Sokushinbutsu in Sekiro, and One Monks Journey

There’s a cave in the Sunken Valley. Out of the way and small it can be easily missed. And if one finds the cave, there is something in there that can be easily missed also. Something is the wrong word. Somebody is the right world. Surrounded by shrines, accompanied by a Jizo Statue and a Dragonsblood droplet is a monk. He has been here for some time. He’s almost the same colour as the rock face behind him. His final act in this world was of Sokushinbutsu.

Sokushinbutsu.

Sokushinbutsu is the act of self-mummification in search of Buddhahood and enlightenment. At Senpou Temple the practice almost seems to be a normalised with numerous monks and priests having completed the practice or stuck in the process of undergoing the practice. It’s anything but normal though. Banned during the Meiji Restoration, the practice was located to a few select places and two Buddhist systems.

Tetsuryukai detailed on a temple pamphlet.

Those places are Dewa Sanzen Mountains which consist of Mount Yudono, Mount Haguro and Mount Gassan. However, the practice is centralised to Mount Yudano. The systems (if that’s the right word) are Shingon Buddhism (a Buddhist School) and Shugendo (also the name of a part of Senpou) which is an amalgamation of Buddhism, Shintoism and various bits of Japanese folklore with focus on ascetism. I’m stressing this because Mount Kongo is where Senpou Temple is located references a real mountain in Japan. But that mountain is not located where Mount Yudano is. Mount Kongou is in the Kansai region, near Osaka whereas Mount Yudano is further up north, in the Yamagata region. So why have sokushinbutsu in a named location where it wasn’t practiced?

Shinnyokai, a sokushinbutsu “survivor”.

Mount Kongou, however, is in the same region as Mount Koya which is home to Koyasan, an important Buddhist Temple complex founded by a monk named Kukai. Kukai also founded the Shingon school of Buddhism, practiced at Koyasan. Sokushinbutsu in Japan can be traced back to Kukai, or at least to the mythology that surrounds his death. Towards the end of his life Kukai spent more time in meditation, up until the point he died in that state. He was not buried but entombed in his meditation. After some time, the tomb was opened but Kukai had not decayed and was found as if still sleeping. The legend is that Kukai isn’t dead but is in an eternal state of samadhi (meditative consciousness) awaiting Maitreya (a future Buddha). All of the successful sokushinbutsu followers take the “Kai” part of Kukai’s name.

That last part explains sokushinbutsu’s place in Sekiro. For the practitioner of sokushinbutsu isn’t thought to be dead, at least spiritually. They have entered a deep, eternal meditation. The body may be dead, but there is an alive spirit inside, achieving or having achieved enlightenment. Becoming an eternal Buddha. The monks and priests of Senpou Temple are seeking eternal life so much so it superseded their Buddhist practice and search for enlightenment. Up until the discovery of the rejuvenating waters and giant centipedes pursuing sokushinbutsu would have been the closest the monks and priests of Senpou Temple would get to eternal enlightenment. In one of the buildings of Senpou Temple there are sokushinbutsu monks sat in piles of filth and centipedes. The centipedes are crawling all over what appear to be Buddhist texts and scrolls, a visual for how Senpou changed from Buddhist practice to dealing with the rejuvenating waters. One abandoned and one embraced.

These forays into sokushinbutsu may have informed their attempts at creating their own Divine Heir which leads to the uncomfortable idea that some children may have undergone sokushinbutsu. Hopefully not because that would be horrifying. Well, the whole Divine Heir process is horrifying. There’s no good context for dead children. The monks and priests at Senpou Temple attempted to artificially replicate the Divine Heir (Kuro) and for every child that didn’t make it a pin wheel was laid down. There’s a lot of pin wheels around Senpou Temple. And only one Divine Child.

For the process of sokushinbutsu is gruelling. A strict diet of nuts, roots and seeds would reduce muscle and fat. To stop bacteria, at least one practitioner drank the toxic sap of an urushi tree, a Chinese Lacquer tree. The same practitioner then drank nothing but saltwater for forty days, emptying the body of all food. After all of this or a process of similar nature a monk would be placed in a wooden coffin while meditating, lowered into the ground supplied with a bell to let others know while they are still alive, and tubes for water and air. Empty space in the coffin would be filled with charcoal to remove humidity. Eventually the monk dies and is then dug up after a set period, as an eternal Buddha. I say set period as I have seen different time spans for the whole process ranging from a thousand days to ten years. Physically dead but with an enlightened spirt, an eternal Buddha. That’s providing the process worked. Some people tried it, and just rotted away. Only eternal Buddhahood was bestowed upon the completion of sokushinbutsu. Those that failed had their efforts acknowledged but returned to the ground as any other corpse would be.

There are multiple monks and priests in Senpou Temple that have undergone this process. In the area where Long Arm Centipede Sen-Un is fought there are eight monks in what looks to be a state of sokushinbutsu. In the caves of Senpou there are nineteen priests having undergone sokushinbutsu. The priests in the cave have centipedes on and in them, but the arthropods aren’t alive. Perhaps they infected the priests after death and where trapped in a corpse not providing sustenance they need, and so withered and died.

That’s only counting the dead ones. For in the main hall, and in two other buildings there are eight priests who underwent sokushinbutsu. They look like all the other sokushinbutsu corpses. But they aren’t dead. In a horrifying twist, having undergone the gruelling process detailed above at least four have been infected by centipedes and are now being dragged on as desiccated husks, clinging to existence in a state that barely qualifies as living. The other four while being in the same state don’t reveal a centipede when disturbed but perhaps their centipedes aren’t mature yet. Either way, it’s a state of perpetual death that doesn’t end. Well, at least until a Mortal Blade is jammed into them. The Head Priest is infected and in the same state the rest of the still alive priests, but he cannot be attacked or killed. There may be lore reasons for this that I can’t find answers for right not, but I’m guessing it’s for game play and quest reasons. Less exciting I know.

I said the process seemed almost normalised at Senpou Temple. That is because in total there are thought to be eighteen sokushinbutsu monks in Japan in total. At Senpou alone there are thirty-five examples of the practice. That wouldn’t count all the failures either wherever they may be. Something has gone wrong. A practice this extreme and dangerous shouldn’t be so pervasive as it as here. Things have fallen apart.

Sokushinbutsu, while I know that it is utterly harmful, delusional and probably a sign of mania which should have seen the person going through with it run it by a therapist first is also something that earns a perverse admiration. The mental fortitude to go through with it knowing the toll it takes, knowing the sacrifice, knowing there’s no coming back. The dedication to a cause and a belief, even as fanatical as it is can be admired in a very twisted way. But don’t try this at home. There are a great many, better ways to explore religion and philosophy. Many of which don’t involve self-mummification.

But In something resembling a bright side at least the monks and priests at Senpou Temple had people around them when embarking on this madness.

Let’s circle back around to the beginning of this piece. The monk in the Sunken Valley. The only example of sokushinbutsu outside of Senpou Temple. All alone in that cave. This monk intrigues me more than anything else in Sekiro. No matter how small or insignificant somebody may be, they still have a story to tell. And the more I think about him, the more I realise this monk has a great story to tell. He has no name. I don’t know how I would go about tracing a name. The purpose of his journey is left up to guessing, presumption and nothing more. But let’s assume, based on our knowledge of the monks in Sekiro, this monk started his journey at Senpou. For he greatly resembles those monks in Senpou in Long Arm Centipede Sen-Un building. And he made it to the Sunken Valley. That’s almost on the other side of Ashina.

Think about that journey. To get from Senpou to the Sunken Valley one must pass through an underground passage into a dungeon. Emerging from the dungeon brings one to Ashina Castle. The castle must be entered and exited leading to the Great Serpent Shrine.

This leads one into the Sunken Valley proper. The monk has reached the halfway point of this journey. The valley is treacherous, filled with sheer drops, venomous lizards and descendants of the okami clan. They protect the Gun Fort, providing massed ranks of deadly accurate firepower.

Then the monk passed through the Gun Fort (maybe he was given passage), and he may or may not have crossed paths with the Great Serpent. This is when he would have entered that cave, adopted the diet and practice of sokushinbutsu and seemingly, by himself has passed into eternal meditation and Buddhahood. That’s assuming Ashina was still the same as the Ashina we see. His corpse could be centuries old. Ashina could have been a different place, with different peoples.

Entering the belly of the serpent is one way into the depths of the Sunken Valley.

Or maybe he took a different route. He could have figured out a way to use the kite cross the great chasm between Senpou and the Sunken Valley. Even then, the drop from the cave to the valley is massive. At least it is in present day Ashina. Perhaps the lone plank of wood one walks to drop into the valley was part of a larger construction at one point allowing safe passage downwards. Alternatively, the monk took a leap of faith, entered the belly of the great serpent, and was taken to the Sunken Valley that way. Whatever the passage taken he would have seen incredible things people wouldn’t believe.

His seems to be a journey of pilgrimage. The two objects in the cave both have religious and spiritual value. The Jizo Statue seems to pertain to Bodhisattva Valley, with its great Buddhist figures carved from ancient rocks and the Dragonsblood Droplet may pertain to the great serpent, as dragons and serpents sometimes share similar spaces in Japanese myth and folklore. He could have left due to Senpou changing. The drift towards the rejuvenating waters and the atrocities that followed could have left the monk disgusted, and he wanted to get as far away as he could from the Temple. He could have been involved and felt this was his only absolution, dying alone in this cold and unforgiving place. The Jizo statue may have been his reminder of the dead children as he passed on from this world. The Dragonblood Droplet would remind him of the corruption of the enternal bloodlines.

Whatever the reasons he had for coming here he journeyed far and in the face of great danger. He knew there was no going back. He was going to die, and he pushed on regardless. And he lay forgotten and unknown in a faraway cave until a wandering Shinobi finds him, shares with him a prayer and a chant before resuming his own great quest.

If your journey was one of redemption, well, I hope you reconciled some things. Whether that would make up for what happened as Senpou, that would be hard to say.

But, if you went in search of pilgrimage and spiritual fulfilment, Godspeed lone monk.  I hope you found happiness in your final moments. I hope you found what you were seeking. I hope your final moments where ones of peace.

Farewell.

Notes and Asides:

The two sources I relied on for Sokushinbutsu research where this piece in the Japan Times by Alex Martin and this piece in the Penn Museum by Frank W Clements. Both are excellent pieces and worth taking the time to read. The image of Tetsuryukai on the pamphlet was taken from the Alex Martin piece.

Image of Shinnyokai found on Gaijinpot.

I initially posted about the lone monk on reddit, and I want to thank the redditor KyraTaylor for showing an interest, commenting and pointing things out to me. Thank you.

It’s also worth taking some time to read about Kukai. Not only did he create a Buddhist School, he also created the kana system in Japan (Hiragana and Katakana). That’s a pretty amazing life.

While I have linked the end of Kukai’s life to sokushinbutsu (I do think there’s something there) I would reinforce my earlier request of reading the Alex Martin piece because a one to one link can be debated. If you can’t get to the piece, here is the relevant part –  “Although one could argue that the doctrinal basis of sokushinbutsu is based on Kukai’s sokushinjobutsu, there are major differences between the two,” Swanson said, explaining that in this case the character “jo,” meaning “to become,” is significant. 

By relying on the ritual practices of the Buddhist tradition that Kukai transmitted to Japan from China, Kukai asserted that a Buddhist practitioner could attain full enlightenment in a single lifetime. 

“What is important here is the claim that the potential for this enlightenment is achieved ‘within one’s lifetime,’ and never once did Kukai suggest in his writings that the goal was to transform one’s corpse into an object of veneration after death, as seen in the phenomenon of sokushinbutsu,” Swanson said.

Then why did this happen? Key to understanding the practice, according to Swanson, is how Kukai was memorialized through legends that were created after his death. These claimed that he “entered into a state of contemplation,” or nyujo, at the end of his life on Mount Koya — suggesting that he never died but was in a state of perpetual meditation.

“The lore that surrounded Kukai’s death and his postmortem transformation into a compassionate, salvific figure captured the imagination of religious practitioners throughout the medieval period and could be seen at the basis of the development of the sokushinbutsu phenomenon,” Swanson said. – If Sokushinbutsu was based on misunderstanding, well, that would be tragic on multiple levels.

My first encounter with sokushinbutsu was QI. It’s a British Panel show once hosted by Stephen Fry and now Sandi Toksvig, about all things Quite Interesting. Sokushinbutsu is quite interesting.

While Mount Kongou isn’t a location of sokushinbutsu practice, the meaning behind its name explains why it was picked for Sekiro. 金剛 (Kongou) means vajra (indestructible substance); diamond; adamantine​ and thunderbolt; Indra’s weapon; Buddhist symbol of the indestructible truth​. Seems like a good place to practice Buddhism.

Regarding the monk in the sunken valley. Cold weather preserves bodies and prevents bacteria from decomposing bodies so that would go some way to explaining why the monk remains intact after death, in addition to any sokushinbutsu practice he was observing.

Something I found while reading online was a fact regarding the water on Mount Yudano. From this article regarding sokushinbutsu the water in Mount Yudano has special properties. To quote the text “Many of the priests in the area considered both the water and the mineral deposits from this spring to have medicinal value and may have injested one or both previous to their entombment. An analysis of the spring water and deposits revealed that they contain enough arsenic to kill a human being! Arsenic does not get eliminated from the body, so it remains after death… and it is toxic to bacteria and other micro-organisms, so it eliminated the bacteria that started the decompostion of the body.” Perhaps the arsenic was switched to centipedes for Sekiro. However, I haven’t mentioned this in the main piece due to it being unsourced and I’m not sure arsenic = centipedes are things that can necessarily be equated. Still, it’s worth a mention for ideas alone.

Senpou at some point clearly see a pivot from studying Buddhism to focusing on the rejuvenating waters. That’s visible throughout the temple. The floors are marked with filth, and two buildings, including the main hall are infested with giant crickets. Some statues show signs of rust, and murals of Mandala’s are faded with no signs of restoration. The middle way has been abandoned and the fall has been a great one. I was going to put this in the main text, but I couldn’t find the right place to fit it. But I feel it’s very much worth mentioning. Perhaps the pivot came when the Head Priest was “blessed” by the Divine Worm.

The entire reason I wrote this was that monk in the cave. The reason that monk excited me so is Jon Bois. Jon Bois makes videos about sports, but not really. His focus is the human beings and their stories within sports. Two of his latest videos, The Bob Emergency Parts one and two feature two lines which stuck with me. “There are no dull stories. People are full of wonder. No matter how your study our history, you will always, always find it.” And “But he was a Bob. He played a note in this symphony. He mattered.” That monk, no matter how small and hidden away he was had a story to tell. And that story spilled out into two thousand words regarding an obscure religious practice, which I immensely enjoyed writing. Thanks Jon. And go watch Jon’s stuff. It’s the most incredible stuff, on Youtube, TV, anywhere.

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