The self-mummified monks of Japan are an obscure phenomenon. They are little known in Japan. Unless they live in a town that has one, your average Japanese person is unlikely to know that they exist. My wife had never heard of them, nor had any of my Japanese friends. They are obscure enough that even someone like me—who purposefully seeks out rare and obscure phenomenon and once planned a trip just to see a mummified kappa and traveled to Omine-san to train with the Shugendo monks—was only vaguely aware that they existed.
Which is why it was a treat to read Ken Jeremiah’s book “Living Buddhas: The Self-Mummified Monks of Yamagata, Japan.” Often it takes someone like Ken Jeremiah—someone obsessed enough with a single, obscure phenomenon, to take the necessary time to research and write up the story—adding to the available body of knowledge so that someone like me can learn a little more.
Self-mummification happened during a time when ascetic practices were taken to the extreme. The practice was considered to be the holiest of holies—a transformation into Buddhahood while still inhabiting your physical body. Monks attempted the transformation for centuries; the oldest known self-mummified monk is from 1128 and the most recent from 1878. For a period of up to 3,000 days monks would prepare both physically and mentally, reducing their diet to little more than pine needles and resin, and meditating constantly in dark caves. When they were ready, they would be buried alive. After a suitable period, their bodies were dug up, and if mummified then the transformation was consider to be successful and they were venerated. If the body had decomposed, then it was felt that they had not achieved Buddhahood.
“Living Buddhas: The Self-Mummified Monks of Yamagata, Japan” is a somewhat misnamed book. While it does go into the history of the seven self-mummified monks of Yamagata, Japan, there really isn’t enough information on them to fill out a book. Instead, Jeremiah adds chapters on various practices of mummification, on Kobo Daishi and the Shugendo religion and the various beliefs that influenced the monks, and on asceticism and self-immolation practices worldwide. Being interested in these subjects, I enjoyed the additional chapters, although there are better and more complete books available. But if you aren’t familiar with Japanese religion then the extra chapters make for a good background as to why these monks would do this.
In all honesty, I can’t say that “Living Buddhas” is a particularly well written book. The chapters could be better organized and the transitions smoother. Some of the chapters can be a slog to get through. Jeremiah mixes history with personal belief, and I laughed out loud when I saw pseudo-scientist Graham Hancock (Underworld: The Mysterious Origins of Civilization) quoted quoted as a reliable source. The last chapter in particular, “The Nature of Life and Death,” is more of a personal essay and seemed out of place.
But given the obscure nature of the subject matter, I am willing to forgive a lot. Jeremiah’s book is the most complete you are likely to find on the subject, if not the only book available. I am grateful that he took the time to research and write it. And now I have a new stop to see on my magical mystery tour of Japan.