Archive for the ‘Kobo Daishi’ Category

“Holy Zombie? Earth Guardian?”

“You be the judge!”

[Updated Thursday, 23 May 2020]

[Alert: image of mummy appears in this post]

One of J. M. Greer’s “notes in passing” in his latest book, The Mysteries of Merlin, which I reviewed here, concerns a cross-cultural phenomenon that with careless treatment sounds like the makings of a script for some breathless “Hidden Mysteries” documentary, or a really good-bad horror film. With attention, though, we can discern a remarkable and ancient conception of sacrifice for the communal good that spans the globe.

In the West are the legends of Merlin, still alive and enclosed in his Crystal Cave, and Christian Rosenkreuz [Wikipedia link | Alchemylab account], reputed founder of Rosicrucianism, entombed for 120 years in a seven-sided vault, and eventually disinterred, perfectly preserved, with a book of Rosicrucian occult secrets in his arms.

Kobo_daishi

Monks carrying food at Okunoin mausoleum of Kobo Daishi. Wikipedia/creative commons

A similar tradition emerges in Japan, with stories clustering around Kobo Daishi (774-835), founder of the Shingon sect of Buddhism. Tradition holds that he did not die but remains in meditation to this day, entombed in Mount Koya, awaiting the future Buddha. Monks in the Shingon tradition present food at his shrine twice a day.

Greer points to stories of “an archaic magical operation by which a sufficiently knowledgeable and strong-willed person can pass into another mode of existence at death and function for many centuries thereafter as the guardian spirit of a family, a community, or an occult school. Legends in many lands tell of great sages and heroes of the past who descended into stone tombs beneath the earth while still alive, and the stone-chambered mounds of northern and western Europe are routinely connected with such legends” (Greer, pg. 33).

Tumulus_Dissignac

Megalithic tumulus mound, Saint-Nazaire, France. https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7077948

Legends such as that of the Seven Sleepers, a shared Christian and Muslim narrative, may also be connected here.

A successful outcome of such practices leads in Japan to people like Kobo Daishi, and to others who become sokushinbutsu, literally “living Buddhas” — the rite was performed as recently as 1903. Mummies of those who underwent the rite are preserved in Senninzawa (“Valley of the Swamp Wizards”), Yamagata Prefecture, and occupy locations of honor in temples otherwise reserved for figures of the Buddha. For a fascinating article on contemporary observances, with details of the living mummification regime, including a strict diet, pursued by those aspiring to this role, along with images of the mummified remains and the monks and temples caring for them, see The Buddhas of Mount Yudono.

Less successful outcomes of this operation, Greer suggests, account for at least some of Europe’s traditions of barrow-wights, vampires, and the orc-neas or “hell-corpses” of Anglo-Saxon legend (from which Tolkien lifted the name and image of the orc). In one sense, then, such beings are simply testimony to “good magic gone bad”.

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Odin — Georg Von Rosen, 1886. Public domain

One thread of this story of ritual death specific to Europe, Greer asserts, is the magical three-fold death of Indo-European tradition, linked to air, water and earth, which we see embodied in the Norse god Odin, who is ritually slain, depending on the source, by being hanged, drowned and stabbed.

Christianity runs with this idea of the power of a magical or holy death, making it the center of its faith in a single divine being whose death can save many. Central to all of these magical and ritual self-sacrifices is their voluntary nature — the “sacrifice goes consenting”; the gift of the self is given freely.

The biblical Book of Hebrews explains the continuity between Jewish traditions of animal sacrifice each year in the Temple in Jerusalem, and the Christian conception of the holy and sacrificial death of a god in the form of Jesus: “Christ offered for all time a single sacrifice” (Hebrews 10). Animal or human sacrifices must be renewed because their benefit wanes over time. The sacrificial death of a god, on the other hand, need happen only once.

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Additional resources:

Jeremiah, Ken. Living Buddhas: The Self-mummified Monks of Yamagata, Japan. (Link to Amazon.) McFarland, 2010.

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