The mountain is filled with rich mystery
Deities and demons abide
This is not a place where humans should be
We have to ask how we can enter?
"Die!" is the answer
The practitioners cross the border and barrier
Beyond the darkness, they offer prayers through the night
Deities look into their hearts
And leave the sign of their satisfaction as exhaustive awakening
Because you have been swallowed by the mountain
You will meet yourself
In the mountain there exists a memory of life and death
Between this world and the other there is the mountain
The mountain is the gate where anything can happen
We enter and face reality and unreality
This is the chaos that reminds us of great existence.
Shugendo has roots in the shamanistic practices of the Eurasian continents and northern Japan, the hermits of Taoism, and the sadhakas of India; it is a composite religion with deep roots into various regions and histories of the world. Professor Miyake Hitoshi, renowned expert on Shugendo, states that the essence of Shamanism is the state of ecstasy or 'out of body experience', and in the austere experiences of the practitioners of Esoteric Buddhism and mountain asceticism, there are many reports of 'wandering around in the otherworld' and vestiges of rituals that act out this wandering and the world's origins (for example the Hashiramoto Shinpo).
Shamanistic practice in Japan is of mixed origin. Japanese ethnologists usually relate the instances of shamanism to two broad streams of culture which intermingled; a northern stream, deriving form Altaic or Tungusic practices on the Asian continent and spreading through Korea, Hokkaido and the Ryukyu islands, mingled with another stream deriving from a southerly sources, Polynesia or Melanesia...To this northern Siberian stream can be traced many of the names for practitioners which are commonly used in Japan to this day. The word Ichiko or Itako, commonly used in the north east of the main island to designate a shamanic medium, is believed to have cognate forms in the Ryukyu, the Kalmuck, and Yakut word for Shaman, Udagan, the northern Tungus Idakon and the Mongol Iidugan.
- Carmen Blacker
As an embodied discipline, practice is primary in Shugendo and all those belonging to the various Shugen sects participate in mountain entry and learn ritual syntax. Mountain entry practices in Shugendo are referred to as nyubu shugyou 「入峰修行 mountain entry austerities」 or mine-iri (entering the peak). In addition to studying the rites and mandalas of Esoteric-Buddhism (the internal and external dojokan), Shugenja also enter the mandala of the mountain with their hearts and minds.
Mountain entry is the focal practice which all Shugenja must undertake, and mountains form the backbone of Shugen practice and identity. It is during mountain entry that most teachings and empowerments are transferred. Shugenja of the various sects are welcome at each others various mountain headquarters and participate in each others retreats as guests. The pilgrimage into the mountains, whether as a formal group entry or in solitude, is both an outer and inner one.
Asceticism in the mountains broadly covers teachings relating to:
• The efficacy of prayer, mantra recitation and invocation in the mountains, and beliefs surrounding mountains 「常行三昧/山の念仏 yama no nenbutsu」,
• Teachings related to ancestor-worship, numina 「eg 天狗 tengu」, Somokuto, Kami 「神」and other beings associated with sacred mountains 「山岳信仰 sangaku shinko」.
• Cosmological teachings associated with shugen interpretations of Esoteric-Buddhist doctrine and sutras such as the Flower Garland Sutra 「kegonkyo 華厳経」and Lotus Sutra 「hokkekyo 法華経」
• Retreats in caves and caverns
• The honouring of ancestors and the dead.
• Teachings related to earthly and celestial principles that govern the universe
• The transference of oral teachings, practices, initiations and empowerments 「灌頂」
• Seasonal teachings related to the mountain deity 「山の神 yamanokami」 and it’s descent as agricultural deity 「田の神 tanokami」
• Shamanic ideas of death, rebirth and possession
• Pragmatic benefits of Mountain Asceticism and esoteric practice (goriyaku or genzei riyaku)
• Teachings related to mountains as purelands 「eg fudaraku 補陀洛」 or realms of the dead「Kannabi Shinkō 神奈備信仰.」
• Kito-mai/girei-mai/kagura/shugen-noh; sacred ritual dance
• Alchemical teachings related to the body, speech and thoughts, microcosm/macrocosm and the 'cooking' of the self.
• Teachings related to the mountain as an expression of the non-dual unity of the two great mandalas of Esoteric Buddhism
• Teachings related to divination and Taoist directional theories 「onmyodo 陰陽道」.
• Practices related to the transformation of ‘poisons’ to ‘wisdoms’,
• Teachings which see the Mountain as Divine Body 「御神体」which allows us to walk the path of Kami and Buddhas.
• ‘Gestational’ theories which regard the Mountain as Mother.
• Embryonic cosmology and practices related to 'Foetal Buddhahood
• Specific postures, meditations, purifications and asceticism related to the five elements.
• Entry practices (Yamairi/Mineiri/Nyuzan) which include the various folk practices of entering mountains, especially those practices in spring and fall related to spring rites and services for the dead.
The pilgrimage through the caverns, rocks and crevices of the mountain is alikened to the maternal womb and is to be experienced as a kind of containment to experience the mystery and ecstasy that comes with transformation, death(擬死 gishi) and rebirth (再生 sasei). This pattern of death and rebirth (gishi-sasei-girei 擬死再生儀礼/umarekawari 生まれ変わり) forms the central theme of mountain asceticism regardless of the sect. Apart from the cathartic forms of collective initiation and passage encountered in the mountains, it is true that Shugendo has a focus on various forms of gyo; techniques that allow one to extricate oneself from the conditioning of the body and mind, focused on ascetic exercises (eg those involving cold water and fire: takigyo/mizugori/hiwatari/gashozanmai/yudate), special diets and specific forms of meditative contemplation. Special forms of this include dochu-gyo (burial, seclusion and isolation) and abstention/fasting (doiri/danjiki/mokujiki etc).
Mountain entry practice is also a time to learn of and share in rites from other sects. Over the past couple of years for example there was a rite performed by an ascetic from the Mt. Fuji sect (線香護摩-富士講) and a talk by Professor Kikuchi of Tohoku University of Arts and Technology on the unique practices found in the Yamagata region. Sometimes these talks also carry broader themes; a Yamabushi from Shogo-in with a great understanding of botany gave a talk on local ecology and it's relationship to cosmology. The common names for numerous wild-plant medicines in Japan hint at links to Shugendo, such as the yamabushitake「山伏茸」 and gyoja-ninniku 「行者葫」.
Nyubu Shugyo: Entering the Mountains
The old wooden hall becomes their coffin
They shed their bodies in there
A funeral possession is formed in order to cross to infernal regions.
The Sendatsu conducts the last water rites
Accepting their spiritual deaths
The Oi transforms from a coffin to a womb.
Formal Mountain Entry austerities 「入峰修行」 are carried out in geographical sites – rivers, mountains, cave, beaches, valleys – with the added dimension of having a mandala matrix ‘mapped’ onto them. These mandalic sites are then ritually, physically and symbolically ‘entered’ into. With this focus in intention, the mountain range becomes the site of truth – the womb in which the ascetics understanding of mind and reality gestates. Practices vary in focus across sects, seasons and landscapes. Some involve bringing items from the sea to the mountain (eg. Mt. Katsuragi), others focus on possession and communion (eg: Oza 御座of Mt. Ontake). Regardless, they all share the theme of spiritual death and rebirth and involve a formal procession along a route of sacred sites (haisho) and places that hold traces of lineage holders (nabiki) or sutra mounds (kyozuka). Within this context a range of ascetic practices are performed, including cold water ablutions, fasting, lack of sleep, prostrations, sutra recitation, fire ceremonies and so on.
In Shugendo’s pre-history, shugenja originally entered the mountains at the beginning of Autumn and remained there over winter, returning to community life at the beginning of Spring (mimicking the ascent and descent of the Mountain Deity). During this formative period between the 9th and 12th centuries, the core practice was winter confinement, but there is little knowledge about what kind of ascesis was practiced. Oral history suggests ascetics centred their practice around Kokūzō Bosatsu 「Womb of Emptiness Bodhisattva 虚空蔵菩薩」 and Kujaku-Myoo「Peacock Light King 孔雀明王」.
A remnant of this ancient winter mountain seclusion survives in the winter peak of Haguro Shugendo, now formalised as the Shoreisai. Two senior Shugenja confine themselves for one hundred days undertaking a regime of diet restrictions and ritual ablutions. Specific practices include prayers made morning and evening before the founder and a miniature straw hut that contains grains representing the five cereals.
The Doctrine of Original Enlightement (本覚思想 Hongaku Shiso) had a strong influence on important religious figures in medieval Japan. For example, Dogen Zenji said that we can attain enlightenment through the sound of the stream in the valley and the contours of the mountain, and Ippen Shonin stated that there is nothing that has life, whether it be mountains, rivers, grasses or trees, that does not possess innate Enlightenment.
In Shimazu Dendo's book, "Haguro-Ha Shugendo Teiyo" (An Outline of Haguro Shugen), he writes,
"..What you must understand is that human beings and animals, trees and grasses, all that exists in the universe, are all part of the Dharma Body made up of the Six Great Elements and you are endowed with Innate Buddhahood. When you realize this, you escape the karmic ties of the round of rebirth that has no beginning and attain the blessing of the Eternally-Abiding Law Body.."
During the Mountain Peak the Shugenja recite the 'Verse of Original Enlightenment' which affirms the realm of their Buddha-nature.
Originally we are all enlightened
I honour the truth that lies within my mind
The Law that the Buddha constantly teaches
Lives on the Lotus of my heart
I an endowed originally
With the virtues of the three bodies of the Buddha
It is important to note that most of the variations in Shinto and Esoteric-Buddhism each have their own style of ritualised retreat training (eg: the Tendai sect’s kaihogyo, the Nichiren sect's daiaragyo, the Hosso sect’s mizutori and the Winter sesshin practice of the Zen sects). Jukkai Shugyou is a series of initiations which remove ones everyday freedoms. This is why practitioners of Shugendo are also called Yamabushi (山伏), which means a person who submits to, lays down in and practices in the mountains. Takahashi Masutani, a mountain guide at Dorogawa and Shugendo practitioner, explains that the character 'Bushi' (伏 Fuseru - to prostrate which also has the character for 'dog') - means that one casts aside humanness and embraces nature as an animal, becoming a dog in the mountain.
Every action during practice in the mountains contains deep ritual significance; drawing water, walking, visualisation, preparing for ceremony, periods of meditation and recitation all carry important meanings and we devote ourselves to daily practice in order to realise them. More than simply the development of the individual, the Ten Realms practice is done with the goal of successfully completing the journey together as spiritual friends. The structure of the practice begins with the symbolic death of the Shugenja. Following the ritualised petitioning of the mountain deity at the Yama-no-Kami shrine, the Shugenja are 'transferred' to the Oi and funeral rites are performed. From here the Shugenja navigate their way through the Ten Worlds Mandala, with rites and rituals unique to each realm and stage of gestation. Exhausted, sleep and food deprived, the final day attracts visitors from across the region to witness (and participate in) the performance of the Great Saito Goma rite (柴燈大護摩供), an outdoor votive fire ceremony unique to Shugendo.
Akyubo Sokuden (阿吸房即伝) wrote of the Oi in the 16th century..
"..The Oi used in Shugendo embodies both the principle and the substance of the seed syllable A, and its meaning encompasses all phenomena of the ten realms. The fact that it holds grains of the five cereals indicates that it symbolizes the germination process of Buddha Nature. Its height symbolizes the eighteen realms. Its width symbolises the twelve causal factors. Its two legs symbolise the fact that they are replete with the various phenomena that make up the ten realms. The oi's upper plate is the ritual platform of the seed-letter A of the Matrix Realm. Its height symbolises the thirteen great courts of the Matrix Mandala. Its width symbolises the nine deities of the lotus blossom's central court and its eight petals. Those Yamabushi who reflect on this will not fail to realise that every thought of theirs contains all phenomena of the Ten Realms.."
The Oi was traditionally paired with the 'shoulder box' (kataboko) which represents the seed syllable Vam of the Diamond Realm. Again Akyubu notes, "the kataboko contains the secret documents that outline the rites performed during the mandalised peregrinations. Its height stands for the eighteen realms. Its width stands for the six elements. Its depth symbolises the five wisdoms.."
The Mandala of the Mountain
"The gyoja gaze into their minds
The deities and demons live in the mountains, and in our hearts
The moment they face each other, the fire of the Saito-goma flares up
The practitioners offer themselves as gifts
The wedding of deities and demons begins
The practitioners visualise their own cremation."
In Shugendo mountains or entire mountain ranges are conceived of as 'mandalic'. It should be noted that mandalas served as planning devices in architecture in places across the earth where Esoteric-Buddhism (Tantrism/Vajrayana/Mantrayana) flourished, such as in Bagan (Myanmar), Angkor (Kampuchea) and Barabadur (Java). While at Barabadur, a mandalic mountain like structure seen by some researchers as the Kongokai mandala, I spoke with locals who said that although the site was no longer in use, it once had specific practices related to its circumnavigation. Shugen discourse is firmly grounded in Mahayana thinking and the Tantric and Prajnaparamita traditions which grew out of it. Discourse in the mountains moustly relates to the indivisibility of the two Great Mandalas of Esoteric Buddhism (the Taizokai Womb matrix mandala and the Kongokai Diamond matrix mandala) and their respective Sutras/Tantras (The Dainichikyo/Mahavairocana Sutra and the Kongokyo/Vajrasekhara/Tattvasamgraha Sutras). At Mt. Koshikidake the valley is considered a Taizokai mandala trail; the mountain a Kongokai mandala trail. That is, these 'fields of practice' transmit the teachings of the two aspects of supreme reality; the non-dual (interpenetrative) yet differentiated dharma bodies of 'principle/form' and 'wisdom/mind'; the virtues of the Lotus and the virtues of the Diamond Thunderbolt; the non-dual identity of phenomena and their principle, sentient beings and Buddahood; attainment and fruition; The non-dual dharma body of the Six Elements of the cosmic Buddha Mahavairocana.
Norito (祝詞 Shinto 'sutra'/incantations) are considered to capture the essence of kotodama (言霊), the idea that words have 'soul'. Norito speak of nature as a kind of macrocosmic system (of which we are a microcosm) which has the ability to purify and order chaos. In this cosmology of heaven-human-earth, humans bring their obscurations (穢れ/煩悩) to the mountain. In the mountains the Yamabushi perform misogi and takigyo in rivers and waterfalls. The Yama-no-Kami carries these through the valleys via streams and finally to the ocean where they are dispersed and blessed on the ocean floor. Rain is summoned and this water is brought back to the mountains.
Shugenja train in both the mountain peaks and the depths of valleys. The base is this kind of animism based on Jingi (神 divine Kami of koshinto) and the doctrines of Esoteric-Buddhism. These cycles and threads of inter-connectivity are considered sacred and a big part of contemporary Shugen discourse centers on questions like: What happens when sacred sites become polluted? What happens when ecosystems collapse and extinctions are happening at such an overwhelming and rapid scale? What happens in a world where initiatory stages between child and adult cease? The life giving feedback between humans and nature has been compromised as the natural world's ability to function is being over over-shadowed with death; its life giving systems are being brought into chaos.
Jukkai Shugyou (Practice of the Ten Realms)
In the Jukkai Shugyou practitioners move through ten stages, each emblematic of one of the six states of samsara and four states of liberation in the Jukkai ('Ten Realms') Mandala. The movements between these states are accompanied by practices related to esoteric-buddhist/taoist embryological discourse and themes of spiritual death and rebirth.
In addition to the 10 Realms the Shugenja also pass through 'Ten stages' of Asceticism' which involve many rites and rituals (as outlined in texts such as the Shugen Sanjusan Tsuki and Shugenshuyo Hiketsushu (修験修要秘決集)). Briefly, these are:
Tokogatame: 'Grounding and fortifying' - Fortifying/Solidifying the body as the Five Element Stupa and the truth of Sokushinjobutsu. This practice involves the concentration of the ascetic with a ritual performance (involving wooden tools (Kouchigi)) as well as a special rite derived from Taoist influence.
Sange: Buddhist repentance and acknowledgement of transgressions
Gohakari: Karmic bonds: this process differs according to sect and is often paired with one of many Kanjo (a kind of initiation).
Mizudachi: Abstaining from water, washing the mouth, and washing the face.
Aka: Water offering (Argha; the Water of Five Wisdoms). The combination of drawing water and cutting wood features heavily in classic depictions of ascetic activity. The daily practice of offering to the Aka-no-sendatsu is linked to embryological discourse.
Tengu Sumo: This ritualised violence corresponds to the world of the Asura.
Ennen: Dance of Longevity
Kogi: Firewood. Aka and Kogi are linked to ideas of death and renewal. The wood is used for various purposes; torches, the saito-goma rite etc. The ritual offering to the Kogi-no-Sendatsu also occurs daily.
Koku-dachi; Abstinence from grains (nowadays: danjiki or fasting)
Sho-Kanjo: Orthodox inititation/empowerment. This is the final stage where Shugenja receive empowerment and transmission of teachings.
The renewal of life as it occurs during Mountain Entry takes place through sutra recitation as well as through three elements associated with the mountain - fire, water and sound. The role played by fire in purifying and fortifying the spirits of the Shugenja is particularly great, whether it be through the Saito-Goma or the Ba-Saito (Welcoming Fire). Water and wood take centre state in various offering and consecration rituals (eg: Aka/Kogi Osame/Kouchigi/Sanjo-Kaji) which draw on the basic ascetic practices of drawing water and collecting wood as put forward by En'no Gyoja. Sound also forms a key component of all aspects of the Mountain Peak; a variety of ritual implements including the conch-shell, shakujo, large prayer beads, bells, logs, cups and teapots (eg: the ho-no-mi rite). The sounds all contribute to an atmosphere of ritual death, rebirth and purification, allowing the practitioners to experience temporary death followed by gestation in the womb of the mountain.
"Submitting [laying down] in the fields and mountains, I am the with Kami and Buddhas"
-Shobo （理源大師 832-999）
The Jukkai Shugyou practice first appeared in sources related to the Shugendo of Mt. Hiko but later spread throughout mountain complexes across Japan. The practice now survives mainly in the Shugendo of Yamagata prefecture. The most well known (and studied) of these is the Jukkai-Shugyou of Mt. Haguro. The Yamabushi Shokai, restorer of his family’s ancient Koshikidake sect of Hayama Shugen, practiced as a Yamabushi of the Mt. Haguro sect for over 25 years. He is a key figure in bringing together practitioners of Shugendo across various sects and reviving practices which were banned or lost in the Meiji period’s persecution. The Haguro Shugen practice was transferred to Shokai by the Sho-Daisendatsu (Great Guide) of Shozenin, chief priest of Haguro Shugendo, His Holiness Shimazu Kokai, so as to aid in the reconstruction of Koshikidake Shugen.
The Jukkai mandala usually refers to either the Bhavacakra (Wheel of Becoming) in it's traditional Buddhist sense or the specific 10 realms mandala which spread through the Kumano region (The Kumano Kanshin Jukkai Mandara 野観心十界曼荼羅). Some readers may recognise this mandala from its popular Tibetan depictions. The mandala portrays the Bhavacakra or Wheel of Becoming. Tradition says that the Buddha Gotama directed the creation of the original Bhavacakra painting after being asked by King Rudrayaṇa for a summary of his teaching. It is said that when the king contemplated it and understood its meaning, he brought suffering caused by unconscious habitual patterns to an end.
“The Buddha’s disciples Shariputra and Maudgal-yayana are said to have visited various otherworldly realms, including the hell realms. On their return they described six states of existence to the Buddha’s followers and spoke about the four noble truths, explaining the process of taking rebirth in a way that made a profound impact on their listeners. The Buddha knew that they would not always be present to do this, so he arranged for images depicting this process— the twelve links of dependent arising—to be painted in the porches of temples. In each temple a monk was given the task of explaining these paintings and their import to those who were interested.”
Since the time of the Buddha Gotama the wheel has been painted countless times and has appeared wherever Buddhist teachings have spread. Since then it has been utilised across cultures, from the itinerant bikuni nuns of the Kumano mountain range to the temples of Tibet. It remains popular due to its utility in making subtle teachings about causality and the workings of the mind accessible to the masses. It is no surprise that it took hold in Shugendo, which is a largely lay non-monastic (Ubasoku) movement.
The painting describes how our sense of self and our lives take shape, portraying how we think, how we act how we feel and how we manifest our own personal reality. The wheel of life also illustrates how Karma (業 Gou), the law of causality, works in our lives - how we get trapped in confusing painful and repetitive patterns and how we can liberate ourselves from those patterns.
Many people these days are exploring mindfulness meditation which involves being present and aware in the moment - this is the main Buddhist method that has spread in the West. But what happens and where are we when we are not present in the moment? The Wheel of Life breaks down these states in a simple way, serving as a useful avenue to further skillful means in the broader Buddhist worldview.
Meditation and contemplation are powerful tools that can help us to clearly see the daydream like realms that we project. Our concentration can be energised through meditation, acting as a circuit breaker to our thought entanglements; we can examine deeply rooted tendencies and habits. In general, meditation helps us become more familiar with our intuitive awareness, and contemplation helps to develop clarity and insight, allowing us to look directly at our minds activity. The following definition is one of my favourites:
"..In meditation you experience a sense of existence that includes your thought but is not conditioned by it or limited to the thinking process. It is a renunciation of personal territory and small mindedness. Having renounced comfort and privacy you find yourself more alone, like an island in the middle of a lake commuters simply further express it. The combination of the love affair (with life) and loneliness is the basis of sympathetic joy. By renouncing the private world one discovers a greater universe and a fuller and more broken heart. It is a cause for rejoicing.." - Trungpa
The Wheel of Becoming
For those unfamiliar with the teachings of the Wheel of Becoming, the following will provide an overview with some quotes from Buddhist thinkers which i think exemplify each of it's pieces. The Wheel of Life is both a map of unchecked mental habits we can fall into and experience minute by minute as well as states of mind which can continue after death (Realms). From a practical level, we can view them as psychological landscapes which we migrate through on a day by day, minute by minute, second by second basis. We don't so much go to these realms as recognise them.
Within the context of the Four Noble Truths, the Eight-Fold Path (and the Six Perfections), the Wheel is a depiction of Samsara (Seishi 生死). The term Samsara is associated with "wandering" or "world", with the connotation of cyclic, circuitous change. Nirvana (涅槃) conversely implies an unraveling of this chain of causation. It is important to note that according to Shugen esoteric-buddhist lore just as the ascent and descent of the Taizokai and Kongokai mandalas are to be perceived as non-dual, so the Wheel of Becoming and the Buddhist Wheel of Law -Samsara and Nirvana - are also non-dual. Jukkai shugyou is performed against this backdrop.
Samsaric existence (the realms of Desire, Forms and Formlessness) has three qualities:
1. Impermanence – Anicca (Mujo無常)
Means that all conditioned things are in a constant state of flux. All physical and mental events come into being and
dissolve. Everything, whether physical or mental, is a formation, has a dependent origination and is impermanent.
Things arise, change and disappear. Since anything produced depends on causes and conditions, the causes and conditions we ourselves create through our thoughts and actions are of seminal importance. The principal cause that allows us to overcome our cyclic existence and the basic misconception that underlies it is familiarizing ourselves with emptiness and the dependently existent nature of things.
2. Dissatisfaction - Dukkha (Ku 苦)
Dukkha Means "dissatisfaction, suffering, stress, pain". Dukkha includes the physical and mental stress that follows birth, death, sorrow, lamentation, grief, despair, associating with difficult people, being separated from love, not getting what we want and getting what we don't want. After the Buddha set the wheel in motion he laid out various approaches to responding to these stressors.
3. Non-Self - Anatta (Muga 無我)
Refers to the doctrine of "non-self"- that there is no unchanging, permanent Self and no permanent, unchanging essence in
any thing or phenomena. What we deem the 'Self' is a combination of the five aggregates (form, sensation, perceptions, mental
formations, consciousness) and the six elements. Buddhist doctrine explores this further through breaking down our perceptions
of permanency into units of consciousness (cittas) and through concepts such as the storehouse consciousness (阿頼耶識
arayashiki/alaya-vijnana), derived from the six roots of sense perception (六入).
Usually Emptiness is explained in relation to the great classical Mahayana texts, such as Nagarjuna’s Treatise on the Middle Way, Chandrakirti’s Supplement to the Middle Way, or Shantideva’s Way of the Bodhisattva, which elucidate how Bodhisattvas meditate on emptiness.
Familiarising ourselves with these qualities and testing our reality against the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths opens a path to hold our experiences of suffering more lightly. Buddhism says that we can discipline our minds through a wide variety of skillful means. These generally share ideas of raising the aspiration for enlightenment for self and others, the realisation of causality and emptiness through disciplined insight and attention, and the development of discerning wisdom and compassion. Disciplining the mind and familiarising ourselves with emptiness and the dependently existent nature of things allows us to develop deeper insight into our own neuroses, to transform unwholesome mental states into more wholesome ones and to be more present, attentive and responsive to the world.
The Layers of the Wheel
Broadly, the outer ring describes the truth of suffering (Pratītyasamutpāda, Engi 縁起); the inner ring of the six realms describes the impetus of suffering (六道輪廻 Rokudo), and the centre hub of the wheel describes the origin of suffering.
In the more popular (usually Tibetan) versions, the wheel is held by Yama (the lord of death). In the Japanese versions Yama is sometimes drawn as a demon or a skeleton. This figure, who stares mockingly at the viewer, represents the truth of impermanence; that all phenomena are void of ‘self’, dependent in origination, and that all phenomena are subject to change (Ingao-ho 因果応報).
The Hub (Centre) of the Wheel:
The centre of the wheel is what makes it all turn. If you look you can see a rooster, snake and pig - each with its tail in the others mouth, signifying their connectedness. These are known as the three poisons (sandoku 三毒):
The Pig represents fundamental Ignorance
The Rooster represents clinging, addiction, craving, grasping.
The Snake represents aversion, repulsion, hatred
Ignorance is the starting point. The Indian sage Atisha used the metaphor of a pig and its activities to illustrate the chaos which confusion causes. It is non-discriminating perception which relates purely to the sense of survival expressed by consuming whatever comes up, whatever is presented to be consumed.
What is meant by ignorance in this context? There are different views about this; however, ignorance here does not mean merely a failure to understand reality nor does it mean not understanding something other than reality. Rather, it is the opposite of the understanding that the person and other phenomena lack intrinsic existence. Those who are affected by this ignorance create actions which precipitate them into further samsaric existence.
Confusion and lack of clarity lead to misperception. From this come clinging attachment and hostility, which in turn lead to the kinds of actions that keep us in cyclic existence. These three poisons turn the wheel of our karma, represented by the next ring in the mandala, both positive and negative; the various stages of satisfaction or suffering which we experience according to our actions..
"..The essense of samsara is found in this turmoil, in this complex situation, as well as in the misunderstandings of bewilderment, passion and aggression , so the situation also provides the possible means of eliminating these aggravations. But at the same time unless you relate to these three as path - understanding them, working with them, treading on them, you do not discover the goal. So therefore, as buddha says, suffering should be realised, origin should be overcome, and by that, cessation should be realised because the path should be seen as the truth. Seeing the truth as it is is the goal as well as the path. For that matter, discovering the truth of samsara is the discovery of nirvana. The reality of samsara is equally the reality of nirvana; one truth without relativity.."
Karma is the simple impersonal law of causality; that every effect has a cause. When we act out our craving, ignorance or aggression our karma - the seeds of our actions - intensify and those motivations become patterns that shape our thoughts and actions. Karma has nothing to do with divine retribution coming from the universe; karma is made up of the seeds of actions which we plant in our minds.
Through our Karma (actions and their results) we are thrown ('born') into one of the six realms (六道輪廻 rokudo). The six realms are described in various sutras, including the Lotus Sutra (hokkekyo 法華経). These six realms are characteristics of mind (and thus reality). They are glimpses of the manner in which we exist in attitude and behaviour based on our views and emotions. These are divided into three ‘lower’ states and three ‘higher’ states.
The three lower realms are:
Hell Realm (地獄 Jigoku-Kai)
pain, fear, terror, hatred, despair, hopelessness
Buddhist cosmology describes many layers of the hell realm. Those in the hell realm drive away those close to them and seek the company of other hell beings. They are tormented by fear and rage; a state of blind terror and utter panic. The Hell Realm is characterised by aggression and an all pervasive environment of fear and suffering. In the hell realm, there is constricted perception; there is no possibility of glimpsing another view because the speed and violence of response is so immediate and overwhelming.
In Shugendo, the Practice of Hell (Jigoku-gyo 地獄行（業ノ秤)) is one of discipline which opens the bodhi-heart. It is evoked through the steep climbing, the crossing of narrow precipices and the hard training of the peak, allowing the Body-Mind to enter another state. Confessing the weight of past transgressions, self-introspection and the analysing of Karma reveal one's fundamental bodhi-nature. In the Shugendo of Mt. Koshikidake and Mt. Haguro, there is the special rite of Nanban-Ibushi. In the 10 Worlds Mandala used in Shugendo, the Hell Realm depicts beings in immeasurable suffering.
Animal Realm (畜生Chikusho-Kai)
habit, instinct, ignorance
The animal realm is characterised by ignorance. Its hallmarks are prejudice, complacency and stupidity. The animal realm is one of immediacy, habit, instinct and fear; living completely by instinct and reaction without perception beyond the immediate moment, moving from one source of stimulation to the next. The animal realm is also marked by the desire to avoid discomfort or any kind of new territory that could be seen as unfamiliar; Animals cling to familiar situations. Those in the animal realm cannot cope with change and transformation; there is a quality of stubbornness and inflexibility, actively refusing change or growth.
The Animal Realm Practice (Chikusho-gyo 畜生行-水断） of Shugendo involves periods without drinking water, bathing or washing the mouth. This gives a new kind of sensitivity and clarity to the body-mind and the bodhi-mind is solidified. In the 10 Worlds Mandala used in Shugendo, the Animal realm is depicted by a range of animals, some with human faces.
Hungry Ghost (Preta) Realm (Gaki-Kai)
addiction, obsession, craving, compulsion.
Traditionally there are three classes of hungry ghosts; each with three sub classes.. Hungry Ghosts (Pretas/Gaki) are depicted in Buddhist literature as desperate beings with giant stomachs and tiny mouths. Hungry ghosts cannot see beyond their own situation. The hungry ghost realm is plagued by addiction; the hungry ghost is characterised by insatiable hunger and craving that dominates their entire existence. The hungry ghost realm is an intense state of grasping in the context of overwhelming psychological poverty. The wanting causes excruciating pain.
Ryuju Bosatsu (Nagarjuna) gives a graphic depiction of the suffering of the Pretas: Covered in pus ridden goiters, their lives are as dry as the desert. The glow of the moon is experienced as painfully hot and the winter sun is experienced as painfully cold. Their mouths are the size of a needle's eye, their throats the diameter of a horse's hair, their limbs as thin as large stalks of grass, their bellies as large as mountains. Their hair is shaggy, the whole of their skin and body is utterly dry, and their bones are sunken and hollow. In their general appearance pretas resemble the fronds of dead palm trees. They never have an opportunity to remain in any one place at leisure because they are compelled to roam about due to their intense hunger and thirst. Their bodies give out groans and cracking sounds like the pulling of old carts, and as they move about, their joints crack loudly. Marked by mental weariness and despair, they feel as though flames were breaking out in their bodies.
The hungry ghost rite (osegaki) is performed differently according to cultural contexts. The preta rites of India are different to those in China, Japan etc. In the context of Mountain Training, the hungry ghost rite is usually performed alongside the honouring of the dead and ancestors; the spirits of the dead, and the parts of our ancestors and loved ones who have died but live on in us are offered flowers and welcomed. In Shugendo/Esoteric Buddhism, rites which approach hungry ghosts have very specific instructions. There are offerings given in physical form, which are then visualised with mudra and mantra. There are Dharani for summoning, blessing the visualised offerings, and flavouring them with sweet ambrosia so as to sooth the pretas throats. There are mantras to arouse the mind of bodhicitta and the true offering of the dharma. Those performing the rite turn their backs on the main altar or the altar is covered so as not to intimidate the preta. The hungry ghosts are held in a particularly gentle, soft manner, with the rite performed in silence. This says something about the attitude which one should adopt when approaching hungry ghosts.
In some esoteric-Buddhist traditions offerings for hungry ghosts are placed low on the floor, or are left in dirty, unhygienic locations; the only places where the offerings can be seen as desirable. We can be hungry ghosts while still alive, unable to experience the fullness of life. We often restrict our own experience and reject being nourished by reality. Some hungry ghosts are surrounded by abundance but can't engage with it; others wander aimlessly, unable to find any kind of relief.
I once worked with a young woman who would shudder constantly. When she wasn't under the influence she would wince at her own memories, feelings of shame, her reduced sense of self-worth; the lived experience of complex somatic trauma. She would not accept food or assistance unless told that the food was going to be thrown out. She had been systematically abused, a culmination of failed government policy and inter-generational trauma. Methamphetamine use would leave her sleepless for days, wandering from one methamphetamine den to the next. This kind of suffering exemplifies the realm of the Preta.
In Shugendo, the Gaki/Preta (Hungry Ghost) realm practice (餓鬼行-穀断) is to endure the hardship of fasting and the avoidance of Five Grains. In the Shugendo of Haguro and Koshikidake, this is expressed also through Kuyo. Responsibility to the dead and ancestors, the continuity between life and death, is reinforced through memorial services and the segaki rite. In the 10 Worlds Mandala used in Shugendo, the Hungry Ghost rite depicts the preta eating offerings to the dead.
For more on Hungry Ghosts see “Feeding the Hungry Ghosts.”
Anointed by Darkness
Animal, Hungry Ghost and Hell:
These three compromise the underworld. These realms are claustrophobic, intense in their degree of suffering and often lacking in self-awareness. The hell realm is the most violent; where psychosis is vividly and excruciatingly intense; Everything is perceived as hostile, which evokes an instantaneous response of fear, manifested as aggression. In the hell realm we are overwhelmed and beaten down. There is no hope in hell.
Despite the name and cultural connotations, the hell realm isn't necessarily to be avoided and the aim isn't necessarily to be born into a higher realm. In Shinto the underworld is called Yomi-no-Kuni, the World of Darkness. The realm of the dead is seen as having some geographical continuity with this one. The realm of the underworld contains a gloomy, damp and shadowy existence.
The descent is not something that can be 'hoped' out of or figured out. The underworld is not a time of addition, it is a time of negation; rotting, decaying, breaking down. The goal of Shugen practice is not some kind of abstract purity, but to continually return to the wild, to go through the ten realms in the context of mountain (and valley) training. The darkness associated with the underworld's destruction is not a stage to be bypassed once and for all but a necessary component of spiritual and psychological life.
One of the patron deities in Shugendo is Sanbo Daikojin (三宝大荒神); a 'rough', wrathful deity associated with wilderness, fire and the placenta. In Shugen the Heart Sutra, which lays out the ground of emptiness, is immediately followed up with Kojin's mantra. There are connotations here that will be explored in another article. The descent into the underworld breaks apart fixed fantasies of who we are. Mountain entry asceticism awakens in us the intimacy of death, our own disappearance, and the humility that accompanies mystery, confusion, death and anguish. These realms demand deep listening, surrender and openness. Through disciplined ascetic practice and the Six Perfections Yamabushi aim to mediate the energies encountered in these realms. In Buddhist cosmology, Buddhas are sometimes depicted in each of the realms. Having transmuted the energy encountered in that realm, they offer up the appropriate medicine to share with others.
This gets to the heart of ascetic practice, which the famous Yamabushi Shionuma Ryojun puts so well:
"Questioning individuals set off on an ascetic journey in order to gain insights into what is the root of their problems and furthermore, to determine how to uproot the cause of their sorrow. While searching for answers, they will endure much pain, pushing themselves physically and psychologically to their limits so that they may discover their true nature. I have to say that it is exactly at that critical point of suffering that practitioners can see the blossom of the flower of awakening and begin to think in themselves :Now I finally get it. This is the answer to my request. With this, the practitioner can return home and what is of an even greater importance, is for the practitioners to describe to all those they encounter the beautiful shape of their ‘flowers’. Those who have the function of an ascetic hand who have learned immeasurably from their encounter with the order of nature, when they return to ordinary life must share with others their deepest insights.
The real purpose of gyo (disciplined asceticism) has never been to endure intense moments of pain and be proud of it. The fundamental justification is nothing more and nothing less than the simple act of sharing... Ascetic practitioners are like bringing oneself to the edge of a cliff where one can discover the blossoming flower of enlightenment. Beforehand practitioners can ratiocinate about the flower of enlightenment. However in reality the nature of that flower cannot be gathered through reasoning. Practitioners can also try to use science to see that flower from a far distance. There too they will be disappointed as even the best telescope will not be of much help. Without bringing themselves to the edge of the cliff they will never be exposed to the blossoming flower of enlightenment. Answers to our deepest questions do not actually come from imagination of research."
- Ven. Ajari Shionuma Ryojun, Yamabushi known for completing the Sennichi Kaihogyo (1000 day mountain circumnavigation)
Mitsunaga Dai-Ajari of the Tendai-sect echoes this when he says that shugyo is a 'matter of slowly building up awareness that life is given by all around us'; that one lives in this web of interdependence ("人と人の間に生か されている").
The Titan/Demon Realm (Ashura 阿修羅)
jealousy, envy, competition, paranoia, vigilance, prestige, pride, self absorption
In Buddhist cosmology the Asuras ('without beauty') are the perennial antagonists on Indra (Taishaku-ten) and the gods. The Ashura Realm is sometimes depicted as being merged with the heavenly realm of the devas. While they are both ‘heavenly’ beings the ashuras are depicted as perpetually organising to wage war on the celestial beings.
Zhiyi (538-597), considered the founder of the Tendai (Tientai) school, described the Asura this way:
"Always desiring to be superior to others, having no patience for inferiors and belittling strangers; like a hawk, flying high above and looking down on others, and yet outwardly displaying justice, worship, wisdom, and faith -- this is raising up the lowest order of good and walking the way of the Asuras."
The Ashura’s existence is marked by fighting and jealousy - a state of aggression. When we react with unthinking hatred and lash out in order to cause injury we are in the mind of the Asura. In the realm of asuras, pleasurable situations seem distant the desire to bring them close to you is overwhelming - the whole world is built out of golden promises, but it is irritating even to venture to fulfil them. Others unhappiness is viewed as somewhere they are glad not to be or as a means to get ahead; there is no empathetic joy in the Ashura realm.
“The jealous god neurosis is creative enthusiasm and activity; the jealous gods are actively ambitious - but they lack potency and commitment. Their jealousy is associated with the god realms and they yearn to be there, not able to appreciate their own situation.”
Tengu (mischievous mountain beings associated with hindrances) are said to amplify the emotions of those in the mountains; those who are filled with arrogance leave of their own accord. There is a saying in Japan, "to break the Tengu's nose." One aims to encounter the Tengu in the mountain and break ones own conceit.
In Shugendo, the Ashura Realm Practice (修羅行-相撲) mimics the struggle of the Ashura realm through Sumo (Tengu-Sumo in Yamagata). Moreover throughout the training in the mountain peaks one will struggle with their own sense of self-conceited pride and confronting their own limitations. The Ashura realm is to transform this struggle towards obtaining the fruits of the Dharma. The shugyoja must press forward regardless of choice; if there is a gigantic boulder they will cross it, if there is a deep gloomy valley, they must pass through it; all obstacles inner and outer must be overcome through courage and brevity. In the Shugendo of Haguro and Yamagata, this tenacity is answered through the unique expression 'Uketamo!' In the 10 Worlds Mandala used in Shugendo, Ashura are depicted as mounted warriors.
The Realm of the Gods (Deva Ten/Tenbu-kai 天) Realm
physical comforts, spiritual bliss, ease, comfort, happiness and joy.
Buddhist cosmology identifies 28 heavens; each of these contained within the three worlds of Desire, Form and Formlessness. The God/Heaven realm is full of celestial beings who dwell in a seemingly never ending state of bliss. The Buddha taught that gods too have a life span and were also subject to the laws of cause effect, impermanence, rebirth and reincarnation. Their world is marked by ephemeral joy and satisfaction. Heaven sounds preferable to hell -- but all are dukkha, meaning they are marked by fundamental features of dissatisfaction and impermanence. Further, their privilege and exalted status blind them to the suffering of others, so in spite of their long lives, they lack wisdom or compassion.
"..When the karmic situation of being in heaven wears out there are suddenly violent thoughts accompanied by suspicion and the whole blissful tale collapses including self conscious concepts of love and the security of being in love; another hallucination takes control and just like that you are born into another realm.In the perceptual space of a god realm, time moves very slowly; there is plenty of space for consideration, but this spaciousness is not useful for spiritual development and awareness, because it is the spaciousness of self-referentiality. God perception is protracted, but eventually the perceptual predisposition which led to it will exhaust itself. It is not that gods necessarily exist foe aeons, it is more that the sense of time is indefinite. Chogyam Trungpa describes this as a 'kind of self hypnosis, a natural state of concentration which blocks out of the mind everything that might be irritating or undesirable.."
The god and titan realms are considered to be too preoccupied and self absorbed to engage in disciplined spiritual practice.
In Shugendo, The Deva/God realm (天道行) involves Ennen - The Dance of Long Life. The previous five practices must sound quite painful! These practices however leave the body-mind in a clear, sensitive state and eliminate phyiscal and mental obscurities. At this point of 'exhaustive-awakening' the Yamabushi perform the Yonen-no-mai 「延年の舞」(sing and dance) and indulge in the pleasure of the God-realm. In the 10 Worlds Mandala used in Shugendo, the Deva are depicted as heavenly beings above the business of the world.
Finally, we have the Human realm: (Ningen/Nindo Nindō 人道)
humour, opportunity, novelty, curiosity, potential, passion, desire, doubt, ambition, envy, anxiety
The human realm is said to be located in the four great continents that surround Mount Sumeru. In the mandala, humans are often shown with the unique ability to pray, repent and express gratitude. Things aren’t too good or too bad - the perfect state of mind to begin practicing. . The human world is one where our consciousness is not being momentarily driven by any of the blinding suffering of the lower realms.
"The human realm is the most favourable for engaging in spiritual practice. The speed of action and reaction is sufficient for being able to focus and engage in practice. There is not the automatic immediate response that is found in a hellish realm, whilst spaciousness and self-absorption are not so great that purpose and growth becomes lost, as in a god realm. The human realm beings ability to discriminate, to juxtapose concepts and be amused or startles offers the possibility of exploding the confines of referential view. Human realm beings have a great capacity for generosity, gratitude and indiscriminate compassion. The compulsive energy of desire can be transformed into active compassion. There is a potential for lightness and a sense of humour about discrimination, but there is also sufficient intensity to keep us from losing focus. The capacity for humour is crucial to spiritual development because without it we take ourselves and our 'selves' too seriously - the capacity to laugh at ones situation. Humour is that which feels the space of a situation. Space has to exist for incongruity to allow playfulness. Real humour is innately open to compassion and wisdom. To dwell in the human realm means that we are able to discriminate and have some choice about the decisions we make."
Human beings can perceive and work with the karmic force. In this realm suffering is of the nature of dissatisfaction. Fundamentally the human realm presents the rare opportunity of hearing the dharma and practicing it."The constant search for pleasure and its failure pushes the inquisitive intelligence into neurosis. But certain karmic coincidences bring the possibility of realising the uselessness of struggling and these coincidences are the particular attribute of the human realm."
In Shugendo the Human Realm Practice (人道行)is confession and purification (懺悔). In Shugendo, one performs misogi (cold-water purification), reflecting on one's conduct and concentrating on the fundamental nature of the sense-roots in a state of weariness and fatigue. This practice leads to an immoveable, fearless, unclouded heart that is brave and full of compassion (and sorrow from the fasting). Confession allows one to move forward with a clear mind. In the 10 Worlds Mandala used in Shugendo, the Human realm depicts humans in prayer, with their palms together.
The 12 links of Dependent Origination
The outermost rings are the nidanas; the chain of interdependent origination (縁起 engi). The ring describes how we go from ignorance, to birth to death over and over again. This is represented in the Shugenja's tokin (cap).
In the twenty-fourth chapter of his Treatise on the Middle Way, Nagarjuna (龍樹菩薩 Ryuju Bosatsu) states:
Whatever arises dependently
Is explained as empty.
Thus dependent attribution
Is the middle way.
Since there is nothing whatever
That is not dependently existent,
For that reason there is nothing
Whatsoever that is not empty.
Everything that exists
Does so dependently
and everything that is dependently existent
Necessarily lacks independent objective existence.
With basic ignorance as the first cause, each link in the chain is both the result of the previous link and the cause of the next. This sequence operates moment to moment as well as lifetime to lifetime. These are:
1.Fundamental ignorance (Pali: avidya)
4.Name and form (namarupa)
5.Sense faculties (salayatana)
7.Feeling or sensation (vedana)
8.Craving or thirst (tanha)
9.Clinging or grasping (upadana)
10.Becoming or worldly existence (bhava)
11.Birth or becoming (jati)
12.Old age and death (jaramarana)
"There are two ways of contemplating the twelve-part process—from the conventional and ultimate points of view. The conventional entails contemplating the afflicted and purified aspects of the twelve links in forward and reverse sequence. The ultimate consists of meditating on the emptiness of each of the individual links and of the whole process. It is important to meditate on both of these aspects because if we only meditate on the ultimate aspect, we are in danger of falling into a nihilist view, which is to believe that nothing has any actual existence
On the other hand, by only meditating on the conventional aspects of the process we may fall into the other extreme and make it all much more concrete than it really is. We must steer the middle path between seeing things as completely nonexistent and seeing them as objectively existent."
In paintings of the wheel of existence certain images are traditionally used to symbolize each of the twelve links, though these may vary;
"The first panel shows an old blind woman who represents ignorance (avidya) from which arises form creating activity (samskara) indicated by a potter.
Just as a potter creates the shapes of pots, our volitional acts of body, speech and mind give rise to consciousness (vijnana), shown as a monkey grasping a branch. Consciousness is like a monkey, jumping from object to object, chattering uncontrollably.
Consciousness, however not only restlessly grasps objects of sense and imagination, but polarizes itself into mental functions and physical form (nama-rupa), the basis of the psychophysical combination which is the precondition of individual existence.
The next panel shows nama and rupa as two people in a boat propelled by a ferryman. The psychophysical organism is further differentiated through the formation and action of the six sense organs (sadayatana), represented by a house with 6 windows.
This leads to contact (sparsa) of the senses with their objects, shown in the sixth frame as the contact of lovers. The sensation (vedana) that results from the contact of the senses with their objects is represented in the next drawing by a man whose eye has been pierced by an arrow.
The eighth picture shows a drinker, figuring thirst for life (trsana), the craving that arises from sensation. From craving arises grasping and attachment (upadana) to objects of clinging and desire, shown in the ninth panel by a man picking fruit.
The result of the attachment is a new process of becoming (bhava), represented by the sexual union of a man and woman whence there is rebirth (jati) shown by a woman giving birth to a baby.
The twelfth picture shows a man carrying a corpse on his back to the cremation ground. The wheel has turned through birth life and old age and now comes death (jaramarana) giving rise to ignorance and setting the cycle in motion once again to repeated countless times until the chain is interrupted."
The Wheel of Dharma (Dharmachakra, Horin 法輪)
In contrast to the Wheel of Becoming, the Buddha points to the Wheel of Dharma.
Life's path always necessitates a return to the centre, and a journey to the periphery; ascent and descent. In the Wheel of Becoming the Buddha is depicted as standing outside of the wheel - not imprisoned or trapped by its forces, having received liberation from these cycles. From that point onward a Buddha can choose to 're-enter' the realms in order to teach and assist others. Sometimes you can see a Buddha in each realm, teaching the beings of that realm how to transform their circumstances. In contrast to the wheel of becoming stands the Wheel of Dharma. This wheel (dharmacakra), set in motion by the Buddha, rotates around the central axle point of Truth. It is the wheel of Reality, of the realm of thusness (shinnyo/tathata), the eternal and immutable world that the Buddha perceives.
It is worth quoting Snodgrass on end:
"The Wheel of Becoming pertains to the relative phenomena, individual and conditioned, while the Wheel of Dharma pertains to the absolute, real, supra-individual and unconditioned; the former is the wheel of existences in their ceaseless flux and impermanence and the latter is the wheel of the immutable Law, the wheel of the permanent principle that eternally governs all things. Seen with the fleshly eye, the eye of the unenlightened wayfarer, the two wheels appear seperate and irreconcilable; but the the eye of wisdom (prajna caksus), the eye of the awakened, of the comprehensor who has taken up the station at the unmoving hub, they are inseparable, nondual (advaita) faces of a single reality. They are two aspects of suchness (shinnyo/tathata); the wheel of the transient and ever changing world is not other than the wheel of the never changing Law. As perceived by the enlightened the entities (dharma) of the world, spinning through the cycles of change, are seen in their unchanging instantaneity. The wheel of becoming is seen to be coincident with the Buddhas own intrinsic form.
The non-duality of the wheel of becoming and the wheel of the dharma is implicit in the Pali texts of the Theravada, which teach that "One who sees dependent origination sees the dharma and who sees the dharma sees dependent origination" and it is explicit in the sanskrit and Chinese texts of the Mahayana such as the saddharma-pundarika-sutra, in which the Buddha is addressed with the words, "the wheel of the dharma was put in motion by thee, o thou that art unrivalled in the world, at varanasi, o great hero, that wheel which is the rotation of the rise and decay of all aggregates (skandha) of existence."
The identity of the Wheel of Becoming and the Wheel of Dharma is an expression of the fundamental Mahayana/Vajrayana doctrine of the sameness of samsara and nirvana: Error (klesa) is Awakening (bodhi); world flux (samsara) and extinction/unravelling (nirvana) are the same: ignorance (avidya) and awakening are the same; the Tantric doctrine of passions being the path to liberation (煩悩即菩提 bonnō-soku-bodai); and ultimately; form is emptiness and the very emptiness is form; emptiness does not differ from form, nor does form differ from emptiness; whatever is emptiness; that is form.
"..The essence of Samsara is found in this turmoil, in this complex situation, as well as in the misunderstandings of bewilderment, passion and aggression , so the situation also provides the possible means of eliminating these aggravations. But at the same time unless you relate to these three as path - understanding them, working with them, treading on them, you do not discover the goal. So therefore, as Buddha says, suffering should be realised, origin should be overcome, and by that, cessation should be realised because the path should be seen as the truth. Seeing the truth as it is is the goal as well as the path. For that matter, discovering the truth of Samsara is the discovery of nirvana. The reality of Samsara is equally the reality of Nirvana; one truth without relativity.."
One aspect of the Buddhas total knowledge consists of a realisation of this sameness (sama). The knowledge of sameness (samatajnana), personified by the Buddha Hosho Nyorai (Ratnasambhava 宝生如来), is the knowledge that perceives the essential identity of all entities and their Principle, and views the nonduality of their ephemeral transitoriness and absolute immutability.
Thus, for those who see it solely in its existential aspect, the Wheel is the round of suffering; they are bound to it by cords of selfhood and forever sustain the torment of its turning. For them liberation lies in stopping the Wheel's motion. To arrest the Wheel is to attain the tranquil stillness of Nirvana, but one who achieves this liberation perceives that the cycle of the Wheel of phenomena is not distinct from the turning of the Wheel of the Dharma; he sees that the Wheel of Becoming is cognate with the Wheel of his own world, that the Wheel of the universe is of twofold nature but of single essence, and that its motion is at once a metaphysical and an existential turning.
Returning to the centre of the wheel and stationed within the Void of its axle tree, the Buddha is the unmoved-mover of its turning; its revolving depends upon the "actionless activity" of the Buddhas pivotal presence. The Buddha is the 'Dharma-cakra-pravartana' - the setter in motion of the wheel of the dharma, and the cakravartin "the turning of the wheel". The latter term is used to designate a king, and, since the motion of the cosmic wheel is wholly governed by the Buddhas action of actionless presence, the Buddha is the universal ruler and cosmic sovereign, spiritual analogue of the terrestrial king and emperor.
The cosmic Buddha Dainichi-Nyorai (大日如来 Mahavairocana) abides at the hub of the world wheel, the receptacle and source of all order, locus of the Principle that governs phenomenal existences, the point that is coincidental with cosmic and supra-cosmic Law."
"Ultimate reality embraces both the relative and the absolute. Since phenomena are composed entirely of the Six Great Elements, these also dwell simultaneously and inseparably in the two realms of the relative and absolute; they constitute the very essence of Suchness (真如 shinnyo)."
"All things come into existence by dependent origination from the six Elements. Kobo Daishi taught that all things are produced from the Six Great Elements. The Four Dharma Bodies (Dharmakaya) and everything in the three worlds are produced from them. All the dharmas, from the upper most limits of the Dharma body to the lowers of the six realms are produced from them. Even though the dharmas are differentiated as subtle and gross and distinguished as large and small, they all come out from the six Elements. Therefore the Buddha teaches that the Six Elements are the essential nature of the Dharma world."
The Four Higher (Buddha) Realms are as follows:
1. Shomon (Savakabuddha - the realm of listening and learning)
Self improvement through external sources. The stage in which one listens directly to the Dharma - natural laws of cause and effect. The 'Stream enterers' - once you enter the stream you cannot get out. Those who have learned some essential truth of the universe and cannot return to the life they previously lived. This is the realm of the Arhat.
Whereas the previous six worlds are referred to as the 'Six Realms of Transmigration', the realm of the Srvakabuddha in Shugen is the first of the Four Sacred Disciplines (聖の修行). Shugendo is not simply a matter of casually listening to and learning the teachings; it is a disciplined form of (embodied) religious observance. the non-duality of Samsara and Nirvana, the truth of the origin of Dukkha as the Bodhisattva path, to Know the truth of the cessation of Dukkha; the absence of intrinsic essential self-nature: Observing these four together is the path of the Srvarkabuddha.: Observing these four together is the path of the Srvarkabuddha.
2. Engaku (Pratyekabuddha- the solitary/'cause awakened' one)
This is the realm of realisation and seeing. This is the stage where one gains enlightenment through ones own effort, for ones self, without the use of teachers or guides.
In Shugendo Engaku/Pratyekabuddha (縁覚行:頭襟形): The World of the Solitary Awakened One is symbolised through the Yamabushi's Tokin (頭襟 hood/cap) which demonstrates the Law of Causality through the 12 Links of Dependent Origination. The embodied understanding of Dependent Origination is an end to anxiety and the awakening to the truth of Life and Death. In Shugendo this is not simply a teaching to listen to, but rather a truth to realise fully moment to moment, through anguish and pleasure; watching the body and mind instant by instant.
3. Bosatsu (Bodhisattva Realm)
Unlike the previous 2 this realm is marked by practice for the benefit of others. The essence of the Mahayana way is the realisation of wisdom and emptiness, skillful means and compassion (loving kindness). This state is one of dedicating oneself to become a Stupa for the benefit of all beings, which spreads the fruits of dharma to others, selflessly, effortlessly and unceasingly.
In Shugendo Bosatsu/Bodhisattva (菩薩行:代受苦形): The Bodhisattva World is characterised by the Practice of the Six Perfections. With the virtue of the Great Elements of Earth, Water, Fire, Wind, Void (and Mind), that is, Giving (altruism/compassion,) Morality, Patience (humility), Effort (energy/diligence), Meditation and Wisdom, the Six Perfections are unmatched. The essence of the bodhisattva path is compassionate assistance and action for all beings, and taking on the suffering of all beings. In the 10 Worlds Mandala used in Shugendo, the Bosatsu, Shomon and Engaku realms are depicted as surrouding the Buddha in the middle of the Mandala
4. Hotoke (Buddha Realm)
Gone Beyond; The realm of Buddhahood. The realisation of Mind as it truly is.
Bodhicitta is the cause
Compassion its roots
and skillful means the ultimate.
Bukkai/Buddhahood 仏界（菩薩灌頂 Bosatsu Kanjo/Bodhisattva Empowerment). The Buddha realm in Shugendo corresponds to the esoteric methods of contemplation, practice and deity yoga in which the adept ultimately identifies with Dainichi Nyorai; the nonduality of emptiness and form, principle and knowledge, wisdom and compassion etc. The doctrine of the interpenetration of the phenomenal and the Real is given practical expression in rituals where the body, speech and mind of the performer interpenetrate with the Three Mysteries of the Buddha's Body, Speech and Mind. In Shugendo this corresponds most to the Hashiramotoshinpō rite (柱源神法). Our words in the context of the Hashiramoto are the Buddha's light; our actions that of the Buddha's Five Wisdoms. The Ten Worlds are seen in one's own life, and the meaning of the Asceticism of the Peaks becomes clear. The secret methods of Hashiramotoshinpo and kanjo (empowerment and initiation) correspond to this.
Awakening (菩提) in Shugendo doctrine is usually referred to in the context of the Three Factors Leading to Enlightenment (a Tendai concept), the Three Aspects of Becoming a Buddha in this Body [a Shingon concept; Rigu-jobutsu (attainment in principle), kajijobutsu (attainment through the samadhi of kaji) & kentoku jobutsu (Immediate actualised Buddhahood in this very body; the perfection of awakening)] and the natural awakening 「自然成仏 jinen-jobutsu」 that comes from Shugendo practice. Shugendo doctrine is saturated with applications of these Esoteric-Buddhist doctrines, right down to esoteric interpretations of the characters in 'Shugendo' and 'Yamabushi' themselves. The Ten Realms are also spoken of in relation to Kobo Daishi's exposition on the Ten Stages of Mind, outlined in his Precious Key to the Secret Treasury 「Hizo Hoyaku」.
The Shugen Sanjusan Tsuku was written by Akyubo Sokuden in 1734. It was one of the first attempts to bring together Shugendo doctrine and practice. It states "The self-nature which originates in the Suchness (Shinnyo) of the Shugen practitioner is the undifferentiated buddha-mind of the two realms." A further refinement of this idea is that not only the Shugenja but all people possess the six great elements, the four mandalas and the three mysteries that are characteristics and functions of the universe, as symbolised by Dainichi Nyorai. Sokuden expresses this as "the mind and form of all sentient beings are the physicality of the six great elements, the four mandalas and the three mysteries. Because ignorance and enlightenment are one, there is no distinction between priest and layman. Realizing this principle is termed Buddhahood; being in doubt about it is termed the state of ignorance." By extension all phenomena can be considered a discourse on the oneness of the three bodies, and the sounds of the wind and the waves and all nature its voice; The Yamabushi realises the indivisibility of the ten realms, the non-duality of ignorance and enlightenment and the mutual identity of illusion and Buddhahood..
This concludes the brief introduction to the 10 realms practice. For those interested I hope it was an insightful mental trip through the Ten Realms. Please enjoy the images below.
» Articles: Ascetic Practices in the Mountains and the Popular Teachings of the 10 Realms Mandala
Swirling clouds envelope the mountainside. The Shugendo practitioners seem to float among them as they press onward, moving due south along the mountain paths. Casting their minds and bodies into the white clouds, they are absorbed into the void and seem to die in the breast of the mountai, the mother. Feeling their way through the darkness of the realm of death, they once again catch a glimpse of clear sky through a break in the mist, and weep with joy at their rebirth - Tomohiro Muda
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