The mummified remains of a monk have been revealed inside a nearly 1,000-year old Chinese statue of a Buddha.
The mummy inside the gold-painted papier-mache statue is believed to be that of Liuquan, a Buddhist master of the Chinese Meditation School who died around the year 1100, researchers said. It’s the only Chinese Buddhist mummy to undergo scientific research in the West.
The statue was on display last year at the Drents Museum as part of an exhibit on mummies. It was an cited as an example of self-mummification, an excruciating, years-long process of meditation, starvation, dehydration and poisoning that some Buddhist monks undertook to achieve enlightenment and veneration.
When the exhibit ended in August, a CT scan at the Meander Medical Center in the Netherlands revealed the seated skeleton. Samples taken from organ cavities provided one big surprise: paper scraps printed with ancient Chinese characters indicating the high-status monk may have been worshiped as a Buddha.
The finding was first reported in December but did not get wide notice. Irish Archaeology carried a report over the weekend, which apparently started the news ball rolling.
But the revelation is not, as some reports claim, “a shocking discovery,” The History Blog notes: “It was known to be inside the statue all along . that’s why it was sent to the Drents Museum in the first place as part of the Mummies exhibition.”
The mummy’s existence was discovered in 1996 when the statue was being restored in the Netherlands, Live Science reported, explaining what was found, how its age was determined and when the first detailed skeletal imaging was performed.
DNA tests were conducted on bone samples, and the Dutch team plans to publish its finding in a forthcoming monograph.
Researchers still have not determined whether the monk mummified himself, a practice that was also widespread in Japan and that was outlawed in the 19th century. If he did, the process was gruesome, as Ancient Origins explained:
“For the first 1,000 days, the monks ceased all food except nuts, seeds, fruits and berries and they engaged in extensive physical activity to strip themselves of all body fat. For the next one thousand days, their diet was restricted to just bark and roots. Near the end of this period, they would drink poisonous tea made from the sap of the Urushi tree, which caused vomiting and a rapid loss of body fluids. It also acted as a preservative and killed off maggots and bacteria that would cause the body to decay after death.”
In the final stage, after more than six years of torturous preparation, the monk would lock himself in a stone tomb barely larger than his body, where he would go into a state of meditation. He was seated in the lotus position, a position he would not move from until he died. A small air tube provided oxygen to the tomb. Each day, the monk rang a bell to let the outside world know he was still alive. When the bell stopped ringing, the tube was removed and the tomb sealed for the final thousand day period of the ritual.
At the end of this period, the tomb would be opened to see if the monk was successful in mummifying himself. If the body was found in a preserved state, the monk was raised to the status of Buddha, his body was removed from the tomb and he was placed in a temple where he was worshiped and revered. If the body had decomposed, the monk was resealed in his tomb and respected for his endurance, but not worshiped.
The Buddha mummy statue is now on display at the Hungarian Natural History Museum in Budapest.
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