Mummies Around the World @ Mummy Tombs


Buddhist Mummies


Where they were found

A number of these mummies exist on the main Japanese island of Honshu. They are also found in Vietnam and other southeast Asian countries

When they were made

One unusual method of mummy creation first occurred in Japan between the years 1000-1200 B.C.

How they were made

Some Buddhist priests attempted to mummify themselves while they were still living. To accomplish this, the priest would go on a very strict diet for a period of three years. He would no longer eat such foods as rice, barley, or beans. As he began to lose weight, the priest would place large candles around his body and light them - in effect, the priest was drying out his body with the heat produced by the candles. By the time the priest died of starvation, his body was practically mummified. To make sure that mummification was complete, the body was then placed in an underground tomb for three years before being dried out, one more time, by candles.

How many were made

No estimates of the number of Buddhist mummies have been made.

What's special about them

The religious devotion required to motivate an individual to endure such mummification practices makes them unique.

The mummifcation technique is also unclear for some. For example, the almost 400-year-old mummified body of a Buddhist monk from Vietnam was preserved in the lotus position and coated with red lacquer. The mummy of Vuc Khac Minh dates to 1639 when Minh headed the temple at Duc (about eighteen miles from Hanoi).

According to legend, he decided to reach Nirvana through 100 days of meditation. He asked the other monks to leave him in seclusion during this period of meditation. When they returned, they discovered his dead, preserved body. They covered his body with silver foil which they painted with layers of red lacquer. His body was then placed inside a glass shrine inside the main temple building. The body has remained intact since 1639, though there are a few cracks in the head and legs. 

Other than the details provided by the legend, scientists have no clues as to why Minh's body became preserved. They have studied the body for ten years and they are convinced that it was not treated to any embalming. They have concluded, therefore, that it simply dried out...and rather perfectly, too, for all of Minh's internal organs still reside inside the body. So well dried is the body that it weighs only around 15 pounds now.

Where to see them

According to researchers Kiyohiko Satamotsu Ogata, nineteen Buddhist mummies exist today in Japan. All are found on the main island of Honshu, preserved at a number of Buddhist temples.

In Vietnam, two Buddhist monks who died in the 17th Century can be found at the Dau pagoda in Gia Phuc village, 25km south of Hanoi. In 2005, Vietnamese scientists restored the mummies of Vu Khac Minh and Vu Khac Truong, who were 50 and 40-years-old respectively at the time of their deaths. According to iol.co.za, their bodies "depict Buddhist monks in a position of meditation.... Using a sticky plant extract, sawdust, soil from termite hills and muslin netting, a team that includes two sculptors spent more than six months to restore the bodies. They also placed the mummies into glass boxes filled with nitrogen to avoid damage by oxygen.... [T]he two bodies had been damaged by Vietnam's tropical climate. Truong's body had been restored previously after flood damage in 1893."

"The statues now can last for hundreds of years," said Nguyen Lan Cuong, associate professor of ethnology and head of the restoration project.

Where to find more information

Arthur Aufderheide's The Scientific Study of Mummies contains five pages about Buddhist mummies from Japan and includes three black and white photos. 

Aidan and Eve Cockburn's Mummies, Disease and Ancient Cultures  has some information about these mummies including a few black and white photographs. 

Heather Pringle's The Mummy Congress: Science, Obsession, and the Everlasting Dead  spends the better part of one chapter on the subject. Although the book does not contain any photos of the mummies, the text alone is clear and comprehensive. Not to be missed!