On Tuesday, Mongolia’s Morning News reported that the mummified remains of a Buddhist monk were discovered in the country’s Songinokhairkhan province. The body was found seated in the lotus position wrapped in an animal skin. After an initial examination, experts estimated that the body was about 200 years old and may belong to the teacher of the 12th Pandito Hambo Lama, Lama Dashi-Dorzho Itigilov, who died in 1927 and whose preserved body was exhumed in 2002.
Both bodies are an example of Sokushinbutsu, a Buddhist ritual of self-mummification that was practiced by ascetic monks from the 11th-20th centuries in Japan, Russia, Mongolia and Thailand. Buddhism was a religion established between the 6th and 4th centuries BCE and its followers seek a path towards enlightenment and away from suffering. They believe that physical cravings and desires lead to suffering and overcoming these things leads to enlightenment and happiness. The process of self-mummification was a way for monks to defeat suffering and achieve enlightenment through meditation and deprivation.
One of the best-known self-mummification rituals is the one that was practiced by Shingon Buddhists of Japan. This ritual took years to complete and involved starvation and dehydration. During the first three years, an ascetic monk significantly decreased his body fat by eating only nuts, seeds, and berries, while he increased his physical activity. Towards the end of the ritual the monk reduced his food intake even further by only consuming bark, roots, and sometimes stones. Post-mortem preservation was further aided by consumption of toxic herbs and tea that eliminated bodily fluids and killed bacteria that aid in decomposition. Japanese Sokushinbutsu monks were known to drink a tea made from the urushi tree, also known as the Chinese lacquer tree because it’s sap is used to lacquer tableware, instruments, and jewelry.
After years of starvation and dehydration, when the monk felt like he was close to death, his fellow monks arranged his body in the lotus position inside a coffin or a tomb. Then they surround the dying man with salt, wood, paper, or lime to pull more moisture away from the body and further prevent post-mortem decay. Only a small opening for air was allowed when the tomb was closed. The monk then chanted and occasionally rang a bell until he died.
When his fellow monks heard silence they completely sealed the tomb. After several years, monks exhumed the body to see if the self-mummification ritual was successful. Like Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox religions, these Buddhists believed that an incorrupt body, a body having delayed decomposition, indicated a monk’s holiness. If the body was incorrupt then the corpse was placed in a temple, adorned, and tended to by followers. However, if a tomb was opened and the body had decayed, then the corpse was left behind and the tomb was resealed. That monk’s efforts were respected but his body was not given the deference of a holy relic.
Hundreds have attempted Sokushinbutsu but only between 20 and 30 have been successful. Some of the most famous cases of self-mummification are that of Luang Pho Dang of Thailand and Daijuku Bosatsu Shinnyokai-Shonin of the Dainichi-Boo Temple of Japan.
Luang Pho Dang was a successful businessman from Thailand who gave up his career to become a Buddhist monk. In 1972, Luang Pho Dang underwent the self-mummification ritual and died at the age of 79 while meditating. The monk’s body was put in the lotus position and encased in a glass coffin at the temple of Wat Khunaram on Ko Samui Island in Thailand. The monks that tend to Dang’s body covered his eyes with sunglasses in an effort to lessen the shock to visiting children-though I’m not sure how much the sunglasses really help. A forensic examination using radiographs revealed that the mummy still has dentures in his mouth and the body is used as a hatchery by geckos. Eggs were found in his eye socks, in his mouth, and under his skin.
Daijuku Bosatsu Shinnyokai-Shonin was born in 1687 who endured the ritual of self-mummification at the age of 96. Daijuku Bosatsu Shinnyokai Shonin became an ascetic monk at an early age in order to seek enlightenment and become a “Living Buddha.” In 1783, when he was 96-years-old, Dajiuku restricted his diet to only salt and water, drank Urushi tea, and meditated in a stone tomb until he died. When his tomb was re-opened after 1000 days, Daijuku’s body was found to be preserved and he was given the status of “Living Buddha.” His mummified body is on display at the Ryusui-ji Dainichibou Temple in Tsuruoka City.
Mummified remains of ‘200 year old man in lotus position’ found in Mongolia. (2015 January 28). The Siberian Times. Retrieved from: http://siberiantimes.com/other/others/news/n0101-mummified-remains-of-200-year-old-man-in-lotus-position-found-in-mongolia/
Black, A. Sokushinbutsu of Dainichi Temple. Atlas Obscura. Retrieved from: http://www.atlasobscura.com/places/sokushinbutsu-dainichi-temple
Cardin, M. (2014 November 17). Mummies around the World: An Encyclopedia of Mummies in History, Religion, and Popular Culture. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO.
Davis, L. (2014 February 4). The Gruesome and Excruciating Practice of Mummifying Your Own Body. Io9. Retrieved from: http://io9.com/the-gruesome-and-excruciating-practice-of-mummifying-yo-1515905564
Golgowski, N. (2015 January 28). Centuries-old mummified monk found meditating in Mongolia: report. The New York Daily News. Retrieved from: http://www.nydailynews.com/news/world/200-year-old-mummy-found-meditating-monglia-report-article-1.2095566#
Myers, SL. (2002 October 1). A Russian Lama’s Body, and His Faith, Defy Time. The New York Times. Retrieved from: http://www.nytimes.com/2002/10/01/international/europe/01BUDD.html