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Self-Made Mummies of Japan

Tetsuryu-kai in 1998.

In August, 1998, I had the unusual pleasure of meeting a dead Buddhist priest face-to-face. I was on a pilgrimage to three sacred mountains in the Yamagata prefecture, and had stopped for the night at a town in short distance of the first of these, Haguro. That town, Tsuruoka, just happened to be home to one of the mummified Buddhist priests that I knew existed in Japan, so I couldn't resist the opportunity to visit. At the time, all I knew about these mummies was that #1) they existed, and that #2) these gentlemen had somehow volentarily mummified themselves while still alive. I've since learned more.

       Estimates of the number of self-mummified priests in Japan range between sixteen and twenty-four priests. Impressive though this number is, many more have tried to self-mummify themselves. In fact, the practice of self-mummification -- which is a form of suicide, after all -- had to be outlawed towards the end of the 19th century to prevent Buddhist priests from offing themselves this way... and yet the grand majority of priests who have tried to do this have failed. The reasons will take some explaining -- but first, some background on the whole practice and the reasons for it.

        For those of you new to Buddhism, the basic premise of the religion is that the whole of the phenomenal world -- everything you can see, hear, touch, experience -- is just an illusion that prevents you from seeing what is really true; that you are part of a greater being that stands separate and beyond our phenomenal world. As long as you don't see this, you will be continually reborn back into this world in an endless series of illusionary lives. So the goal of Buddhist priests is to separate themselves from this world enough that at death they become one with the greater being known as Buddha instead of being re-born into this world yet again.

        What this adds up to is that some Buddhist sects -- most notably the Shingon sect -- attempt to train their priests to deny the importance of their physical selves through a variety of self-mortification, such as the classic example of sitting for hours under ice-cold waterfalls while meditating. Ideally, as a priest becomes more like the greater Buddha, they will be far less concerned about themselves than others; one classic tale told and retold in Japan is the story of how Gautama [the founder of Buddhism in India, and the guy Americans usually think of when they say "Buddha"] chose to be reborn as a rabbit so that he could throw his body on a fire to feed a devotee that was starving. Personal life and death does not matter; but being kind to your fellow beings and guiding them towards self-realization of their greater connection to Buddha does.

        So truely devote Buddhist priests are not afraid of death; but they don't normally seek it either, as this too would be an abnormal obsession with the physical world. The priests that chose to practice self-mummification were usually all older men, who knew they had limited time left to their lives anyway... and since the practice takes years to lead to a sucessful death and mummification, it cannot be characterized as an attempt to reach enlightenment quickly as a normal suicide might be. Rather, the intended purpose of this practice for these priests is to both push their ability to disregard their physical selves to the limit of their ability, and to try and leave an artifact of this struggle that will stand as a symbol of their beliefs to those that are priests after them.

Careful! Don't confuse Buddhist Shingon priests with Christian flagellants... the flagellents hurt their bodies out of a sense of guilt; they needed to punish themselves to atone for sins. The Buddhists hurt their bodies to train their minds to ignore the physical world.