"Immersion in the Samadhi of the Horagai
Clears obstacles and obscurations (klesha)
Passing through the Gate of the Primordial "A" 

The Hora is featured in almost all aspects of Shugendo doctrine and practice, and is often displayed in seals and guild emblems. The Horagai is used for communicating in the mountain over long distances, for proclaiming the voice of the Dharma, beginning sermons, clearing ritual space of impurity, warding off harmful animals, in visualisation/meditation and is sounded at intervals to mark commands and signals while practicing in the mountains. The echoing of the hora can be heard day and night, ringing through the valleys which surround mountain shrine-temple complexes. When one doesn’t have access to a Horagai, it is still nonetheless symbolically evoked through mudra.

The conch shell has a long history within Buddhism dating back to ancient India and over a thousand years in Japan.  The Lotus Sutra is a core scripture throughout East Asian Buddhist traditions and forms part of the textual basis for ascetic practices in the mountains as well as the use of the Hora in ritual contexts. The Lotus Sutra makes continual use of the Hora, among other instruments, as a symbol of the 'waking up' power of the Dharma; it's deep sound being analogous to a Lion's Roar. Just as a lion's roar spreads in all directions and clears areas of wild animals, so the horagai is said to clear areas of malevolent influence.

In Brahmanism, the conch was one of the attributes most commonly used by divinities of Visnuite origin. The use of the conch shell in Buddhism is an adaptation of this early symbolism, where it signifies strength, courage and the spreading of the Law. The Dainichikyo-sho (Commentary on the Dainichi-kyo) states: "[Mahavairocana] transmits the Law shell (dharma-sankha) and again turns the wheel of the Law. At that time, by means of a single sound, Mahvairocana diffuses in the world in all directions and puts all beings into a state of awakening; this is why one says 'blow the great conch'." The deep, far reaching nature of the Dharma, appropriate to different natures, predispositions and aspirations, resounds through the six realms and the three worlds, awakening compassion to self and other. The Buddhas 'furl' is said to spiral in the form a conch and this spiral was said to have a mysterious connection with the sun and its astrological course. As the caligraphy by Kosho Tateishi states, the Horagai is known by 'Heaven, Earth and Humankind'.

The Hora is not traditionally part of Japanese music ensembles and is not particularly prominent in the Shingon and Tendai traditions. Unlike Tibetan traditions, which utilise a white conch shell (dung dkar) made from the 'Chank Shell' (Turbinella Pyrum), the horagai trumpets of Shugendo are made solely using the shells of the ‘Giant Triton’ (Charonia Tritonis), favoured for their rich colour patterns (said to resemble a bird's wing - see images) and deep sound. These shells were originally traded from the Ryukyu archipelago to China and mainland Japan and today are mainly gathered around the islands of South-West Japan. As with other implements used in esoteric culture, the techniques for repairing Horagai and constructing their reeds are becoming rare, with unique reeds specific to each school. On a side note - as of 2017 Giant Triton sea snails are being released in a controlled manner in the Great Barrier Reef as they are one of the few creatures that eat the crown-of-thorns starfish which are currently wreaking havoc on the coral.

Horagai are not treated as commodities, but rather are reserved for practitioners and are to be treated with great respect. Practitioners first begin learning to play horagai using a plastic bottle with the bottom cut out. It is played similar to a trumpet and the aim is to be able to retain a smooth deep vibration in the bottle. Once this has been mastered one begins by playing long drawn out low notes on the Horagai, eventually advancing to changes in tone by shifting the lips.
Pitches are sometimes divided according to the Five Elements and there are various methods of making the sound ring out according to the sect. The Horagai style used at Mt Koshikidake is the Kanjogoro style of Mt. Haguro as transmitted by the Great Guide (Sho-Daisendatsu), Head Priest Shimazu Kokai. Horagai vary in the thickness of their mouthpieces and reeds. Some are designed to achieve very high notes. The Horagai style of Mt. Koshikidake is considered 'Mid-range'. For an example of a Horagai call used before rituals at Mt. Koshikidake, see the player below.

My main Hora mentor, apart from Koshikidake Shokai, has been Masahiko Yano, a Yamabushi of Daigoji's Sanbo-in temple who also practices with Koshikidake Shugen. Held at chest height, one concentrates and generates power from the tanden below the navel. After reciting the Aji verse and performing a purification, the mouthpiece is hit three times with the palm, signifying the three bodies of
Mahavairocana. Sounding the Hora represents the inner realisation of the preaching of Mahavairocana’s wisdom body, ringing forth from the depths of the Diamond Realm Matrix mandala as the Seed syllable VAM/BAN (which the Horagai is said to resemble).

 The low note of the Horagai is said to be an imitation of this cosmic resonance. In some sects different parts of the Hora are equated with various mandalas.
When blown it is related to the syllables A and UN. There are various layers of esoteric meaning as well.

Yamabushi Honma Ryuen: Precious treasure and Reviver of the Horagai 蘇る稀代の吹螺師・本間龍演:

Practitioners of Shugendo are often featured in spectacular folk stories..

Honma Ryuen (本間龍演; 1910-1991) was born in Higashine, Yamagata. In his time he was known as a famous Yamabushi who worked tirelessly to preserve and transmit teachings, and he now features in many modern folk tales. He compiled and transmitted many teachings out of Hoju-in, a temple of Daigo-ji in Kawakita, Yamagata. In Yamagata, there are many Shugenja who practice the various methods taught by Ryuen Honma, including within Koshikidake Shugen.

Honma mastered various traditions of Shugendo , including those of Kinpusenji and the Sanboin (Tozan) of Daigoji temple. While stationed at Ryusen-ji Temple in Yoshino he learned various secret lines of Horagai playing from the Yamabushi who travelled to Mt. Omine from across the country. Very few records remain regarding the playing of the Hora in Shugendo sects as in the past hora playing was passed on orally, in secret. Seeing the decline of Shugen tradition, he sought to preserve the scores of various schools and compiled his broad knowledge of Horagai playing across the sects in the Ryura Hikan (立螺秘巻-“Secret book of playing the Hora”). This text, written in approximately 1940, is considered indispensable - a kind of bible for the Horagai - and collates the proper foundation for conducting oneself when blowing the hora (“ryura”).  The Ryura Hikan (which is mainly associated with the Shugen of Kinpusenji) was based on a document of the same name which Honma encountered at Sakuramotobo temple written in 1920 by R. Tatsumi (associated with Kinpusen Shugen Honshu). Other styles include the Yoshino style associated with Kinpusenji and Sakuramotobo, founded by Miyoshi Seikai in the 16th century.

When transcribing notes about him for the book ‘Shugendo” I was told by followers that during services Honma Ryuen's intention was able to conjure various miraculous displays and apparitions. In one story, after offering salt in the home of a follower, an image of the moon appeared in the room; the salt and moon both vanished together simultaneously. He was also said to be able to direct the will of insects through his Hora playing. The owner of Hayashikan, a famous Buddhist shop in Kyoto once told Koshikidake Shokai that Honma’s Horagai playing would make the entire shop shake. Modern masters of Horagai like Ryuen Honma and Kosho Tateishi are rare, as are the methods for fashioning and repairing Horagai. The whole process of making the hora takes two-three hours.

» Horagai Scores of Ryuen Honma

The following series was produced by Koshikidake Shokai with recordings and special permission provided by Mr. Honma's son. It gives a rare glimpse into Yamabushi style Horagai playing. It is a record of scores played by the
legendary Ryuen Honma. It includes Hora scores from various Shugendo guilds across Yoshino, Kyushu and Yamagata (Shogoin, Kinpusenji Ominesan, Hikosan, Mt. Homan, Miidera Onjoji, Haguro, Ishizuchisan). I have also included some of my own recordings (Kinpusen and Koshikidake). Please Enjoy the haunting sound of the Horagai. The scores cover typical Horagai calls such as "Taking Leave" (出寺: 発生道), "Entering a place" (入宿:十界隋類の説法), "Guidance" (案内:八正道), "Answer"  (応答:八正道) and "Assemble" "Assemble" (駈相:六波羅蜜).

» Some notes by the Horagai Performances presented below (Recorded approximately 1982):

The Horagai method of the Honzan school (本山派) (based at Shogo-in 聖護院) is based on the two sounds of 'Ko' (甲; treble range; a high note) and 'Otsu' (乙; one note lower than 'Ko'). The Tozan (当山派) school out of Daigoji (醍醐) on the other hand uses much higher notes. The difference in the pitch between the two schools is clear, and the Tozan is known for its continual sound regardless of playing three of five notes.

Unfortunately the direct-transmission of the Horagai methods of Mt. Hiko has died out, but interestingly the Horagai Book of Mt. Hiko lists its style as being that of the Honzan-ha but with added 'Mt. Hiko Notation' (彦山譜). These scores consist of overtones (序音; Jo-on), resonating sounds (序音 ryutsu-on) and orthodox sounds sounds (正宗音 masamune-on). It's impossible to say whether the transmission really came out of Mt. Hiko or if the methods came from Honzan-ha Shugenja travelling in and out of Mt. Hiko but the scores from Mt. Hiko and those of the Honzan-ha are the same apart from differing overtones and resonating sounds. Some say the differences in sound are due to the Honzan-ha declaring independence as a sect after World War 2. When you listen to the recordings below you'll hear that the overtones and resonating 'circulation' tones of the Mt. Hiko school are unique (this style is called 'Makuri'; rolled up). This style of blowing the Horagai makes the sound rise quickly and it stops as if the player is breathless. It's not an easy style to play. 

So much of Horagai playing was lost in the Separation Orders of the Meiji Period and all Shugen schools now use the methods salvaged by Honma Ryuen. Honma  himself stated that there would have been different Horagai methods for Kami rituals and Buddha rituals for example.The current 'Hora' verse recited before playing (above the article) was adapted by Honma Ryuen from a longer more difficult verse. 

Various instruments and sounds play an important part in Shugen ritual and practice. The following will introduce the Horagai/Jingai (法螺貝): the Conch shell trumpet made famous by practitioners of Shugendo. If you ask the average person about Shugendo, those with any idea will make references to standing under waterfalls or playing the conch shell trumpet. The Horagai’s haunting sound is a hallmark of Shugendo ritual and is carried through the mountains as part of the Yamabushi garb, hoisted around the neck with a kaino-o (ritual rope).

Copyright Koshikidake Shugen Oceania 2019

» Articles: Lions Roar: Horagai as a Symbol of Shugendo