Articles » Strong Like a Mountain: A Short History of Shugendo at Mt. Koshikidake

The following will place Mt. Koshikdake in Shugendo's history. It will outline the unique history of the mountain and Koshikidake Kannon-ji Temple's relationship to Shugendo. It will also give readers an idea of the 'Seperation Orders' which were the death nail for Shugendo and practices associated with combinatory Buddha-Kami worship, of which Shugendo is exemplary. It will finish with Koshikidake Kannonji's revival as a Shugendo sect.

» Shugendo's Emergence

In almost all pre-industrial cultures, mountains have been venerated. With their special brews of violent weather, they seem liminal; otherwordly. But at the same time mountains are providers: they catch clouds, shed water, give refuge, cleanse the spirit. They are the natural sacred sites on whose summits we express our gratitude and awe. Japanese folk religion is centered around belief in and rituals focused on the myriad of divinities which manifest in places such as trees, mountains and the sea as well as the myths and traditions concerning these figures. What we now label 'Shinto' came into being through indigenous animist mountain belief (eg: 山岳信仰 sangaku shinko & 神奈備信仰 kannabi shinko) and the process of welcoming, enshrining and celebrating the deities of sacred places - and accepting them as tutelary deities of the family or village. These beliefs were primarily associated with the Ainu (蝦夷), hunting cultures like the Matagi (又鬼), Mountain-Deity cults and so on. The influence of belief systems introduced from abroad (Taoist, Buddhist and Confucian thought) was also an important factor and as a result of this influence some people entered the mountains (a liminal space associated with death) and performed ascetic practices under the guidance of mountain figures (yama-gyoja). These people secluded themselves and absorbed themselves in practices related to Kami and Buddhas (shin-butsu 神仏), and returned to benefit the life of the community with magico-religious activity and ritual-prayers (祈祷法 kito-ho/kaji-kito). The ascetics of the esoteric sects are representative of these figures. Many techniques for manipulating and controlling these forces were introduced through Shamanic, Taoist and Esoteric-Buddhist influences.  

Around the 9th and 10th centuries, Shugenja (修験者), people who had cultivated these techniques and followed ascetic practices in the mountains, began to appear in large numbers, and eventually formed the beginnings of Shugendo as a distinct religious tradition. The various practices performed by isolated ascetics began to coalesce by the late eleventh century into distinctive organisation where practitioners formed groups that adhered to a specific sets of rituals enacted at specific sites. Originally Shugenja entered the mountains at the beginning of autumn, remained there over winter, and returned at the beginning of spring. During the formative period between the 10th and 12th centuries, the core practice was winter confinement. Around the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, Esoteric-Buddhism introduced a way of thinking called hongaku shiso (本覚思想), the idea that all things, including plants and earth, posses fundamental (original) enlightenment. This influenced all schools of Buddhism, including Shugendo, which incorporated its ontology.

The Shugendo around the Kumano area was first connected with the temple of Onjoji (Miidera) but from the 14th century it came under the control of the imperial Shogo-in temple in Kyoto. This branch of Shugendo eventually came to be known as the Honzan-ha. This 'Miitake' faith spread throughout the country and the Kumano stream influenced Shugendo across the country. Around the fifteenth century Shugenja (practitioners of Shugendo) of the 36 temples in the Kinki area founded an association of 36 guides (先達 Sendatsu) which eventually became the Tozan-ha branch centered in Sanboin, a subtemple of Daigoji in Kyoto. These two schools formed the major branches of Shugendo under which most schools at one point or another were subsumed.

By the 16th Century Shugen doctrine and ritual were well established in the peaks of Mt Kinbu and Mt Omine as well as mountains in Kyushu, Tohoku and the Kanto regions. The doctrines of Shugenja consisted mainly of commentaries on personal memoranda (切紙 - kirigami) that the Yamabushi used as guides for their rituals and practice. Some of the more central works include the Yamabushi Nijigi (The meaning of Yamabushi) by Yuban, Shugen-seiten and Shugen Shinkansho (the book of the mirror of the heart) attributed to the restorer Shobo (Rigen Daishi), the origin stories of the Shozan Engi,  the works of Gyōchi and the famous works of Akyubo Sokuden.

Shugenja traveled widely throughout the mountains and plains of Japan during the medieval period, but in later times, in part because of the restrictive policies of the government, they settled down and became a regular part of local communities. The local Shugenja who settled in villages in large numbers brought with them the knowledge gained from their travels, and responded to the needs of the villages by becoming priests of the local Buddhist temple or attendants of the shrines of the tutelary Kami. These village Shugenja (Sato-Shugenja) became deeply involved in the life of the community and their role was to respond to the everyday needs of the common people in the areas of education, rites of passage, funerary rites, festivals, culture, religion and education. They managed local shrines and served as guides to sacred sites.

From the Edo Period onward, Shugendo had already penetrated almost every facet of folk religion. This is the married yamabushi, permanently settled in scattered villages, was a major influence in the infiltration of Shugendo into almost every corner of the country and into almost every aspect of folk religion.

The local yamabushi was deeply entrenched in the life of his village, as even their residence indicates. Many of the Yamabushi residences were called nagadoko or nagatoko, a combination of Shinto and Buddhist architecture. Usually the yamabushi residence was outwardly little different from other houses in the village. Inside it included a Buddhist idol, space for believers to gather, as well as the private rooms for the Yamabushi's family. From this local centre, neither a temple nor a shrine, they carried out religious services which affected the whole life of the villages, from before birth on through death.

In late medieval times there arose the combiantion of buddhist and shinto styles, known as gongen zukuri. In terms of Shinto architecture, the gongen zukuri features the Haidan (oratory or hall of worship) and Honden (inner sanctuary) joined together under one roof. The Nagadoko style derives from the gongen zukuri.

Mt Koshikidake's Kannonji temple was one example of a 'Village Shugen' (里修験) complex.

From their unique position, Yamabushi were able to mediate among all sections of premodern society. Here lay the source of both their social influence and the threat they potentially posed to the establishment'.

Visiting sacred sites under the tutelage of a Shugendo Sendatsu formed a kind of initiation rite for youth and many lay-fraternities appeared around Shugendo sites during this time. Researchers like Tare Wakamori suggest that folk practices which involve entering the mountains for initiation into adulthood or becoming qualified for marriage must predate and carry over into Shugendo practices. Religious fraternities such as those on Mt Fuji and Mt Ontake were also formed around this time. Goma fires lit up the night and pilgrims to sites such as Kumano were said to proceed like ants in the thousands. 

» In the Beginning: Mt. Koshikidake and Shugendo in the Dewa Basin

Mt. Koshikidake is a mountain located in the 'Dewa Basin' of Yamagata Prefecture in modern day Murayama City. It rises for 5km reaching an altitude of 1,016 m. This mountain is relatively unknown in Japan but has an astonishing history as both a ‘Demon’s Gate Seal’ and as a site significant to Shugendo. Koshiki carries the meaning of a rice cooking mound which was used in in ancient times. The Koshiki peak is said to resemble this. The term also carries connotations of the central 'hub' of a wheel. The seal of Mt Koshikidake consists of 9 stars; a circle surrounded by 8 circles, also resembling a wheel and its hub. Koshikidake's ascetic trails are said to have been significant to the Ezo people dating back to the Jomon period and traces of ancient well sites have been found across the mountain. The stone marker of Koshikidake Daigongen at its peak dates back to the Heian period. 

Mt Koshikidake was traditionally revered as the abode of the Ame-no-Mi-Kumari deity (Agricultural Kami of water, moisture, fertility and childbirth) and as a site of amagoi rituals (rain dances). From songs recorded on the mountain, it is known that rain making ceremonies played a prominent role in the mountain's culture. Many of the songs passed down in the traditions of Mt. Koshikidake speak to this:


Here in the traces of the Koshiki peak, we lament for merciful rain

Worship relating to Kannon (Avalokitesvara) in various manifestations (usually ‘Sho-Kannon’ (聖観音) has always been popular in the Shonai plain region and we can assume that this is in part to Kannon’s relation to rain-making. Dragons and nagas are also related to rainmaking, and the slopes of Mt.Koshikidake are associated with dragons (竜 ryu).

Buddhism’s emergence and the 'opening' of practice at Mt. Koshikidake is attributed to the monk Dosho Shonin (道昭 629-700). Dosho is considered one of the founding figures of Buddhism in Japan. In 653 he travelled with the support of the Emperor to China where he studied Yogacara philosophy (唯識宗) and Chan (Zen) under the Buddhist monk Xuanzang (玄奘 602-664), whose travels to India were immortalized in the book Journey to the West. There is a legend about his return from China that says Xuanzang had given him a magical kettle. Whenever any medicine was prepared in the kettle, it could cure any illness. The monk travelling with Dōshō was supposedly cured before embarking on the sea trip back to Japan. However, while at sea a great storm came upon them. A diviner on board said that the sea god wanted the kettle. Dōshō at first resisted, but eventually gave in, and the storm immediately abated. Dosho is also credited with introducing cremation to Japan. There is a legend compiled in the ninth century which states that while in China, the monk Dosho visited Shiragi (Korea) where he lectured on the Lotus Sutra. Here he met a man 'among the tigers' who offered up a question in the Japanese language. The man declared himself to be En no Ubasoku (En no Gyoja), the legendary patriarch of Shugendo.

Early in his life Dosho is said to have roamed Japan, devoting himself to works that contributed to the welfare of the public. It was during this time in the fourth year of the Daishoku (648 – approximately 20 years old) that he sought out a mountain at Imperial request to act as the Kimon (鬼門-demon’s gate) of the Nara Capital. This led to the enshrining of Kannon on Mt. Koshikidake and the opening of the Hakkoin temple, the predecessor of the mountain’s Kannon-ji temple.

This vast mountainous territory located in the northern part of Honshū was associated with the northeastern (tōhoku 東北) direction from the Kinki 近畿 region of the Imperial capital, which corresponded to the portion of space presided over by the zodiacal signs of the ox and tiger (ushitora 丑寅, 艮) according to the cosmological tradition of the Way of Yin and Yang (onmyōdō /onmyo-gogyo-setsu; the theory of Yin-Yang and the five elements.). The ushitora corridor was the spatial gate through which evil influences and demons could penetrate and destroy the world of humans. The security of this dangerous and fluid border, which separated wrathful deities from human beings, was entrusted to specific powerful elements of the natural landscape: the sacred mountains (reizan 霊山). The sacred peaks of Tōhoku were considered to be the first line of guardians standing along the ushitora direction in order to protect the archipelago. 

The Kimon is associated with the direction of ‘North East’ and Mt. Koshikidake sits in this direction from the Capital at the time (Nara). In Onmyodo (Taoist Ying Yang Divination & Geomancy) the North-East is considered a particularly incompatible/taboo direction through which negative forces can enter and leave. Shrines and temples in this cardinal direction were established to act as ‘Demon Gates’ in order to ‘seal’ negative influences and for generations Mt Koshikidake’s Kannon-ji temple acted as part of a 'Honcho no Kimon' – a “Demon Gate of the Morning.” Mt. Hiei  of Tendai Buddhist fame was established for similar reasons.

Shugendo appeared in the Dewa basin - a melting pot of permanent and itinerant ascetics as well as unique cultures like that of the matagi (又鬼) - with the transmigration of the Three Deities of Kumano to the mountains of Dewa (now known as Mt. Gassan, Mt. Chokai, Mt. Haguro, Mt. Hayama and Mt. Yudono) - and with Nojo Taishi’s ‘opening’ of Mt. Haguro during his ascetic seclusions there. While the three deities of Kumano are considered emanations of Yakushi (Bhaisajyaguru / Medicine Buddha), Amida (Amitābha, Amatayas), and Juichimen Kannon (11 faced Avalokitesvara), their manifestation in the Dewa region appeared as Yakushi, Amida and Sho-Kannon (Avalokitesvara's ground form).

In a similar tradition, Yakushi, Amida and Sho Kannon were also enshrined at Mount Koshikidake and in the past many worshipers attended the site in pilgrimage. In the Muromachi period (1336-1573) Mt. Koshikidake was prominent in the Dewa region's 33 Kannon pilgrimage route. Tradition states that eight trails connected the settlements at the foot of Koshikidake to the summit, and the remains of shukubô (lodgings) have been discovered at Nakazawa at the entrance to the main one. Four Fudô halls also existed at the bottom of the mountain. The recovery of the pre-Meiji sites and trails on Koshikidake is ongoing, and further light may eventually be thrown on old mountain practices in the process. There are various tales linked to the Yama-no-Kami (山の神 Mountain Deity) goddess of the mountain and Koshikidake Daigongen, Sho-Kannon’s avatar-manifestation (gongen - 権現).

Shugendo at Koshikidake Kannonji developed under both Tendai and Shingon (Mantrayana) influence, and was subsumed under the Shingon affiliated Tozan-ha sect of Shugendo through it's connections with Mt Yudono as well as it's connections with Daigoji Sanboin (Kyoto) during the Edo period. Documents held by Kannonji show that in reality the boundaries between sect identities weren't so clear and shugenja on route to pilgrimage sites stopped at many different kinds of temples and had mentors and teachers that varied across sectarian divisions.

It is important to emphasise that in medieval times, the term "religion" had no equivalent in Japan. The very concept of 'religion and its Japanese translation, shukyo (宗教; teaching of schools) is a concept that was imported during the Meiji era from the West. Before the Meiji period, there was no generic word to describe religious trends.

In her study of the Shozan Engi, Professor Carina Roth writes:

The term 'religion' is a modern Christian borrowing which does not embrace a Japanese reality. In its Western sense, the term "religion" generally implies a notion of exclusivity which is foreign to Japan, where it is normal to follow simultaneously the teachings and customs linked to several traditions. The combinatorial religious phenomena typified by Shugendo is the corollary of this lands inclusiveness, and confirms the cohabitation of divinities with very different origins. The Kami are associated with foreign lands, for example, Korean, Chinese and Indian deities, both local and universal.

As this diversity has lasted since the first exchanges between Japan and the Asian continent, it is very difficult to distinguish the truly 'indigenous' parts. What is more, deities frequently have overlapping identities, which are not confused but nested within the others like Russian dolls. Depending on the place, the occasion and the context, one or the other of the facets is put forward. These various forms of "assimilations between gods and Buddhas" (shinbutsu shûgô 神仏習合), were abruptly interrupted during the Meiji Restoration, which put in place a policy of "Separation of gods and buddhas" (shinbutsu bunri 神仏分離). Even though this policy has been revoked, it has effects that last through to this day.

The following history is recorded in the `Tateokamachi Rekishi' (History of Tateoka city) held by Tateoka temple:

1300 years ago in the Nara period, Dosho Shonin installed a spiritual image at Mount Koshikidake. With the Advent of Kobo Daishi, mikkyo was brought to the mountain. The Shugendo of En no Gyoja was transmitted to Mt Koshikidake via Shobo (Rigen Daishi) of Daigo-ji (醍醐 寺) temple.

Daigoji-Sanboin forms one of the major centers of Shugendo (Tozan-Ha). Daigo-ji itself was founded in 874 by the priest Shōbō, known posthumously as Rigen Daishi. Shobo was born in 832. From a young age he engaged in mountain asceticism and lamented the decline of mountain-ascetic training since the passing of En no Gyoja. Shobo is considered the 'restorer' of Shugendo and the patriarch of the Tozan-ha lineage, which gradually grew out of the federation of temple complexes linked to Kofuku-ji (興福寺) and Tôdai-ji (東大寺).

"According to legend, when Shobo was 58 he was ordered by Imperial decree to vanquish the great serpent at Mt. Omine. En-no-Gyoja suddenly appeared to Shobo when he blew his Conch Shell Trumpet while traversing the Kinpusen region. Guided in a state of ecstasy, he received the secret initiation (kanjo) from the Founder. It is with this background that he re-opened the Gate of Shugendo of Mt. Omine. In the biography of Shobo, he says, "Filled with joy, I was led by the founder [Enno Gyoja) through the Kinpusen region and was handed down the Ein-Kanjo & Reisoujou [恵印灌頂 /霊異相承 - Dharma initiation & rites which became the foundation of the Tozan school] in the Pureland of Ryuju [Nagarjuna]."

The re-opening of Mt. Omine by Shobo not only revived the practice of mountaineering-asceticism but also led to the 'esotericization' (in the Mikkyo/Esoteric-Buddhist sense) of Shugendo.

» Shinbutsu Bunri: The Destruction of Shugendo and Shinbutsu-Shugo (神仏分離)

The first major setback for Shugendo was in 1613 when the military government of the Tokugawa Shogunate issued a 'Regulation of Shugendo Order' (Shugendo-Hatto) and ordered each shrine-temple complex to merge under the auspice of one of the two major sects of Esoteric Buddhism; the Shingon (Tozan-Ha) and Tendai (Honzan-Ha). This period saw the increased  'Buddhification' of Shugendo.

 If this law allowed for the official recognition of Shugendo, it also marked its transformation and decline. Nomadic life and hermitages were prohibited, practitioners had to settle in monasteries or village communities. Ordination became compulsory, the practices regulated and limited by the authorities. 
Around the beginning of the 17th century shugenja began settling permanently in villages, driven from their mountain temples and shrines by war or the regulations. Village shugenja, such as those linked to Koshikidake, were affiliated through a parish system, linked to Buddhist sects.

The major blow came with the Shinbutsu Bunri (神仏分離) separation orders of 1868, which sought to 'clarify' the distinctions between 'Foreign' Buddhas and 'native' Kami.  In the Meiji era (1868–1912), when Japan was forced to open its doors to the West, Shintō came under the influence of Christianity, and the leaders of the new unified Imperialist  State began to embrace the idea of monotheism as a unifying and modernizing force.  

    "The modern state could not tolerate a discourse on sacralization that did not mesh
      with its totalitarian notion of territory…. Otherness was reduced…"                                                                                                                                  (Grapard, 2005, 90)

In 1868 the New Meiji government ordered that the boundaries between Buddhism and Shinto be 'clarified'. This legislation is known to scholarship by the general term of the kami-buddha separation laws (shinbutsu bunri). As a result the very basis of the of the shugenja, characterised by deity-buddha combination through the veneration of Gongen, was placed in jeopardy. Shrine-temple complexes were divided into their component parts or changed as a whole to either a shrine or a temple and shugenja were forced to decide whether to become shrine priests, take Buddhist ordination, or abandon their calling completely.

The government sought to establish a State Shinto with Ise Shrine as its center and all local clan deities within their own place within this overriding structure. They selected a single Shintō deity from the countless Kami scattered over the Japanese archipelago and elevated it to the position of supreme being. This was the dawn of State Shintō. It is no stretch to say that this process was accompanied by world-shattering violence and was the deathblow to the beliefs and worldviews of the time, with the newly approved version of Shinto being a heavily distorted version of what previously existed reconfigured to support a new mythology presented as representing an unbroken imperial tradition. Before the Meiji Restoration, shrines were disorganized institutions usually attached to Buddhist temples; under the Meiji period Separation Orders, they were made independent systematised institutions .The separation orders triggered the haibutsu kishaku (Expulsion of Buddhism and Shakamuni), a violent anti-Buddhist movement that caused the forcible closure and burning of thousands of  temples, the confiscation of their land, the forced return of many monks and yamabushi to lay life or their transformation into Shinto priests, and the destruction of numerous books, statues, combinatory practices and artifacts.

Shugendo was outlawed and banned in 1872, being a typical case of the mixture of Buddhism and Shinto. Shugendo Shrine-Temple complexes were forced to choose to become Shinto Shrines or Buddhist temples and their practices were banned. In the case of Mt. Koshikidake, Kannon-ji temple was forced to become a shrine and it's attendant Shugenja were converted into Shinto-Shrine priests. The shrine was restructured and dedicated to Sukunahikona no Mikoto (A medicine deity).  One result of the outlawing of Shugendo was that many new religions sprang up to take its place and respond to the needs of the community.

In the early 1900s, growing popular movements and protests swept across Japan preaching class struggle and revolution, inspiring fear in the ruling State. Under these circumstances Shinto shrines once more became a focus of attention due to their potential utility in enforcing nationalist State ideology. In 1906 thousands of local village shrines with their own beliefs and practices were forced into merging with the aim of retaining only one shrine in each community. This shrine would then be forced into serving as a stage for Nationalist and Imperialist ceremonies, coordinated by the new 'State Ministry of Edification'. Shinto liturgy was standardized by law and out of this violent ideological transformation emerged new 'military shrines' and 'nation-protecting shrines'. Until 1945 Shinto was to serve as the Empire's “non-religious” state cult, propagated with increasing zeal, especially after 1931 as the country headed into war.

The last Betto (別当 head steward) of Kannonji during this period was Kanryu, who laicised during the persecution in 1871 as Koshikidake Motoi and became a shrine priest「 神職」. Ishimi, the son of Kanryu, continued as a priest but died young of tuberculosis. His son Kojiro continued this legacy, performing rites and rituals such as jichinsai, amagoi, and kuyo; In times of drought he would climb Mt. Koshikidake to offer prayers and his son Ikuo would join him. Ikuo is the father of Koshikidake Shokai. 

Despite the dismantling of Shugendo at Mt. Koshikidake, Buddhist statues and documents were kept in secret and Shinbutsu-Shugo style practice was carried out under the outer guise of a Shinto Priest. These documents were passed carefully down the generations to the present; the main Zenko-ji style image of Sho-Kannon is still preserved and is now held at the current Kannon-ji temple in nearby Murayama. In addition to this, there are still remnants of the site of the old Kannon-ji temple which are visited during mountain pilgrimage. Mt Koshikidake still has fraternity groups connected to its worship.

"The Koshikidake Shugendo backlog includes valuable sources of information about the life and concerns of a village shugenja and contains letters related to shipping, village admin and education, as well as sutras, divination manuals and more than 400 ritual manuals detailing the veneration of various deities and rites such as the Hoshiku and the Gumonjiho according to the Ono-ryu of Daigoji. It has a very rich archival collection, consisting both of ritual manuals, mainly from the Daigoji and Negoroji (Shingi Shingon) lineages, and a large amount of eighteenth and nineteenth century documents which attest to the diverse role occupied by village-based shugenja (sato shugen / mappa shugen). They represent a rich store of information about the activities, both religious and secular of an Edo period shugendo complex.

» The 'Permanent Ascetic' Kokai Shonin (光海上人) and the Origin of Koshikidake's Yuikesa (Folded Surplus/Stole)

The monk Kokai 光海 (1596-1658) was the original bearer of the iconic Yuigesa of Mt.Koshikidake. In the lineage of Mt. Koshikidake he bears the title 'Shonin' (上人Saint). Kokai Shonin practiced as a permanent ascetic in Mt. Yudono's 'Wizard Swamp' (Sennin-Zawa). Mt Yudono was known as a site of severe asceticism, including mokujiki-gyo (abstaining from cereals; fasting on pine needles and bark) and the unique issei-gyonin interpretation of 'sokushinjobutsu' (involving meditation at death and inducing self-mummification). Kokai Shonin was known for his constant work for the good of the community, among these being the construction of a mountain bridge in Tsuruoka named 'Dainichi-Toge'. This stone pass can still be seen today and it bears a stone with his named engraved to honor his memory.

In 1657, the Kannonji Temple on Mount Koshikidake was burned down by lightning. It was Kokai Shonin who set to work rebuilding it. Kokai used Mt.Koshikidake as his base of activities to spread his teachings among the people. The inhabitants of this region held him in great honour and his cave ('Kokai-Dan') was treated as a sacred site. Pilgrimage to Kokai Shonin's cave forms part of the Valley Entry practice of today's practice at Mt. Koshikidake. Kokai Shonin generated a great reputation for Dewa Sanzan. He was a great friend of the Betto Tenyuu (天宥 1595?–1675) who was responsible for Tendai Buddhism's prominence (over Shingon) on Mt. Haguro and considered the second 'opener' of the mountain. Koshikidake Kannonji temple holds a scroll painted by Tenyuu (pictured below) which was signed by him as the Betto (別当 steward) of Mt. Haguro. The complex topic of art in Shugendo will be covered in another article, but I will mention that every line of the scroll painting was interspersed with prostrations and mantras to Kanzeon Bosatsu (Avalokitesvara).  

This Jewel
Has returned to Mount Haguro
A moon of the Buddhist Law.

                   Haiku poem by the famous Matsuo Bassho commemorating the Betto Tenyuu

In 1658, after a life of spiritual cultivation, Kokai began a period of fasting, ending his life in the style of issei-gyonin 'Sokushinbutsu' in a cave on Mt. Koshikidake. He entered meditative absorption and passed September 15, 1658. The people of the time requested that Kokai leave his Yuigesa to preserve his memory. 350 years later, the original Yuikesa has been restored by Koshikidake Shokai and serves as one of the current designs used in the sect today. This kesa is of great importance as very few examples survived Shugendo's outlawing and kesa were almost always buried with their owners. 

The Yuikesa bears dharma-wheels (horin/rinbo) in the style of Shingon Tozan-Ha Shugendo. It depicts the three images of 'Dewa-Sanzan' (The Three Mountains of Dewa); Mt Haguro, Mt Yudono and Mt Gassan. These are symbolised respectively as the three legged crow (八咫烏) which guided Nojo Taishi to Mt. Haguro (birth), a rabbit (Mt. Gassan - death) and a blossom (Mt. Yudono - rebirth).

» Mt Koshikidake's Shugen Revival

"Shugendo was abolished with the establishment of Nationalist (State) Shinto during the Meiji era in 1872. The horrendous excesses of the edict still affects us today. The practice of Shinbutsu Bunri has yet to heal. Shugendo is however being revived and revitalized. It addresses all levels of belief, from the ancient veneration of nature spirits, to the philosophically challenging concepts of the Madyamika doctrines of the Prajnaparamita. The spirit of Shugendo, which holds nature to be sacred and which seeks for harmony in connection with the natural world, is a vital message for the future of our planet. Shugendo maintains the vitality of ancient knowledge and also points to a way forward for living in harmony with tomorrows world. Shugendo is a unique expression of humanity's spirituality."

Shugendo activity ceased for some time after it was banned following the Meiji restoration of 1868 and much Shugendo lore was lost. The destruction associated with the Meiji restoration often left little of former Shugendo sites beyond stone walls, foundation stones, or the remains of old roads.

At the end of World War 2 restrictions on religious freedom established during the imperialistic phase of the Taisho era were lifted and Shugen groupings resurfaced as independent organisations or were painstakingly reconstructed and revived. This led to the inclusion of religious freedom as article 20 of the 1957 Constitution. Several Shugen guilds that had been quiescent during the first half of the 20th century re-emerged and, with the rising prosperity of the 1960s, the tradition began to flourish once again. At the same time these groups were freed of their mandated relation to established Buddhist sects.

Shugenja obstinately resisted the changes and were determined to regain independence. Yamabushi like Shimada Bankon (Tendai) and Umiura Gikan (Shingon) called for the promotion of Shugendo scholarship. Very few devotees visited what had become Shrines in the Omine mountains, preferring to gather at the Gyojado. Despite bans on the performance of rites shugen style activities were widely caried out. Shugenja performing religious services at altars within their own homes continued to practice. Sectarian divisions within the Buddhist sects further brought change; in 1874 Tendai split into the sanmon and jimon branches.

As the 19th century progressed Shogoin, as a Jimon temple, reinstituted it's Shugen consecration rites and in 1899 it sponsored a large scale celebration on the occasion of the 1200th anniversary of the death of Jinpen Daibosatasu (En no Gyoja). Within the Sanmon branch, Kinpusenji was made the head temple of all shugenja affiliated with it, including Hagurosan. The Daigo stream also celebrated the anniversary of En no Gyoja in 1900. The Hanaku-no-mine flower offering peak was revived in 1911 and it has continued ever since. Despite the ban, shugendo groups were gradually enabled to operate independently within the Shingon and Tendai controlled branches.

Shugen related mountain activities also took place in other parts of the country, for example Ontakesan, Hakusan, Ichizuchisan and Homanzan. With the lifting on restrictions on religious organisations after the second world war, the shugendo groups that had unwillingly been part of Buddhist sects for seventy years saw their hopes realised and a large number of independent Shugendo sects emerged and were revived.

Shokai, the current head priest of Koshikidake Shugen is both an ordained Tendai Priest (Homan-ryu), among others a disciple of the famous Kaihogyo (回峰行) monk Mitsunaga Dai Ajari - and a Yamabushi from the Mt. Haguro sect, having practiced and served there as Sendatsu (先達) for over 25 years. It is with this background and with the permission of Kokai Shimazu, previous Abbott and Great Guide of Haguro Shugendo's Kotaku-ji/Shozen-in Temple, that Shokai revived the Koshikidake sect which had laid dormant for two generations. Not only has he reconstituted his family tradition, but he has been a key figure in non-sectarian conversations across Shugen sects on the revival of Shinbutsu-Shugo (combinatory) practice. An example of this includes a meeting in Kyoto which I attended in 2016 with the Association for Shugendo Culture Studies, which brought together Shinto and Buddhist (Shingon and Tendai) priests as well as Shugendo ascetics associated with Mt Fuji, Daigo-ji and Shogo-in. The focus of this meeting was the revival of several practices and crafts unique to Shugendo. In 2014 I was privileged to attend a meeting on Mt. Haguro/Mt.Yudono with Shimazu Kokai and Komei Sato (Head Priest of Mt. Yudono’s Churen-ji temple). This meeting was centered on the revival of the 300 year old Yuikesa (Shugendo stole) held by Shokai's family mentioned above, and an ancient form of Dewa-Sanzan kesa (hachiyoshime; 八葉しめ) made with intricately folded paper that served as a kind of wearable 'divine body'. 

For Shokai, restoring Shugendo is above all about restoring the old mountain routes (and by extension, practices associated with Shinbutsu Shugo). But equally important for the future of the revived Shugendô is that participants, by performing such practices as Shugenja, gain a sense of cohesion. The restoration of ritual practice, meditation and incantations, and the ascetic training of members through it, has been at the core of Shugendo's revival in general.

Aside from lay participation, there are also pathways towards ordination and taking samaya vows (tokudo; 得度). Training consists of various preliminary practices leading to stages of initiation (灌頂; kanjo/abhiseka) and learning a hierarchy of rites, manners and rituals. This process begins with preliminary exercises centered on norito & sutra study, prostrations (raihaigyo), meditation, daily liturgical services (gongyo), progressing to various Law manners (kito-ho/kuyo-ho 供養法) which build the foundations for more advanced practices centering on deity-yoga (本尊瑜伽). Practitioners learn this ritual calendar in sequence as well as progressing according to their participation in Mountain Entry/Valley Entry ascetic retreats (Mine-iri/ 入峰修行 Nyubu-Shugyo). Similar to other Esoteric-Buddhist sects, rites and rituals require extensive direct oral teaching once the outer form has been mastered, with manuals written in a way that include intentional gaps and mistakes.

Some of these include:
•  Goshinpo 護身法: Manners for purification (懺悔) & self-protection, including those unique to Shugendo.

•  Gachirinkan月輪觀: Moon Disc meditation, Asokukan (阿息観) & Susokukan (数息観) 
•  Ajikan 阿字観: Meditation on the syllable, “A”.
•  Nenju-Ho: Meditation manners relating to jyuzu.
•  Jingi-Saho 神祇作法: Law relating to Kami, including Shinto-Goma  (神道護摩) Mythology is enacted on a small plate called a taigen
•  Hashiramoto Shinpo 柱源神法 Origin Pillar Rite Law of Shugendo.
•  Goma-Ho 護摩法: Votive fire offering practice, including the single offering method (kutaku) law unique to Shugendo. 
•  Kuyo-ho 供養法 Commemoration rites specific to various classes of 'World Honoured Ones' (Buddhas/Bodhisattva/Kami/Gongen/Doji, eg; '嶽権現鳴動護摩供私記') (諸尊法 / 不動法) beginning with the 'Five Honouring Law Methods' (五尊法).
•  Kaji-Kito-Ho 厳秘必修験祈祷法 Various rites and ritual manners unique to Shugendo.
•  Gyoja Daibosatsu-Ho 行者大菩薩法 Offering manners related to Jinben Daibosatsu.

•  Genpi Shitsugen Kito-Ho; rituals centered on three further deity practices.
•  Senko Goma 線香護摩 Fundamental prayers, divination and offerings through Senko (incense).  This manner was taught in succession through the Shugen-shu of Dewa. It is a dynamic rite which combines Yin and Yang philosophy, Norito and Buddhist Sutra, characteristic of Shugendo. This rite is famous among practitioners like the Itako.

•  Saito Goma 採燈大護摩供: Great Outdoor Fire Offering ceremony unique to Shugendo.
•  Besides this, there are various manners relating to Mountain-Entry Practice (入峰修行 / 六根清浄), trials and asceticism in the mountains and valleys, death rites, divination, tea ceremony, healing and blessing practices (eg; shajo-kaji), craftsmanship related to ritual implements unique to Shugendo, distinctive hymns (wasan/shomyo) as well as folk and ritual practices unique to the Shonai region.

» Koshikidake Kannon-ji: A Time-capsule of Shinbutsu-Shugo (Combinatory) Shugendo Practice

From Gaynor Sekimori’s “Shugendo Past and Present”:

With the ongoing discovery of archival material, dating in the main from after the seventeenth century, much more is becoming known about Shugendo networks, lifestyles and organization in the early modern period, and it can no longer be sustained that there is nothing of interest to study in Shugendo after the ‘itinerant yamabushi’ idealized by Wakamori was no longer the paradigm of a shugenja. The work of Kanda Yoriko and her team in the villages around Mt Chókai (on the Yamagata/Akita border) has already been referred to (Kanda 2003); a great wealth of material for understanding the life of the yamabushi in the area and their activities have been uncovered. Family and temple records such as the Arayama, Nanshóji and Daisen’in archives are being used to trace such things as the activities of sendatsu (pilgrim guides) and the involvement of yamabushi in village ritual.

New collections are being discovered regularly and await scholarly attention. One example is the Koshikidake archive (Higashine, Yamagata), some 600 documents belonging to the descendants of the priests of the Tózan-ha temple, Kannonji, which disappeared in the early Meiji period to become a Shinto shrine (see Sekimori 2008). Besides ritual texts, which are being used to reconstruct the lost traditions of the temple, there is a wealth of documentation concerning the life of a Shugendo priest in the early modern period – exchanges with the civil authorities, land registers, taxation documents, communications with the head temple, trading papers, religious licenses, and so on (Sekimori 2005c). An exemplary study of a village shugenja using similar types of documents is Yamamoto 1995 (in Japanese). Recent Japanese scholarship remains interested in institutional history, where the detailed studies of Sekiguchi Makiko are particularly important, given that Tôzan-ha, her field of interest, has received less scholarly attention than the other main Shugendo lineages of the early-modern period.

"The way the ritual practices, particularly those associated with mountain-entry, have been revived aptly demonstrates the contrast between premodern and modern shugenja. While both are described as "neither fully clerical nor fully lay" (hanzô hanzoku) the nature of their identity is bound up in the social mores of the different times. Edo period shugenja were, on the whole, ordained priests who happened to have families. They were professionally bound to their position as shugenja, and most supervised village temples or small shrines and halls. They advanced in rank according to the number of mountain-entry practices they did. This is the pattern associated with the priests of Kannonji at Koshikidake. The Nikkô situation was somewhat different, in that the shugenja affiliated with Rinnôji could perhaps best be described as salaried workers, with specific duties and responsibilities to the temple. Thus the long and time-consuming practice circuits, for example, were part of their workload. Modern Shugendô cannot support "professional" shugenja, and full-time ordained priests in Shugendô temples such as Kinpusenji are greatly in the minority."

» Bibliography (see: Library):
Mountains and Rivers are Destroyed but the State Remains Alan Grappard
Private archives of Koshikidake Shugen
Shugendo Past and Present: Restoration at Nikko and Koshikidake Gaynor Sekimori
Shugendo: Japanese Mountain Religion - State of the Field and Bibliographic Review Gaynor Sekimori
Ascesis and Devotion: The Mount Yudono Cult in Early Modern Japan Castiglioni
A Mountain Set Apart Dewitt
Haguro Shugendo and the separation of Buddha and Kami worship 1868-1890 Sekimori
Foetal Buddhahood: From Theory to Practice – Embryological Symbolism in the Autumn Peak Ritual of Haguro Shugendo Sekimori
A New History of Shinto Blackwell
‘Dog-men,’ Craftspeople or Living Buddhas? The Status of Yamabushi in Pre-Modern Japanese Society. Rambelli
Correlations Between the Body and Buddhist Doctrine Goy
For more articles see: Mandala of the Mountain or contact me with any questions.



Copyright Shugendo Studies Oceania 2019