July 01, 2013

Sokushinbutsu


Here's some great material for a Bones or CSI episode.

Sokushinbutsu (即身仏) were Buddhist monks who starved themselves to death in a way that resulted in their mummification. After exercising and dieting for 1000 days to burn off body fat, and drinking a poisonous tea made from the sap of the urushi tree (from which lacquer is made) for 1000 more days to "preserve" the rest, the self-mummifying monk would

place himself inside a stone tomb, ringing a bell once each day. When the bell failed to ring, the other monks would seal the tomb, wait another 1000 days, and then open it up to find out whether the monk had mummified.

Over the past 1200 years, less than two-dozen sokushinbutsu have been officially documented, the most recent in 1903. It is not advocated or practiced by any Buddhist sect and is banned in Japan.

But it has been done on TV, specifically on Partners, TV Asahi's long-running police procedural. The lead detective, Ukyo Sugishita (Yutaka Mizutani), is an amusing combination of Jeremy Brett's dapper Holmes and the dogged inquisitiveness of Peter Falk's Columbo.


I didn't know anything about sokushinbutsu until seeing that episode. But, of course, Detective Sugishita does.

His latest partner, Toru Kai (Hiroki Narimiya), goes mushroom hunting on his day off. The next thing he knows, he's in the hospital with a bad concusion and temporary amnesia. Sugishita zeroes in on the last thing his partners remembers hearing: a ringing bell.

As it turns out, he'd stumbled across a sokushinbutsu tomb. Hearing the bell, he knew the occupant was still alive. But before he could report this unusual crime-in-progress, the son and grandsons of the devout--and deranged--old man konked him on the head.

They get arrested for the head-konking. But Sugishita is left with a literal habeas corpus problem: Kai can't remember where in the forest the tomb was and nobody in the family is talking. All one of the granddaughters will say is, "Come back in 1000 days."

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