The Living Mummies of Japan

Shinnyokai-Shonin “living mummy” at Dainichibo Temple, Japan.
Shinnyokai-Shonin's “living mummy” sits in eternal contemplation at Dainichibo Temple in Japan.

The process of Buddhist Masters becoming mummified while still living was a custom that was practiced until late into the 19th Century with documented cases still occurring in the 20th Century. The custom was to create kind of "living" idol of a buddhavista or an incarnation of Buddha who would reside permanently in a Japanese temple.

The revered monk Shinnyokai-Shonin was one such mummified man. In 1784, a terrible famine raged in the central Japanese Island of Honshu. Hundreds of thousands of people were dead or dying of starvation, malnutrition and disease.

Shinnyokai, 96 years old at the time, believed that Buddha needed a sign of great compassion to end the famine. He dug a pit on a hill near Dainichibo Temple and with the help of others, sealed himself in a wooden coffin that was then lowered into the pit and buried. With a thin bamboo breathing tube in place the monk sat in total darkness, awaiting the inevitable. Three years after his death, his body was exhumed in 1786. The people were astonished to find that the monk had been completely mummified.

By end of the famine, a 1792 government census reported 4.5% of the total population of Honshu dead - a total of 1,119,159 people.

Shinnyokai's mummification methodology was refined for many years after his death. The first step being for a prospective mummy monk to spend 1,000 days (over 3 years) eating a strict diet of nuts and seeds then to engage in rigorous physical training to strip the body of fat.

Step two involved another 1,000 days of eating only bark and roots in gradually diminishing amounts. Toward the end, candidates for living mummification would then drink tea made from the sap of the Urushi tree, a poisonous substance normally used to make Japanese lacquer bowls, which caused further loss of bodily fluid. This tea was brewed with water from a sacred spring at Mt. Yudono, which is now known to contain a high level of arsenic. The concoction created a germ-free environment within the body and helped preserve whatever meat was left on the bones.

Finally, the monks would seal themselves in a small underground chamber connected to the surface by a tiny bamboo air pipe. There, the monks would meditate until the point of death - at which point they were sealed in their tomb. After another 1,000 days they were dug up and cleaned. If the body remained well-preserved after this 10-year process then the monk was deemed a living mummy.

Unfortunately, most who attempted self-mummification were unsuccessful. The few who succeeded were said to have achieved Buddha status and are still enshrined in temples today. As many as two dozen of these living mummies are in the care of temples in northern Honshu.

Wa-pedia, Japanese Living Mummies
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