On Sunday, at the urge of Julie, a couchsurfer from Montréal and former ALT in Hyôgo Prefecture, I visited Kannon-ji Temple in Murakami, about 300 meters from my base school and a very short walk from a 7-Eleven. The significance of this temple is that it contains the last monk in Japan to attain sokushinbutsu, the attainment of buddhahood during life. The shingon sect of buddhism achieved this through a gruesome and bizarre process of gradual self-mummification. The monks would essentially deny their bodies of nutrients and self-preserve their flesh using natural toxins over an arduously long period. Effectively suicide, it was outlawed in the second half of the 19th century.
The Thinking Blog gives this succinct and graphic description of the process:
For three years the priests would eat a special diet consisting only of nuts and seeds, while taking part in a regimen of rigorous physical activity that stripped them of their body fat. They then ate only bark and roots for another three years and began drinking a poisonous tea made from the sap of the Urushi tree, which contains Urushiol (same stuff that makes poison ivy), normally used to lacquer bowls. This caused vomiting and a rapid loss of bodily fluids. Finally, a self-mummifying monk would lock himself in a stone tomb barely larger than his body, where he would not move from the lotus position. His only connection to the outside world was an air tube and a bell. Each day he rang a bell to let those outside know that he was still alive. When the bell stopped ringing, the tube was removed and the tomb sealed.
The very last monk to successfully attain sokushinbutsu is enshrined at Kannon-ji temple in Murakami, and is named bukkai which literally means like Ocean Buddha. The loud, nutty old wheelchair-bound woman who showed us the mummified corpse of Mr. Bukkai told us that we couldn’t take pictures, which is probably all well and good. It was like staring at death. Death behind double-paned glass, wearing a strange ceremonial hat, sitting in proper cross-legged position with hands clasped in prayer, head facing down. The mummies of Egypt are impressive, but I find this far more so. It’s a lot easier to have someone else do the job after you’ve had a nice easy death. Try doing it all by yourself!
Here’s the front of the temple:
This is the tomb that the monk finished things up in: