Home > Books/Magazines, Culture, History, Reviews > Book Review: Living Buddhas: The Self Mummified Monks Of Yamagata, Japan By Ken Jeremiah

Book Review: Living Buddhas: The Self Mummified Monks Of Yamagata, Japan By Ken Jeremiah

st AsianLong after death, these ascetics continue to be revered as Living Buddhas!

Living BuddhasCoincidental to the recent review of ‘The Old Jōruri Puppet Play ‘The Tale Of The High Priest Kōchi’ (himself a sokushinbutsu, or living mummy) at Diverse Japan this is, according to the author, the first English language book on the subject of the self-mummifying Buddhist monks of Yamagata Prefecture of North-Western Japan who, long after death, continue to be revered as Living Buddhas and are little known to the outside world. An earlier English language 20 page article from 1962 does exist, written by Ichirō Hori and entitled ‘Self-Mummified Buddhas in Japan. An Aspect of the Shugen-Dō (“Mountain Asceticism”) Sect’ (History of Religions, Vol. 1, No. 2. (Winter, 1962), pp. 222-242. The University of Chicago Press) and this is included in the reference section of the book. The hagiographic section of this article outlines the lives and self-mummification of these Living Buddhas in much the same form as the second section of Jeremiah’s book.

Enmyoukai Shounnin

Enmyōkai Shōnnin (Ken Jeremiah)

The first section of the book lays the groundwork for a cross cultural understanding of mummification and comparison of the types of historical mummy and the types of mummification. This then moves, in the second section, into an introduction to the practices involved in sokushinbutsu by the ascetic issei gyōnin of Shugendō, (a syncretic religion now generally expressed through modern Japanese Tendai and Shingon Buddhism) and its possible relationship with the methodology used in some executions used by the same religious sect before concentrating on the hagiography of eight of the Yamagata sokushinbutsu. Though in these chapters the amount of historical information relating specifically to each sokushinbutsu seems more sketchy the more historical the personality, they perhaps they form the most interesting part of the book.

sokushinbutsu

Shinnyōkai Shōnin: the farmer who killed a samurai (http://www.kenjeremiah.com/photography.html)

The third section provides information about the development of Buddhism and its various forms, its subsequent transmission and syncretism with Daoism in China which led to the belief in immortality being incorporated into forms of Chinese Buddhism, specifically Tian Tai, Hua Yan, and Chan which were then transmitted to Japan to become, respectively, Tendai, Shingon and Zen Buddhism. There is a chapter on Kōbō Daishi which includes a helpful segment on Kōbō Daishi’s ‘living death’ and the esoteric beliefs about the relationship between Buddha nature and the phenomenological nature of the body which are relevant to the theme of the book. The third section ends with a chapter on Shugendō asceticism.

The fourth section of the book recounts the process by which these monks self-mummify. There is an examination of religious beliefs about life and death, the role of asceticism, and of those who were involved in self-mummification whilst the fifth section confines itself to the nature of life and death with an afterword to finish up before the informative appendices.

For anyone with an interest in the sokushinbutsu this very interesting book contains a wealth of information and has the feel about it of being both a guide book and also an in depth academic dissertation. At times however it lapses into conjectures about the mythic nature of the transition between life and death and ‘immortality’ written in such a way as to seem to be presented as statements of fact, conjectures which are distinct in tone from the presentation of other beliefs as mythological which is a somewhat confusing for a book such as this. There is also a tendency to present sweeping statements as facts, some of which scholars of religion are likely to take real issue with; for instance that Buddhism has been assimilated into Hinduism and no longer exists in India (see Navayana Buddhism), and that Islam and Christianity are intolerant (for instance see Recent Changes in pacific Island Christianity, John Barker, in the New Pacific Review, Vol. 1, No. 1, Dec 2000, pg. 108).

Whilst some information that the book contains is linked to the self-mummification practice an awful lot is not. Almost entire chapters are given over to descriptions of South Asian, South East Asian and Far Eastern religions and religious characters that have little or no direct bearing on the main theme of the book. That being said if Buddhism and esoteric and syncretic Buddhism in the Far East and Japan in particular is the reader’s interest then this fascinating additional information is an added attraction, even if it does take up most of the book. Overall the book contains an awful lot of padding. It could have been a lot smaller and much more concise if it had just contained the introductory information, hagiographies of the sokushinbutsu, explanations of the whys and wherefores of self-mummification and the processes involved and some of the directly relevant information contained in the surrounding chapters and appendices which would have made it a much more attractive proposition; as more of a guide book than a dissertation.

Without a doubt the book is something of a curiosity, and somewhat niche to put it mildly, and would no doubt appeal to academics, students of religion, travellers intending to view the sokushinbutsu and those with a curiosity for a phenomenon that others might consider morbid though its hefty £26.50 cost might be a barrier to this being an impulse buy or a general purchase though the Kindle version is substantially cheaper at £7.36. However, if the reader is of a mind to explore Yamagata, and perhaps beyond, in search of these living mummies it would definitely be an essential handbook.

Errata

Appendix One – the location of the mummy of the Buddhist monk Kōchi Hōin (who in 1363 at the age of 66 became a sokushinbutsu) is given as Saishōji-ji Temple in Iwate Prefecture. The temple is actually located in Nagaoka, Niigata Prefecture. Saishōji-ji Temple website section on Kōchi Hōin (in Japanese) http://www.saisyouji.jp/saisyo-ji/contents-sokusinbutu-navi.html

Publisher: McFarland 

ISBN-13: 978-0786448807

ISBN-10: 0786448806

242 pages

Amazon.co.uk – Paperback £26.50 Kindle £7.36

Author’s web site

http://www.kenjeremiah.com

The practice of self-mummification

http://io9.gizmodo.com/the-gruesome-and-excruciating-practice-of-mummifying-yo-1515905564 

Documentary ‘The Mummies who made themselves’

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LKkVo02LD2A 

Reviewer Profile:

Trevor Skingle was born and lives in London where he works in the field of Humanitarian Disaster Relief. He is a Japanophile and his hobbies are Kabuki, painting and drawing and learning Japanese.

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