The Mummy Returns

My post on March 2nd about Kukai’s sokushin jobutsu would have had more context if today’s post had preceded it. I meant to post this piece the previous Friday, but the deaths of Ruth Denison, Leonard Nimoy, and Avijit Roy changed my plan, and then I forgot that I had not posted it.

In any case, a few weeks ago I blogged about the mummified remains found in Mongolia of a man thought to be about 200 years old whom researchers believe might be a Buddhist monk who died while meditating as he appears to be sitting in the lotus position. The connection between that, Kukai and his concept of sokushin jobutsu, is that there has been some speculation that the Mongolian mummy is an example of the Japanese practice known as sokushinbutsu or self-mummification, known to have occurred between the 12th and early 20th centuries. Twenty-four self-made mummies have been discovered in Yamagata Prefecture, all individuals who belonged to the Shingon sect, of which Kukai was the founder.

Statue and CT scan imageBefore going any further, let me lay some more mummy news on you: it has been widely reported that a 1000-year-old Buddhist statue after subjected to CT scans appears to contain the mummified remains of a Chinese monk. The scans also show scraps of paper with Chinese characters written on them where the mummy’s internal organs should have been. Some reports indicate the remains belong to Liu Quan, a meditation master, and it is thought that he, too, went thought the process of self-mummification.

The two recent mummies were found in Mongolia and China, so the connection to Japan might be that Kukai learned of the practice when he visited China and brought back with him. The similarity between the two terms, sokushinbutsu and sokushin jobutsu is obvious. Self-mummified Buddhists are traditionally considered to be “living Buddhas” and in Mongolian Buddhism it is maintained that that senior lamas whose bodies have been preserved are not really dead. Broadly speaking, we can say that becoming a Buddha with this body is like becoming a living Buddha.

I mentioned in the 3/2 post that soku means becoming, shin is mind/body, and butsu is buddha: become buddha mindbody. The term can also be interpreted as “attaining Buddhahood in this very existence.”

Kukai was not the only Japanese Buddhist to promote sokushin jobutsu. Saicho, Kukai’s one-time friend and counterpart, founder of Japanese Tendai, also used the term. Probably both men were introduced to the concept when they trained in China, and it may have originated in Indian Buddhism. Kukai used as a source for his treatise on the subject a work attributed to Nagarjuna, Aspiration to Enlightenment (thought to be apocryphal), which contains the phrase, “we can attain enlightenment in this very existence.” Saicho’s source was the fable in the Lotus Sutra of the Naga king’s daughter, who in a single moment becomes a buddha (unfortunately she must transform herself into a man first).

In the 13th century, Dogen, who established the Japanese Soto school of Zen after studying Caodong Ch’an in China, also taught a variation of this concept, sokushin zebutsu or “mind itself is buddha.” In his work “Sokushin-zebutsu” he wrote, “The mind correctly transmitted means that one mind is all dharmas and all dharmas are one mind.” As Dogen had been initially trained in Tendai, I see a correlation there with the philosophy of Tendai predecessor, T’ien-t’ai Chih-i of China and his i-nien san-ch’ien or “three thousand worlds in one thought” (Jp. ichinen sanzen).

The difference between Kukai and Dogen is that the former, a tantric Buddhist tended to emphasize mystic experience as the way to become awakened in this life, while the latter focused on the more routine process of cultivation, the method of realizing buddha-mind, which is rigorous meditation practice.

Now, in some of these teachings, and in others where the idea of attaining enlightenment in one lifetime is floated, they don’t really mean one lifetime but three although I don’t recall exactly how that was worked out. However, in the modern application of all this, the point to focus on is that becoming a buddha is not realizing some supra-mundane state of being. Huang Po, a Ch’an master during the Tang Dynasty, said “The Way is your everyday mind.” The Way is Buddha, and our everyday mind, our everyday body, our everyday life, is Buddha.

I wrote about Dogen and sokushin zebutsu in a 2012 post, noting “This line of thought breaks down the traditional notion that it take many lifetimes to attain Buddhahood. It brings awakening into the present, into the here and now.”

The piece is titled This Mind Itself. As I looked at the post earlier today, I couldn’t help but notice that the image I created for the piece bears some small resemblance to the image of the CT scan above.


Attaining Buddhahood with this very body

Although there seems to be some debate as to whether or not Kukai (774-835), also known by his posthumous title Kobo Diashi, was ever ordained as a Buddhist priest or monk, there is no question that he is one of the most important figures in Japanese Buddhism.


Kukai was so inspired by the Mahavairocana Sutra that in 804 he took advantage of an opportunity to go on a government-sponsored trip to China in order to learn more about the text. There he encountered the Chen-yen (“Mantra” or “True Word”) school, an esoteric from of Buddhism, and he became the student of two masters, the Indian monk Prajna, and Hui-kuo, a tantric monk. Kukai received various initiations while in China, and returned to Japan carrying copies of important Buddhist sutras and commentaries. He eventually founded the Japanese version of Chen-yen, the Shingon sect, which is still around today.

A key feature of esoteric or tantric Buddhism (also known as Varjayana “Diamond Vehicle”) is the focus on the role the body plays in awakening the mind. As Shashi Bhushan Dasgupta notes in An Introduction to Tantric Buddhism, the tantric schools “hold that the body is the abode of all truth; it is the epitome of the the universe or, in other words, it is the microcosm, and as such embodies the truth of the whole universe.”

In his book, The Bodymind Experience in Japanese Buddhism: A Phenomenolgical Perspective of Kukai and Dogen, David E. Shaner coined the compound “bodymind” to express the non-duality of body and mind: “A close examination of the relation between body and mind in our lived prereflective experience reveals that there is no mediate relationship. We experience and live body and mind as one.”

It is this basic understanding that forms the core of Kukai’s teachings. He expressed the nonduality of bodymind with the term sokushin jobutsu, also the title of a work he composed in his middle forties, Sokushin jobutsu gi. Translated literally, the term is rendered “immediately (soku) mind (shin) become Buddha (jobutsu).” In later times, immediately would truly mean immediately, as in ichinen jobutsu (“buddhahood in a single moment”), but for Kukai it mean in this existence, this lifetime, more or less. Considering that traditionally enlightenment or Buddhahood is attained after many lifetimes, this idea was a bit radical to say the least.

Kukai was not alone in promoting this concept. Saicho, Kukai’s one-time friend and counter-part, who was founder of Japanese Tendai, also used the term. Probably both men were introduced to the concept while in China, and it may have originated in Indian Buddhism, as Kukai used as a source for his treatise a work attributed to Nagarjuna, Aspiration to Enlightenment (very likely apocryphal), that contains the phrase, “we can attain enlightenment in this very existence.” Saicho’s source was the fable from the Lotus Sutra of the Naga king’s daughter, who in a single moment becomes a buddha (unfortunately she must transform herself into a man first).

The Japanese word shin (from the Chinese xin) can mean “mind” or “heart,” and also “body.” For this reason, Kukai’s sokushin jobutsu is often translated as “attaining Buddhahood with this very body.” Yoshito S. Hakeda in Kukai: Major Works explains why:

Judging from the contents of the work by this title, the word ‘body (shin)’ clearly does not mean the body as opposed to the mind but stands for ‘existence’ or ‘body-mind-being’ The choice of the word ‘body’ over the normally expected mind underscores the basic character of Kukai’s religion: emphasis on direct religious experience through one’s total being and not merely through the intellect. Kukai required that any religious teaching withstand the test of actual meditation and of daily life.”

This forms an interesting connection to what I wrote in the last post in regard to the late Ruth Denison and her “body-centered” approach to meditation. When practicing meditation we are often very mindful of the mind, but less mindful of our body. And yet, most of us are aware that body and mind are one, and for that matter, it is not really possible to have any experience that is mind sans body, or vice versa. Denison learned the importance of body awareness in meditation from U Ba Khin who developed a “sweeping” method to focus on the deep interrelationship between mind and body.

How to integrate body awareness into a meditation practice is not a difficult subject, but one that needs to be dealt with another time. For now, these words by Kukai provide the perfect summation:

The Buddha Dharma is nowhere remote. It is in our mind; it is close to us. The element of original enlightenment is nowhere external. If not within our body, where can it be found?”