I first read about Buddhist mummies in a Washington Post article last spring. Someone in the Netherlands had run a statue (papier-mâché, gold-painted) of a Chinese monk through an X-ray machine and discovered human remains inside the statue.
At parties, when I tell people about Buddhist self-mummification, I say that the monk in question, who has been preparing for his enlightenment by eating berries and bark and drinking poisonous tea, crawls into his death chamber and rings a bell as an accomplice shovels dirt into the chamber until the bell stops ringing, upon which the chamber is sealed — a live burial of sorts. The chamber is left untouched for three years — nobody bothers with it — and then, at the end of those three years, they unseal it. The mummy is then inspected for decay. If it remains perfectly petrified, congrats! You’ve transcended death, achieved Nirvana, left behind a perfect, empty shell! If, however, the body shows signs of decay (or if it was a rainy three years), the remains are exorcised and then reinterred, and the monk in question is now viewed as an object of caution.
Full disclosure: I sometimes advertently embellish the details. Or maybe I’ve just pulled them off a disreputable offshoot of Gawker.
There are some discrepancies to my account. Some sources say that the monk assumes lotus position in a stone tomb — a tube is fed into the chamber to supply oxygen. He rings a bell every day, until the day he doesn’t, which is when the tomb is sealed. And, in spite of whether the mummy comes out intact or not, the monk is at least respected for his efforts. I too would feel resentful if I’d starved a thousand days for nothing.
For my nineteenth birthday, in the January cold, my roommate gave me a terrarium.
“Do I need to take care of it?” I asked, anxiously.
Sophie paused for three seconds. “No,” she said. “I don’t think so. Except — here.”
She then reached over and took the terrarium from me, unscrewing the lid. She brought her face close and breathed into it once, then twice.
“It needs carbon dioxide sometimes,” she said, screwing the lid back on. “And a little sun.”
She took a photo of me holding it, which later made its way onto Facebook. I decided I looked dead in the eyes. Deeply unalive! I thought. How thrilling.
The terrarium is easy to hold in one hand or two. It features three plants and some soil and a plastic tiger, and it normally sits atop my desk, where it doesn’t get enough natural light. Sometimes I add water, but then I add too much water, and when I am trying to drain out the excess liquid, some of the soil comes out too.
It is unclear why exactly I made a cameo appearance at the Women’s Center’s inaugural “Womyn in the Arts” coffeehouse last April. I decided to buck the trend (sing, read a poem, etc.) and do a show-and-tell instead. I passed my terrarium around the room as I read 562 words I had written about Buddhist mummies and the appearance of being dead inside. At the time this seemed clever, until my professor brought up an anecdote about the monks-turned-mummies on the first day of Intro to Buddhist Art this semester. I discovered that the mummies aren’t so much dead as they are representative, a testament to escaping that endless loop of living and dying. And that’s fine by me; I have no desire to make light of the dedication of the pious through drunken small talk or poorly thought-out Spoken Word Pieces.
So think of this as a public retraction — I take it all back, every glib and blatantly wrong thing I ever said about things I don’t know about, like extreme asceticism or devotion and faith or how the oxygen cycle works. Nothingness is not necessarily a bad thing; I told a roomful of strangers in April I was dead inside but no, I didn’t mean it. I’d rather be like the monks: clean, pristine, just an empty shell.