned. According to Buddhism, which believes in reincarnation, you were in fact not killing anything at all, just moving onto the next stage of a cycle of life destined to end, eventually, in Nirvana.
That is not to say Buddhism supports suicide, mind you. In the sutras, the sacred texts of Buddhism, suicide was likened to a pregnant mother ripping open her stomach to get at the baby sooner–killing both in the process. Sokushinbustu being an exception, ancient religious suicides were usually carried out by the old or those who worried they would not be able to die in a manner that would ensure a better reincarnation. If one died with negative thoughts or grudges, they could turn into a vengeful spirit instead, which in turn could degenerate into even worse reincarnations.
Why Mummify Yourself?
And why does doing so amount to Buddhahood? The answer is that Sokushinbutsu emulates Shingon’s founder, Kobo Daishi. Even over a thousand years after he lived, he is believed not to be dead, but in eternal meditation inside a cave in Mt. Koya, the headquarters of the Shigon sect.
Japanese Buddhists once believed that those destined to become Buddhas would know the time of their death beforehand. Towards the end of his life, Kobo Daishi began refusing food and drink, then, on the twenty-first day of the third moon, slipped into a cave and began an eternal meditation. According to legend, he bypassed death by remaining in that state, alive, even until this day. The practice of Sokushinbutsu emulates his eternal state. (Though perhaps not so well.)
Though sokushinbutsu was mainly practiced in Yamagata prefecture, the headquarters of the Shingon sect is in Mt. Koya in Wakayama, where the shrine built by Kobo Daishi still stands. More of a community than a temple, the entire mountain and all its 117 smaller temples together are considered “Kongobunji temple” by monks. Though it’s open to the public, much about Shingon buddhism remains secret and it’s one of the least understood schools of Buddhism in Japan. It’s teachings are only passed down orally, and only to the initiated. Having given birth to practices like sokushinbutsu and historically known to use mikkyo (magical secret techniques) it remains a source of interest and intrigue.