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The “Incorruptible” Hambo Lama Itigelov

by Brian Dunning, Nov 13 2008

Hambo Lama Itigelov

Occasionally, when researching a new episode of my Skeptoid podcast, I get one of those rare “A-ha!” moments. This has happened on those rare few occasions where, as far as I can tell, my own research finds a connection that nobody else ever has before.

I had one such moment while reading up on my recent episode about incorruptibles, people whose bodies do not deteriorate after death. At a glance, the world is full of such examples. Upon deeper research, there are no such examples.

As part of my episode, I examined the ancient practice of self-mummification by a few Japanese Buddhist monks called sokushinbutsu. This 3000-day ritual called for a starvation diet and exercise to lose all body fat, then a slow self-poisoning with an arsenic rich diet, followed by an entombment and final starvation. The lack of body fat, the dehydration, and the high arsenic content actually did combine to make a reasonably good chance for mummification instead of decomposition, assuming fortuitously dry conditions in the tomb. Approximately 20 monks successfully became mummified in this way.

Then a listener wrote in to suggest I look into the case of Hambo Lama Itigelov, a Buddhist monk exhumed in 2002 in a remarkably good state of preservation. I did a huge amount of Internet searching, and found exactly zero critical reporting of the incident. YouTube has clips from a documentary and from news reports that uncritically repeat the claims that he looks like he’s been dead only 12 hours, that no evidence of chemical embalming has been found, and that his body remains flexible as if he’s merely asleep.

A Japanese monk who successfully practiced sokushinbutsu.

A Japanese monk who successfully practiced sokushinbutsu.

But I was luckily prepared with a good knowledge of sokushinbutsu, as Itigelov himself would have been. Right away, I saw the connection. Was Itigelov’s preservation a miracle unexplainable by science, or was it a modern case of sokushinbutsu?

More and more research turned up some facts about Itigelov’s life. Significantly, I discovered that he had a degree in medicine and had written a Buddhist encyclopedia on pharmacology. It turns out that a report from a pathologist present at the exhumation noted his body had a high level of bromine salts. And, in accordance with one of Itigelov’s final wishes, his body had been buried packed in salt, an obvious dessicant, used for millennia to preserve meat.

These bits of circumstantial evidence are certainly consistent with Itigelov performing sokushinbutsu. Armed with his medical knowledge and a desire to self-mummify according to tradition, he simply updated the ancient Japanese technique. By some undocumented and unknown process, he filled his body with bromine salts, which are available from a variety of naturally occurring sources. He gave instructions that his body be dessicated with salt at death. He gave instructions that he be exhumed. (He actually requested that he be exhumed after “a few years”, not the 75 years mentioned in some news reports. Due to religious restrictions in the Soviet Union, monks briefly exhumed him in secret in 1955 and again in 1973, but he was not finally exhumed until 2002.)

Much of what Itigelov did during his final days was undocumented and he certainly had ample opportunity to prepare himself in secret. What these preparations may have been is likely to remain unknown, as it’s improbable that today’s monks will allow any further testing to be done on Itigelov’s tissue. However, miracles aside, we already have ample evidence that Itigelov’s current “incorrupt” condition is perfectly consistent with an updated form of sokushinbutsu, performed by a clever medical scholar in accordance with tradition.

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21 Responses to “The “Incorruptible” Hambo Lama Itigelov”

  1. Chris Kavanagh says:

    First off Brian I have to say I really enjoyed the podcast on ‘incorruptibles’. I’ve studied religion at university for a number of years and had come across many East Asian examples due to my area of specialisation but I’d never really thought about them alongside the other ‘incorruptibles’ I was vaguely aware of from my own Catholic background which now seems incredible silly on my part!

    Anyhow, I agree with your analysis above except for one significant detail- I doubt that Lama Itigelov drew his inspiration or knowledge of the practice of self-mumificaton from any Japanese Buddhist sources or traditions. Lama Itigelov, as his title reflects, is from a tradition strongly influenced by the Buddhism of Central Asia and Tibet in particular. Tibetan Buddhism has it’s own traditions of ‘incorruptibles’ and as a result very likely has it’s own traditions of techniques. Thus, there is no need to posit a connection with the Japanese tradition to explain where this practice came from.

    This is not to say that the techniques employed by both traditions do not likely involve the same/similar practices however I still would strongly doubt that Lama Itigelov drew any inspiration from any Japanese Buddhist tradition.

    It is somewhat plausible that Lama Itigelov became aware of the practice occurring in Japan and sought out the relevant information but without strong evidence I would consider this hypothesis rather doubtful. Esoteric Japanese Buddhist texts and traditions were not really highly influential or accessible anywhere outside of East Asia until after WW2. Not to mention that it’s likely that any texts relating to such a specialist subject would not only be closely guarded secrets but also be written in archaic and technical Japanese. Esoteric Buddhist texts from Tibet and Central Asia are likely to have been much more accessible and not as difficult to translate.

    Anyhow, just my thoughts on the subject I have some references somewhere to a few academic articles on the subject which I think can be freely accessed. I’ll post them up when I find them.

  2. Finding an unknown something or other to contribute to the literature is the sweetest feeling for skeptical researchers — except for catching bad guys.

  3. BillDarryl says:

    I’m skeptical about it being a 3,000 day process. These monks commit themselves to almost ten years of self-poisoning? That just don’t smell right.

    • Barclay says:

      It’s a little over 8 years, Bill.
      And why not?
      Monks commit themselves to all kinds of things, it’s part of it.
      People, in general,commit themselves to all kinds of long-term endeavors.
      It seems completely plausible to me that he would have done this, especially were such a huge part of his life’s purpose to leave a special corpse upon death.
      It’s a little stab at some kind of immortality.

  4. Brain you are the man, and I completely agree with your analysis of this.

  5. Chris Kavanagh says:

    Here are some decent articles in case you’re interested Brian (or anyone else):

    Hori, Ichori ‘Self-Mummified Buddhas in Japan. An Aspect of the Shugen-Do (“Mountain Asceticism”) Sect’ History of Religions, Vol. 1, No. 2 (Winter, 1962), pp. 222-242.

    Sharf, Robert H. ‘The Idolization of Enlightenment: On the Mummification of Ch’an Masters in Medieval China’ History of Religions, Vol. 32, No. 1 (Aug., 1992), pp. 1-31

    I can’t find the articles on TIbetan mummification but ifI do I’ll post them up.

    Bill Darryl said “I’m skeptical about it being a 3,000 day process. These monks commit themselves to almost ten years of self-poisoning? That just don’t smell right.”

    I wouldn’t be that surprised you can find ascetic monks in Japan to this day performing all sorts of incredible feats of perserverance such as the ‘marathon monks’ on Mt. Hiei who perform 30km ‘marathon walks’ over 7 years. There is also a lot of pretty well researched material on the self-mummifying monks in Japan that document the process in detail. The self-poisoning also only takes place in the final stages of the practice.

  6. Ranson says:

    Remember, BillDarryl, religion makes people do crazy things on occasion. Why should Buddhists be any different?

  7. BillDarryl says:

    Ranson

    Well, I think we all agree whether it’s 3, 30, or 3,000 days, it’s pretty durn crazy to deliberately poison oneself in what appears to be a slow, painful process, just to become a mummy.

    I was just thinking that self poisoning over 10 years would probably be ineffectual – in that time frame I’d assume you’d develop a tolerance, or drop dead far sooner than planned if you don’t.

    But if the self poisoning is just at the end, that would make sense (in the framework of the details, that is. Nothing in the whole equation makes any kind of “sense” to me at all!)

  8. April says:

    BillDarryl said “…drop dead far sooner than planned…”.

    I say: That’s probably a good portion of why there’ve been so few “successful” attempts.

  9. To clarify the 3000-day process:

    The first 1000 days is a low-fat diet and strenuous exercise to lose body fat. The second 1000 days is the starvation diet of urushi tea and bark, containing the arsenic. Then they seal themselves inside the tomb and die, and the third 1000 days is their decomposition, at the end of which the other monks open the tomb to see if mummification took place.

  10. If they were that “incorruptible”, why did they die? Is not death the ultimate form of our corruptibility? While the natural aspects to this topic is truly a case study in personal determination and self-sacrifice, in reference to the monks, the supernatural end smacks of self-delusion. At least the monks seem to strive for this, but there is nothing miraculous; the wording by observes certainly doesn’t help and leave one to question their powers of observation. Funny how expectations or standards degrade just to save face…

  11. Ian Mason says:

    No, for many religions LIFE is the ultimate corrupt form. The goal is to escape from living. Cloisters, hermits’ cells and other types of “holy orders” have been sanctuaries for anorectics through millenia. If you think that these monks can’t have the self discipline to torture themselves to death then you haven’t been in close contact with an anorectic.
    Ian Mason

  12. Arturo Ruiz says:

    The most importan achievement of buddhism is a mental state. Sadly, some people use some kinds of tricks to prove their faith, because they have not a correct understanding of the Dharma. Buddhism is not a religion but a technique used to reach a blissfull sate, it not need faith but understanding and when there is not people do missclaims like this.

  13. A few years ago, there was an “incorruptible” on display at The Bower’s Musuem Tibetan exhibition. Very cool. They said he was a monk who had consumed only tree bark before he died. I didn’t think of arsenic. I thought of pitch and sap, because this guy looked like he had been varnished.

  14. Daniel says:

    “This 3000-day ritual called for a starvation diet and exercise to lose all body fat, then a slow self-poisoning with an arsenic rich diet, followed by an entombment and final starvation.”

    I don’t know if that was exactly what he did… he looks pretty fat to me !

  15. Vita says:

    Dr. Victor Zviagin, Forensic physician, Moscow Russian Center of Forensic Medical Expertise, who examined the body, claimed in an interview that the salt was added in 1973, not in 1927 when the Lama Itigelov was originally buried.
    More in English:http://erikdaman.blogspot.com/2012/03/health-professor-viktor-zvyagin.html

  16. Sara Louise Tucker says:

    The dead monk in the photo does not seem to have lost all his body fat at all…

  17. Eric says:

    Yes, and perhaps, just perhaps, the two “brief” exumings 20 years apart were done to re-apply the salt.

    Cool, creepy story nonetheless.