After a mini-controversy only a few weeks ago regarding a 200-year-old corpse found in full lotus in Mongolia, the internet sensation over mummified Buddhists is back from the dead with new reports of a human skeleton discovered inside a Chinese Buddhist statue from the 12th century. Researchers at the Drents Museum in the Netherlands had long suspected the artwork to contain remains, but weren’t certain until a CT scan confirmed their presence within the gold-painted, papier-mâché encasing. 

According to head researcher Erik Bruijn, writings found with the skeleton reveal that it belonged to an ancient master named Liuquan. Instead of undergoing a natural death, Liquan likely participated in a predominantly Japanese Buddhist ritual of self-mummification, outlined in an article in Ancient Origins:

For the first 1,000 days, the monks ceased all food except nuts, seeds, fruits and berries and they engaged in extensive physical activity to strip themselves of all body fat. For the next one thousand days, their diet was restricted to just bark and roots. Near the end of this period, they would drink poisonous tea made from the sap of the Urushi tree, which caused vomiting and a rapid loss of body fluids. It also acted as a preservative and killed off maggots and bacteria that would cause the body to decay after death.

In the final stage, after more than six years of torturous preparation, the monk would lock himself in a stone tomb barely larger than his body, where he would go into a state of meditation. He was seated in the lotus position, a position he would not move from until he died. A small air tube provided oxygen to the tomb. Each day, the monk rang a bell to let the outside world know he was still alive. When the bell stopped ringing, the tube was removed and the tomb sealed for the final thousand day period of the ritual. 

At the end of this period, the tomb would be opened to see if the monk was successful in mummifying himself. If the body was found in a preserved state, the monk was raised to the status of Buddha, his body was removed from the tomb and he was placed in a temple where he was worshiped and revered. If the body had decomposed, the monk was resealed in his tomb and respected for his endurance, but not worshiped.

“The report was not all that surprising to me when I saw it,” James Robson, Professor of East Asian Languages and Civilizations at Harvard University, told Tricycle. “I suspect if more images were scanned, that we would find that those images have either relics, texts, or other objects inside of them, or that in other cases there are full body relics—mummies—inside.” 

“A successful mummification was supposed to represent the exalted nature of the Buddhist master,” Robson explained. “Therefore it was in the disciple’s interest to ensure their master’s mummification was a success; or it might call into question his status and by association their own legitimacy.” Fellow monks would help increase the odds of success by “lacquering the corpse or encasing it in ash.” The stakes were high—and not only for the guy trying to become a mummy. 

When asked why these stories get so much attention, Robson figured, “people have always been fascinated by death and the afterlife; and perhaps equally—or even more—fascinated by the possibility of prolonging life or circumventing death.” 

There is maybe nothing more perennially human than the yearning to reckon with and even overcome our mortality. But it took two very contemporary technologies—the CT scanner and Twitter—to bring that yearning to light in the form of mummified monks gone viral. We only have, it seems, ourselves to thank.

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