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Sokushinbutsu: Unbelieveable Self Mummification of Japanese Buddhist Monks

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Unraveling the Morbid Art of Sokushinbutsu

In my last hub, I brought to light the ancient Japanese legend of Ubasute, where men would carry their mothers to the top of a mountain or to a desolate area for them to eventually perish. Thankfully, I never found any documentation of this within history. This time, I'm going a bit further into Japanese history. This time, what I am writing for you is not just a legend; it is the ritual of mummification of the Sokushinbutsu. I will warn that this hub is probably not for the faint of heart, but for those who are interested in the many taboo and unbelieveable acts in history. Proceed at your own risk, and I hope for those of you that continue, that it inspires you to share your thoughts and follow. This hub follows a very disturbing ritual!

Statue of Lord Bhudda

Statue of Lord Bhudda

If You Like This Hub, Check Out My Shocking Tibetan Sky Burial Hub!

Who Are the Sokushinbutsu?

Deep within the northern reaches of Japan within the Yamagata Prefecture, the Sokushinbutsu prepared themselves for one of the most elaborate forms of suicide throughout the stretches of time. They were Japanese monks, and even priests, who were deeply rooted within the Buddhist religion. This small group of Buddhist monks and priests would prepare their bodies over the course of 2,000 days for self-induced mummification. That's right- they prepared for this ritualistic mummification over the course of nearly six years! The Sokushinbutsu were very few and far between, with many fewer monks and priests being successful. It is believed that hundreds have tried, and only a few dozen were successful. Currently, the modern world has discovered and been made aware of 24 of these Buddhist mummies.

The Sokushinbutsu mummies are very creepy; as they were not mummified by others, but instead themselves. That's right. THESE PEOPLE MUMMIFIED THEMSELVES. They would slowly poison themselves, and lock themselves away in tombs awaiting death.

The Sokushinbutsu mummies are very creepy; as they were not mummified by others, but instead themselves. That's right. THESE PEOPLE MUMMIFIED THEMSELVES. They would slowly poison themselves, and lock themselves away in tombs awaiting death.

  • Ubasute: A Dark Page in Japanese History
    Ubasute, an alleged common custom in ancient Japan, involved transporting elderly family members to mountains and then abandoning them. The idea was for the elderly to die on these mountain tops.
The leaves of the Urushi Tree, commonly known as the Chinese Lacquer Tree.

The leaves of the Urushi Tree, commonly known as the Chinese Lacquer Tree.

How Monks and Priests Prepared for Self Mummification

In the very beginning of this Sokushinbutsu ritual, the priests and monks would eat a variety of nuts and seeds to sustain them throughout the long process. While they were on this diet, they would also commit to excessive physical activity. They did this to remove body fat, in order to increase the success of becoming a preserved mummy. This part of the mummification process lasted for just under three years. Once the 1,000 days were over, they would switch to a diet that only consisted of tree bark and some roots. (I don't know about you, but this diet seems to be very bland and uneventful; I commend anyone who could last on this second diet for 1,000 days!). When the second set of one thousand days was close to being done, the monks began to drink a very poisonous and dangerous tea. It was made from the Urushi Tree. The sap from this tree was very dangerous but it provided a great way for the monks to expel extra fluids and repel creatures that would cause the body to rot rather than petrify. It would induce violent vomiting, leaving the body extremely dehydrated. The poison would remain in the body and keep flies and maggots from invading the body after death.

Sealing of the Monks within a Tomb

When the preparation was complete, the monks were ready to seal themselves away for the process of death and mummification. They would lock themselves into a tomb, and were provided with an air tube and a bell. The monk would sit in the lotus position within the tomb, and would be preserved this way. The air tube provided air for the monk during the process, while the bell would allow him to signal to those outside of the tomb that he was still alive.Eventually, the monk would pass away, and the bell would no longer ring. Once this occurred, the air tube would be removed and the tomb would be completely sealed.

Due to the graphic nature, I did not include a photo of a Japanese Buddhist Monk mummy in the Lotus position; this, however, is a photo of a Buddhist Monk mummy on display in Thailand.

Due to the graphic nature, I did not include a photo of a Japanese Buddhist Monk mummy in the Lotus position; this, however, is a photo of a Buddhist Monk mummy on display in Thailand.

Rebirth, As Discussed in Buddhism

Removing Japanese Monk Mummies from the Tombs

After a long three year wait, it was common practice for other monks to finally open the tomb of the deceased priest. Each time, the monks were hoping to find that the priest had been well preserved; however, it was much more common for the body to have decomposed rather than mummify. For those who were mummified, the body would be brought out of the tomb. This successfully mummified priest would be regarded as a Buddha and would be transported to the temple so that others may view him. For those who were decomposed and did not successfully mummify, they were usually praised for their efforts and the tomb resealed.

Why Did Sokushinbutsu Priests Mummify Themselves?

According to these priests and monks, the mummification process would yield an uncorrupted body, allowing them to ultimately achieve a status as Buddha. They preferred this status rather than being born again, and they would later be revered and cared for by their followers long after their passing in temples. This form of death and preservation was a high honor if successful. Buddhist monks and priests were not afraid of death; they were much more interested in demonstrating to their followers that it was possible to become one with Buddha.

Buddhist Monk Mummified in Tibet

Tetsuryou-kai: A Fine Example of a Lasting Buddhist Mummy

Tetsuryou-kai is currently one of the best examples of the buddhist mummies of the Yamagata Prefecture. He passed away during 1877, just two short years before Japan banned religious suicide and the exhuming of bodies. I cannot find very much information regarding the life of this man, but he is currently on display at the Nangakuji Temple in Japan. If you have solid information on him, I'd be pleased to edit this hub for all future readers!

My Thoughts

I am not a religious individual to be honest, but the history of different religions genuinely interest me; with Buddhism being one. I do not really support the mummification of an individual, however I find their thoughts and beliefs fascinating. I hope you have learned just as much as I have about these special Buddhist monks; this article was very interesting to put together. Thank you for reading, and stay tuned for my upcoming unbelievable posts from across history!


Suzanne Day from Melbourne, Victoria, Australia on May 19, 2014:

Those monk's diets for mummification sound awful and painful. I don't know how tree bark works for the other end - probably some severe constipation issues might have ensued? Voted awesome and shared around!

Ameliam Michelle from London, England on July 23, 2013:

Great hub angryelf, hub is as alluring as the name Sokushinbutsu itself. Never knew about this practice, such a scary one though!

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angryelf (author) from Tennessee on July 11, 2013:

Thanks LK! I definitely try :) I hope to roll out some other good ones I'm working on soon, I just keep getting slammed with work :( I keep getting called in on my off days! haha

LKMore01 on July 09, 2013:


Exceptional. Excellent research and fascinating subject. Voted up and interesting.

angryelf (author) from Tennessee on July 07, 2013:

Thank you Flourish! I love the disturbing stuff that you just have to finish reading to the end- and I was hoping others would appreciate it! Much appreciated :)

FlourishAnyway from USA on July 07, 2013:

What a well written and researched hut on a disturbing practice. I had never heard of this. Yikes. Sharing this, voting up, interesting & awesome.

angryelf (author) from Tennessee on June 13, 2013:

I actually just came from there :) Haha I wish I could clonk out, but I have a feeling it'll be a bit. Thinking about just pounding away on this POOR keyboard and spitting out another. Y'all have already got my mind spinning with the next, thanks guys, thanks! haha

Retired Pharmacy Tech from Canada on June 13, 2013:

Totally love reading your Hubs! And yes, your passion definitely shows! Hope you read my reply to your comment on my Hub, gave ya a pretty sweet idea about these kinda stuff! Get some rest and I know many of us will be looking forward to more of your Hubs!

angryelf (author) from Tennessee on June 13, 2013:

Thank you Lady Deonne! I do too, I am utterly FASCINATED, yet boggled, by stuff like this. I think many of my hubs will be like this; because this is PRECISELY one of the things I more than love to write. As I'm sure you could tell by the way it was organised :) Did you see the legend of Ubasute, as linked in the first paragraph? You may like that one as well!

Deonne Anderson from Florence, SC on June 13, 2013:

Thanks for sharing this information on Sokushinbutsu. It is hard for me to fathom that the monks w0uld suffer and sacrifice so much to achieve Buddhahood. Very interesting and well presented hub. I love reading about historical events as am interested in learning about different cultures. Thanks for sharing.

angryelf (author) from Tennessee on June 12, 2013:

Haha thanks Young Dad! It was a pretty awesome little hub to write! I have websites, but I'd rather place all of my recreational ones here :) Most of the other sites are more of the technical informational pieces :) I'm really glad you liked it, and next up should either be the women of the frontier or the binding of women's feet in China; not so sure yet ;)

Retired Pharmacy Tech from Canada on June 12, 2013:

Holy crap...Satisfied my curiosity craving for today. Another well done article, and as I said, don't waste your talents just here! Start your own website! Nonetheless, this is awesome stuff

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