» Articles: Kukai's Dream and the Shugen of Omine

A Wandering Beggar's 'Stage of Practice' becomes a UNESCO World Heritage Site     Hirotaka Nagasawa //Translated by Jisho 

The following article looks at Kukai (founder of the Shingon sect) and Shugendo

Following the example of Nikko (日光的神社与寺院) in 1999 [Ed: Another site of Shugendo revivial), where 103 shrine and temple sites along with the natural areas around them became registered as World Heritage Sites, the ancient sites of Kumano, Yoshino, Omine and Koyasan have recently been accepted for registration by UNESCO.

More specifically, the sacred sites (霊場) now protected include:

- Yoshino/Omine: (which includes Mt. Yoshino (吉野山), Kinpusen Temple Zao-do (金峯山寺(蔵王堂)), Omine Shrine (金峯神社), Yoshino Shrine (吉野水分神社), Yoshimizu Shrine (吉水神社), Mt. Omine Temple (大峯山寺)

- Kumano Sanzan 熊野三山: (which includes Kumano Hongu Taisha (熊野本宮大社), Kumano Hayatama Taisha (熊野速玉大社), Kumano Nachi Taisha (熊野那智大社), Seigan Toji Temple (青岸渡寺), Nach Falls (那智大滝), Nachi Forest (那智原始林) and Fudarakusenji Temple 補陀落山寺).

- Koyasan 高野山 (Mt. Koya): Including Kongobuji Temple 金剛峯寺, Niutsuhimejinja Shrine 丹生都比売神社, Jisonin Temple 慈尊院, Niukanshofu Shrine 丹生官省符神社

- Kumano Kodo Pilgrimage Route (熊野参詣道: 熊野古道): This includes the areas from Ise to Shingu, the Kiji-ji from Osaka/Kyoto to Wakayama, the Kii Peninsula via Nachi Falls to the Main Shrine and the Kohechi (小辺路) trail which connects Kumano to Koyasan.

- The Omine Okugake Pilgrimage Route (参詣道「大峯奥駆道」): The 7 day Pilgrimage Route from the Willows of Yoshino to Mt. Omine Temple (大峯山寺) and Kumano Hongu Taisha, including the Junbu and Gyakubu (reverse peak) trails.

- The Koyasan Pilgrimage Route (参詣道「高野山町石道」): the 37 Roads from Danjo Garan Temple (壇上伽藍) to the Okunoin Temple (奥の院御廟) including the Taizokai (胎蔵界) and Kongokai (金剛界) areas.

These areas are inclusive of a broad number of belief systems, including the Yoshino Shugen Omine Okugake (吉野修験/大峯奥駆), the Kumano Shugen Nyonin Kekkai (女人結界), Sanjokatake Peak, Yomigaeri (黄泉帰り), the Jodo Pureland sect, Kannabi Shinko (beliefs related to mountains and death), Shizen Shinko (beliefs surrounding nature), Mikkyo (Esoteric-Buddhism), Shinbutsu-Shugo (神仏習合 Kami-Buddha worship), Honji Suijaku (本地垂迹 Ground and Traces theory), the Ant-Trail Culture of Kumano, The Shugen of the Sea (海の修験) etc; all of these beliefs are fused in a unique combinatory manner.

These areas comprise a 'time capsule' of the past, and although they have lost the bustle of the past, they are now world famous through the UNESCO heritage listing, with pilgrims and visitors attending these areas from all over the world. Indeed the expectation that these sites will regain the bustle of the old days is growing, but for us Yamabushi and Shingon monks, we think for example, "Kukai as a nameless beggar (仮名乞児) spent his time wandering from cliff to cliff, nesting in caves and beaches in these areas. We reminice that these places were the sites where he contemplated the beliefs surrounding the Sea and Pure Lands and found secluded areas to realise the dharma." For us, it is of upmost importance to hold these areas in our imagination as revelators of great mystery which filled the blank periods of Kukai's youth.

It is easy to imagine the 'young sea' of Kukai [Kukai's dharma name being 'Empty Ocean'] passing through this area, practicing his disciplined asceticism through the mountains.

At 19 years of age Kukai took on the pressures and expectations of his parents and family and was set to on a career path at a prestigious university in Nara. To everyone's surprise, he suddenly dropped out and dissapeared. At the age of 20 he took ordination at Makiosan Sefuku Temple (槇尾山寺) in Izumi. At the age of 24, Kukai wrote his 'Sangoshiki' (三教指帰), a three volume text debating Confucian, Taoist and Buddhist doctrine written in 797. It is well known that Kukai dissapeared from this time until entering Todai-ji Temple (東大寺) at the age of 31. What was Kukai doing during this time which cause him to leave his birth name (Mao 真魚) behind? There are various opinions among researchers..

Studied often mention that about five years after leaving the university Kukai wrote the Sangoshiki and studied the fundamentals of Buddhist doctrine (for example the doctrines of Shakyamuni and the Pali Canon) at Daian-ji Temple 大安寺.

However 60-70% of this time was spent wandering the mountain ranges of Katsuragi [shugen sites] not far from his base at Nara. It is reasonable to assume that he was studying and practicing diligently in the mountains of Yoshino, Omine and Kumano.

The Sango-shiki points further to this theory..

Under the guise and pseudonym of a wandering beggar (仮名乞児), Kukai ruthlessly criticises Kimo-sensei, a leader in Confucian thought (儒家思想) and the ideology of a Taoist hermit (道教). In actuality, Kimo-sensei is based on an uncle of Kukai who served as scholar to Kukai's public and private education since childhood. Also, despite making contact with Taoist Hermits during his training in the mountains, the nameless beggar Kukai nonetheless discards both schools of thought as worthless.

The confidence in Kukai's razor-sharp discernment and critique is extraordinary, and it would not be controvercial or an exaggeration to say that a complete radical mental revolution took place inside Kukai.

I imagine that it was Kukai's experiences during his long periods engaging in mountaineering-ascetic practices rather than his 'desk-study' of Buddhism at Daian-ji temple that led to this confidence and radical upheaval. That is, Kukai's other-wordly presence and unmatchable intensity was gained from his 'death' during periods of mountain-ascetic practice.

At the time of writing the Sangoshiki, Kukai had studied deeply the various schools of Buddhism. Rather than continuing his study at the desk he chose to wander through the mountains from Kinkii to Kii (peninsulas), abandoning himself spiritually to the ebbs and flows of nature, responding to the stars and the universe. I believe that the character of Kukai's writing as a nameless beggar could have only occured as a result of becoming engrossed with an experience in which he encountered some great mystery of the universe.

Today there is a temple in Yoshino (Omine) called Seson-ji (世尊寺). At the time of Kukai this temple was known 'Hisodera (比蘇寺)'. During the Tang Dynasty there was a monk from this temple named Jinei (神叡) who was well known for his practice of the Gumonji-ho (求聞持法), the practice dedicated to the morning-star mantra of Kokuzo Bosatsu. In fact, there was a close relationship between Daianji temple where Kukai was studying and Hisoji temple. At the time of Kukai there was often a strong connection between flatland 'plans temples' and 'mountain temples' which undertook mountain-ascetic training (山林修行) and practices such as the gumonjiho, including Horyuji tmple, Kofukuji temple and Nurouji temple. Surely it is no stretch to say that Kukai travelled between these two temple complexes.

The profound dharma-master Saicho (最澄 - Dengyo-daishi, the founder of the Tendai sect) is said to haved lived out his later years at this temple before passing at Daian-ji.

It is no stretch of imagination to say that Kukai would have heard about the mountain-practices of Hisodera during his stay at Daian-ji temple, visited Yoshino which is close to Nara, and learnt the Gumonjiho practice from Shinei. [Note that Kukai later famously wrote about his profound mystical experiences practicing the Gumonjiho method].

As Kukai entered Takano from Yoshino he would passed through Omine and Kumano Hongu. Along this path, one day south of Yoshino is the village of Tenkawa-mura, Dorogawa. This area is famous for its Shukubo (Omine shugen lodgings) and mountain ascetics (大峯修験の行者 Omine Shugen Gyoja). From here on it would pass through Totsukawa Village, famous for its hot springs and onto Kohechi (小辺路); the steep path which is now known as leading to Koyasan [where Kukai established as the home of Shingon]. Regardless of the path, the mountain ranges of the Kii peninsula must have been the home ground for the 'young sea' Kukai (the nameless wandering beggar).

Long ago, people perceived the mountain as an 'other world' (あの世-他界) of spirits, fods and ancestors. Mountains were worshipped from the village and people would cleanse themselves at the foot of the mountain before entering, offering sake, salt and rice to the Yama-no Kami. These are foundational practices for 'purifying the 6 roots of sense perception' (六根清浄) and set manners for 'entering the peak' (入峰). Mountains, waterfalls, boulders and rocks were respected as 'shintai' (神体 deity-body) and thanks was given to the mountain deity (山の神) for water and grace. At this time people lived humbly and were intimate with nature, never thinking that the mountain was a site to conquer, pollute or destroy.

Despite advances in scientific knowledge and technology the Kii peninsula has managed to avoid large scale destruction and 'conquering' out of human greed and desire. Where pollution and the destruction of nature has occurred, there has always been fierce resistance and protest from the local population. The true mystical-spirit (和魂 mitama) of animist belief surrounding nature and nature-worship (Shizensohaino-shinko自然崇拝の信仰) is still alive here in the 'origin site' of the 'nameless wandering beggar'...

This age of UNESCO has also been deried as an age of 'no spirit or learning' (無魂米才), that is, we are wandering around without a soul..

The sacred grounds and pilgrimage paths of the Kii Peninsula (紀伊山地の霊場と参詣道) are worthy grounds for this soul (和魂). We should be proud of the attempts to preserve these sacred sites and seek to protect them for future generations.

Copyright Shugendo Studies Oceania  2019