Peace comes from within, or so popular Buddhist quotes would have you believe. If that’s the case, this must be one peaceful monk. Scientists learned last week that a 1,000-year-old statue of Buddha actually conceals the remains of a mummified monk. Like many of its kind, the statue in question shows the buddha seated in the lotus position. Upon further inspection, researchers at the Drents Museum in the Netherlands used a non-invasive CT scan to reveal that the statue holds the remains of a human being who, most likely, volunteered to mummified.
The statue, now on display outside of China for the first time, contains the body of a monk sitting in the exact same position as the statue’s posture suggests. What’s more, researchers believe they know the identity of the monk within: Liu Quan, a Buddhist master and member of the Chinese Meditation School. Self-mummification is not entirely unheard of in the history of Buddhism. It is a long, slow, possibly painful and definitely icky process, but certain schools of buddhist thought believe that self-mummifying is one of the paths toward enlightenment.
How does a monk become a mummy? When the word ‘mummy’ comes up on conversation, most of us arguably think of a process that involves a person who has already died, whose organs may be removed or preserved, and whose body is specially treated in order to remain intact. For Buddhist monks seeking self-mummification, the process is a ritual that lasts many years. It begins with a 1,000 day diet of only nuts and seeds, intended to purge the mortal coil of fat. A second 1,000 day diet of tree bark then begins, followed by the consumption of poisonous tea that renders the body unfit for insects to devour.
After all this, the monk has prepared his body for mummification but he is still alive. At this point, the monk would lock himself inside a stone tomb barely larger than his body. There he would sit, in the lotus position, with only an air tube and a bell. Each day, he rang the bell to alert his fellow monks that he was still alive. Once the bell stopped, his brothers would assume he had passed away, remove the air tube, and open the tomb to inspect the remains. Although it’s reported that this process typically lead to little more than a decomposed body, a few monks were indeed found in a mummified state and immediately put on display. In Liu Quan’s case, his internal organs were removed and replaced with Chinese prayer scrolls.
The Buddha statue that sparked this story will be displayed at the National Museum of Natural History in Budapest until May 2015. It’s unclear how many visitors will be able to gaze upon Liu Quan’s remains, but this surely is not the only self-mummified monk statue in existence. So, the next time you’re in a museum and you happen upon an ancient Buddha statue, look twice. You may be peering at the final resting place of a truly devout monk.