Query> Monks Digging Their Own Graves

Reiko Ohnuma's picture

Dear H-Buddhism:

My 92-year-old (Japanese) father, who grew up in Akita Prefecture, has started writing down little snippets of a family history, based in part on stories told to him by his father and grandfather. One rather garbled episode that supposedly happened in the late 1700s is that a strange monk showed up at the family compound one day and began living there; the family provided him with food, and out of gratitude, he built a beautiful Japanese garden (my father still remembers eating red berries of some sort from this garden). Then at some point, he dug himself a grave, got into it, covered himself up, and died (...I think??).

I'm wondering if this was a known practice, common trope, etc, in Japanese Buddhism? If so, I would be grateful for any citations that might discuss it.

Reiko Ohnuma (Dartmouth College)


Categories: Query

Dear Reiko-san,

What a fascinating project and story. While the latter is obviously rather vague there are indeed some precedents for the practice of self-burial. It is most well-known in the case of the Shingon tradition but such practices were highly elaborate, lengthy and communal. Less elaborate and closer to what you describe were some ritual suicides among the Pure Land sects. See for example: Margo Kitts‬,
‪Martyrdom, Self-sacrifice, and Self-immolation: Religious Perspectives on Suicide‬ ‪(Oxford University Press, 2018), p. 287.

Best wishes, Andy

Dear Prof. Ohnuma (Reiko):

Self-burial is indeed a known form of “relinquishing the body” 捨身 in Japan, although not nearly as common as auto-cremation or self-drowning. I suspect it may have been quite rare. There are a few attested cases from the latter Heian period. The diary of the courtier Nakayama Tadachika 中山忠親 records that on 7/18/1160, southeast of the temple Zenrinji in Higashiyama, an ascetic had himself immured alive in a west-facing tomb identified as a “side door” to the Pure Land (Sankaiki 山槐記, Eiryaku 1, [Shiryō taisei 26:119]). In 1906, excavation near Kenninji in Kyoto unearthed a record made by the monk Sainen 西念 (d. 1142) of his preparations for ascetic suicide. Sainen had first tried and failed to drown himself in the sea in order to reach the Pure Land; his second attempt, by self-burial in a hole dug at his residence, was evidently successful (see Heian ibun nos.64, 67, and 68 [supplementary], 10: 119–125, 129–134). Self-burial was also sometimes connected with the terminal fasts undertaken by a small group of ascetics of Mt. Yudono in northeastern Japan. These men offered up their lives on behalf of others by eating only pine needles and other tree products (mokujiki) for two or three years, thus reducing their body mass as much as possible, and then immuring themselves until death, seated in the posture of meditation. The idea was that, if their bodies mummified, it would signify their religious attainment. The classic study of them in English is Hori Ichirō, “Self-Mummified Buddhas in Japan: An Aspect of the Shugen-Dō ('Mountain Asceticism') Sect” (History of Religions 1, no. 2 [1962]), which is available online. There may be more recent Japanese scholarship.

Sounds like a fascinating family history! I hope this may be of some help.

Jacqueline Stone (Princeton University)

Greetings Ohnuma-sensei,

Yes, this is indeed a fascinating account. I've been at Akita University for 8 yrs, but have never heard of such a story.

You said this happened in "Akita," but may I ask did it happen in or around Mt. Chokai or Mt. Taihei?



Thank you to those who answered my query about monks digging their own graves in Japan.

In answer to Ben Grafstrom's question: No, my father says it supposedly happened in his family compound, which is not anywhere close to Mt. Chokai or Mt. Taihei. Also, he did add this: "People of the hamlet didn’t know when he died but they called the mound 'Kakusen Tsuka,' Kakusen was the monk's name and tsuka is an earth grave. This is described in a travelogue by a famous historian Suga-e Mazumi and published in 1825. I have seen a copy of this book at the Hamilton Library of UH-Manoa. According to this book, this was not at all unique and several monks did the same around that time."

(Anyway, it's too bad there aren't more Buddhism-related incidents in my father's family history that would be appropriate for me to share here, because overall, the family history is....CRAZY...complete with illegitimate children, political scandals, and a poem written by the Empress but wrapped up in soiled underwear out of anger...)

Thanks again,
Reiko Ohnuma (Dartmouth College)