Little is known in the West about the the mystical practices of Japanese Mountain Asceticism: the Yamabushi, mountain-wandering warrior monks.
The Yamabushi believe that to become spiritually enlightened, you have to commune with nature over a long period of time, and that communing with nature will give you mystical powers. They often trained in the martial arts to protect themselves in their journeys. For the past 1400 years, these mountain ascetics have been engaged in a tradition of spiritual practice which evolved from the combination of number of separate teachings, ultimately becoming codified into a defined religion: Shugendō.
“Shugendō” literally means “the path of training and testing.” It is an old Japanese practice of being outside using special awareness. It centers on an ascetic, mountain-dwelling lifestyle and incorporates teachings from other eastern philosophies.is a form of Japanese folk religion, based on primitive mountain worship, and formed under the influence of Buddhism, Daoism, Onmyōdō, and other religions. The name shugen is derived from the term genriki, which refers to special powers acquired as the result of religious practice (shugyō) performed within the mountains. In the past, such persons were frequently referred to by such terms as sanga (one who beds in the mountains) or the more common yamabushi (one who retreats to the mountains).
While Shugendō provides abstract theories regarding the meaning of such terms, they are generally used to refer to those who supranormal magico-religious capabilities by sheltering in the mountains, in other words by retreating to the mountains and engaging in concourse with mountain spirits. Shugen practitioners are also called yama no hijiri (holy-men of the mountains), genja (men of power), or gyōja (ascetic practitioners).
The 7th century ascetic and mystic En no Gyōja is widely considered as the patriarch of Shugendō, having first organized Shugendō as a doctrine. Shugendōliterally means “the path of training and testing” or “the way to spiritual power through discipline.”
In modern times, Shugendō is practiced mainly through Tendai and Shingon temples. Some temples include Kimpusen-ji in Yoshino (Tendai), Ideha Shrine in the Three Mountains of Dewa and Daigo-ji in Kyoto (Shingon).
Shugendō practitioners are said to be descendants of the Kōya Hijiri monks of the eighth and ninth centuries.
The world of Shugendo and the Yamabushi is one filled with arduous spiritual discipline, supernatural powers, other-worldly forces and creatures & rigorous warrior training. The following are articles & videos which begin the explain this nearly inexplicable and mysterious religious sect and it’s esoteric culture.
Shugendō & Japan’s Mysterious Mountain Monks
From the comfort of the bullet-train, Japan’s countryside appears picturesque and benign.
To the average tourist, the only unsettling features of the ride are 1) the frustrating attempt to decipher the English of the announcer and 2) the frantic endeavor capture a half decent photo of Mount Fuji.
Outside the safety of the glistening torpedo carriages and their high-pitched Japanese ticket collector inhabitants however exists hundreds of miles of uncharted wilderness with a dark secret…
What Lurks in the Forbidden Wilderness?
I first became aware of this veiled ghostly underworld when I was fifteen.
As an English city dweller lodging with a local family in a small rural community in Fukushima Prefecture, northern Japan, I felt drawn into the dense forests surrounding the village, partly to experience some of the magic I had seen in Studio Ghibli’s beautiful animations.
After a couple of days spent politely nodding and discussing the differences between English battered cod and sushi, I mustered the courage to ask if I may wander off into the wilderness – “Dame dame!” an unyielding expression forbidding me to even consider it!
A couple of politely crafted questions later informed me Japan’s forests are no place for teenagers on account of the tengu (supernatural crow-like humanoids) and their devoted followers, the yamabushi (mountain ascetic hermits). Being the polite young boy that I was, I followed my hosts’ advice and went to the baseball driving range instead.
Years later I read an article about Mt. Kurama, the birthplace of Reiki (visit our section where you can learn Reiki free) and a known tengu hotspot, which suggested Aikido’s founder Ueshiba Morihei had learned martial arts from a yamabushi lurking somewhere on this mount and described British anthropologist Carmen Blacker’s petrifying run-in with a tengu in the early 1960s.
So who are these shadowy demons lurking in Japan’s countryside? Supernatural birdmen endowed with invisibility cloaks, seven-inch noses and fully functioning crow wings or feathered pranksters hiding in the bushes? The answer is of course somewhere in the middle.
En no Gyoja
To understand this deeply guarded and enigmatic set of practices, we must jump into the murky world of En no Gyoja.
Born in 634 under suitably mysterious surroundings, he quickly became the stuff of legend, his image being used to bind countless groups of mountain-dwelling ascetics into one unified concept – Shugendō.
The central purpose of these abstruse wanderers is to reach enlightenment through strengthening the bond between man and nature – no easy task!
While legend has it En no Gyoja was capable of levitation, manipulation of demons and possession of court aristocrats, his crowning achievement was attaining enlightenment or becoming one with nature, a goal he fulfilled in the 650s through intense physical training.
The Practice of Misogi
Although we will never know the intricate details of En no Gyoja’s spiritual workouts, he is widely believed to have practiced Misogi, an exercise designed to rinse out the body and mind, still practiced today; gathered around a sacred waterfall – Konryu-Myojin-no-Taki and Otowa-no-Taki being two of the best known – practitioners first perform a series of prayers and a set of calisthenic exercises known as ‘the bird boat’.
When the preparatory rituals are complete, followers start a specialised breathing pattern and repeatedly chant a request to the gods to wash away sin, while standing under an ice-cold downfall of holy water.
The Test of Nishi no Nozoki
Another lustrative practice associated with Shugendō is Nishi no Nozoki, or “gaze at the West” – new recruits are tied up with straw rope and suspended over the edge of a cliff, face down. Hanging hundreds of metres in the air, the powerless trainees are asked a series of questions to test their moral and spiritual fibre, only to have the rope slackened if the answer or even tone of response is unsatisfactory.
While the Japanese have masterfully exported Zen the world of Shugendō remains a closely guarded secret, even within Japan – a common response when asking a Japanese about Shugendō is “kowai”, or “it’s scary”, combined with a grimace and defensive hand gestures.
Its portrayal in the Japanese media supports this image, with the arch-villain of the hugely popular “Lone Wolf and Cub” manga being a Shugendō priest and Sadako from the cult Japanese horror film “Ring” suggested as En no Gyoja’s daughter. In this masked realm of demons, ghouls and Pinocchio-nosed birdmen, Shugendō’s followers certainly revel in this theatricality from the sidelines of their woodland abodes.
To the carefree tourist gazing out of a bullet-train window into an expanse of deep Japanese wilderness, it is easy just to see empty space, with infinitely less spiritual value than Kyoto’s endless stream of temples and shrines. And yet, through the eyes of a yamabushi, Mother Nature herself carves a colossal mandala out of lakes, cliffs and rivers.
Shugendō is in essence an examination of the nature of nature, allowing members to be absorbed by this process.
This transformation relies on faith in the unsurpassed power of the world itself, because as Dogen put it, “mountains and waters have been active since before the eon of emptiness, they are alive at this moment. Because they have been the self since before form arose, they are liberated and realized.”
-Sam Copley, Shugendo & Japan’s Mysterious Mountain Monks, CirclesOfLight.com, http://www.circlesoflight.com/blog/shugendo-mountain-monks/
Crow Tengu, the Yamabushi Ninja martial instructor
is an old Japanese practice of being outside using special awareness. “Shugendo” literally means “the path of training and testing.” It centers on an ascetic, mountain-dwelling lifestyle and incorporates teachings from other eastern philosophies.In modern times, Shugendo is practiced by the Yoshino Yamabushiof Dewa Sanzan (Tendai sect), Kinpusenji and Ishiyama-dera Shingon sects, but it retains an influence on modern Japanese religion, Culture of Japan and many outdoor practices.
En-no-Gyōja is often considered the founder of shugendo. Shugendō evolved on the cultural background of state-sponsored Buddhism and other religious influences in Japan around the 7th century, including but not limited to Taoism and Shintō. During the Meiji restoration, Shugendō was banned as a superstition not fit for a new, enlightened Japan. The Shugendō temples were converted into imperial Shintō shrines.
Those who practice Shugendō are referred in two ways. One term, shugenja (修験者), is derived from the term “Shugendo”.
The other term, yamabushi (山伏) means “one who sleeps in the mountains”. Supernatural creatures often appeared as yamabushi in Japanese mythology, as is evident in the legendary monk warrior Saito Musashibo Benkei and the deity Sojobo, king of the tengu (mountain spirits).
Modern Shugenja in Japan and throughout the world are known to practice through challenging and rigorous ritualistic tests of courage and devotion known as shugyo. Walkabouts involving mountain treks (Mts Ominé, Dewa, Hakusan, etc in Japan) are embarked upon by the aspiring Yamabushi, and, through the experience of each trek, as well as years of study, experience and insights are gained.
Shugendō is a form of Japanese folk religion, based on primitive mountain worship, and formed under the influence of Buddhism, Daoism, Onmyōdō, and other religions. The name shugen is derived from the term genriki, which refers to special powers acquired as the result of religious practice (shugyō) performed within the mountains. In the past, such persons were frequently referred to by such terms as sanga (one who beds in the mountains) or the more common yamabushi (one who retreats to the mountains). While Shugendō provides abstract theories regarding the meaning of such terms, they are generally used to refer to those who supranormal magico-religious capabilities by sheltering in the mountains, in other words by retreating to the mountains and engaging in concourse with mountain spirits. Shugen practitioners are also called yama no hijiri (holy-men of the mountains), genja (men of power), or gyōja (ascetic practitioners).
—The History of Shugendō—
The history of Shugendō can be roughly divided into four periods. The first period extends to the end of Heian period before the two schools of Honzanha and Tōzanha were formed. It can be called pre-Shugendō or primitive Shugendō. Based on early views of mountains as sacred space or gateways to the other world (takaikan), the number of ascetics using mountains and forests as sites of religious practice gradually increased. With the rise of mountain-centered Buddhism and esoteric Buddhism in the Heian Period, groups of shugen gradually coalesced, and by the end of the Heian period, sacred mountains throughout the country had become well known as sites of ascetic religious practice. Beginning with the pilgrimage to Mount Yoshino (typified by the Fujiwara Michinaga’s 1007 pilgrimage to Mitake or Mitake mōde) and the pilgrimages to Kumano (Kumano mōde) by retired Emperors Shirakawa, Go-Shirakawa and Go-Toba, pilgrimages to the “three mountains of Kumano” (Kumano sanzan) flourished to such a degree that the parade of visitors came to be known as “pilgrimage of ants to Kumano.”
The second period extends from the formation of the two Shugendō branches Honzanha and Tōzanha to the forcible “separation of Shintō and Buddhism” or Shinbutsu bunri in 1868 and the abolition of Shugendō itself in 1872. This can be called the period of sectarian Shugendō, and can be divided into early and late halves centering on the Bakufu’s issuance of the Shugendō hatto(Ordinance for Shugendō) in 1613. Shugendō flourished during the early half of the period, with Mount Ōmine, including the peaks of Yoshino, Ōmine and Kumano, considered the religion’s central place of training and practice and En no Ozunu coming to be viewed as patriarch. Periodic intensive mountain retreats (nyūbu shugyō, or buchū shugyō) were practiced, and the Honzanha and Tōzanha branches developed organizationally. Furthermore, various sacred mountains throughout the country—from the “three mountains of Dewa” (Dewa Sanzan) in the northeast to Hikosan in Kyūshū—displayed independent development as places of Shugendō practice. The Shugendō hatto of 1613 represented an official recognition of the dual existence of the Honzanha and Tōzanha branches, and both groups continued their organizational development through the early modern period, but unfortunately the practice of mountain retreats (nyūbu shugyō) tended to become formalized. Ritual spells and invocations (kaji kitō) performed for the common people became the primary religious activities, and yamabushi practitioners commonly began residing in villages (sato yamabushi) instead of mountains. From the mid Edo period, lay people commonly participated in mountain retreats as well, and Fuji gyōja (Mount Fuji ascetics) in the line of the founder known as Miroku, and Mitake gyōja (Mount Mitake ascetics) in the tradition of Fukan and Kukumei became active.
The third period of Shugendō history extends from the Meiji-period separation of Shinto and Buddhism and abolition of Shugendō, to the end of World War II in 1945, when the new Religious Corporations Ordinance (Shūkyō hōjinrei) was promulgated. With the Meiji-period abolition of Shugendō, practitioners went in three directions: they either grew their hair and became Shinto priests (shinshoku), joined the Tendai or Shingon sects of Buddhism, or returned to secular life, and Shugendō ceased to exist as an organized religion. Shugendō practice continued to be observed, however, within the Tendai and Shingon schools of Buddhism, and within sectarian Shinto (kyōha Shintō) groups such as Fusōkyō, Jikkōkyō, and Mitakekyō.
The fourth period of Shugendō history runs from the promulgation of the aforementioned postwar Religious Corporations Ordinance to the present. A wide variety of new Shugendō organizations exist with an equally wide variety of affiliations, from the old Honzanha and Tōzanha groups and independent practitioners who formerly were associated with individual mountains, to new religions of a Shugendō nature.
—The Similarity of Shinto and Shugendō —
The historical process of Shugendō’s development is similar to that in the history of Shinto: from primitive Shinto to Ryōbu Shintō, Ise Shintō, Yoshida Shintō, and on to Jinja Shintō and Kokka Shintō (State Shinto). The resemblance between the two is reflected in the fact that widespread feuding and rivalry occurred between adherents of Yoshida Shintō and Shugendō in the early modern period as a result of the expansion of Yoshida Shintō throughout the period, and the fact that the Meiji-period separation of Shintō and Buddhism and subsequent abolition of Shugendō resulted in many practitioners converting from Shugendō to Shinto.
Viewed from the contrary side, it might be said that factors lying behind the conflict with Yoshida Shinto and the Meiji-period conversion from Shugendō to Shintō priesthood include the fact that shugen practitioners vastly outnumbered Shinto priests during the early modern period and Shudendō rituals included Shintō-type elements, and the fact that most yamabushi who resided in villages formed groups of clients for their thaumaturgic invocatory practices and frequently performed Shinto rituals in the status of supervising intendent priests (bettō) over Shinto shrines.
—Shugendō Religious Practice—
Originally, Shugendō based its practice on a “transmission beyond words” (furiyūmonji), and aimed at the acquisition of spiritual powers through ascetic practice, but from the medieval into the early modern period numerous works of doctrine were authored. These works, however, were mainly explications and descriptions of mountain retreats, vestments and ritual procedures based on theories of esoteric Buddhism. Although four seasonal mountain retreats are postulated in Shugendō (one each in spring, summer, autumn and winter), only the Haguro sect continued to observe all four throughout the early modern period. And while Shugendō evolved its own object of worship called KongōZaō Gongen, various other deities are also worshiped, including natural phenomena such as sun, moon and stars/planets, various Buddhist divinities and the kami of Shinto. Overall, however, practice focuses on the cosmic buddha Dainichi Nyorai and its “disciplinary manifestation (kyōryō rinshin)” as Fudō Myōō (demon-quelling form with scowling countenance), and ritual practices likewise focus on the adept’s visualizing his unification with the deity Fudō Myōō. Frequent use of the Buddhist goma fire ritual is seen in Shugendō during the performance of various rites, including mountain retreats and rites for Buddhist deities and kami. While many of these adopt the goma rituals of esoteric Buddhism such as the sokusai goma(ritual for exorcizing disaster), Shugendō also makes use of its own unique hashiramoto gomaduring mountain retreats, and saitō goma is frequently performed both during mountain retreats and in various other rituals. Religious activities performed for the common people mainly comprised thaumaturgic spells and invocations (kaji kitō) and purificatory harai rituals that utilized a variety of sacred texts, amulets, and ritual implements. Such activities ranged from exorcisms of possessing spirits (tsukimono otoshi), to thaumaturgic healings, all-night vigils held on specific days of the lunar calendar to worship the moon or sun, and rituals dedicated to deities of home and grounds (ie no kami and yashikigami). Among the rites of Shugendō, many of those of Shinto lineage have been compiled in the Shugendō shoshin kanjō tsūyō edited by Gyōson and the Shugenshū Shinto jinja injin edited by Jinkan, while the Shugen shinpi gyōhō fujushū and Shugen shinpi gyōhō fuju zokushū reproduce numerous Shinto-derived kirigami, ritual transmissions originally written on small slips of paper.
-Shinto and Shugendo, Minamoto Kesao, Encyclopedia of Shinto, http://eos.kokugakuin.ac.jp/modules/xwords/entry.php?entryID=830
Below is a trailer for the feature film, Shugendō Now, directed by Jean-Marc Abela & produced by Mark Patrick McGuire.
This feature documentary is an experiential journey in to the mystical practices of Japanese mountain asceticism. In Shugendō (The Way of Acquiring Power), practitioners perform ritual actions from shamanism, Shintō, Daoism, and Tantric Buddhism. They seek experiential truth of the teachings during arduous climbs in sacred mountains. Through the peace and beauty of the natural world, practitioners purify the six roots of perception, revitalize their energy and reconnect with their truest nature — all while grasping the fundamental interconnectedness with nature and all sentient beings.
How does one return to the city after an enlightening experience in the mountains?
More poetic than analytical, this film explores how a group of modern Japanese people integrate the myriad ways mountain learning interacts with urban life. With intimate camera work and a sensual sound design the viewer is taken from deep within the Kumano mountains to the floating worlds of Ōsaka and Tokyo and back again.