» Articles: What is Shugendo? Short articles by Yamabushi

» What is Shugendo? // Koshikidake Shugendo
By Shokai Koshikidake, Head Priest at Kannon-ji Temple's Koshikidake Shugen Honshu. (Yamagata prefecture).

What is Shugendo? Can you answer this question? Your answer may or may not be true. There was once a person who suggested what I think would be apply as a perfect answer. He said, “Don’t think, feel.” You may have heard of him. His name was Bruce Lee. Shugendo is a Mountain religion which was developed through the intertwining of Ancient Shinto, Animism, Esoteric-Buddhism, Taoism, Shamanism and so forth. I believe ritual related to Kami worship was important ritual in Shugendo, but it was prohibited by the Meiji Government because it denied the concept that Japanese emperors were priest kings.

In this sense Shugendo is similar to Mixed Martial Arts. It is not a philosophy based on the study of dogma but a practical learning path of enlightenment based on practice and experience. Shugendo is a ritual system based on respect and gratitude for nature as the concealer of mystery and the keeper of natural law. En no Gyoja (役小角) is revered as the first person to put this teaching into practice. He laid the path for Shugendo but did not institute any texts or guidebooks.

In contrast to almost all other religious founders, Shugendo lacks rigid texts or dogmas because its source-origin is seen to be Mother Nature itself. The mystical experiences or revelations of one person may be subject to error and the subjectivities of the human condition. Even the greatest of dogmas built with the finest of words cannot surpass the spiritual realm of Mother Nature. In Shugendo one seeks and feels their way through each practice.

I am going to talk about what I have been feeling. In the Kumano mountain ranges where En no Gyoja had practiced, Kannon-Bosatsu, Yakushi-Nyorai and Amida-Nyorai are enshrined as the primary deities. Kannon-Bosatsu provides practical benefits in this world, Yakushi-Nyorai brings healing and Amida-Nyorai rules the realm of the Western Pure Land Paradise. The Kumano mountain range is seen as a sacred place where the deities grant these wonderful attributes and remove the barriers to our success. In times gone past many people, including successive emperors would visit Kumano to connect with these gracious deities in hopes of a ticket to Paradise and a happy death.

The idea of a happy death is an important concept in Shugendo, which concerns itself greatly with death. A popular Sutra called ‘Midasan’ includes the term ‘Jinen Jobutsu’. This means that humans have the potential to realise enlightenment via death. But how can we achieve enlightenment in this very body if we have to die? We can practice a spiritual death, and accumulate the power of the bodhisattva of compassion. That is the way of Shugendo.

There are practitioners who have died to save others. They had devoted themselves to difficult ascetic practices and fasting which preserved the body after death. These practitioners were enshrined as ‘mummified priests’ who had attained enlightenment in order to save all beings beyond the boundaries of life and death. This is a true aspect of ‘Jinen Jobutsu’.

The idea of ‘Sokushin Jobutsu’ is a associated with Shingon thought which says that one can achieve the ultimate state of Buddhahood in this life through esoteric practice and mystic ritual. It begins with the power of imagination. It is said that Kukai, the founder of the Shingon sect, continues his zenjo meditation practice in the mausoleum of Oku-no-in in Mt. Koya. Attendant priests at the Oku-no-in change his clothes and serve meals twice a day. It is believed that Kukai is still alive and continues his practice for the benefit of all beings.

Both Shugendo and the Shingon sect share the aspiration to save people and to be of benefit to all beings, but their paths can be very different. To live while practicing and to die to become a Buddha are like a paradox. Anyway, now you may understand the reason why I mentioned that Shugendo is strongly conscious of death.

What is the relationship between Shugendo and death? The term ‘Jinen-Jobutsu’ indicates that we can attain enlightenment through death. We as human beings are considered to be ‘originally enlightened’. If this is so, why must we die to attain it?

The six sources of emotional confusion, clinging, aversion, hatred and so on are called ‘Rokkon’. To purify ‘Rokkon’ is a primary purpose in Shugendo practice. In shugen practice one sees nothing, hears nothing, says nothing, smells nothing. The way of Mountain Training is to achieve spiritual enlightenment by gaining greater control over our selves. Shugendo practitioners devote themselves to religious practice completely isolated from the general world and seek to attain enlightenment through a spiritual death in the mountains. This process can be compared to the practices of some martial arts which initiate their practitioners into the mysteries of Budo by taking the waterfall or meditating in the mountains. Some schools of Budo named themselves ‘Shinden-Ryu’ which means the condition of being taught the mysteries of an art by a deity.

Why mountains as a place of practice? Well, over 70% of Japan is covered by mountainous territory. They are seen as places in which the gods and Buddhas can be encountered. Many sacred mountains such as Mt. Omine in the Yoshino mountain range are enshrined all over Japan and people worship them as objects of faith. Mountains have always been places of religious belief and asceticism across the world.

People enter the mountain in order to receive the providence of the divine. They venture into sacred places which separate them from casual life and society and seek to encounter divinities. To avoid contact with impurities practitioners sometimes live in a special place in which two cooking fires are made and abstain from meat and fish.

We must become spiritual beings in the mountains in order to meet with divinities, because they lack the bodies we have. We then stand on the same stage together with divinities. That is why we must purify our ‘Rokkon’ and receive spiritual death. This core practice, called Jukkai-Shugyou, involves a pilgrimage through the ten realms, from the worlds of hell to the Bosatsu and the spiritual realms.

Shokai is both a Tendai priest and practiced as a Yamabushi of the Mt. Haguro sect for over 25 years before restoring his family’s ancient sect. 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.


修験道とは何か?どなたか答えられますか?おそらくその答えは当たっているかもしれま せんし、外れているかもしれません。かつて、この問いに、ほぼ完璧な回答をした人物が います。おそらく皆さんも知っている人物です。彼はこう言いました。Don’t think, feel.’そうです、その人物こそはブルース・リーです。修験道は、日本に元々あった自然信仰を元に、仏教や道教、またはシャーマニズムなど外来の宗教を取り入れて体系化された実践本位 の宗教です。教義があって悟るものではなく 、体験や実践を通して感じ、気付くものなのです。大自然に秘められている神秘性や法則性への 深い洞察を通じた畏敬や感謝が祭祀の根底をなしているのです。いわば教祖は大自然なのです。そうした教えを最初に実践したのが役 行者です。彼は修験道を作り上げましたが、教義を現した経典を遺してはいません。

世界の多くの宗教は教祖が教義を説き、様々 な経典を遺しました。しかし自然に教えを乞 う修験道においては、不完全な人間が説く教 理は必要ではありません。修験道の真の教祖 は大自然なのです。誰か一人の神秘体験や啓示などの人為的な教 えは、人間のものである以上、誤りもあり、自然という本質を見失わせるものになりかね ません。立派な言葉を連ねて教義を築いても 、大自然や神霊の世界はそんなものに収まる ものではない。修験道では、これが絶対だと押し付けるのではなく、それぞれが体験し感 じる事こそが大事なのです。ブルース・リーが言う通り、Don’t think, feel.です。

それでは私が何を感じて来たか、お話して参りましょう。役行者が修行した熊野の中核をなす山々には 観音、薬師、弥陀が祀られています。観音は現世の利益をもたらし、薬師は闘病平癒を祈 願し、弥陀は浄土を司ります。この世で成功 し、病気も無く苦しまずに死んで極楽往生を果たす。こんな人々の願い叶える有難い仏が 集う。そこが熊野なのです。吉野に詣で、仏 たちと結縁をすれば、天国への切符を手に入れる為に人々はこぞって参拝をしました。歴 代の天皇までも吉野に詣でたほどです。人々は幸せな死を求めたのです。

修験道こそ死を意識した宗教はありません。修験道で宗派を越えて唱えられるお経の中に 「自然成仏」という言葉があります。人は本来、死ねば成仏できる。即ち死後、だれでも 悟りを得た仏となるのであるという事です。 しかし、死んでからでは利が無い、その為にはどうするか。死というものを疑似的に体験 し、衆生を救済する超人的な力を獲得すると いうものです。それが修験道の修行です。実際に死んで、人々の救済を果たそうとした 修験者もいます。それが出羽三山の湯殿山で 五穀を断ち、厳しい修行の末、ミイラとなった木喰行者たちです。死後腐らないように体 の脂肪を削ぎ、ミイラとして祀られ、死後の 世界から人々を救済するのです。まさにこれが自然成仏の姿です。

一方、真言宗には「即身成仏」という言葉も あります。密教儀礼を通し悟りの境地に至る事です。高野山の奥ノ院には、真言宗の開祖・空海が祀られています。毎日、奥ノ院では 空海に食事が供されています。今も生きて修 行を続け人々を救済していると信じられています。

共に衆生救済が目的とはいえ、生きて悟りを 得る真言宗に対し、死んで超人的な力を得る 修験道は似て非なるものであると申せましょう。私が修験道は強く死を意識した宗教であ るという理由はここにあります。では、修験道において、死と悟りはどのよう な関係があるのでしょうか。「自然成仏」と は、死ねば自然と悟りが得られるという考え です。本来、人間は悟っている存在である。では何故、死ななければその悟りを得られな いのか。それは、煩悩を生じさせる肉体が邪 魔をしているからです。おいしそうな食べ物 を見れば食べたくなる。疲れれば眠くなる。他人の成功を見ればうらやましくなる。見る 、聞く、嗅ぐ、味わう、触る、意識する、こ うした人間の生身の認識する根幹があらゆる 迷いを生むのです。

この六つの意識は六根と呼ばれ、その六根か ら生じる穢れを祓う事を六根清浄が修験道の 修行の眼目となります。そのため不浄なものを見ない、聞かない、嗅がない、味わわない 、触れない、感じないための修行が行なわれ ました。それが山で俗世との接触を絶つ峰中修行です。そうして環境での修行を通し、疑 似的に死を体験する事により、本来、獲得し ている悟りを目覚めさせるのです。武道家が山に籠り、滝を浴び瞑想して奥義や秘伝を獲 得する階梯もまた同じなのかもしれません。中には神から授かったとする神伝と名付ける流派もあります。


では、そうした修行の場となった山とは何で しょう?日本は山が7割を占める山国です。日本の国土は山に支配されていると言ってもいいでしょう。山には神仏が住まい常に下界 に住む人々を見守ってきました。吉野の大峰 を始め日本各地には霊山が鎮座し、信仰の対象とされてきました。山々は時として修行の 場となり祭祀が行われたのです。人々は山に住まう神仏と縁を結ぶために、日常を送っている生活の場から、神々の非日常の聖地へ踏み入る事になります。日常の穢れを持ち込むこまないために、一定期間、日常煮炊きする火を別にする為の特別な場で生活し、殺生を伴う肉、魚を断ちました。神仏は本来、肉体を持たない精神的存在です。人間も肉体を持っていては、神仏と見える事は出来ません。その為に修験者は六根を滅し、神仏と同様の存在となる為の疑似的な死を受け入れる修行を行う事になります。それが地獄から仏の世界に至る十界修行です。

Translated by Jisho

» What is Shugendo?  // Kinpusen-ji Shugendo
by Riten Tanaka, former head priest of Kinpusen-ji (Yoshino, Mt. Kinpu and the Omine mountain ranges).

The religious system traditionally based on shinbutsu-shugo (combinatory Buddha-Kami worship) and characteristic to Japan was overthrown by the ordinance to distinguish (seperate) Buddhism and Shinto in 1868. Shugendo mountain asceticism was not allowed to exist due to the State policy which established Shinto as the state religion and which assumed Ise-Jingu Grand Shrine as the top of the hierarchy. To make matters worse, a law banning Shugendo outright was introduced in 1872.

Shugendo seen all over Japan temporarily disappeared, and most of the Shugendo temples were deserted, destroyed or converted into Shinto shrines. Kinpusen-ji Temple became a deserted temple for some years. It was in the year of 1914 that Kinpusen-ji Temple revived its Shugendo as a Buddhist temple.

On the other hand, according to the Shrine merger law in 1906, from among 200,000 Shinto shrines, 70,000 Shinto shrines were destroyed and became owned by the national government one after another. The shrine forests were cut down, and the trees were sold to private entities. Due to our bitter experience of the past, today, I think we must reconsider not only Shintoism and Buddhism but also our tolerant and meditative environment and a culture which accepts any kind of religious standing.

In the modernization of the Meiji era, we started to use the word “religion” which includes the values of monotheism. However, Japan already had a world of beliefs such as Shintoism and Buddhism before the concept of monotheism was introduced. I think it may be difficult to find the key which enables us to get insights into the future if we don’t reconsider the environment, culture, and beliefs fostered from generation to generation.

Our religion, with a variety of gods fostering our spiritual mind and body, is absolutely different from monotheism from the time of creation. I think that there are many remaining places which were not influenced by the western god in the Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes of the Kii Mountain Range.

Shugendo (修験道) is a religion which is practiced by Yamabushi.

If one asks what Yamabushi is, the answer would be – Yamabushi is a mountain ascetic who practices Shugendo. One could ask what Shugendo is then again. Inevitably, this way one would spiral toward a vicious circle of Q&A.

What Shugendo truly is, is a religion leading us on the way to enlightenment through ascetic practices in the mountains. The person who practices Shugendo is called Shugenja (修験者) or Yamabushi (山伏).

What is Shugendo, then? Okay. I am going to answer with 4 viewpoints. I will let you hop, step, jump, and fly to Shugen world.. Let’s go!

1. It’s a mountain Religion.

Firstly, Shugendo is a mountain religion. It means you lie down in (submit to) the mountains and fields. The training ground for the religion is nature. Nature is like a training school.

To begin with, we have to understand that the background of Shugendo’s beliefs are deeply blended with mountainous geography. They have been worshiping and praising nature with deep respect because they believe that mountains have spiritual power since ancient time. The goal of Shugendo is to achieve spiritual enlightenment by practicing deep in the mountains beyond human abilities.

During this process we discipline ourselves and sharpen our wisdom. Especially, our practice of mountain asceticism every summer at Mt. Omine, which is called Omine-okugake, is a must for every Yamabushi of our school. This is tough asceticism. Participants are compelled to walk for 13 hours a day, no matter what happens. This is a pilgrimage of reintegration with great nature. We, Yamabushi are overwhelmed with gratitude for this opportunity. It allows us to get deeper inside of the sacred.

2: It is a practical religion.

The second aspect of Shugendo is pragmatism without being caught up in faiths of different religions.
Shugen is to get something through living activities and training in nature. By Shugen, people get some power called genriki . It is enlightenment from deities or some inspiration from your inner self. No barrier occurs between different religions. Monks and priests from different Buddhist sects or Shinto sects get together and walk the trails to have training here in this region. In this respect, the sacred sites of Shugendo are open to everyone who wants to get something. What they find depends on their way of seeking.

Shugendo is a practical religion. It is a religion where physical practice, using our bodies, takes the precedence. We practice awakening our senses all the time. This is the meaning of practical. Shugendo is not primarily concerned with teaching its dogma, such as a religious belief, by reading abstract textbooks. It is very practical. It could be viewed as a macho religion (laughs). That may be the reason why it attracts so many martial artists.

If we consider the practitioner of Shugendo as Yamabushi, we could understand why the ‘ practical’ aspect of Shugendo is so appealing. Nowadays we describe Yamabushi as 山 伏 ( in Chinese characters) but it used to be 山 臥 ( Yamabushi) .
臥 ( bushi, fusu) originally means to lie down on the ground and stay alive. So, the original understanding of kanji for Yamabushi was: a monk who lived in the fields, or mountains, while practicing asceticism. As followers of that ancient tradition we still train our bodies and minds in nature.

Shugen ( 修 験 ) is an abbreviation of Shugyo-tokken (修行得験) or Jisshu-jikken ( 実 修 実 験 ) . The detail meaning of those concepts is difficult to grasp but we could say that we practice physically with our bodies in order to obtain the spiritual power. In other words, we grasp the spiritual power (Shirushi験=awareness) through our body. This is the meaning of practice in Shugendo. We roam over hills (跋渉 Bassho) and dales (山谷 Sanya) practicing with our bodies to the limit of our abilities. Once we break through our limits we can obtain various spiritual atmospheres and powers - although we are still not heroes like Tarzan.

Hiking into mountains, praising deities and buddhas, submerging into waterfalls, and esoteric meditation are all typical Shugendo practices. They are all aspects of practical training with our physical bodies. They are not reason based but rather an actual experience through our bodies and five senses. We repeat these tough ascetic practices with open spiritual eyes in our mind. This is the way of Shugendo. The only way we become a real practitioner, beyond human knowledge, who obtains great power of nature is to obtain supernatural power through deities. Once achieved they are finally called Shugenja (修験者), those with the force. It is worth mentioning that Yamabushi practices are not limited to the mountains. Shugenja who had obtained spiritual power in mountains operate various activities in the community they live in, such as: Goma prayer, health and community services and many other activities fitting the needs of the people. Being active for the sake of others is truly the important task for Shugenja.

3: It is a Syncretization of Shinto with Buddhism.

Third-of-all, Shugendo is a syncretization of Ancient Shinto with Buddhism. In the foundational animism of Japan, divinities in nature, gods, non human-beings, 'nature' and humans exist in concentric circles. This can be contrasted to theistic beliefs where God's ultimate existence lies outside of these concentric circles. Comparing it to a family - father would be Buddhism, mother Shintoism, and Shugendo their baby. You might think that it is like a strange love between a vampire and a human girl. But it is not a forbidden love story for Shugendo! It is more like a chemistry between religions. The more you learn mountain asceticism, the more deeply you understand what syncretization and shinbutsu-shugo are.

4: Shugendo is a doctrine for lay people.

I want to point out that the most important feature of Shugendo is that it is a religion for ubasoku (「優婆塞」= lay people). In Buddhism, the male monks are called Biku ( 「 比 丘 」 ) , the female monks are called Bikuni (「比丘尼」).
In contrast, the practitioners who are lay (non-monastic) are called Ubasoku (「優婆塞」= male lay practitioners), Ubai/Ubasoka (「優婆夷」= female lay practitioners). The primary significance of Shugendo originates in a doctrine where lay people as well as monks and priests can dedicate their lives to practice. The doctrine of Shugendo does not discriminate whether you are a lay person or a priest. The establishment of Shugendo had an important effect on lay society opening doors for common people to participate proactively in religious activities as equal practitioners.

En No Gyoja ( 「 役 行 者 」 ) , is considered a founding father of Shugendo. He never received ordination during his life. As a lay person he was called 'En No Ubasoku'. Nowadays we chant the mantra which praises him with word 'Ubasoku'. We greatly value lay components in Shugendo. We are being taught that we should get out from the inner part of the temple and contribute as ordinary people in lay society. That is what is important in Shugendo.

Shugendo is a religion for ordinary lay people, and they are the operators. Shugendo is a religion which has not been bounded by a religious doctrine or theory, but it is a teaching which has been standing for people's pure devotion. Shugendo is the most typical Japanese religion. Within Shugendo, people have been worshiping Gods and Buddha as respectable beings without discrimination. Not only Shugendo, but also the other religions treat deities the same way. From ancient times, Shugendo has been worshiping both Gods and Buddha. I think that is the origin of Japanese religion. And mountain worship which had already existed before the dissemination of Shinto and Buddhism had organized the base of Shugendo. If you watch the animated movie "Mononoke- hime" directed by Hayao Miyazaki, you may be able to grasp some understanding of the Japanese conception for the mountains.

From ancient times, mountain people believed in a Mountain Deity who ruled animals and forests in deep mountains. Not only them but the people who engaged in rice cultivation believed in the Mountain Deity as the guardian of agriculture. They enshrined the mountain deity in a small hall at the foot of mountains. Thereafter, some people started to confine themselves in the mountains to engage in ascetic practices. The most typical practitioner was Ozunu En who played an important role as the founder of Shugendo. His main achievement was to combine Shugendo with Mikkyo, which was systemized by Saicho and Kukai years later. During that time people believed that mountain ascetic practitioners, called Shugenja ( 「 修 験 者 」 ) had special abilities achieved through austere training. Still today, Shugenja regard the mountain as another world where ancestors’ spirits live. They treat the sacred place with great respect. There are holy existences in the mountains. Shugenja have been searching for them by going into the mountains to connect with them and practice getting the power (genriki) from them. Shugenja also started to organize pilgrimages which let people visit Sacred Mountains. Theses pilgrimages soon became popular.

I think this view perceives mountains differently than what is commonly held in the West. In my humble opinion, Westerners nowadays not have a religion which looks up to the mountain as a deity. For example, in the Magic Mountain written by Thomas Mann, the movies of 'The Lord of the Rings' or the Harry Potter Series, we can see that the mountains are regarded as the places where devils live. Western societies associate themselves with Judaism, Christianity, or Muslim as well as other monotheic religions that do not understand concept of 'Yao Yorozu No Kami' (eight million gods). There is no Nature God in Christian religion. God had created the nature, but God does not exist in their nature. God is always an absolute being above the nature.

The religion of Yamabushi had been ordained with Syncretization of old mountain religion with Japanese Shinto and Buddhism, Taoism, Zoroasturian, Yin Yang philosophy etc from all across the world. Shugendo has been connecting deeply with these basic concepts. That is why I say that Shugendo is the most representative Japanese religion based on Japanese religious wisdom.

Mr. Riten Tanaka is a former head priest of Kinpusen Temple. He started his practice of Shugendo when he was a child under his father’s guidance. Thanks to Mr. Riten Tanaka efforts, Kumanokodo Road was registered as a world heritage site ( cultural heritage) by UNESCO in 2004.

» Shugendo and Shogo-in Temple // Honzan Shugendo
By Gomonshu Miyagi Tainen, Head Priest of Shogo-in Temple Honzan Shugen Honshu (Kyoto)

Shogo-in is a headquater of Shugendo, a harmonised religion of Buddhism and mountain (and other animist faith) worship. The temple had changed sites several times in Kyoto due to fire disasters; the present building was reconstructed in its birthplace in 1676

The temple has had an intimate relationship with the royal family due to numerous members of royalty serving as head priest (monzeki). In 1788 the emperor at the time stayed in Shogo-in as his temporary imperial palace in order to avoid fires which had burnt down most of the city. The building consists of Shinden, the ceremonial and administrative center of the temple, which was originally transferred from the imperial palace.

Inside the building more than 130, 300 year old sliding door paintings (fusumae) are preserved. These are the works of Kano Masunobu and Kano Einou, both belonging to the school of Kano, which is most celebrated in Japanese history. The paintings of the temple are full of vivid colours, gold, natural plants (pine trees), birds (peacocks and cranes) or Chinese historical facts. Plenty of statues related to Shugendo are conserved in the temple, such as Fudomyo-Ou, En no-Gyoja and Zaou-Gongen. Fudomyo-Ou is considered the principle worship of Shugendo and known as his facial expression of anger. However, his hair style, wrinkles on the face, physical features, posture, belongings etc all stand for some Buddhist preaching.

The temple conserves not only a statue of Fudomyo-Ou, but several others that were rescued from abandoned temples. Ennogyoja was alive around 1350 years ago and the founder of Shugendo. Kongo Zaou-Gongen is a consolidated form of three differed forms of Buddhist worship, namely Shaka-Nyorai, Kannon-Bosatsu and Miroku Bosatsu.

From ancient times, people in Japan believed that deities inhabit any place - mountains, sea etc. In other words they believed in nature itself as being the deities. In the 6th century, Buddhism was introduced to Japan, but the previous deities were not expelled. The deities were worshiped in aposition with the Buddhas instead. Specifically, they assumed that the deities were the temporary appearances of the Buddhas. Shugendo was formed as a result of this unique form of faith, influenced by Confucianism, Taoism and so on.

Shugendo aims to train the mind and the body through mountain practice. The practitioners are called Yamabushi and they wear the traditional uniform named 'Suzukake'. Not only do they perform rites for the deities and the Buddhas, but traditionally they also utilised their knowledge about medical herbs and so on learned through mountain life.

Japan was familiar with Shugendo for a long time, but in the Meiji era, Shugendo faced too much oppression. In 1868 the government issued the ordinance to distinguish Shinto and Buddhism, and in 1872 they constituted a law banning Shugendo. In addition, an anti-Buddhism movement brought more difficulty to Shugendo. After that matter, Shogo-in's branch temple, which had amounted to 25000 in the past, decreased sharply to 500. And then, only 150 branch temples are in existence now.

We can hardly ever see Yamabushi in today's Japan. But their existence are well known to people, and they still continue to practice in various places.

Miyagi Tainen was born in 1931. In his youth he worked for a newspaper company and was active in Anti-War campaigning. As part of his Anti-War work he became close to the Buddhist community in Vietnam, a connection which he maintains to this day. In 2007 Miyagi became the head of Shogoin Temple's Honzan Shugenshu.

» What is Shugendo? // Haguro Shugendo
By His Holiness Sho-Daisendatsu Kokai Shimazu (Haguro Shugendo, Yamagata Prefecture)

From Cradle-Dewa Shonai: An excerpt from Sennen no Shugen: Haguro Yamabushi no Sekai
(1,000 Years of Shugen: The world of Haguro Yamabushi), 

「 川の音であったり 風の音であったり 自然が我々の心を慰めてくれる。

"..The sounds of wind, rivers, trees and nature comforts our hearts. We encounter the primordial power of the great mother there. As people we've forgotten to realise this.."
                                                                                                                     ~Shimazu Kokai
「島津 弘海 氏」

Mountains are themselves gods, sacred lands where divine spirits reside, and holy ground that cultivates new life. Going into seclusion on that holy ground (the mountain), making pilgrimages from mountain to valley, practicing toho (mountain asceticism), and carrying out difficult training, removes impurities, leaves behind doubts, and opens the path to Buddhism (practitioners become persons who can extend help to all living things).

The ascetic training has three stages, the ichi-no-shuku, ni-no-shuku, and san-no-shuku. Priests pass through the hardship of the present life, go through the acts carried from the past, and break free of the circle of transmigration of the future to become a person who can live peacefully in the Pure Land of eternally tranquil light.

    In other words,

      Ichi-no-shuku (First Lodging): Overcome the past life

      Ni-no-shuku (Second Lodging): Pass from the present life to enlightenment

      San-no-shuku (Third Lodging): Pass to the sea of birth-death of the future

It is ascetic training for the purpose of transcending the three worlds of past, present, and future. In Shugendo, when setting foot in the other world of the mountain, the everyday profane world is discarded. The mountain ascetic dies, is reborn, and aspires to transformation. Rites begin with one’s own funeral. With harmony between mother and father, conception occurs and the body resides in the mother’s womb.

Practicing the “10 realms” ascetic training, which is a process of attaining Buddhahood (to become a Buddha) cleanses  worldly passions and defilement clinging to the new physical body and spirit growing inside the womb. This symbolizes a figurative death and rebirth where the body joins with Dainichi Buddha, becomes a deeply merciful Bodhisattva, and is born into the human world.

The mountain mandala is a projection of actual mountains, not only a Buddhist world that exists in fantasy. Shugendo believes this world (the universe) is the world of Buddha and that utilizing the body to obtain experiences will open up ways of living.

The World of Shugendo: Mandala of the Cosmos, The Five Rings, The World of Kya/Ka/Ra/Ba/A

In part of nature—5 elements (earth, water, fire, wind, air), 5 Colors (yellow, black, red, white,blue), seasons, directions

In the human body—5 limbs (head, arms, legs), 5 viscera (liver, lungs, heart, kidney, spleen),

5 senses

In both—5 Buddhas, 5 Nyorai

Thus, Shugendo teaches that both the inside and outside of the human body, and everything in this world, is an endless cycle animated by the compassion and wisdom of Buddha.

Based on the Five Rings/Mandala of the Cosmos, everything comes from blessings and spiritual awakening. The cruelty of nature and fear of the unknown—everything and anything can be accepted as they are. In other words… Discovering the compassion of Buddha (Nature’s blessings and power to heal) within malevolent gods (threat of savage Nature)—Honji-suijaku (Shinto and Buddhist syncretism), birth of incarnation.

Realize the compassion of Buddha lies within humans.

Understand for the first time that humans are a part of Nature.

The hardship of life, aging, illness, death, and even happiness can be accepted as major cycles of Nature.

Realize you are alive as a part of Nature.

Understand the connection between oneself and others, and when that disparity is overcome, know that living through altruism (living for others) is the path of life for humans.

In other words, practice the way of Buddha/being a bodhisattva.

When introduced to Buddhism, immediately go to the mountain.

Look and experience Nature through the teachings of Buddha.

Understand the compassion and blessings residing there.

This unique form of faith is supported and cultivated by the teachings of Shugendo that extol the realization to help others and the Buddhist teachings.

Indeed, it is a power so strong that Buddhism in Japan can be found through Shugendo. 

Develop the path to the world of living Buddhas.

Shugendo is a path of faith that is practiced while learning through experiences amid Nature.

Stated differently, Shugendo naturally fosters a spirit that values nature as precious.

“Mountains, rivers, grasses, and trees—everything will attain Buddhahood.”
—An important lesson for persons undergoing ascetic training at Kotaku-ji

The universe of esoteric Buddhism is replaced with mountain nature (mountain mandala) and the mandala of Nature is experienced with the body.  We, who have only our present selves, will follow the suggestions of the mandala, and through this action will at once exist both as ourselves and as objects of the natural world. We will become grass, trees, and animals. With the great power of imagination (ability to contemplate) we will be reborn into a spirit that has consideration for those objects and a reverential heart. Fundamentally, the universe is the origin of life. Dainichi Buddha, Acala, and others are manifestations of that. Humans, too, are nothing more than part of that. By nature, humans are a microcosm that hold the sacred power of life

and exist as goodness in motion that conforms with the macrocosm.

The Ultimate Aim of Haguro Shugen:

Realize the universal divinity and assimilation capacity of the Cosmic Buddha Mahavairocana and Acala through ascetic mountain practices to comprehend the universe. Become a bongaichinyo, sokushinjobutsu, and jishinsokubutsu to assist others and live in the land of Buddha. Ascetic practices provide awakening through purification, developing divinity, assimilating holiness, and acquiring sacred power. However, today when the acquisition of sacred power and enlightenment are overlooked, extraordinary magic and mystics become a sharp contrast. Fundamentally, incantations and prayers are the fulfillment of people’s honest prayers and wishes, and aim to improve people’s spirits. A supplicant spirit strengthens the human mental power, and gives balance and a sense of connectedness between humans and nature.

“Aim to escape from loneliness and despair. Give people the courage to live.”

This is why Shugendo can become the shared light of the common people.

Shugendo values the steady, step-by-step journey.

In the current day there are two Aki-no-Mineiri Rituals performed each year under the banner of 'Haguro Shugendo': the first is the Haguro Shugendō Aki-no-Mineiri performed by Dewasanzan Shrine (Jinja) which stripped the ritual of it's Buddhist elements following the Meiji period persecution (the 'Shinto' version represented by Fumihiro Hoshino). The second is the ancient Aki-no-Mineiri performed at the Mt. Haguro Shugendō's Kōtakuji which (often with great difficulty) retained its ancient combinatory practices. His Holiness Kokai Shimazu was the previous Sho-Daisendatsu of this version (often labelled the 'Buddhist' version) of Haguro Shugendo.

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.

An Introduction to Shugendo. From Mark Schumacher's Onmarkproductions site:

Shugendō can be loosely translated as "path of training, testing and power." Shugendō is an important Kami-Buddha combinatory sect that blends pre-Buddhist mountain worship, Kannabi Shinkō 神奈備信仰 (the idea that mountains are the home of the dead and of spirits), shamanistic beliefs, animism, ascetic practices, Chinese Yin-Yang mysticism and Taoist magic, and the rituals and spells and framework of Esoteric (Tantric) Buddhism. Practitioners are called Shugenja 修験者 or Shugyōsha 修行者 or Keza 験者  and Yamabushi 山伏 (those who lie down in the mountain). These various terms are typically translated into English as ascetic monk or mountain priest.

As a general rule, this sect stresses physical endurance as part of it's path to enlightenment. Practitioners perform seclusion, fasting, meditation, incantations, recite sutras, and engage in austere feats of endurance such as standing/sitting under cold mountain waterfalls or in snow. Another particular practice of Shugendō devotees is to set up stone or wood markers (Jp. = Hide 碑伝) along mountain trails. There are also precise procedures the practitioner must observe when entering into any sacred mountain space (Jp. = Nyūzan 入山 or Sanpai Tozan 参拝登山), with each stage consisting of a specific mudra 確認印 (Jp. = Kakunin-in or hand gesture with religious meaning), mantra 真言 (Jp. = Shingon or sacred verbal incantation) and waka 和歌 (classical Japanese poem).

Says scholar Paul L. Swanson in Shugendō and the Yoshino-Kumano Pilgrimage:
“Shugendō is a religious practice which took the form of an organized religion about the end of the Heian period (794-1184) when Japan's ancient religious practices in the mountains came under the influence of various foreign religions. This loosely organized sect includes many types of ascetics, including unofficial monks (ubasoku 優婆塞), peripatetic holy men (hijiri 聖), pilgrimage guides (sendatsu 先達), blind musicians, exorcists, hermits, diviners, wandering holy men, and others.” 

En no Gyōja, Father of Shugendō
The sect's most celebrated sage is En no Gyōja 役行者 or 役の行者. Also known as En no Ozunu 役小角 (or Ozuno), En no Shōkaku 役の小角, and En no Ubasoku 役優婆塞. Gyōja means ascetic, so En no Gyōja literally means "En the Ascetic." Ubasoku is the Japanese form of Sanskrit "upāsaka," meaning adult male lay practitioner or devotee or Buddhist layman. En no Gyōja's clan name, En, is also often read E; hence E no Gyōja, E no Shōkaku, E no Ozunu, etc.

He is recognized as the father of Shugendō. His posthumous title is Shinben Daibosatu 神辺大菩薩 (also read Jinben Daibosatsu and meaning Miraculous Great Bodhisattva). This legendary holy man was a mountain ascetic of the late 7th century. Like much about Shintō-Buddhist syncretism, his legend is riddled with folklore. He was a diviner at Mt. Katsuragi 葛城山 on the border between Nara and Osaka. Popular lore says he climbed and consecrated numerous sacred mountains. En no Gyōja is mentioned in old Japanese texts like the Shoku Nihongi 続日本紀 (compiled around +797) and the Nihon Ryōiki 日本霊異記 (compiled around +822).

According to the Nihon Ryōiki, he was born in the Katsuragi 葛城 mountains of Nara Prefecture, and hailed from the Kamo 賀茂 clan and the family Kamo-no-E-no-Kimi 賀茂役公. In the Shoku Nihongi, his name is given as En no Kimi Ozunu 役君小角 (also read E no Kimi Shōkaku). His clan had lived in this mountainous region for generations -- a verdant region with numerous varieties of medicinal plants. He reportedly gained a great knowledge of these medical plants and managed a garden in the area, but for some reason he was forced to give up his plot in 675 AD. But by this time he had already gained a reputation as a healer.

Shugendō Schools - Influence of Tendai & Shingon
Shugendō’s development was strongly influenced by the Kami-Buddha religious matrix of the medieval period. During the Heian era (794-1185), shrines were constructed alongside temples on many sacred mountains, epitomized by the powerful Tendai shrine-temple multiplex on Mt. Hiei 比叡 (northeast of Kyoto) and the holy places throughout the nearby Kumano mountain range. Shugendō beliefs were particularly affected by the Tendai 天台 school (then arguably Japan’s mainstream Buddhist sect), and by the Shingon 真言 school of Buddhism. The Tendai school attempted a synthesis of various Buddhist doctrines, including faith in the Lotus Sutra, esoteric rituals, Amida (Pure Land) worship, and Zen concepts. Tendai gained great court favor, rising to eminence in the late-Heian era. Shingon was introduced to Japan around the same time as Tendai. Both schools played monumental roles in the merger of Kami-Buddha beliefs.

Over time, a complex web of affiliations developed among Shugendō, Tendai, and Shingon sites. These affiliations were codified by the government in the early Meiji period, with Tendai-affililiated Shugendō designated the Honzan-ha 本山派 branch and Shingon-affililiated Shugendō designated the Tōzan-ha 当山派 branch; "Tendai-affiliated Shugendō certainly dates from medieval times, but the emergence of a conscious Tozan-ha and its identification with Shingon can really only be dated from the Edo period onward."

Seikiguchi Makiko, a scholar of the Tōzan-ha, emphasizes this point as well, claiming that the sectarian distinction between Tendai Shugendō and Shingon Shugendō that emerged in the Edo period failed to accurately reflect the situation in medieval times. That is still the case today. It is misleading, she says, to discuss the pre-Edo Tōzan-ha simply in terms of Shingon doctrine.

Banning of Shugendō.
In 1868 the Meiji government outlawed the fusion of Kami-Buddha practices (Shinbutsu Bunri 神仏分離) and forcibly separated Shintō and Buddhism. In 1872, the Shugendō sect was banned, being an example of combinatory religious practice. Shugendō sites either became Shintō shrines (e.g. Hakusan, Mt Hiko), thus losing their Shugendō heritage, or they became branches of either Tendai or Shingon Buddhism. Mt Haguro was an exception, for it managed to retain a small Buddhist presence that successfully maintained its Shugendō traditions. But overall, a large number of practices were destroyed and mountain-entry rituals in particular were not kept up. Adds scholar Gaynor Sekimori: “Shugendō was banned in 1872 for its eclecticism by a reformist government anxious to be perceived as having shed the shackles of a ’feudal’ or benighted past. Shugendō priests were given the choice of becoming (Shintō) shrine priests or fully ordained priests within the tradition (Tendai or Shingon) to which their institutions had been affiliated, or giving up their religious role completely. The very small number (less then ten per cent) who joined Buddhist institutions found themselves ranked inferior to regular priests and encouraged to integrate with their new sects rather than try to maintain their Shugendō traditions. Initially they were forbidden to wear their distinctive robes, to perform Shugendō-style rituals, and to conduct Shugendō-related activities.”

Modern Shugendō.
Shugendō was not allowed to exist independently until 1946, when the old legislation was rescinded. This legislative change prompted a large number of Shugendō schools / lineages / groups -- those forced to take cover within the Tendai and Shingon sects during the Meiji period -- to declare their insititutional independence from Tendai and Shingon. Some of the most important independent sects that emerged include:
•those associated with the pre-Meiji Honzan-ha (本山派 now known as Tendai Jimon-shū, Honzan Shugen-shū, and Kinpusen Shugen Honshū)
•those assocated with the Tōzan-ha (当山派 Shingon-shū Daigo-ha)
•those associated with Haguro Shugendo (Haguro Shugen Honshū)
•In the past seven decades, Shugendō practice has slowly recovered and today can be found in various localities around the nation


Copyright Shugendo Studies Oceania  2019

Shugendo: The Way (Do) of Experiencing Spiritual Power (Gen) through Disciplined Ascetic Practice (Shu).
The following presents short articles by renowned figures across the Shugendo sects. These are not academic speeches but rather the words of experience from seasoned practitioners and will give an introductory overview of what Shugendo is. The first is by Shokai Koshikidake, Head Priest of Kannon-ji Temple's Koshikidake Shugen Honshu; the second is by Riten Tanaka, ex-Head Priest of Kinpusenji Temple's Yoshino Shugendo; the third is by Gomonshu Miyagi Tainen, Head of Shogo-in Temple's Honzan Shugenshu; the last piece is by Kokai Shimazu, ex-Sho-Daisendatsu of Kotaku-ji Shozen-in's Haguro Shugendo.
The first two pieces were submitted for the Shugendo Cultural Studies Association magazine (also called Shugendo).
For more articles see the blog: Mandala of the Mountain.Translated by Jisho.