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The body of the Thai Buddhist monk Luang Pho Daeng at Wat Khunaram, Ko Samui, Thailand

Sokushinbutsu () are a type of Buddhist mummy. In Japan the term refers to the practice of Buddhist monks observing asceticism to the point of death and entering mummification while alive.[1][2] Although mummified monks are seen in a number of Buddhist countries, especially in South Asia where monks are mummified after dying of natural causes, it is only in Japan that monks are believed to have induced their own death by starvation.

There is a common suggestion that Shingon school founder Kukai brought this practice from Tang China as part of secret tantric practices he learned.[3] During the 20th century, Japanese scholars found very little evidence of self-starvation of sokushinbutsu. They rather concluded that mummification took place after the demise of the monk practising this kind of asceticism, as seen in South Asian lands.[2]


Sokushinbutsu (mummy) of Huineng, in Shaoguan, Guangdong, China

There is at least one "self-mummified" 550-year-old corpse in existence: that of a Buddhist monk named Sangha Tenzin in a northern Himalayan region of India, visible in a temple in Gue village, Spiti, Himachal Pradesh.[4] This mummy was rediscovered in 1975 when the old stupa preserving it collapsed and it is estimated to be from about the 14th century. The monk was likely a Tibetan dzogpa-chenpo practitioner and similar mummies have been found in Tibet and East Asia.[5] The preservation of the mummy for at least five centuries was possible due to the aridity of the area and cold weather.[4]

According to Paul Williams, the sokushinbutsu ascetic practices of Shugendō were likely inspired by Kūkai, the founder of Shingon Buddhism,[6] who ended his life by reducing and then stopping intake of food and water, while continuing to meditate and chant Buddhist mantras. Ascetic self-mummification practices are also recorded in China, but are associated with the Ch'an (Zen Buddhism) tradition there.[6] Alternate ascetic practices similar to sokushinbutsu are also known, such as public self-immolation practice in China. This was considered as evidence of a renunciant bodhisattva.[7]


A mountain-dwelling religion called Shugendō emerged in Japan as a syncretism between Vajrayana Buddhism, Shinto and Taoism in the 7th century, which stressed ascetic practices.[8] One of these practices was sokushinbutsu (or sokushin jobutsu), connoting mountain austerities in order to attain Buddha-nature in one's body. This practice was perfected over a period of time, particularly in the Three Mountains of Dewa region of Japan, that is the Haguro, Gassan and Yudono mountains.[8] These mountains remain sacred in the Shugendō tradition to this day, and ascetic austerities continue to be performed in the valleys and mountain range in this area.[8][9]

In medieval Japan, this tradition developed a process for sokushinbutsu, which a monk completed over about 3,000 days.[8] It involved a strict diet called mokujiki (literally, 'eating a tree').[10][9] The monk abstained from any cereals and relied on pine needles, resins, and seeds found in the mountains, which would eliminate all fat in the body.[10][4] Increasing rates of fasting and meditation would lead to starvation. The monks would slowly reduce then stop liquid intake, thus dehydrating the body and shrinking all organs.[10] The monks would die in a state of jhana (meditation) while chanting the nenbutsu (a mantra about Buddha), and their body would become naturally preserved as a mummy with skin and teeth intact without decay and without the need of any artificial preservatives.[10][4] Many Buddhist sokushinbutsu mummies have been found in northern Japan and are estimated to be centuries old, while texts suggest that hundreds of these cases are buried in the stupas and mountains of Japan.[9] These mummies have been revered and venerated by the laypeople of Buddhism.[9]

One of the altars in the Honmyō-ji temple of Yamagata prefecture continues to preserve one of the oldest mummies—that of the sokushinbutsu ascetic named Honmyōkai.[11] This process of self-mummification was mainly practiced 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.[12]

Emperor Meiji banned this practice in 1879. Assisted suicide — including religious suicide — is now illegal.

In popular culture[edit]

  • 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. The story appears in the collection Harusame Monogatari.[13]

See also[edit]

  • Bog bodies – Corpse preserved in a bog
  • Embalming – Method of preserving human remains
  • Immured anchorite – Tibetan monk
  • Incorruptibility – Supposed miraculous preservation of the corpses of some Catholic and Orthodox saints
  • Mellified man – Legendary medicinal substance, made of a human corpse preserved in honey
  • Plastination – Technique used in anatomy to preserve bodies or body parts
  • Prayopavesa – Hindu practice of suicide by fasting
  • Rainbow body – Level of realization within Tibetan Buddhism
  • Sallekhana – Voluntarily fasting to death by gradually reducing the intake of food and liquids in Jainism


  1. ^ Jeremiah, Ken. Living Buddhas: The Self-mummified Monks of Yamagata, Japan. McFarland, 2010
  2. ^ a b ""Sokushinbutsu": Japan's Buddhist Mummies". 26 January 2022.
  3. ^ Aaron Lowe (2005). "Shingon Priests and Self-Mummification" (PDF). Agora Journal. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2013-08-29. Retrieved 2012-12-14.
  4. ^ a b c d A 500 year old Mummy with teeth, BBC News
  5. ^ Ken Jeremiah (2010), Living Buddhas: The Self-mummified Monks of Yamagata, Japan, McFarland, pp. 36–37
  6. ^ a b Paul Williams (2005). Buddhism: Buddhism in China, East Asia, and Japan. Routledge. pp. 362 with footnote 37. ISBN 978-0-415-33234-7.
  7. ^ James A. Benn (2007). Burning for the Buddha: Self-Immolation in Chinese Buddhism. University of Hawaii Press. pp. 112–114. ISBN 978-0-8248-2992-6.
  8. ^ a b c d Ken Jeremiah (2010), Living Buddhas: The Self-mummified Monks of Yamagata, Japan. McFarland, pp. 10–11
  9. ^ a b c d Tullio Federico Lobetti (2013). Ascetic Practices in Japanese Religion. Routledge. pp. 130–136. ISBN 978-1-134-47273-4.
  10. ^ a b c d Ken Jeremiah (2010), Living Buddhas: The Self-mummified Monks of Yamagata, Japan, McFarland, pp. 11–14
  11. ^ Tullio Federico Lobetti (2013). Ascetic Practices in Japanese Religion. Routledge. pp. 132–133. ISBN 978-1-134-47273-4.
  12. ^ "Sokushinbutsu – Japanese Mummies". 30 December 2011. Retrieved 2013-09-30.
  13. ^ Paul Gordon Schalow, Janet A. Walker The Woman's Hand: Gender and Theory in Japanese Women's Writing 1996, p. 174. "Most likely, Akinari's principal source for "The Destiny That Spanned Two Lifetimes" was "Sanshu amagane no koto" (About the rain bell of Sanshu [Sanuki province]), from Kingyoku neji-bukusa (The golden gemmed twisted wrapper; 1704)."

Further reading[edit]