Tetsumonkai Shonin: Self-Mummified Priest of Churenji (Sokushinjobutsu)
The expression, 'Buddhahood in this very body' is derived from Esoteric Buddhist teachings and refers to the potentiality of becoming one with the cosmic Buddha Mahavairocana while still in this world through strict religious training. In Shugendo, beliefs and practices associated with sacred mountains in Japan, it is taught that a practitioner can preserve the body after death by following a strict ascetic regime prior to it. The ascetic must abjure from eating cereals and lentils (specifically rice, barley, soybeans, azuki beans and sesame) for between one thousand and five thousand days, eating only nuts and grasses, thereby reducing the fat content in the body. When death is approaching, the ascetic enters a small underground stone chamber, where the ascetic sits in lotus position until death. Three years and three months after death, the body is taken out and treated as necessary. Ideally it has dried naturally without putrefaction. It is finally placed in a shrine within a temple and honoured by devotees.
There are said to be sixteen examples of these 'preserved' ascetics in Japan, and of those ten were formerly religious practitioners associated with Mt. Yudono. The eight preserved in temples in Yamagata prefecutre are: Honmyokai (Honmyo-ji temple), Chukai and Enmyokai (Kaiko-ji temple), Tetsumonkai (Churen-ji temple), Tetsuryukai (Nangaku-ji temple), Shinnyokai (Dainichi-bo Temple), Komyokai (Zoko-in temple) and Myokai (Kannon-do). The former five were associated with the temple of Churenji, and the latter three with Dainichibo.
Of all the self-mummified ascetics, it is Tetsumonkai of Churenji whose life and virtues are best documented. He was born in 1768, the son of Sunada Kinichi, a waterman of Daihoji village in Tsuruoka, and given the name Testu. When he was 25, and also working as a waterman, he discovered that the embankment of the flooded Seiryu river was about to collapse. He reported it to the samurai in charge of flood control, but the man was drunk and did not listen. Angered, Tetsu got into a fight with the samurai and they ended up exchanging blows. He killed the samurai and another man, and fled to Churenji for asylum. Its head, Kanno, allowed him to become an ascetic of the temple with the name Tetsumonkai.
He undertook religious training in the valley called Senninzawa (wizard-swamp), which is at the entrance to the sacred spring of Mt. Yudono. He attained great religious power, and was able to cure instantly the aches of the wife of the lord of Tsuruoka domain. He also constructed a road tunnel to ease the passage of travellers going up and down Kamo slope. When he was visiting Edo there was an epidemic eye-disease making people's lives a misery. Tetsumonkai gouged out his own left eye and threw it into the Sumida river as an offering to the deities, praying that the merit of the act might alleviate the suffering caused by the disease. The difficulties he encountered in the course of his life are beyond description but he was never daunted by them, and he did all in his power to benefit society. He travelled as far north as Hokkaido and as far south as Ise and Shikoku, teaching Buddhism. Stele commemorating his deeds can be found at various places in the Shonai region.
Tetsumonkai returned to Churenji at the age of 59, and after following a strict diet for one thousand days, entered final nirvana at either age the age of 71 (other sources say 62). This is the same age that Shingon's founder Kukai died, and entered what is to believed to be eternal meditation. The element '-Kai' in the Yudono ascetic's names is said to commemorate Kukai.
Becoming a sokushinbutsu is to devote oneself to eradicating all pollutants from one's body through strict ascetic training and to save peoples suffering by taking on their adversities. Thus self-mummified priests are of a different spiritual caliber to those who have been mummified to preserve their bodies eternally, as in the case of the pharaohs of Egypt or members of the Fujiwara family in Chusonji in Northern Japan.
A look into the ancient faith of which Shugendo is an expression.
Divine Body of Mt. Yudono
Unique ceiling of Churen-ji
Stele of Mt. Yudono