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Saturday, August 8, 2020

An Interview with Haruki

Recently I followed the Japanese TV drama “Aibou” (Partners), a detective drama series on internet. The drama is quite interesting, like many Japanese detective movies this drama series has a very complicated plot, so complicated that it is hard to swallow. It seems that the story writer made it complicated in an attempt to enhance mystery, to make it harder to guess ‘who done it’. Other than that, the stories sometimes reflect the unique Japanese culture and tradition, like the sense of perfection, honesty, pride in profession, honour and sacrifice for the community, which intertwined with the criminal deed in the drama.

However, as I reached episode 9 and 10 of Season 11 my jaw dropped watching it, as the underlying tradition of the story was so peculiar and appalling. I could not imagine how somebody could this mysterious practice in real life. But knowing that this drama series often include Japanese tradition in the story, the practice must be a reality, not a fiction.

The crime took place in a remote mountain area covered with dense forest, a place so serene and peaceful such that it is hard to imagine a crime could take place here. The crime was compelled by an 11th century ancient practice called Sokushinbutsu, an act of self-mummification of a Buddhist monk to be “a Buddha in this very body”. In Sokushinbutsu practice the monk intentionally died to preserve his own body to become a mummy, in the quest for nirvana.

I was curious to find-out what drove this religious tradition, how could it happen this way? So I contacted Haruki, a Buddhist monk I know, living in the Churenji Temple in Dewa Sanzan, Yamagata prefecture. I took a 4 hours ride on Shinkansen and express train from Tokyo to the closest station in Tsuruoka. The travel passed through one of the most serene places in the country, viewing the country side of Japan, mountains, marked with temples and shrines hidden in dense forest. After arriving at the Tsuroka I took a bus to Churenji Temple to meet Haruki, but as the temple is not open for public that day, we went to a small tea house near there to chat.

I started the chat:
“This serene place in Yamagata prefecture is said to be one of the most beautiful places to travel in the country.  I am fortunate to see the beauty of this place surrounded by mountains covered with tall cedar trees forming a dense forest, which made us feel like the trees reaching over us to give us a shelter and protection from the storms. The towering mountains are regarded as hostile, dangerous places for human beings to venture, while the forest gives us an overwhelming peaceful feeling.

So I think, we can understand that in the remote past the old Shinto (Koshinto) worshipped the nature, known as animism in the Western world. The beauty and serenity of this place is so overwhelming that they consider every element of nature as divine. Mountains, seas and rivers are all divine spirits or god (kami in Japanese), as are the sun, the moon, and the North Star. The wind and thunder are also kami. In short, Koshinto holds that nothing in this world or this cosmos is devoid of divine energy; the kami are present everywhere.

This mount Yudono where the Churenji Temple is located, is also considered as one of the sacred mountain of the 3 mountains Dewa Sanzan. Can you elaborate about this please.”

 “Mountains have played a prominent role in Japanese religion since ancient times. Tall mountains were regarded as hostile and dangerous, but they were worshiped as the source of the life-giving rivers that nourished the farms and villages below. Soaring into the heavens and often hidden in clouds, such mountains were viewed as heaven and treated with awe and respect. Without being a Shinto, all human being could have the same image of the mountains like these.

Mount Yudono is one of the centers of mountain worship in Dewa Sanzan ("three mountains of Dewa") in Yamagata Prefecture. The 3 mountains are Haguro-san, Gas-san and Yudono-san; Haguro-san represents birth, Gas-san represents death and Yudono-san represents rebirth, the mountains are usually visited in that order.

Dewa Sanzan is a center of Shugendo, a religion based on mountain worship, blending Buddhist and Shinto traditions. Shugendo practitioners, perform deeds of sacrifice as a way of transcending the physical world. Training includes such tasks as long pilgrimages and severe meditations.”

I said:
“So how is this mountain and the worship became the center of Sokushinbutsu, a practice of self-mummification of a monk?”

“Sokushinbutsu is a severe ascetic practice of Shugendo, monks tried preserve their own bodies as mummies through extreme diet and meditation. The monks believed that enlightenment could be reached in the current world, and they believed that leaving behind a trace of Buddha in this realm in the form of a Sokushinbutsu, they could provide salvation to the townspeople even after their death.”

I said:
“How did they do self-mummification?”

“The ritual of self-mummification is very long and very painful. It is not a simple sacrifice and the monk put an end to his life following a long process of mortification with a last stage lasted about 1.000 days. The monk’s diet was limited to only to those that can be found on the mountain, such as nuts, buds, berries, tree bark and pine needles.  This diet was called mokujikigyo, which literally means “tree-eating training”. When the monk was not searching for food he spent his time in meditation on the mountain. This diet was intended to toughen the spirit and from a biological point of view, the severe diet intended to remove fat, muscle and moisture. The expected effect was to avoid decomposition of the body after death. The monk also drank a toxic tea made from tree bark (toxicodendron verniculum) which was expected to hastened death and made the body even less hospitable to the bacteria and parasites that would decompose his body after death.  The tree bark contains the same toxic compound that makes poison ivy so poisonous.

After this, the monk would cut out all food, drink a limited amount of salinized water for a hundred days. At the completion this cycle, the monk was considered spiritually ready to enter ‘nyujo’ or meditative stillness. When the monk felt death approaching, his disciples would lower him into a pine box at the bottom of a pit 3 meters deep with its walls lined with stone, a tomb just big enough him to sit in the lotus position. Empty space would be filled with charcoal to remove humidity.

Once the pit was secured shut, two bamboo tubes would be inserted to funnel down drinking water and act as air vents. Bells would be attached on both ends of one of the tubes, a device used by the monk to signal that he was still alive. Once the ringing stopped for good, the bamboo tubes would be pulled out to seal the pit.

For the next three years and three months, the corpse would be left in the underground cell. On the final day, the body would be unearthed. If no decay was found, the body was determined to be a true Sokushinbutsu and enshrined.”

I said:
“Wasn’t the process considered as a suicide?”

“Although it resembled as suicide on the surface, the Buddhist considered it as "abandonment of the body". Having already extinguished in himself any desire, the monk could in all clearness pass into nirvana by the process of death. The death was the sacrifice of himself out of compassion for the benefit all living being, for instance during an era of serious epidemic. But anyway this practice was outlawed by the Meiji Restoration, when Shinto was separated from Buddhism and declared the official religion of Japan”.

I said:
“How did this Sokushinbutsu practice started?”
“It appeared in China during the 4th century and in Japan in the beginning of the 9th century.  According to Japanese legend, the monk Kukai, also known as Kobo Daishi after his death, entered in deep meditation, or ‘Samadhi’, at the end of his life till he died, at mount Koya in the south of Osaka. Monk Kukai was the founder of Shingon, the exoteric school of Buddhism.  Some 70 years after his death, another high level monk went up on imperial order to the top of mount Koya to open the burial and found the body was intact. Legend has it that Kukai had not died but entered into an eternal meditation and is still alive on Mount Koya, awaiting the appearance of Maitreya, the future Buddha.”

I said:
“So where is Kobo Daishi’s body kept? Is it displayed to the public?”

“The mausoleum of Kobo Daishi is located in Mt. Koya and is the most sacred place in the mountain. The door of the mausoleum was not reopened except every fifty years by the Archbishop of mount Koya to cut the nails and the hair and to change his clothes for him which will then be used to manufacture amulets for the faithful. Kobo Daishi is known to be in meditation in his mausoleum but his body is absolutely not displayed or visible. The body must be considered closer to the relics which represent the pure "Essence of the Buddhas” who are in reliquaries like the stupa.“

I said:
“But in Churenji temple visitors can see the body of Tetsumonkai, although taking photograph is not allowed.”

“Yes, the famous body of Tetsumonkai is displayed in this temple where it sits in its own altar. With his cupped palms facing upward, he is set up for perpetual meditation, just as he intended as he was dying nearly two centuries ago. His dead body with a grinning like skull is clothed in orange robe, purple and saffron scarf and a golden hood, like a high-ranking monk cloth. It offers a proof of someone who succeeded in his effort to become a respected mummy.”

I said:
“Who was Tetsumonkai?”

“Tetsumonkai, is the most famous of all Sokushinbutsu. Born Sunada Tetsu in 1759, he was a river worker who dug wells and floated lumber, and was known for his stormy temperament. One day, according to one story, he pierced the leg of an official in charge of river construction as he was angered by his arrogance. Another story describes him killing a samurai during a fight over a favorite prostitute. In any case, Tetsu fled to escape his pursuers and joined the seminary at Churenji in his 20s to a life of austerity and named as Tetsumonkai.

During his live as a monk, records indicate that Tetsumonkai was a widely traveled and respected holy man with numerous legends to his name. Once when he was visiting Edo, he witnessed the outbreak of an eye disease that caused great suffering. He proceeded to gorge his left eye out and offered it to the Sumida River in prayer for a cure. Later research found that his left eye in the mummy is indeed missing, which in a way confirmed the story.

Tetsumonkai’s missionary work centered on the Shonai region, but the monuments show it extended from the Kanto region up through Hokkaido. He is remembered for gathering 10,000 volunteer workers to build a new road through a mountain connecting Kamo Port to Tsuruoka, to facilitate trade. He left an enduring impact on many people of that time. Till now, there are festivals based on Tetsumonkai’s teachings.

However, the most compelling of his legends may be another one involving self-mutilation. At one point, Tetsumonkai is said to have been visited by a prostitute, possibly the same one he fought with the samurai for. The woman tried to convince Tetsumonkai to come back to the city with her, but he refused. To prove his resolution and dedication to a life of austerity, he disappeared and shortly returned with a small package for her. Inside were his bloody testicles. He had sliced them off.

The object is said to have made its way around prostitutes of the local pleasure quarters as a good luck charm, and was eventually sent to Nangakuji Temple in Tsuruoka, where it was preserved as a relic. Adding weight to the legend, the genitals are missing from Tetsumonkai’s mummified body.

I said:
“ Was the temple really in possession of Tetsumonkai’s testicles? “

“Yes, but they’re not for public viewing. Tetsumonkai’s blood group is B, which was also the blood group of the testicles found in Nangakuji, according to past scientific research. Academics at the time concluded that it was highly likely that the dried testicles belonged to a man who endured extreme physical abuse in the name of meditation training before being entombed at the age of 71.”

I said:
“Are the Sokushinbutsu mummies the same as the Egyptian mummies?”

“The body of the Pharaohs was embalmed in ancient Egypt. The internal organs were entirely withdrawn and replaced by medicinal herbs. The body was thus reduced to nothing an envelope of dried flesh and bone.
Contrary to the Egyptian mummies, those of the Sokushinbutsu mummies preserved their internal organs because the process of mummification began while they were alive and the internal organs were regarded as centres of vital energy. The bodies of certain mummies of the Yudono mount, in order to preserve them perfectly, are sometimes also coated with dried lacquer. So the vitality of the worship implied that the Buddhist mummies are not simply perceived as "remains", or "empty shells", they are animated, full with vitality; they exist simultaneously in this world and in the plenitude of Nirvana.

I said:
“It’s easy to dismiss the Sokushinbutsu phenomenon as an obscure ritual that died out as the nation marched toward modernization in the late 19th century. But can you elaborate the meaning of death in Buddhism?”

“The Sokushinbutsu mummies provide a fascinating window into the culture of pre-modern Japan through their practice of passion, hardships, sacrifice and intense religious fervor culminating in the attainment of Buddha-hood in the flesh. The Western concept of death is an immediate and severe termination of life, while for Eastern concept death is of a gradual process.

The Sokushinbutsu worship keeps the saint alive and offers a unique perspective of humankind struggle in the quest for Nirvana, before and after the death. “


This is an imaginary interview about Sokushinbutsu




  1. An imaginary interview?! But what a fascinating read. I am sure I read about this previously but I can't recall where. A friend of mine is the chap who translated Fukuda Kyuya's book of the Hyakumeizan. He probably knows about this practice and maybe even it was his blog where I read about it. But I will send him the link to this post anyway.

    Thank you very much for commenting on my post and adding the link to your post. I enjoyed reading it very much, Steven!

    1. Thank you for your comment...Have a nice day...

  2. Very interesting. I saw what was said the last of the mummies at the Tokyo Ueno Natural History Museum, but it is of an Edo era female mummmy interred in an urn. Not much info accompanied it, was it a Buddhist nun custom being followed or...