The Buddhist monks of the esoteric Shingon or “True Word” tradition once practiced a mysterious ritual that is said to transmute the consciousness of the ascetic into a living Buddha. This process requires the monk to maintain a strict diet and meditate for many days inside a sealed tomb, ringing a bell every day until they eventually mummify their own bodies.
Those who attain this state of posthumous preservation are called Sokushinbutsu 即身仏 (Living Buddha), and are believed to be the chosen disciples who will be reanimated to aid the return of Maitreya- the reincarnated Buddha.
The self-mummification process of nyūjō (入定) began with a thousand days of rigorous exercise and a diet comprised of seeds, nuts, and water. This caused the body to shed all fat, dehydrating the vessel and shrinking the organs in order to help preserve the monk. Strenuous activity merged with minimal nutrients became a deeply exhausting endeavor for the ascetics, but they overcame this by vowing to end their life with a dagger if they missed even one exercise.
The next thousand days were spent exclusively eating roots, pine bark and Urushi Tea made from the toxic sap of a Chinese lacquer tree known as Toxicodendron vernicifluum. This was used to prevent decay and repel parasites as the body transitioned to a mummified state.
Finally, the monks were buried alive in a pit or tomb only large enough to sit in lotus position, and given a bamboo tube to breathe through. This is where the monk would spend the rest of their physical life, ringing a bell every day to signal their continued presence to the other monks. When the bell would stop ringing, the bamboo tube was extracted and the tomb would be sealed.
Another thousand days would pass before the tomb was reopened to see whether the monk had been successful in their quest. The bodies that decomposed were left in their tomb, highly venerated for their dedication despite falling short of their ultimate goal. If the body was mummified, the monk had attained Buddha-hood, and would be relocated to the Temple to be displayed in a shrine.
To this day, the Sokushinbutsu priests are deified by Shingon Buddhists as the Bodhisattvas who will join Maitreya, reanimated as a Living Buddha. Their bodies are enshrined in glass, clothed in monastic robes and surrounded by decoration. Visitors pray at their shrines and amulets containing pieces of their clothing are used as good luck charms.
The Founder of Shingon Buddhism
Sokushinbutsu practitioners can be traced back to the founder of the Shingon Buddhist school known as Kūkai (空海). Born in the year 774, the Japanese polymath was famous for his talent spanning diverse disciplines. Kūkai was a renowned scholar, artist, poet, engineer and calligrapher, whose invention of the kana is still used in Japan’s writing system today.
At age 22, he drifted away from Confucian studies and gravitated towards Buddhism, eventually becoming a wandering monk. Kūkai wrote Japan’s first comparative ideological critique at age 24, calling it Sangō Shiiki (“Essentials of the Three Teachings”). The allegory was written in a dialectic style which compared the philosophies of Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism- concluding that Buddhism was superior.
During his monastic journey, the monk had a dream that told him to seek a Buddhist text known as the Mahavairocana Tantra. Due to its recent arrival in Japan, Kūkai managed to find the sacred text, but discovered that it was mostly written in Sanskrit with a cryptic partial translation.
In 804, Kūkai traveled to Xi’An, China to further illuminate the writings of the Mahavairocana Tantra. After arriving at the Azure Dragon temple in 805, Kūkai met Master Huiguo, giving this account of their initial introduction:
Accompanied by Jiming, Tansheng, and several other Dharma masters from the Ximing monastery, I went to visit him [Huiguo] and was granted an audience. As soon as he saw me, the abbot smiled, and said with delight, “since learning of your arrival, I have waited anxiously. How excellent, how excellent that we have met today at last! My life is ending soon, and yet I have no more disciples to whom to transmit the Dharma. Prepare without delay the offerings of incense and flowers for your entry into the abhisheka mandala.”Abe, Ryuichi (1999). The Weaving of Mantra: Kukai and the Construction of Esoteric Buddhist Discourse. Columbia University Press.
Despite his expectation to study for 20 years in China, Kūkai received an esoteric initiation from Master Huiguo within a few months, becoming a master of the lineage. Before Huiguo’s passing in the same year, Kūkai was charged with bringing these sacred teachings back to his homeland.
He promptly returned, armed with new knowledge and a collection of esoteric texts that had yet to reach the shores of Japan. Among these secret teachings was the practice of Sokushinbutsu.
After gaining prominence as the head of Sōgō (僧綱, Office of Priestly Affairs) in Japan, Kūkai slowly began to conceive of the Shingon school of Esoteric Buddhism. In 817, he wrote three seminal works to the Shingon philosophy which served to greatly influence mainstream Buddhism in Japan;
- Attaining Enlightenment in This Very Existence
- The Meaning of Sound, Word, Reality
- Meanings of the Word Hūm
In the last years of his life, Kūkai completed his magnum opus, The Jūjūshinron (十住心論 Treatise on The Ten Stages of the Development of Mind), established the Shingon tradition as a state-sponsored institution, and was granted permission to ordain three Shingon monks positioned at his Monastery in Mt. Kōya.
When he felt his time had come, Kūkai began his own process of welcoming death. He rejected food and water, spending most of his remaining time on Earth in deep meditation. Kūkai died at the age of 62 in the year 835, and on the eastern peak of Mt. Kōya he was entombed in accordance with his will.
“When, some time after, the tomb was opened, Kōbō-Daishi (Kūkai) was found as if still sleeping, with complexion unchanged and hair grown a bit longer.”Casal, U. A. (1959), The Saintly Kōbō Daishi in Popular Lore (A.D. 774-835); Asian Folklore Studies 18, p. 139 (hagiography)
The legend of Kūkai claims that he is still alive on Mt. Kōya in a state of eternal Samadhi, awaiting the return of Maitreya. Hundreds of Buddhists were inspired by Kūkai’s miraculous achievement. Untold numbers of Shingon monks have dedicated themselves to the tradition of becoming a Sokunshinbutsu, but thus far, only 24 have been discovered.
The practice has since been deemed an act of assisted suicide and was eventually banned in 1879. Despite this, many Shingon Buddhists firmly believe Sokunshinbutsu to be a path of immortality and deeper enlightenment.
Casal, U. A. (1959), The Saintly Kōbō Daishi in Popular Lore (A.D. 774-835); Asian Folklore Studies 18, p. 139 (hagiography)