Thursday, June 28, 2007

Self-Mummification in Japan

During the Edo period, some Buddhist priests in northern Japan engaged in sokushinbutsu, a form of prolonged suicide by self-mummification that existed long before people began consuming the food from McDonald's:
The first step is a change of diet. The priest was only allowed to eat nuts and seeds that could be found in the forests surrounding his temple; this diet had to be stuck to for a 1000 day period, a little under three years. During this time, the priest was to continue to subject himself to all sorts of physical hardship in his daily training. The results were that the body fat of the priest was reduced to nearly nothing, thus removing a section of the body that easily decomposes after death.

In the second stage, the diet became more restrictive. The priest was now only allowed to eat a small amount of bark and roots from pine trees (mokujiki). This had to be endured for another 1000 day period, by the end of which the priest looked like a living skeleton. This also decreased the overall moisture contained in the body; and the less fluid left in the body, the easier to preserve it.

Towards the end of this 1000 day period, the priest also had to start to drink a special tea made from the sap of the urushi tree. This sap is used to make laquer [sic] for bowls and furniture; but it is also very poisonous for most people. Drinking this tea induced vomenting [sic], sweating, and urination, further reducing the fluid content of the priest's body. But even more importantly, the build up of the poison in the priest's body would kill any maggots or insects that tried to eat the priest's remains after death, thus protecting it from yet another source of decay.

The third and last step of the process was to be entombed alive in a stone room just big enough for a man to sit lotus style in for a final 1000 day period. As long as the priest could ring a bell each day a tube remained in place to supply air; but when the bell finally stopped, the tube was removed and the tomb was sealed.
Link (via the Proceedings of the Athanasius Kircher Society). Similar practices were apparently observed elsewhere in the Buddhist ascetic world. No word yet on why the corpse in the picture appears to not really have any preserved flesh. Looks less like a mummy than an ordinary skeleton to me. Time to find some new poison lacquer sap.

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Blogger Essential Estrogen said...

I saw a documentary on television about this a year or two ago. Fascinating. I can't imagine slowly killing myself like that... by that same token, I'm sure they couldn't imagine Doritos.

4:25 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

hmm, I think we can draw a distinction between eating calorie-rich food that sustains you in the short term but increases your risk of heart attack later in life...and SLOWLY KILLING YOURSELF OVER A 9-YEAR PERIOD!!!!! Although the difference might be minimized for someone who's morbidly obese...

They must have been getting some source of nutrients over the last 1000 days, right? Or can a skeleton-man survive 1000 days with no food?

-Mrs. "thoroughly disgusted" G. R.

8:48 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Also, I like the timing of this post right after the hot-dog-eating contest ;)

8:50 AM  

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