You may have heard of the recent discovery of a 1,000 year old mummified monk inside a golden statue of a Buddha. This is an example of what is known as a sokushinbutsu, a monk that has undergone the process of self-mummification to achieve salvation and immortality. This occurred primarily during the Middle Ages in Japan, China, India, and Tibet (though I'll talk about Japanese ones in particular). The notion of self-mummification may sound impossible and horribly gruesome, and yes, it is gruesome, but not impossible. Here is a quote from an article I read that was included in the book Rethinking Japan, vol II.
From Massimo Raveri's "In Search of a New Interpretation of Ascetic Experiences" (1990):
"The ascetic...is a rare witness of a perilous intellectual adventure towards an interior dimension of non-duality between ego and the other, between absolute knowledge and total annihilation, between the flow of history and a timeless dimension, that often brings him to the extreme limits of the mind, the body and the language."
This may sound confusing, but it will become clearer when we look at why the monks did this.
But first, how did these monks actually mummify themselves? After spending a period of time wandering among sacred places in Japan, the monk would take refuge in a cave of one of the sacred mountains. In solitude, he (there were no female monks) would spend a period of six years slowly starving himself, first eating only seeds and nuts while engaging in vigorous exercise, and then eating only bark and roots for three years. He would also drink poisonous tea made from the urushi tree that helped dry out his body, allowing his body to be preserved after death. During this time, he meditated and prayed. Eventually, he would be off food entirely, and would drink only water. Then water would go too, and his body would be little more than a living husk.
Not many monks underwent self-mummification, but there have been enough since the Middle Ages that we have a fair number of them still preserved and worshiped as ascended Buddhas.
So why did they do this? If you look at it in the sense of ascension, wanting their soul to ascend to a higher world/heaven, what did it matter what happened to their bodies, because their soul (or consciousness, or whatever other "force" that is the Buddhism equivalent of the soul) will just leave their body behind? It seems to me that, like many things related to spirituality, emphasizing aspects of the physical world helps serve as preparation for where we are headed. It is a way to gain mental strength: if you can go through years of starving yourself and STILL have your mind attuned to the spiritual, to be able to meditate, and detach yourself from your body's suffering, then it is the final proof that you are ready to become a more enlightened being. Hence, not many monks actually performed this, because you had to be a very dedicated and spiritual sort of person ahead of time. This was really the ultimate test, and if you passed it, people knew that you were an enlightened being, which is why the mummified monks were worshiped after their deaths.
Another interpretation of this mummification was that the monks of the shugendo sect thought that by performing such ascetic acts, that they would develop spiritual powers. Some other practices that they did were meditating under waterfalls (which they still do) and gouging out their own eyes (I'm not sure if they still do this though. I hope not!). If nothing else, these were certainly some of the most determined people around.
The sokushinbutsu were not seen to be committing suicide, but rather, attaining immortality beyond the physical world. The purpose of this ascension was not only for themselves, but for the benefit of humanity: it was believed that the monks would eventually be called upon by the bodhisattva Maitreya to assist in helping humankind in the distant future, returning to the world in an enlightened state for the benefit of others. They were only able to return, however, if their bodies remained preserved on Earth, hence the necessity to preserve them via mummification. I assume, in order to make this work out, that Maitreya would help restore their old dried up bodies, otherwise, it would be quite creepy...
Now to return to the quote with another interpretation of the sokushinbutsu. Becoming a sokushinbutsu can be seen as a metaphor with the monk's body as a symbol that transcends the boundaries of religions. It speaks to people of different creeds who are all pursuing a spiritual path. In his article, Raveri said, "Taking the symbols from the past but often subverting their meanings, the mystic reveals the strength of many religious models and, at the same time, their caducity." (FYI, "caducity" means something that is transient, so in this case, I take it to mean that although specific religions and creeds come and go, the heart of them remains, which is similar throughout the world). The "language" spoken of in the first quote is the language of the unconscious, spoken through allegories such as the mummified bodies of the monks.
We see a spiritual quest represented in a physical symbol, where the "interior dimension of non-duality between ego and other" connects the ideas of immortality (the soul ascending to a higher world) and death (the monk's body; the "other" compared to the soul). Raveri also says that (note that "miira" is the same as sokushinbutsu): "ascetic self-mummification means the achievement of an ambiguous condition which is not life (because the miira does not have all the characteristics of a living person) but which also is not death (because the miira lacks all the classificatory features of a dead person)." So although this is part of a particular Buddhist tradition, it challenges many traditions by bridging the dichotomy of life and death into this strange symbol of the mummified body. It challenges people to think differently, to experience something spiritual by means of the physical.
Yet in all this, there is the danger of focusing too much on the body. After all, if you are starving yourself, it's hard just to ignore your dying body's needs, and at first, it may be even harder than if you are monk eating normally. The potential sokushinbutsu could, in fact, become prey to the same obsessions of starvation that people with anorexia have. Indeed, if you look at a monk starving themselves and an anorectic starving themselves, what they're doing appears similar at a brief glance. Yet what is different is the mentality behind it. The monks are not (in principle, one would hope) starving themselves for any purpose related to their body, but they are using their body as a tool to rise above the physical world and help others by their eventual return to Earth. Also, one would hope that they are not driven by anxieties: they don't focus on the fact that they are eating so little, but take it as part of their spiritual practice and use their remaining energy to meditate and pray.
And so there is a thin line between focus on the body for the sake of the body and using the body as a tool to rise beyond it in a spiritual sense. There is a danger in this fine line, and it will really determine whether the monk has become a true sokushinbutsu, a true Buddha, or if they have fallen prey to the limitations of the physical world. Hence in the bolded quote how the monk ventures in the abyss between "absolute knowledge and total annihilation."
So this practice of becoming a "living Buddha" is certainly fascinating, but I'm not saying it should have been done. It may have been right for some monks, but for the majority of them...well, if all monks did this, no one would be left. And so throughout Japan, the bodies that housed these brave souls continue to be preserved, and perhaps one day, we will see if they have been truly successful if the Buddhas return to Earth.
Note: If you're interested in this topic, I would suggest reading the article I quoted from, though it is incredibly hard to find (not online anywhere, I was lucky enough to find it at my old university library). However, if anyone can't find it and is dying to read it (no pun intended...), I scanned it in, so you can email me and I will send you a copy.