» Articles: What is Shugendo?

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Mountain Belief: Nature and Humans, Kami and Buddhas
Masataka Suzuki, Professor Emeritus, Keio University

Shugendo is an original path made by mixing Buddhism, Taoism, Yin-Yang-do, Shamanic practice etc. with the myriad ancient mountain beliefs found across Japan. The origin dates back to the Asuka era, and important founding figures include En no Ozunu (En no Gyoja, Jinpen Daibosatsu), Shoken Daibosatsu and Shobo Rigen Daishi.

During the Heian period, monks practiced in the mountains, and teachings were exchanged between the monks and the masters encountered in the mountains. During the Kamakura period, two groups emerged and formalised shugendo guilds expanded their activities throughout Japan, mostly converging into the Honzan and Tozan sects.

From the Meiji period onwards up until the post war period Shugendo was prohibited. In the Meiji era, State-Shinto became the main pillar of Japan, with the government aiming to restore the Imperialist monarchy. With the promulgation of the 'Shinto-Buddha separation decree' (shinbutsu bunri), any remnant of 'combined faith', of which Shugendo was exemplary, was forcibly dismantled or destroyed.

For the most part, Shugendo groupings were ordered to be subsumed under the Esoteric-Buddhist sects, the Honzan group under the Tendai sect and the Tozan group under the Shingon sect.

Although Shugendo's social force has been drastically reduced to almost nothing, it's religious influence continues in unexpected places, borne out of the fact that to a certain extent Shugendo was able to revive in certain areas after World War 2. After the war, freedom of religion came to be recognized, and Shugendo was painstakingly revived. The Honzan sect's Yoshino school for example arose out as an independent sect and produced many excellent masters, leading to the present.

Beliefs surrounding mountains have been a foundation of culture from ancient times to the present day across the world and in Japan. In Japan beliefs associated with mountains (sangaku shinko) are rooted in various points of view; legends of 'opening' the mountain, the combinatory system of Kami and Buddhas, the mountain worship of farmers, the mountain worship of hunters, other worldviews of mountains, religious ascetics and mountain mandalas, from prayer to religious climbing, and tourism.

The idea of the “Founder” (opener of the mountain) is a common theme. Traditions associated with those who “opened” mountains all over Japan have come down to us through legendary history and oral lore.

From around the year 2000, sacred mountains and sacred sites all over Japan have been celebrating the 1250th or 1300th anniversaries of their founding. Associated with this has been a remarkable reaffirmation of their origins and a reconstruction of orthodoxy. Founders come from a broad spectrum – officially ordained Buddhist monks, wandering ascetics, shamans, hunters, mountain dwellers, Indigenous people, laymen.

The beings that guided them in the mountain included indigenous people, hunters and local tutelary kami, and the creatures that guided them were crows, hawks, deer, bears, snakes and dragons. Making their way into the mountain they encountered buddhas, bodhisattvas and kami who appeared to them, often in caves. There was also a deep connection with water and many numinous beings appeared out of ponds. As the tales became “history,” the founders were identified through personal names and the year of the foundation was assigned a year from the official chronology. The interpretation and repositioning of founder lore opens up a broad understanding of Japanese history and temples and shrines premised on the admixture of Buddhism and mountain worship and practices.

It makes us think about the last 150 years of the 'modern era'. Do events surrounding the 1300th anniversary of a mountain’s foundation as a religious centre act as a stimulus to reconsider its beliefs and practices introspectively? This is a question for future study.

For more articles see:

Mandala of the Mountain