Saint Death & Ugly Death

For more than thousands years in Japan, in the mountainous area located in the North-West (Dewa sanzan); in the prefecture of Yamagata (close to the town of Tsuruoka), the Buddhist mummies have resided, objects that demand a very particular means of worship and devotion.

In 1960, the historian Ando Kosei revealed the presence of 18 mummies in the Buddhist temples of the area dating from the 14th to 19th centuries. The press seized the news and these mummies were the subject of medical examinations by professional examiners and professors of various universities. The event generated a lot of attention at the time, because the press proposed the idea that these were ideal actions by buddhist monks: Men, who in principle, spend their life practicing to be free from any attachment, letting grow within them the realization that the world and life are illusory... Their bodies, which are then abandoned after the course of multiple reincarnations, are no longer vessels from which they strive to be released...this is the belief of the Buddhist neophytes.

All these monk "mummies" in question belong to a branch of Shugendo in the curriculum of the esoteric school of Shingon Buddhism. They all are of the "Mokujiki-Gyoja", of the ascetics group who no longer eat any of the 5 grains, only plants and needles of pine...

It is necessary to distinguish between several type of mummies. We all know about the Egyptian mummies. The body of the Pharaohs (and certain people of high social classes) 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 The internal organs were entirely withdrawn and replaced by medicinal herbs.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. One can find mummies in many other cultures, in particular in the south-west of theUnited States, in Alaska in the Aleutian Islands, in Peru... You also know of mummies in Italy, in the convent of the Capuchins of the town of Palermo; in France, those of the tower of Saint Michael in Bordeaux.

Sometimes, as in Japan, fascination turned to the worship as in the case of the perfectly preserved bodies of the lovers of Teruel in Spain or that of the mummified head of Holy Catherine, exposed to the worship of her faithful in the church of San Domingo. These mummies are of two kinds: Artificial, if they result from embalming as in Egypt, Peru..; or "natural" if they are the result of fortuitous circumstances or certain favourable conditions, like the case of "the man of the Ice" found in 1991 on the Italo-Austrian border. In Central Asia, one can also find corpses in a perfect state of conservation. It is in this category that the French mummies of Bordeaux fit, bodies of the condemned of 1789, which were thrown into a common grave and preserved because of chemical the qualities of the earth.

Before going on with the explanation of the circumstance of the Japanese monks who are self-mummified while alive at the end of a long asceticism which carried them to death, I would like to stop for a few moments and discuss the concept of DEATH and to reflect a little on this symbolic system:

With little similar to the beliefs of most religion, death has lost its power to fascinate the Western man. The modern man has rejected the traditional concepts of the after-life: the Larger world does not believe in hell or in paradise, and death itself is standardized by the media or is obscured in the basement of hospitals, where the majority of people die.

If one is insane, mystical or homeless, one can have died as far as the world is concerned, well before being actually dying physically. When a person that you care about more than all else in the world leaves you, the world which surrounded you until then collapses... This person kills that world and part of you, probably without wanting to. Physical death itself poses a problem: When is one really dead? When the last breath is exhaled, when the cerebral functions cease, when the metabolism stops? The Western concept of having died, in quick and radical severance from life, which was still valid fifty years ago, today grows blurred with the acceptance/understanding of the Eastern concept of a gradual process!

Death has always been something obscene: Obscene coming from Latin "obscenus" which means the "bad one forecasts". In the 21st century, its obscenity is total indecency! The last moments which formerly consisted of a rite of socialized passage, proceed nowadays in the loneliness (a cold room in a hospital) and in irresponsibility. We hide Death from the person who is dying with fierce medicines (stubbornness or excess determination from the doctor) by injection, other medical acts... to keep life in people who are dying....and with religious lies and justifications. At present, one can make a parallel between the treatment of corpses and that of household garbage. As seen on American television where ashes from crematoriums were found thrown in the garbage! The vulgarizing of death is an essential fact nowadays. The funeral arrangement is no longer a rite of purification; it simply aims at giving to the dead an appearance of life to avoid traumatizing those still living! Cremation has also lost its value as a purification by fire. Death passes and the dead are less and less regarded as an ancestor.

A quick look at the beliefs of death in Asia gives the impression that the importance of ancestors is immutable. But even in Asia, these beliefs change, and evolve, even in China; how much more so in the west! On the other hand the idea which underlies the majority of the Asian thinking, is that death is not the end of existence, but its continuity onto another mode. The dominant ideology in ‘Traditional’ Asia is that of a harmony with nature: TAO! In Asia, Death is not personalized as in occident like the Angel of Death or as a skeleton in a robe wielding a scythe. In Asia death is often related to the time which passes: the Great Destructor is often the Regenerator of the life! And death is thought of like a "divine play" of the gods Vishnu or Shiva, a cosmic process regenerating. The fundamental sacrifice is often the way in which the old Asian myths worked out their designs and death is recognized as an essential part of a universal process.

There are several manners of accepting death. One can glorify it, like a necessary phase of the cosmic cycle or as a sacrifice or can simply refuse to attach any importance to it. It is this attitude which certain wise Taoists adopt. In the 3rd century before JC, the Chinese Zhuangzi offered the wisdom: "the major problem of the ordinary man (that being death and life) he should be indifferent to, because though he regards Death as the transformation of things, he is only worried about this transformation". According to him, the higher men do not observe the rites "and regard life as a large shell and death like a breakthrough, an opening" which makes it possible to leave there. The Taoist Master concludes: "He who knows the joy of the Sky, his life is the action of the Sky and his death is only one metamorphosis!"

"Beautiful Death"
In India, it is: to be cremated and the ashes spread in the River Ganges. For the Indian renunciant, it is to burn in the fire of the ascetic practice in a slow cooking... Being already consumed internally, he does not need to be incinerated. For the man of the 21st century, it is to die with dignity in his bed, surrounded by his kin.

“Ugly Death” or "Hideous death"
The opposite of the beautiful-death, in the East as in the West is the hideous death: This is a sudden death , unforeseen, violent, which strikes the individual in the flower of youth; or that which occurs with acute suffering. It is usually thought that the victim of the hideous death, frustrated by its remainder of life, will return to haunt the living. Death can be regarded as a stain in particular in the Japanese religion shinto and there are many beliefs in connection with the impurity of women who died in bed, giving birth whose spirit according to old beliefs', are condemned to wash itself forever in a pool of blood! With the exception of certain categories of people like Aghoris Indians, Asians try to keep their distance from death. But the contemplation of impurity is always practised in hindouism; and Buddhism practises the "meditation of the corpse" and the 9 aspects of the dead one: Livid face, inflated body, hardened, in a state of putrefaction, this body is the prey of the animals, the rotted body becoming greenish; then it is not even a full skeleton any more whose bones lie together; the bones are broken and scattered; almost nothing remains any more of the dead which is covered by vegetation "... They are these same broken bodies broken that one finds in the poems of François Villon, in the "ballade of hung". Without advance knowledge, the visitors to the places of hanging remade the experiment of prince Siddhârta, the future Buddha!

The "Suicide"
The Buddha dismisses as the same, the thirst for existence and the thirst for non-existence. Nirvana, overly coveted is neither this existence, nor its opposite. The only exception in Buddhism is the "suicide" of a saint who, having already extinguished in himself any desire, can in all clearness pass into nirvana by the process of death. Any Buddhist Saint is in theory, free to choose the moment of his death, and the tradition says that to at the death of the Buddha, a great number of his disciples followed him into nirvana. Another form of suicide is the sacrifice of oneself out of compassion which aims to benefit all living beings. This "abandonment of the body" which is not a suicide (even if it resembles it on the surface) was very widespread in China in the 5th century by the Taoist saints & the Buddhist Masters of Chinese Zen. And thus it is very natural that certain Masters of Shugendo (a tradition Taoist and Buddhist) practised "the abandonment of the body" with their lives, either while jumping off a waterfall like the Jitsukaga ascetic in 1879, or like the saints of the Yudono mounts by ‘fasting’ until death.

SOKUSHIN JOBUTSU (to become Buddha with this body)
There exist several forms "of abandonment of the body" for the ascetics of Shugendô: that practised by the Jitsukaga ascetic in 1879, who at the end of his life threw himself, in posture of meditation, from the top of the Nachi Waterfall, largest of Japan. His intact body was found at the bottom of the cascade, still in the posture of meditation... His remains rest in thecemetery of Nachi. He offered his life to transfer to humanity his merits from a saintly life, during an era of serious epidemic. It is not a simple suicide and the ascetic put an end to his days following a long process whose last stage of mortification lasted more than 1.000 days! Then there are the ascetics of the Yudono mounts, who like the Chinese Masters of Zen, who were self imprisoned, living the end of their life in a hermetic vault, lasting 1.000 days.

Contrary to the "artificial" mummies, those of the Yudono mounts (as all the Buddhist 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. Like the mummies of great Tibetan Lamas, obtained by salting the corpse, the bodies of certain mummies of the Yudono mounts, in order to preserve them perfectly, are sometimes also coated with dried lacquer. The lacquer method was often employed in China, where clay and lacquer was used to create false mummies to commit the faithful to the beliefs of the time. But the vitality of the worship attests that the Buddhist mummies are not simply perceived as "remains", or "empty shells". For the believers, they are animated, full with vitality; they exist simultaneously in this world and in the plenitude of Nirvana; they speak with the shamans in their dreams or in their "voyage" or course of the "mystical flight" and they can influence the course of events. The term Myrrh from where the Arab word "mumyia“ originated (which gave us the modern word mummy) is not appropriate for the bodies of the Buddhist Saint ascetics of MT Yudono in Japan; because they are not mummies. However, the Buddhist "mummies" appeared in China during the 4th century and during the 11th century in Japan, with the exception of the corpse of the monk Kukai, founder of Shingon, the esoteric school of Buddhism at the 9th century.

The monk Kukai (posthumous name Kobo Daishi) is the most famous case. He would have entered in samadhi, at the end of his life, at the Koya mountain in the south of Osaka (Japan) at the beginning of the 9th century. His is the legendary model which the monk-ascetics of the Edo period were to follow from the 12th til19th century whose mummies were found in the North of Japan. The Japanese tradition reports that Kukai, at the time to of his death, announced to his disciples that he was going to enter Samadhi to leave there only at the time of the coming of the future Buddha Maitreya. At the end 49 days (7 times 7), his disciples opened the sarcophagus and noted that he was "as if living sat in meditation"; 70 years later, another eminent monk went up on imperial order to the top of MT Koya to open the mausoleum once again and found the body intact. He left after having cut the hair of Kukai (which had continued to grow) and having changed his clothes. The door of the mausoleum was not reopened except every fifty years by the Archbishop of Koya san 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. Kukai is known to be in meditation in his mausoleum but his body is absolutely not displayed or visible like those of the ascetics of the Yudono mounts. The body of these saints must be considered closer to the relics which represent the pure "Essence" of the Buddhas or Buddhist Masters who are in reliquaries like the stupa.

In spite of the impressive aspect of the Buddhist mummy and their essence of power, they are often times profaned. And the essential fact is that kind of robbery attests to the belief in their miraculous power. But the profanation is not often the result of pious motivation. Early on, it shows that the transformation of the body (NO putrefaction) was a reflection of the SPIRITUAL transformation of the Dead one.

The Tetsumonkai saint ascetics of the Chuzen temple, Chûkai of the Dainichibô temple, those of the Kaikoji temple or the 18 others, all chose this self-mummification at the end of their life, to give to the world the merits acquired during the course of their life because the population suffered from epidemics. The monk Chukai began his life of asceticism by offering his left eye to the god-dragon to benefit Tokyo which suffered at the time from an epidemic of pox. His altruistic gesture reproduced that of the future Sakyamuni Buddha which in one his former lives, offered his life to the tiger so that it could have milk in sufficiency to be able to nurse its young. During the feudal times, the epidemics were thought to be the manifestation of demons. It seems that the belief in the continuity of the supernatural capacities of the Saints remains even beyond death, through the relics. There is thus a survival of the Saints beyond death itself. I make a point of specifying that the presence of only one relic is equivalent to the presence of an alive Buddha in flesh and bone! Not only do the relics have all the capacities of the late one, but they connect the world of the living to the invisible world.

The ritual of self-mummification is very long and very tiresome for a normal individual and it is not authorized any more in Japan. In China and in Taiwan during the 20th century there was the a case of Buddhist self-mummification. Nevertheless I must recognize the "presence" which lives in the Saints ascetics of MT Yudono; During my twelve years in Japan, I went every year in pilgrimage to the monasteries of Mt Yudono to request to sit opposite these bodies: I smelled a very strong "presence there"... They all have the open mouth with which the letter A was pronounced at the time of the last rattle and the hands laying on the thighs, having fallen from the position of being joined in prayer when they died; in time to become immortal as a Saint and then becoming icons! The rites of Shugendo follow the concept of a double body, being both mortal and immortal at the same time, individual and social. And the purpose of the rite is to transform the first into second. The icons are also an intermediary between the living and their immortal nature. It is what the mummies of Mt Yudono show: Immortality with this body becoming decay proof. The Buddha’s, the gods and deaths are with us; they watch us...





Dainichibô temple Mts Yudono, Japan









Tsuruoka city, Yamagata prefecture, Japan, Kaikoji temple



Kaikoji temple










Kuban at summit of Mt Gassan, Japan, with shamans...



Chuzenji temple with Saint Tetsumonkai & priesthood who change his red kolomo