Last week, police in Tokyo broke into the home of Sogen Kato. According to local records he was 111, the fifth oldest man on earth. But instead of a wizened old man, they found a skeleton in pajamas lying under a blanket.
The body was surrounded by yellowed newspapers, whose date the police said indicate when Kato likely may have died; November, 1978. “Grandpa was a very scary man,” said one granddaughter, who had visited his room a few months back and said she saw a skull.
Police believe Kato’s family hid his death so they could continue to collect his pension checks, a sum that totaled more than nine million yen, or about 100,000 U.S. dollars. But there is another reason that explains why Kato may have ended up the way he did, he was trying to attain sokushinbutsu, a revered state of being in which Buddhist monks cause their own death by limiting themselves to a sparse diet that induces mummification. Throughout history, hundreds of monks have tried to attain sokushinbutsu, but only about two dozen are known to have succeeded. Until the case of Kato, it was assumed that the practice had been extinct for centuries.
Sokushinbutsu was practiced in Yamagata prefecture, in the rural mountains of northern Honshu, Japan’s main island. To attain sokushinbutsu required an ultra-rigorous diet. For three years, the monks drank only water and ate only seeds and nuts. They meditated all day long. For another three years they ate just roots and bark and practiced an exercise regimen designed to rid the body of fat. They drank a special tea made from the bark of the Urushi tree, which coats the inside of the body with a lacquer-like substance. The tea caused vomiting and a rapid loss of bodily fluids, but most importantly, made the body too poisonous to be eaten by maggots.
When the monk was ready, he assumed the lotus position, locked himself in a cramped stone tomb and meditated until he died. His only connection to the outside world was an air tube and a bell. Each day he rang the bell; the noise traveled up the air tube and was heard by his disciples above. When the bell stopped ringing, the disciples sealed the tomb. One-thousand days later, they dug up the monk. If the body had rotted, good try, but no sokushinbutsu. Only if the monk had been truly mummified was he given the holy status, then put in the temple for viewing.
Nowadays, sokushinbutsu is illegal, as it is considered a form of suicide, but during periods of famine the practice was encouraged as a way to cope without food. It was thought that if you preserved yourself as a mummy you would be called to see the return of Bodhisattva Maitreya, a sort of Buddhist messiah who it is said will return some 5.67 billion years after the death of Buddha, a time when humans will live to the age of 80,000 and a king called Cakkavatti Sankha will rule the world, a time when oceans will have greatly decreased in size, allowing the Maitreya to walk across them, and a time that will signify the end of the middle time in which humanity currently resides. In Kushinagar, a remote mountainous region in far northern India, near the Nepal border, an international organization known as The Maitreya Project has been raising funds for the last two decades to construct a 500 foot steel statue of the Maitreya Buddha, in honor of his return. The statue is designed to last 1,000 years.
It is believed a Japanese monk named Kukai, a famous calligrapher and engineer who also founded the True Word sect of Buddhism, may have introduced the practice of sokushinbutsu from China, where it was later lost. One of the most famous mummy-monks was Daijuku Bosatsu Shinnyokai-Shonin, born in 1687 in the city of Tsuruoka. He was attracted to the teachings of Buddhism at a very early age and as a young man entered the Buddhist priesthood. Beginning in his twenties, he aspired to become sokushinbutsu. At the age of 96, he put himself on a strict diet of salt and water, which lasted for 42 days. He then drank the poisonous Urushi tea and was buried alive.