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Mummification, etc.

With a focus on the non-Zen Mahayana schools flowing from China, Japan, Korea, etc.

Mummification, etc.

Postby Meido on Sat Feb 28, 2015 4:23 pm

Just for fun: I expect many of you have seen the news items going around about the discovery of human remains encased within a life-size Chinese Buddhist lacquered image. For example:

http://www.cnn.com/2015/02/27/asia/mumm ... nk-statue/

Some of the reporting has been a bit off, for example referring to the statue as a "Buddha" image. Also (to my mind) irrelevant references to the unusual self-mummification that was a fringe practice among a few Japanese Shingon monks in the past.

However, the preservation of the bodies of revered teachers - either naturally mummified or intentionally dessicated, and then lacquered - was not uncommon in China. Most famously, Huineng received this treatment (and post-mortem nearly lost his head for it).

Sharf has a paper about this practice: http://buddhiststudies.berkeley.edu/peo ... cation.pdf

Faure's Pilgrims and Sacred Sites in China also discusses the importance of these relics in Chan and the pilgrimage sites that grew up around them.

What are everyone's thoughts on this aspect of our tradition?

All you Zen teachers: any plans? :PP:

~ Meido
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Re: Mummification, etc.

Postby macdougdoug on Sat Feb 28, 2015 4:39 pm

Meido wrote:
Some of the reporting has been a bit off


According to some websites, thanks to uncanny secret buddhist meditation technique, he's actually still alive!
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Re: Mummification, etc.

Postby Carol on Sat Feb 28, 2015 5:14 pm

I find it odd for a religion where one of the primary teachings is impermanence. Very odd, indeed.
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Re: Mummification, etc.

Postby organizational on Sat Feb 28, 2015 5:26 pm

I think it is a majority manifestation, has a message.
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Re: Mummification, etc.

Postby Chrisd on Sat Feb 28, 2015 5:27 pm

I do believe this is the mummy the Zen teacher in my city was talking about in a talk here, he was asked to lead and help the people researching it.
I remember something about a particular kind of stuff, crystals(?) that supposedly came about during awakening and may remain in the body so they were also scanning to see if that was true.

I remember the mummy's were also used to keep bandits out because they were seen to be holy. They were placed at the entrance. Also to keep the Zen practitioners focused during their practice in the monasteries. So it was useful that way. I doubt it would be appropriate to do that kind of thing today :lol2:

I don't remember most of that part of the talk because I was not particularly interested in the whole mummything. Are there clear results now? I suspect brain scans from "awakened ppl" alive are more useful for seeing what's what in the body.
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Re: Mummification, etc.

Postby Chrisd on Sat Feb 28, 2015 5:35 pm

Better to chop up the teacher and have the body parts spread out on the floor.
That's impermanence for you right there students!
:lol2:

Probably people would get trauma's... so I guess we're back to just having a picture around.
Boring but sweet, I suppose.
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Re: Mummification, etc.

Postby desert_woodworker on Sat Feb 28, 2015 5:46 pm

Meido,

In recollection of the passing of Leonard Nimoy, who played the character "Spock", I'd say, "Fascinating!"

And I've been fascinated for many years by the fact of Huineng's preservation in his monastery, plus more than a little "creeped-out" about it.

But, there has always been veneration and respect shown toward saints' and great-practitioners' relics. Preservation of a whole-body is rather a lump-sum "relic", though. I suppose it's not from a motivation of attachment, but a tender regard for a precious teacher, and may come too from an impulse not to do anything harsh or destructive to the material-person as constituted by the "remains".

I feel this regard or urge, myself, every time I must put a beloved pet -- a cat -- into the ground. I don't want to do anything abruptly; I take a long time to wrap the cat in soft cloth; a long time to say good-byes, in some ways; a long time to keep the cat in view; and a long time to cover it with small handfuls of soil (not all at once), while tears drip. Well, let me say ...maybe these are all evidences of "attachment". I suppose the urge felt in monasteries by disciples of masters is not attachment, but has other motivations which, however, I am pretty sure are driven by the heart also, just as mine are when I must put wonderful animal friends into the ground. But I don't know, I don't know!

I'm reminded tangentially of folks who assign their dead bodies to that US corporation service that freezes them in Liquid Nitrogen, for possible future revivification in future when technology may be up to the task. I think Tim Leary's head is in such a vat, there, and his estate paid $100k (US) for this, in 1996 dollars.

I doubt that the Chinese mummies (Huineng; and the 14th century one in current news) were considered to have prospects of ever springing to life again from their remains by those who took care to preserve their bodies, nor that they considered them still to be in a Samadhi centered within those same remains, still "alive" somehow mystically. But I imagine that practitioners in the presence of those remains experience a spiritual impact of the proximity, and the regard. Though, I think a practitioner must be quite "clean", and open(ed), to sense something. A beginner might sense something else arising, more like respect, gratitude, or veneration, but possibly not a spiritual connection, sharing, or communication.

I'm being a little speculative in these considerations, and so it is, sometimes. Thanks for the topic!

Please don't go feasting on preservatives, now,

--Joe

Meido wrote:What are everyone's thoughts on this aspect of our tradition?
~ Meido
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Re: Mummification, etc.

Postby Meido on Sat Feb 28, 2015 7:57 pm

I certainly can understand that it may seem a strange practice, depending on one's cultural sensitivities.

In fairness to Chan/Zen, some version of this kind of thing exists in a number of other Buddhist traditions. And we might remember that the Buddha himself reportedly directed the distribution of Sariputra's relics, as well as the manner in which his own body was to be dealt with. Not to mention other traditions e.g. the veneration of physical relics in Christianity up to the present day.

Back to the relic in question: to me the interesting questions center on skillful means. How were these things used, and why were they valued, by people that we may assume were quite serious about Buddhist practice? The article and text I mentioned deal with some aspects of this. Joe alludes to another profound aspect when he raises the possibility of "spiritual impact". And finally, might a reflexive aversion to this particular thing reveal another kind of attachment to the body and death?

Cultural questions as well: if I would feel deep reverence and a sense of connection visiting the Sixth Patriarch's temple in China and seeing his remains there (I believe I would), why would I not as easily accept such a thing here, today? Does this reveal to me my own mythological, or even orientalist, overlays?

Aside from the fact that we're dealing here with a corpse, is there any difference between this object's preservation and veneration and the reverence with which many of us preserve mementos of our teachers (a robe, a piece of calligraphy) or loved ones (possessions, a lock of hair)? All of it is of course impermanent.

All "fascinating" questions indeed, I think.

~ Meido
Last edited by Meido on Sat Feb 28, 2015 8:03 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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The Rinzai Zen Community: http://www.rinzaizen.org
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Re: Mummification, etc.

Postby fukasetsu on Sat Feb 28, 2015 8:02 pm

Meido wrote:What are everyone's thoughts on this aspect of our tradition?


I think it's cool, don't see the difference between a photobook or picture in my room of dead folks or a painter's portret of someone or a landscape, + we have so much cool stuff to look back at ever since video recording was invented.

As for attachment, anything can be a subject for attachment, religiously grasping at spiritual concepts (or 'relative truths as they call it') about impermanence or what not, is attachment too. Some folks are attached to having as little items or memories as possible.

Just like memory or nothing under the sun is a problem, only attachment is,
'absence' (or purposely doing something not) can also be driven by attachment.
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Re: Mummification, etc.

Postby Michaeljc on Sat Feb 28, 2015 8:14 pm

I have witnessed how the death of a loved one within a family leads to rifts. Attitudes differ markedly as regards ceremony, disposal, memorials, e.t.c. I feel this is linked to each individual’s instinct regarding spirituality. Also to relationships prior to death.

It is hardly surprising that our tradition adopted such practices at various periods throughout history. It has demonstrated all characteristics of formalised religion from time-to-time. From a Chan/Zen perspective these activities and attitudes in respect of mummification are not easily defended. Rifts would have emerged within monasteries too I imagine.

To me a mummy is just meat and bones – preserved, yet still subject to a fundamental law of nature: decay. A fly buzzing around a body is every much our loved one as the decaying matter. But, that is only a personal belief.

The last I heard the US Government still have forensic teams searching the battle fields of Vietnam to identify (DNA) any body part of soldiers gone missing to return to family. This displays another belief. At least these beliefs are genuine. No right or wrong here.
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Re: Mummification, etc.

Postby Meido on Sat Feb 28, 2015 8:26 pm

Michaeljc wrote: From a Chan/Zen perspective these activities and attitudes in respect of mummification are not easily defended. Rifts would have emerged within monasteries too I imagine.


Michael, could you elaborate on this point? I'm wondering what you have in mind given in particular Chan's involvement with this practice historically, Huineng et al, and the wide acceptance it seems to have had.

~ Meido
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Re: Mummification, etc.

Postby Michaeljc on Sat Feb 28, 2015 8:51 pm

I can’t Meido. I was not there. My assumption was based on a belief that human nature and fundamental instinct does not change, irrespective of the norms of our age.

Some people visit the graves of loved ones regularly. Others don’t. This does not mean they are not mindful of them. Likewise, I imagine that some monks placed high importance on the existence of a preserved body of a Master. Others probably did not. They felt their Master in all things and placed no particular importance on a preserved body. Our body, after all, is just a ‘Bag of Bones’.
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Re: Mummification, etc.

Postby Meido on Sat Feb 28, 2015 9:10 pm

I see, thanks.

I would personally think it a difficult argument to make that this sort of thing is indefensible from a general Chan/Zen point of view. But it would be interesting to hear if there was contemporary critique of relics like these for specific reasons, for example their inevitable use to generate income from pilgrims.

~ Meido
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Re: Mummification, etc.

Postby Chrisd on Sat Feb 28, 2015 10:22 pm

On the use of these mummy's: so there's the income aspect from passers-by: pilgrims etc. There's keeping bandits away because there's a saint watching they would be afraid to be seen and go to hell. There's the motivation for the Zen students in the monastery the master is placed in. Is there anything from the article missing? It's about 30 pages.
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Re: Mummification, etc.

Postby desert_woodworker on Sat Feb 28, 2015 10:51 pm

Meido, et al.,

The thread has impelled me to go back to consult my venerable copy of Holmes Welch; THE PRACTICE OF CHINESE BUDDHISM: 1900 - 1950; Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1967 (thanks!, Meido, for this reason to do so).

Welch carried out his researches for five years, ending about 1965.

In Chapter 10 (of the 12 chapters), "The Monastic Career", we have a section (Pp. 342-345) devoted to "Omens and Meat Bodies".

"Meat Bodies" have a certain definition; I quote from Welch (p. 343):

"In China just as in the West nonputrefaction has been taken as evidence of sanctity. Mummified monks have been set up for worship like images or ancestor tablets. They are called "meat bodies" (jou-shen). Many are said to be several hundred years old. The oldest (and most famous) is that of the Sixth Patriarch of the Ch'an sect who died in 713 C.E. It is kept in Nan-hua Ssu, Kwangtung, along with the meat bodies of two later abbots. But not all were antiques."

Holmes goes on to say that one may date to about 1900. Another might be from 1965 (if the three-year initial storage "test" of nonputrefaction had gone well; that was uncertain at the time of writing).

I can recommend Welch's book highly. It's taught me many things about Ch'an (Chan) in China, modernly, and with regard to ancient heritage. Although out-of-print, the book is not rare: used copies can be had for under ten dollars US. I paid about that much in 1981! In 1967, the fine paperback sold for $6.95 US, new.

--Joe

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Re: Mummification, etc.

Postby Meido on Sat Feb 28, 2015 11:30 pm

Chrisd wrote:On the use of these mummy's: so there's the income aspect from passers-by: pilgrims etc. There's keeping bandits away because there's a saint watching they would be afraid to be seen and go to hell. There's the motivation for the Zen students in the monastery the master is placed in. Is there anything from the article missing? It's about 30 pages.


According to the article, yes, quite a bit missing.

I don't necessarily agree with all of Sharf's ideas therein, but it is a fun read and worth it if you have the time.

desert_woodworker wrote:"Meat Bodies" have a certain definition; I quote from Welch (p. 343):


I so much prefer "flesh" to "meat" in translating that term!

~ Meido
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The Rinzai Zen Community: http://www.rinzaizen.org
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Re: Mummification, etc.

Postby Linda Anderson on Sat Feb 28, 2015 11:36 pm

mysterious connections between the gross and the subtle levels of reality. a relic is beyond ideas of our material world like attachment and impermanence. don't know much here, but seems like Chan and zen/early shinto and most other religions have their roots in the esoteric, the magical, pre-cognitive realms. ofc, religions might not want to admit this under the formalities. Diff forms and energies for diff sensibilities, lacquer for some, stupas, carnal burial grounds for sacred vultures, ressurrection ... the mysteries of the transmutation of matter.

I'm not sure that I know the diff in effect between a relic and watching a dead performer.... Roy Orbison, George Harrison, Spock. It seems a matter of what arises inside me. memories are relics in the subtle realm. In the material realm... MacDonald's french fries are not subject to the laws of putrificiation, what of the consumer.
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Re: Mummification, etc.

Postby desert_woodworker on Sat Feb 28, 2015 11:51 pm

Roger that, Meido. I do too! What got into that Welch, anyway? ("please don't pass the salt!") --Joe

Meido wrote:I so much prefer "flesh" to "meat" in translating that term!
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Re: Mummification, etc.

Postby desert_woodworker on Sat Feb 28, 2015 11:54 pm

Linda,

And "Twinkies" snack cakes must surely be divine, too (in that sense). --Joe

ps Loudspeaker in the supermarket announced, other day, "February is Canned Food Month" (pretty immortal food is canned food, I guess, too, by Pasteurization, and hermetic sealing).

Linda Anderson wrote: MacDonald's french fries are not subject to the laws of putrificiation, what of the consumer.
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Re: Mummification, etc.

Postby Nonin on Sat Feb 28, 2015 11:58 pm

Interesting burial site!

Hands palm-to-palm,

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