The Buddhist tradition is full of visual representations and sculptures of the religion’s titular deity. But a statue hundreds of years old, recently analyzed in Europe, is a rarity: A full mummy of a meditating monk resides inside of it.
Researchers at the Netherlands’ Meander Medical Center found the preserved body of a Buddhist master who likely died around the year 1100, believed to be named Liuquan, in a statue that had been exhibited last year at the Drents Museum in Netherlands.
Scientists had known the statue contained a mummy, but even so, the CT scans of the statue reveal unprecedented information about an extreme form of meditation.
Its display at the Drents Museum marked the first time the statue had been outside of China, reported Discover Magazine, and following the close of the exhibit the statue was taken to the Meander Medical Center in Amersfoort, Netherlands for CT scans.
The practice might sound like a grim effort to take one’s life, but that wasn’t its intent: Self-mummification was only for the most devoted of religious monks, and the practice was seen as a path to enlightenment or an advanced spiritual state.
The imaging confirmed the existence of Liquan’s mummy. The monk, believed to be a member of the Chinese Meditation School, may have practiced self-mummification, considered by certain Buddhists to be the highest form of religious enlightenment.
The process involved first a rigorous, year-long diet of water nuts, berries and other similar foods, abstaining completely from grains and more substantial food. Afterward, the monk would likely be fed a tea made from a toxic lacquer tree, given a tube used for food and air, and a bell to indicate that the monk was still alive.
When the bell stopped ringing, the monk would be sealed in a tomb for three more years, and when reopened, a deceased monk found intact would be said to have reached true enlightenment; those who decomposed would have been considered to fall short of their goal, though their attempts were still honored. Some successful “living Buddhas” would have shrines built in their honor, according to a study of the practice by iO9.
This particular monk’s organs have been removed and replaced with scrolls of paper inscribed with ancient Chinese characters; the Drents Museum considers it an example of self-mummification, and more research is needed into the existence of the scrolls and their meaning.