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Bizzare & Odd

Sokushinbutsu – The Bizarre Practice of Self Mummification

Scattered throughout Northern Japan around the Yamagata Prefecture are two dozen mummified Japanese monks known as Sokushinbutsu, who caused their own deaths in a way that resulted in their mummification. The practice was first pioneered by a priest named Kuukai over 1000 years ago at the temple complex of Mount Koya, in Wakayama prefecture. 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.

Sokushinbutsu refers to a practice of Buddhist monks observing austerity to the point of death and mummification. This process of self-mummification was mainly practised in Yamagata in Northern Japan between the 11th and 19th century, by members of the Japanese Vajrayana school of Buddhism called Shingon (“True Word”). The practitioners of sokushinbutsu did not view this practice as an act of suicide, but rather as a form of further enlightenment. Those who succeeded were revered, while those who failed were nevertheless respected for the effort.

It is believed that many hundreds of monks tried, but only 24 such mummifications have been discovered to date. There is a common suggestion that Shingon school founder Kukai brought this practice from Tang China as part of secret tantric practices he learned, and that were later lost in China. Today, the practice is not advocated or practiced by any Buddhist sect, and is banned in Japan. The practice was satirized in the story “The Destiny That Spanned Two Lifetimes” by Ueda Akinari, in which such a monk was found centuries later and resuscitated.

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.

The practice of self-mummification seems somewhat macabre to today’s civilized population. However, for some sects of Buddhist priests, it was a form of further enlightenment. Many of these priests voluntarily went through a ten-year gruesome process of self-mummifying, belie ving that extreme physical pain and denial created an opening to a higher spiritual level, the ultimate attainment of “passing into the state of nirvana.”

The practice of self-mummification in Japan has its roots in the esoteric school of Shingon Buddhism called the Shingon-Shu, established in the Heian Period (794-1185). The founder of this new Buddhist movement was a monk named Kobo Daishi, also recognized as Kukai. Kukai’s teachings reflect an influence derived from Tantric Buddhism, which comes from the Great Vehicle Sect, called the Mahayana School. Between the years 804 and 806, Kukai studied in the rural province of T’ang in China, where he worked on mastering esoteric practices. After having studied in China, Kukai returned to Japan bringing with him the three theological building blocks that were the basis of the Shingon School.

The first was the idea of the all-powerful syllable, the meaning of which can be found in the etiological root of the word “Shingon.” Shingon is taken from the Chinese word “Chin-yen” (true word). Chin-yen is a transliterated form of the Sanskrit word for “mantra” (sacred noise making up the universe, such as the syll able “om”). The next theological seed was the most important iconographical symbol in esoteric Buddhism, the two Mandal as denoting the impermanence of life and the inevitability of birth and rebirth in the ever-moving wheel of Samsara. The third and most influential to esoteric Buddhism’s dev elopment in the Japan came back with Kukai in the translated form of two Tantric Buddhist scriptures known as the Machav airocana sutra, describing the relationship between man and the cosmic Buddha, and the Sarvatathagatatattvasamgraha sutra. These texts were especially helpful in giving Shingon the claws to dig into and plant the seeds of esoteric Buddhism’s fertility in Japanese religious history. Kukai transliterated these texts into the vernacular from Sanskrit. His transliterations played a pivotal role in the formation of the Shingon School. Long after Buddhists in the native country of India discarded the two sutras and the Chinese no longer practiced their rituals, the Japanese kept the practices alive.

These secret teachings spread to a variety of places.“Esoteric Buddhist history was practiced from India to Central Asia, Ceylon, China, Korea, Japan, Mongolia, Nepal, Indonesia, Southeast Asia, and Tibet.” By the seventh or eighth century, secret Buddhist rituals, like self-mummification, reached an apex and developed in regions of Japan.

How to be a self-made mummy

Scientific study of the mummies and the process that created them only began in the early 1960’s. It was generally expected that the mummies studied would show signs of having been mummified after death by other priests, in much the way Egyptian mummies — and almost all other mummies on Earth — have been created. The first step in that process is the removal of the internal organs, because the bacteria in these begin the process of decomposition within hours of death; with these removed, it is relatively easy to prepare, dry, and preserve the remainder of the body. But x-rays discounted this expectation… the internal organs were intact, which meant that mummification had been accomplished in some new way that scientists had not yet encountered. So the process itself was next investigated.

The actual practice was first pioneered by a priest named Kuukai over 1000 years ago at the temple complex of Mount Kooya, in Wakayama prefecture. Kuukai was founder of the Shingon sect of Buddhism, which is the sect that came up with the idea of enlightenment through physical punishment. There were three steps in the process of self-mummification that Kuukai proposed, and the full process took upwards of ten years to lead to a successful mummification.

The first step is a change of diet. The priest was only allowed to eat nuts and seeds that could be found in the forests surrounding his temple; this diet had to be stuck to for a 1000 day period, a little under three years. During this time, the priest was to continue to subject himself to all sorts of physical hardship in his daily training. The results were that the body fat of the priest was reduced to nearly nothing, thus removing a section of the body that easily decomposes after death.

Sokushinbutsu

In the second stage, the diet became more restrictive. The priest was now only allowed to eat a small amount of bark and roots from pine trees (mokujiki). This had to be endured for another 1000 day period, by the end of which the priest looked like a living skeleton. This also decreased the overall moisture contained in the body; and the less fluid left in the body, the easier to preserve it.

Towards the end of this 1000 day period, the priest also had to start to drink a special tea made from the sap of the urushi tree. This sap is used to make laquer for bowls and furniture; but it is also very poisonous for most people. Drinking this tea induced vomenting, sweating, and urination, further reducing the fluid content of the priest’s body. But even more importantly, the build up of the poison in the priest’s body would kill any maggots or insects that tried to eat the priest’s remains after death, thus protecting it from yet another source of decay.

The third and last step of the process was to be entombed alive in a stone room just big enough for a man to sit lotus style in for a final 1000 day period. As long as the priest could ring a bell each day a tube remained in place to supply air; but when the bell finally stopped, the tube was removed and the tomb was sealed.

When the tomb was finally opened, the results would be known. Some few would be fully mummified, and immediately be raised to the rank of Buddha; but most just rotted and, while respected for their incredible endurance, were not considered to be Buddhas. These were simply sealed back into their tombs. But why did some mummify and some not? This is the tricky part of the whole process.

It is not clear if this is part of the process as set down by Kuukai, but in Yamagata is a sacred spring. This spring is on a mountain called Yudono, which is in fact the third sacred mountain of the three I visited in 1998. Many of the priests in the area considered both the water and the mineral deposits from this spring to have medicinal value, and may have injested one or both previous to their entombment. An analysis of the spring water and deposits revealed that they contain enough arsenic to kill a human being! Arsenic does not get eliminated from the body, so it remains after death… and it is toxic to bacteria and other micro-organisms, so it eliminated the bacteria that started the decompostion of the body.

Sokushinbutsu
The Shingon priests’ beliefs in the path to salvation can be described by explaining the mindset behind the strange, ritualistic, practice of self-mummification. The psychological mindset of the to-be mummified person is important in allowing empathy with the priest. “Personal life and death does not matter, but being kind to your fellow beings and guiding them towardself-realization of their greater connection to the Buddha does. So, truly devout Buddhist priests are not afraid of death.”

The importance of such psychoanalysis can be observed in Richard Payne’s discussion of Shingon’s four ritual stages of self-transformation of the mind called Shindo Kegyo. In his discussion, he us psychology as a tool for analyzing this four-pronged ritual transformation. “Clearly, ritual must be more than a mechanical technique (such as simple breathing exercises might be).” The practitioners of such rituals report elated feelings of connection to generations of previous worshipers.

 

Sokushinbutsu
Another important aspect of Shindo-Keygo, and in particular self-mummification, is the belief in Tantric Buddhism that one has the “possibility of realizing enlightenment in this very lifetime.” Hence, self-mummification must have developed as a vehicle to fill the void created by the debacle of how to achieve earthly salvation, a principal very different from most Buddhist doctrine. The last phase of a Shingon priest’s ritualistic development is called Kendoku (attaining realization), which usually takes place in the latter years of the priest’s life when he becomes more likely to participate in self-mummification activities.

The process of self-mummification is broken down into three 1,000-day periods. Each period is characterized by physical and mental changes caused by phase-specific austerities and excruciating pain. The process is not some mystic secret, but rather a calculated scient ific means for ridding the body of material that cannot cross over into nirvana. In the first phase the priest is restricted to a diet of only nuts and grains surrounding the temple complex.During this time the practitioner endures extreme hardships, such as meditating under icy cold mountain streams for hours on end. “Japan is a mountainous country.” Therefore, most of the Shingon temple complexes are in the proximity of large sacred mountains.During the second phase of the process, the fat matter that causes the body to decompose is greatly reduced. Upon entering the second one thousand-day period, the priest’s body fat is near zero. In this stage, the diet is restricted even fu rther to only miniscule amounts of pine bark and roots from pine trees.

 

Sokushinbutsu


After this stage, the priest is like a “skin-covered skeleton.” The dehydration helps in preservation of the body. Towards the end of the second stage, “A special tea is made from the sap of the urushi tree.” This sap is used as a lacquer for furniture. The tea is a poisonous concoction that causes vomiting and sickness that further decrease the moisture in the body, but more importantly, its build up in the system prevents insects from speeding up the decomposition process. This, in turn, helps the self-mummification process by protecting the to-be mummified priest from natural elements. Upon entering the final stage, the priest is given a bell and then sealed in his tomb where a tube is inserted into a small opening in the top. Every day, he rings the bell.

Eventually, when the ringing stops, the tube is removed. At the end of the last 1000-day period, nearly ten years a fter starting, the tomb is opened and the results are seen. Out of the thousands who have tried to complete this decade long process, most are decomposed, and thus, have failed in their efforts. Only a select few actually achieve this fascinating but grisly transformation. The priests who triumphed in their endeavor are said to be one with the cosmic Buddha. While the people who tried and failed are praised for their fervor, they are not thought to be Buddha. Therefore, they enter back into the wheel of Samsara. One of the questions scientists pose is why some bodies decompose while others mummify. “In a place called Yamagata, there is a sacred spring on a mountain called Yudono.” In this area, there have been reported higher levels of mummification success. It was in the same area that Kukai first pioneered this practice in Japan. Many of the priests from this prefecture reported drinking water before entombment.

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Bizzare & Odd

The strange story of Jodie Lynn Myers: The Corpse Bride

Forrest Fuller nicknamed the “Groom of Doom” named for the grim plan he set in motion after jealously stabbing Jodie LynnMyers to death in 1994.

He Killed His Girlfriend … And Planned to Make Her His Corpse Bride

Being a bartender, you get used to hearing strange things. But when the bartender at The Last Stop in Fairmont, West Virginia had a customer tell her that his dead fiancée was in the backseat of his car, she had a feeling she’d probably heard the weirdest thing she ever would. It was Thanksgiving weekend, 1994, and 28-year-old Forrest Fuller had stopped in for a drink.

As word spread through the bar, police were already on their way. They’d been searching the highways ever since a woman named Lilanes Guant, had called local police with her suspicions that her friend, Jodie Lynn Myers, had been killed. The bartender slipped away to call the police to The Last Stop–and so it became Fuller’s true last stop.

Police found Myers’s body in the backseat of Fuller’s 1994 Camaro, and her wedding dress in the trunk. Already disturbed, the police’s concern only grew as they questioned Fuller about the death of his fiancée.

Forrest Fuller and Jodie Lynn Myers had had a tumultuous, on-again/off-again relationship. On the night of November 23, 1994, Myers tried to break it off for good. Their relationship had gone on for years with constant up-and-downs, and it was time to leave–she wanted a chance to find love somewhere else. This revelation was too much for Fuller to take. Flying into a jealous rage, he beat Myers. He then attempted to choke her both with his hands and his tie. After that failed, he got a kitchen knife and stabbed the woman to death.

Despite her wish to be free of him, Fuller still wanted Myers to be his wife–dead or alive. He put her body in his car, drove to the convenience store where he worked, and stole nearly $700, Myers’s corpse in tow.

On Thanksgiving Day, Fuller secured his dead fiancée in his ’94 Chevy Camaro and stuffed her wedding dress into the trunk. He then took off from his Pemberton Township, New Jersey home on a road trip to California where he intended to marry his corpse bride. Fuller only made it as far as West Virginia, where the police stopped his westward journey.

During his macabre wedding adventure, Fuller managed to find a moment to call Jodie Lynn’s mother and update her on his plans. He told the woman that he had murdered her daughter and that he still planned to wed the now-deceased Jodie Lynn. Before hanging up, Fuller promised to send Jodie Lynn’s mother her own daughter’s ring finger, adorned with the wedding ring Fuller would affix before saying “I do.”

Word of the murder and Fuller’s gruesome plan quickly spread. The tabloids labelled Fuller ‘The Groom of Doom’, and Jodie Lynn ‘The Corpse Bride’. Adding to the shock value of the case, it was revealed after Fuller’s arrest that he was already married with a young son. Apparently, his estranged wife had placed a restraining order against him–for reasons that Jodie Lynn didn’t find out until it was too late. Fuller’s wife attended his trial, along with their 10-year old son.

The sensational case drew headlines in tabloids and major newspapers alike, including The New York Times. In 2016, a Lifetime movie, Nightmare Wedding, sprang up, however the actual storyline appears to be only loosely based on the corpse bride.

Fuller is currently serving a 30-year sentence with no possibility of parole, the result of a 1995 guilty plea. In 2001, he requested a new trial, though that request was later denied.

Featured photo: rawpixel / Unsplash

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Bizzare & Odd

Strange Sounds Recorded Coming from Greenland’s Skies 

A YouTube user (‘Finn Enoksen’) shared video clip of strange sounds he recorded that seemed to come from the skies over Greenland on January 4th:

“I hear that strange sound like for 1hour but sometimes it silence for 5 or 10 minute, it little bit hard to heard because that strange sound is not loud.”

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Bizzare & Odd

Creepy Unsolved Murder Mysteries

The boy in the chimney

In 2008, teenager Josh Maddux left the house where he lived with his dad to run an errand. He disappeared, and seven years later, his remains were found in the fetal position, stuffed into the chimney of a nearby historic cabin. His body, devoid of wounds, showed no signs of a struggle. As The Huffington Post reported, “When the teen’s skeleton was found, his knees reportedly were above his head and a hand was covering his face.”

The strangest details were slowly released to the public in the following weeks. Maddux’s had been clothed only in a thermal undershirt, and the rest of his clothes were lying on the floor inside the cabin. Construction workers confirmed that rebar on the chimney’s opening meant he would not have been able to climb down, so he must have been trying to climb up.

To make matters worse, an anonymous Reddit post later detailed a rumor that Maddux had been coerced by a friend who went on to become a serial killer.

Hannah Upp’s Disappearances

As chronicled in a New Yorker exposé, 23-year-old Pennsylvania resident Hannah Upp has led a life peppered with disappearances. Seemingly without a direct cause, Upp enters a fugue state and disappears off the grid, cutting off communication with her friends and family, and after a while, she’s often found near water.

Doctors diagnosed Upp with “a diagnosis of dissociative fugue, a rare condition in which people lose access to their autobiographical memory and personal identity, occasionally adopting a new one, and may abruptly embark on a long journey.” She disappeared again last year and her belongings were found near the ocean on St. Thomas — the strangest thing about her case is the fact that her parents seem apathetic, or mystical, even, when asked about their missing daughter by the press.

Kathy Hobbs Predicts Her Own Death

The kidnapping and murder of 16-year-old Kathy Hobbs is so odd that it was featured on an episode of the cult classic series Unsolved Mysteries.

After her death in 1987, Hobbs’ parents and friends disclosed that all her life, Hobbs had suffered from “premonitions” that foreshadowed her death at 16. In her teen years, she developed agoraphobia and refused to leave the house, but on her sixteenth birthday she believed the curse had been broken — or, so say her family and friends. Just three months later, she was attacked coming home from buying a paperback novel and murdered with blunt force trauma to the head.

In 1989, a Toledo man named Michael Lee Lockhart was charged and convicted with Hobbs’ murder, though Lockhart never confessed. The internet is divided on whether Lockhart actually shot Hobbs, but the real point of contention is the young woman’s premonitions. Why was she able to predict a seemingly random act of violence?

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