July 2, 2007

"The process of becoming a self-made mummy is long, slow and excruciatingly painful, taking from three to ten years."

You have to do something with your life. Here's one idea. Not recommended!
The procedure the monks followed developed over a 900 year period, and though there were different variations, it generally consisted of three equal states, each 1000 days long. For the first 1000 day period the monk adopted a strict diet that consisted of only small amounts of soba (buckwheat) dough and walnuts, hazelnuts, and nutmeg gathered from the surrounding forest. The diet served to reduce the ascetic's body fat dramatically, and as fat decomposes quickly after death, it increased the chances of successful mummification. In the second 1000 day period, the ascetic's diet became even more limited: only bark and the roots of pine tree were ingested. The monk became increasingly emaciated as his body fat reduced to nothingness and his body's water-content similarly declined. Though greatly weakened and increasingly skeletal in appearance, the monk continued to subject himself to long periods of prayer and chanting mantras.
Is it wrong for me to read that and wonder if the dough, walnuts, hazelnut, and nutmeg combination could be adapted for a modern American weight-loss diet? Is it wrong to write a diet book using those foods and processing the religious elements into some New Age-y nonsense to spice it up?

Back to the monks:
Nearing the end of the second 1000 day period, the monk drank tea made from the juice of the Urushi, or Japanese Varnish tree. A caustic, extremely toxic sap—even its vapour can cause a rash—it is usually used to make a highly durable coating for Chinese and Japanese lacquerware. Drinking the tea caused the monk to vomit, perspire and urinate extensively, further reducing the fluids in his body, as well as causing a large build up of poisons. These poisons, however, played an important part of the mummification process, for they would also kill any organism that tried to consume the priest's flesh after death.
Now, this is rather extreme. I'd prefer the mellified man route.

But back to the monks:
The monk, by then severely debilitated and, one assumes, in tremendous physical pain, was ready for the third and final stage in the process, described in a pamphlet from Kaikoji Temple:
“When the priests were near death, stone shelters were constructed three metres underground. The priests were then put into wooden coffins and buried in the shelters with only a bamboo tube for air. In the coffins the priests continued their ascetic practices, sitting in meditation, reciting mantras, and maintaining their strict diet.”

Entombed in his subterranean chamber with only bark and roots to eat and a bell to signal their continued existence to the other monks, the initiate waited for death. “When the sounds of their prayers [or the bell] could no longer be heard, the priests were dug up to confirm their deaths and were then reburied. After three years and three months, they were again dug up, placed in shrines, and worshipped as living gods.” Unlike other mummies, the process finished with death: “No other methods were used in the mummification process”—hence the presence of internal organs that scholars were amazed to discover.
That's some serious performance art.

How much religion does it take to want to starve yourself in the hope of being worshiped as a living god? Perhaps none.

(Via Metafilter.)

28 comments:

steve simels said...

"The process of becoming a self-made mummy is long, slow and excruciatingly painful, taking from three to ten years."


And how brilliant of you to post an item that seems to take just as long to slog through and induces the same pain.

Peter Palladas said...

When I was a monk we had a food mantra:

Eat with the Benedictines, sleep with the Franciscans and die with the Dominicans.

Why so you naturally enquire?

Because the Benedictines never stopped eating, the Franciscans never stopped sleeping and the Domincans never stopped saying Masses for the deceased.

I'll take that for a more humane approach to sanctity.

Finn Kristiansen said...

I had the same thoughts (about the application of their eating pattern to modern day diet efforts).

Not being the slimmest, I was thinking, "Hmmm, wonder if some gourmet market in the back of my Saveur magazine sells soba dough".

If we could just extend the buckwheat dough into buckwheat donuts, topped with hazelnut and cinnamon and nutmeg, and sell them at the local Dunkin or Starbucks, we could have a trend in the making.

On the other hand, and because I am just now reading The Dharma Bums (handed to me by a stranger on a plane coming back from NYC to Phoenix), I have a growing sense that the impulse toward monkhood and mountaintop living is intensely selfish and worthless. And while I don't believe women are inherently smarter or better than men (on average), it makes you wonder why they are never at the center of stories like this.

Fox said...

I'd be curious to hear what Christopher Hitchens has to say about this.

George said...

Alii, botox...same result, right?

steve simels said...

Gliddy glub gloopy nibby nabby noopy
la la la - lo lo.....

Smilin' Jack said...

steve simels said...
"The process of becoming a self-made mummy is long, slow and excruciatingly painful, taking from three to ten years."

And how brilliant of you to post an item that seems to take just as long to slog through and induces the same pain.

Gliddy glub gloopy nibby nabby noopy la la la - lo lo.....


Most of us have already guessed that reading is a slow and painful process for you, Steve, and probably accompanied by audible grunting. But we do enjoy hearing about your suffering, so keep it coming.

Re the monks, this is the kind of outlet for fanatacism that should be encouraged. Imagine the trouble we could avoid if radical Islam could be diverted in this direction. We should get the psyops people working on it...a few fake imams spouting a carefully crafted "revelation" might get the homicidal wackos to turn their efforts inward.

Meade said...

Good Morning steve simels
The earth says "hello"

Ann Althouse said...

Steve, take your Good Morning Starshine to one of the pop music threads. We're talking about death and dieting here. Here is, apparently, what Steve looked like 30 years ago. I'll leave it to you to picture how he looks these days.

Fox, I was thinking about him when I wrote this.

Smilin' Jack said...

Ann Althouse said...
Steve, take your Good Morning Starshine to one of the pop music threads. We're talking about death and dieting here. Here is, apparently, what Steve looked like 30 years ago. I'll leave it to you to picture how he looks these days.


Jeez, Ann, after looking at that picture I think Steve definitely belongs on this thread. If he looked like that then, he must be ready for the third stage of mummification by now.

Anthony said...

I saw some Discovery show on one of those mummies once. I don't find it terribly persuasive. The amount of water you have to draw off of a human body for actual mummification to occur is far more than what can be achieved through behavior and still be alive. And dehydration needs to be fairly rapid after death to halt bacterial decay.

I tend to think it might help some in promoting mummification -- somewhat less water to be removed, little food in the gastro tract, etc. -- but you still need an immediate environment conducive to preservation.

Christy said...

I'm trying to imagine how the practice was first developed. And who would choose to join an order knowing such was ahead of them?

Ann Althouse said...

Christy, if you're already in a religion that seeks annihilation by sitting and emptying your mind, you might want to do something more excitingly physical. The part where the person is buried alive and ringing a bell is thrillingly perverse. I can see how someone could get into it. Not recommending it, of course.

Bissage said...

OMIGOD!!! Look at that photo! Patti Smith could’ve whupped the tar out of that Gollum-like creature.

I hope he was smart enough to give her good reviews!

(BTW, I thought he was a “critic,” not just a “reviewer.” Well, maybe he got a promotion in the meantime.)

But, . . ., I mean, . . ., I had no idea he was so ugly so long ago.

I feel really awful.

I thought I’d been taunting a conceited, bratty 20-something hoping a little tough love might do him some good.

But, . . ., sheesh, what’s the point, now?

* sniff -- wipes sad little tear from eye *

Bissage said...

You know what?

I'm not going to beat myself up over this thing.

Looks aren't so very important.

We've all got our faults.

Besides, . . ., I mean, . . ., really, . . ., what's the ugliest part of his body?

It's his mind.

Ruth Anne Adams said...

Another way: Incorruptibility.

Meade said...

"* sniff -- wipes sad little tear from eye *"

And well you should, Bissage, you terrible taunter, you.

After all, thirty years later, [S]teve [S]imels has probably attained a sort of sokushinbutsu status. His comments here are analogous to an autodiety ringing his own bell while buried somewhere underground, under the ground. So, a little more religious tolerance and a little less tough love, please!

I suggest you get down on your knees and pray before the emaciated little god/pop reviewer puts a spell on your big bad mean ass.

Cedarford said...

That is the impressive thing about the Japanese. Mostly for the good -tremendous self-discipline combined with fanaticism.

Devotion of life to be sensei, devotion to a specific end. Be it exquisite pottery, the perfect noodle, or a good-looking corpse.

Not so pretty in warfare though. Devotion to perfecting brutality. The world's toughest regimen for officer cadets in the early 20th Century - 6 mile swims in freezing Pacific water was a Japanese Naval Academy tradition, with highest accolades to those who found themselves drowning and died fighting rescue to avoid shame. The enlisted death rate was 1 in 12 in 1930's boot camps.

The monks death is absolutely fitting of Japanese Bushido.

***************
I echo Smilin' Jack. If only Islam seizes on the Monk's diet as a wonderful thing. If Jihad is purely an "internal struggle" and not holy-sanctioned infidel butchery...what greater proof of devotion to Allah could a fanatic show than the Japanese Monk Diet for Devotion?

Gahrie said...

Anthony:

The monks' diet not only dehydrated them, it also chemically embalmed them, preventing a barrier to bacteria and decay.

Meade said...

Arsenic to arsenic, buckwheat dough to buckwheat dough

Balfegor said...

in the hope of being worshiped as a living god?

A dead god! Like Cthulhu!


The monks death is absolutely fitting of Japanese Bushido.

武道!=仏道! I almost want to make a pun out of it . . . "budou" and "butsudou."

Jeff said...

Wow. It took Steve 3-10 years to read a couple of paragraphs? That's terribly sad.

George said...

Are we talking about Justice Souter here? Or Ginsburg?

To me, Stevens is more like one of those dried apple dolls. Kind of a different thing.

mythusmage said...

I want to know, what prestige class is this a pre-req for? And do you get an extra feat?

Emy L. Nosti said...

Speaking of "nuts," I thought they were fatty...hm.

It sounds more self-aggrandizing than humble ol' religion.

And did they have calendars? I'm sure I would lose count before the 200th day, much less the 2000th. Especially if I was in such poor physical shape and (I assume) in the dark...not to mention, completely insane.

Seneca the Younger said...

Christy, if you're already in a religion that seeks annihilation by sitting and emptying your mind, you might want to do something more excitingly physical.

Wow, your lack of knowledge of Buddhism is only slightly exceeded by the lack of knowledge of the article author.

(Let's see: Buddhas aren't "gods". Urushii sap isn't strictly "caustic", ie, burning or corrosive; it has the same chemical in it, uroshinol, as poison ivy (yum!). The purpose of Shingon aesceticism isn't to "become gods" but to accumulate spiritual power and merit to help save all sentient beings (as well as shoot mystical lightning bolts out of your hands, at least in manga). The word "butsu" doesn't mean "Buddha" necessarily, being flexibly applied to bodhisattvas as well. And "annihilation" is a horrible translation of "nirvana.")

This may explain, however, why the technical term for deep Shingon practitioners is "crazy scary sonsabitches."

Eyy, this is done in a monastic context --- someone else is keeping count.

Ann Althouse said...

Seneca: Why are you inclined to defend such a horrible practice, which involves suicide by starvation, poisoning, and burial alive, presided over by a group of human beings that somehow believes that what it is doing is very impressive?

Tagore Smith said...

Balfegor: True, but 武士道!=武道 either.

I have quite a bit of affection for the Japanese, perhaps in part because they can be so extreme. It's like the guy you knew in school who was always willing to go just a bit farther than anyone else. That said, there were some pretty strange practices in Europe around mortification of the flesh in the medieval period.

And Ann, while I can't speak for him, I don't see how you could take Seneca's post as a defense of the practice... he was trying to correct what he took to be some misconceptions, though I don't entirely agree with him.

The character 仏 may be used to refer to bodhisattvas, among other things, but its primary meaning, when read "butsu," is _the_ Bhudda, as opposed to _a_ Bhudda. Of course this depends on the context, but it is not an error to omit that... after all the same character can refer to the nation of France, or a departed soul, though it is generally read differently in those cases.

And in some forms of Buddhism buddhas are gods, or near enough as makes no difference. Buddhism is not monolithic. You might want to take a look at the note at the end of the article.

Defending self-mummification, or condeming it, seems moot, as it is no longer practiced. I don't have a position on Aztec human sacrifice, nor do I need one- it is too remote a thing.

I see this as a curiosity from the past, one that illuminates how differently people have looked at the world. At any rate, as far as deplorable practices go, there are worse, given that at least these self-mummifiers didn't harm anyone else... would that the same could be said of everyone, then and now.