Invention of “Self-Mummified Buddhas” in Japan and Its Historical Significance


Self-mummification is an aesthetic practice in which a monk goes into a hole underground and remains there without food, a fast designed to end in death and allow the monk to become a Buddha. As of today, six self-mummified monks are known to exist in Dewa Sanzan or The Three Mountains of Dewa in northern Japan, an area often associated with the Shingon sect of Buddhism. However, while many historians have studied the Egyptian funerary practices of mummification, few researchers have studied self-mummification in Japan. This paper focuses on a monk named Tetsumonkai. Tetsumonkai died in 1829, and his mummified body was dug out and declared a Buddha in the flesh.
In discussing Tetsumonkai, I am not so much interested in the actual practice of self-mummification as in the invention of the process. Though virtually unknown today, Tetsumonkai in fact never went into a hole in the ground. He died in his sleep in the temple, and subsequently his body was buried. In one account, his body was hung from the ceiling of the temple and dehydrated by the use of a charcoal fire and candles. In another account, salt water was poured into his body to prevent it from rotting. In no way am I suggesting that the practice of self-mummification is a fiction or hoax; rather, this paper argues that even this artificial (inauthentic) processing of the body is significantly informed by a cultural ideology or philosophy, which I would like to discuss through archival work.

Author Information
Manabu Yamasawa, University of Tsukuba, Japan

Paper Information
Conference: ACAS2020
Stream: Japanese Studies

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