Ghosts, mummies and robots in Buddhism

I’ve spent the last two months in Japan, mostly in Tōhoku, the northernmost region of the main island, Honshū. During that time I was working on a few different projects, including ghost weddings, *mummies,** and using androids in Buddhist temples. *** I have already mentioned each of these three phenomena separately in previous essays for this column. Today I would like to explore what these three phenomena can teach us about the worldview of Buddhism. I know it sounds confusing, but these three phenomena share some deep similarities. The first two express considerations on an afterlife and the notion of immaterial spirits, the last two attribute Buddhahood, or at least bodhisattva, to apparently inanimate and insensitive beings. And while some, if not all, seem to disagree with Buddhism, all of the phenomena I’m going to discuss here: mukasari ema (pictures of ghost weddings) and hanayome ningyō (figurines of ghost bride dolls); sokushinbutsu (the bodies of monks who have mummified themselves); and Mindar, an android representation of the Bodhisattva Kannon (Guanyin); are enshrined in Buddhist temples in Japan. What fascinates me about these three phenomena is that they reflect specific and interesting considerations about the nature of consciousness and what it means to be human.

Two temples in the city of Tendō in Yamagata Prefecture, Jakushō-ji and Kurotori Kannon, are famous for their devotion to Bodhisattva Kannon – both are part of the Tōhoku version of the 33-temple pilgrimage in honor of Bodhisattva Kannon – and as temples that consecrate mukasari ema. Risshakuji in Yamadera and Kawakura Sai no Kawara Jizoson (“Jizo Bodhisattva of Kurokawa on the Bank of the Sai River”) in the shrine of Aomori Prefecture hanayome ningyō. In both cases, the spirits of people who left unmarried are married to a ghost. The temples mentioned here belong to the Sōtō, Tendai and Shingon schools of Buddhism. It is therefore an intersecting phenomenon.

Ghost bride doll. By Kawakura Sai no Kawara Jizōson. Image reproduced with the kind permission of the author.

This year, I explored more about the process of making these post-mortem wedding photos and the memorial ritual (kuyo) by means of which they are enshrined in a designated Buddhist temple. Buddhist temples are not involved in the production of mukasari ema Where hanayome ningyōbut content themselves with carrying out the memorial rituals and offering space to these objects of memory and commemoration.

Japanese ghost weddings. At wakamatu-kannon.jp

I spoke with one of the few remaining professional artists who paint these post-mortem wedding photos. She said she communed with the dead and clearly believed in the survival of an immaterial spirit after physical death. For her, humans, ghosts and gods all possess the same kind of spirit. She believes that these spirits remain in our world after death, move to the next world (the “Pure Land”) and/or reincarnate. None of these options are permanent. The philosopher Carl Becker of Kyoto University takes a similar view of the world.

Two other trips took me to the western part of Yamagata Prefecture, where I visited Dainichibō and Nangaku-ji in Tsuruoka City and Kaikō-ji in Sakata City. Each of these temples consecrates one or, in the case of Kaikō-ji, two sokushinbutsu. The documentary Mummies who made themselves (available on YouTube) explains in detail the phenomenon and the process of self-mummification. Through rigorous discipline and a special diet for 3-7 years, mostly in the Yūdonosan area, a handful of practitioners (shugyōsha) in the Edo period (1603-1868) are said to have grown their bodies to such a degree that they did not decay. The mummies of Tetsumonkai and Shinnyōkai at Chūren-ji and Dainichibō, respectively, are said to still possess all of their internal organs. During my conversations with the High Priest of Chūren-ji (in 2016), the Curator of Kaikō-ji Temple (2019), and the Vice-Priest of Kaikō-ji (2022), I learned of the belief that these mummified monks are not dead in itself but continue to cultivate Buddhist practice and have causal efficacy insofar as they can perform miracles. In response to my questions as to whether these mummified practitioners are aware, I was told that they did not have self-centered daily awareness – my formulation – but rather sat in deep contemplation akin to the so-called bodhicitta (“spirit of enlightenment”).

Another series of trips took me to Kōdai-ji in Kyoto, which enshrines Mindar, a representation of Kannon Bodhisattva. According to Mahāyāna Buddhist beliefs, the bodhisattva Kannon can take any form (see chapter 25 of the Lotus Sutra) this expression includes androids. Likewise, it can include any sentient or insentient being “having Buddha-nature”**** and even “becoming a Buddha”. Fri. Gotō Tenshō at Kōdai-ji explained that Mindar is designed to help people overcome suffering and manifests Kannon Bodhisattva. However, Mindar is neither conscious nor capable of attaining Buddhahood. He compared Mindar to a “talking Buddha statue”. In my conversation with him as well as in Mindar’s “Dharma talk”, which he scripted, Ven. Gotō pointed out that although Mindar is “altruistic” (cup) and embodies the “void” (ku) to some extent his selflessness and emptiness differ greatly from that of the Buddha in that he is unable to feel suffering. Above all, Mindar constitutes a “skillful means” (hoben).

So what can we learn from these excursions/explorations? What is Consciousness? It seems that we human beings are not only “impermanent” (mujoteki), “selfless” (mugateki), and subjected to “suffering” (ku) but also not entirely reducible to our body. However, more than the answer to this question, my travels and conversations have revealed central insights into how we learn about consciousness. As Evan Thompson has pointed out, the study of consciousness is unique in that it involves a subject, consciousness, which studies itself, consciousness. This unique situation of consciousness studies creates a fundamental enigma. This also has important implications for understanding the phenomena discussed in this essay.

Mindar. Image reproduced with the kind permission of the author

If we shake our heads at people who claim to commune with spirits, to be affected by mummies, or to attribute divinity to androids or other AIs, it’s because those experiences are subjective and non-transferable. The difficulty is that all of our positions are formulated from a first-person perspective even as we struggle to achieve a third-person perspective that is universally true. The truth, however, lies somewhere in between, in the relationship between people and spirits, and requires a second person perspective. For some people, this involves a relationship with ghosts, mummies and/or robots; for me, it requires the relationship and dialogue with people who claim to have lived these experiences. Although I hope it’s true, my position is not a priori superior to those of others but must be negotiated in a multilogue with many positions and minds. Ultimately, this requires, as I have explained elsewhere, a fourth person perspective.****** This, of course, cannot be elaborated into a 1,000 word article or essay. ‘a single author.***** ** Such a project is best visualized in the Huayan image of Indra’s net. That’s what my conversations this summer have taught me.

* Buddhist death rituals: for the living, not for the dead (BDG)

** How to Deal with Death – Pilgrimages and Death Rituals in Japanese Buddhism (BDG)

*** Does artificial intelligence have Buddha nature (BDG)



******Kop 2021.

******* I have suggested such a method elsewhere (Kopf 2022).


Kof, Gereon. 2021. “How to make the philosophy of religion relevant for the future”, essay in the series “Is there a Future of the Philosophy of Religion”, published on Philosophy of Religion: Big Questions Philosophy for Scholars and Students hosted by Boston University (https://philosophyofreligion.org/?p=525634#more-525634).

Kof, Gereon. 2022. “The theory and practice of the multiple-entry approach”, in Philosophy of religion in the world: a critical approach, ed. Nathan Loewen and Agnieszka Rostalska (Bloomsbury Academics).

Taishō shinshū daizōkyō [The Japanese Edition of the Chinese Version of the Buddhist Canon], ed. by Junjirō Takakusu and Kaigyoku Watanabe (Tokyo: Taishō Shinshū Daizōkyō Kankōkai. 1961).

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