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.

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