CT scan finds mummified monk inside 1,000-year-old Buddha

A Chinese statue of the Buddha dating back to around 1100 AD is more than just a statue -- it's the final resting place of a Buddhist master.

Michelle Starr Science editor
Michelle Starr is CNET's science editor, and she hopes to get you as enthralled with the wonders of the universe as she is. When she's not daydreaming about flying through space, she's daydreaming about bats.
Michelle Starr
2 min read
Drents Museum

It seems Mexico isn't the only place in the world where you can find human body parts incorporated into religious statuary: a Chinese statue of the Buddha has been discovered to contain the entire mummified body of a monk, folded into the same position.

The Buddha, exhibited at the Drents Museum in The Netherlands last year, was taken to the Meander Medical Centre in Amersfoort, where it was subjected to a full CT scan and had samples taken with an endoscope, under the supervision of Buddhist art expert Erik Brujin.

The mummy inside the statue -- the only one of its kind ever found -- is believed to be a Buddhist master named Liuquan of the Chinese Meditation School, who died around 1100 AD.

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The CT scan and endoscopy revealed more than just the mummified remains of Liuquan. Samples of a material that has yet to be identified were taken from the thoracic and abdominal cavities, and something else extraordinary was discovered: in the spaces once occupied by organs, the team found scraps of paper scribed with ancient Chinese characters.

The team believes the mummy may be an example of self-mummification in order to become a "living Buddha", a gruelling process that involved a life of extreme austerity. It was believed by some that mummification was not death, but a highly advanced spiritual state, and by others as a state of higher enlightenment.

Meander Medical Centre

In Japan, monks seeking self-mummification would begin a 1,000-day diet of water, seeds and nuts, followed by a 1,000-day diet of roots, pine bark and a special tea made from the sap of the Chinese lacquer tree -- a toxic substance usually used to lacquer bowls and plates, used by the monks to repel maggots and bacteria. Then they would be sealed in a stone tomb to await death.

A further 1,000 days after the monk's death, the tomb would be unsealed; those monks who had achieved mummification would be venerated in temples, while those who had not would remain entombed, respected for their attempt.

Whether those mummies had their organs removed and paper inserted is not known, however, it seems unlikely.

Liuquan has since moved on from Drents Museum, and will be on display at the Hungarian Natural History Museum until May 2015.