The Emergence of Esoteric-Buddhism and Mountain-Valley Asceticism

From The Ideological Development of Ancient Mountain-Worship:
The Emergence of Shugendo in Context

BY Kusawake Kenko.
First Published in Shugen in 1956. Translated & edited by Jisho Schroer.

According to the Vimalakirti Sutra (維摩経; yuimakyō), Sakyamuni travelled through great forests and valleys along his quest for unsurpassed-nirvana. The Saddharmapuṇḍarīka Sutra (妙法蓮華經; myōhōrenge-kyō), too, tells us, "Bodhisattvas, practice valiant effort and enter the deep recesses of valleys and mountains with the mind of the Buddha-Way." It is safe to say that the cultivation of the Buddhadharma amidst rivers, forests and mountains has been an inseparable aspect since the very beginning of Buddhism's emergence. In Japan, too, the Manyoshu (万葉集), a collection of classical poetry, speaks of seeking the Way amidst the voices of the mountains and rivers. These statements tell us that the mind of the Way and the beauty of the natural world are intimately connected. Mountain-forests in particular are spoken of as ideal places to practice, isolated from the regularities of casual-life. Thus the mountain-forest, beyond being a place of natural beauty, developed into a place of practice for those seeking the Way. The thought and practice of Shugendo can be said to derive from the Buddhist practice of dhūta-asceticism (頭陀行; zudagyō). Moreover, we can look to the life of a Brāhman which is divided into four ideal periods, with the fourth being a period of seclusion and wandering as an ascetic-sage amidst the mountain-forests. These practices were associated with meditation and the cultivation of dhyana-samadhi, something that has been transmitted to this day as a basic foundation of Buddhism.

In Japan, the first 2-300 years following Buddhism's introduction was largely characterised by strictly controlled large scale events sponsored by the state, such as the erection of statues, sutra recitation and memorial services. On the other hand, we find that slowly, individual efforts to study and practice meditation began to emerge outside of this state-system. As belief in the efficacy of the Buddhist mantra-approach grew, we see a sharp increase in the number of monks and nuns who entered the mountains seeking wakefulness. With this we also begin to see the development of laws which sought to regulate these kinds of practitioners within the codes which governed officially-ordained monks and nuns. Article 13 of the laws governing monks and nuns (僧尼令; soniryō), for example, declares the following:

"The purpose of a priest's life is to practice meditation and Buddhist discipline. This means monks should rejoice in peace and quiet and not mix with the mundane world. If there is anyone who seeks to dwell in the mountains...the three deans of his temple shall sign the request. Then a monk or nun in the capital shall apply to the Central Monastic Office (造寺司; zōjishi), who shall contact the Bureau of Buddhist Affairs (玄番寮; genbaryō). In the case of a monk or nun outside the capital, the three deans shall contact the district and province, where officials shall verify the request and report it to the Great Council of State (太政官; daijōkan). The Council shall then respond, informing the province and district officials of the location of the monastic retreat. Thereafter, the monk or nun must not move to any other location."

The fact that regulations governing monks and nuns who practiced in the mountains were stipulated indicates that there was a significant number of these mountain-practitioners as early as the Taihō era (701-704). In the 17th year of the the Tenpyō era (729-749), the emperor, responding to unforeseen events, arranged the performance of a Bhaiṣajya-guru (藥師; yakushi) ceremony at a large temple in the Kinai area (and subsequently across various well-known sacred mountains). We can see that in these events people performed kitō-prayers, sutra-recitation and rainmaking ceremonies at mountain-forest temples. We also see that those who performed services on behalf of the state were fluent in sutras such as the Golden Light Sūtra (金光明最勝王経; konkōmyō-saishō-ō-kyō), the Humane Kings Sūtra (仁王経; ninnō-kyō), the Prajñāpāramitā sūtras (般若経; hannya-kyō) and the Mahāmāyūrī-vidyārājñī-sūtra (孔雀王咒経; kujaku-ō-ju-kyō) along with various dharani. This phenomenon of large-scale events dedicated to prayers for rainmaking taking place across famous mountains provided the perfect conditions for generalising the belief in the merit of practicing and reciting sutras in the mountains, which in turn increased the popularity of these events. Out of this trend grew a new kind of combinatory practice which promoted a relationship between ancient beliefs related to mountains and Buddhist cultivation. Kami-related beliefs and cults gradually became coloured by Buddhism due to the influence of these movements.

At the beginning of the Taika-era reforms (645-650), the expectations placed on Buddhist monks and nuns in terms of practice were extremely low. In addition to this, strictly enforced regulations meant that they had very little freedom in terms of their scope of movement or religious activity. The continuation of this attitude towards Buddhism remains clear in the early days of the Nara period (710-794), where we find in the Sōniryō statements such as:

"Monks and nuns who live outside official temples, construct special grounds for retreat or practice, gather people to teach, who profit through crime or defy the authority of monastic superiors shall all be forced to laicize. Should the officials of the province or district know of these crimes and fail to report them, they shall also be punished...Those wishing to beg for alms must have a petition signed by three deans submitted for approval to the district and provincial authorities. In all cases begging shall be done before noon, and no amounts exceeding what is permitted are to be requested."

"Monks and nuns who practice fortune telling, oracular-divination [ie; tortoise-shell divination], sorcery (巫術; fūjūtsu) and healing (療病; ryōbyō) shall all be made to laicize. Monks and nuns may, however, aid those who are sick through healing methods and prayer-practices recognised under the laws governing Buddhist monks and nuns."

Not only were monks expected to recite a relatively large number of arcane sutras as part of their academic work, but the actual study of upāsaka, too, required the recitation of several volumes of arcane sutras and dharanis. For example, as a prerequisite for their qualifications, they were required to recite the Saddharmapuṇḍarīka Sutra (妙法蓮華經; myōhōrenge-kyō) and the Humane Kings Sūtra (仁王経; ninnō-kyō) by memory. Without these prerequisites, they would not have been able to receive qualifications.

All of these things serve to highlight that the esoteric aspects of Buddhism, then characterised by the cultivation of divine-virtue and prayer-efficacy, were widely known and understood to carry a high-degree of importance during this period. Esoteric-Buddhism emphasised ritual-prayer and the efficacy of Dharma-power. How was this Dharma-power cultivated? For this we can refer to the Holy Acalanatha Sūtra (聖不動経; shō-fudō-kyō), which tells us:

"With experiential-testimony and the aspiration to realise the Dharma, seek the tranquillity of a mountain-forest and find a pure place to construct a practice hall. Here the hōma ceremony should be performed. With this, fulfilment of practice will come quickly."

Thus early on, Esoteric-Buddhist practice was strongly associated with practicing in sacred mountains. Gyōson (1055-1135), the Abbot of Byōdō-in (平等院大僧正; byōdōin-daisōjō), was said to have expressed the greatest experiential-power of the time. In the 1254, Collection of Ancient and Modern Tales (古今著聞集; kōkon-chomonjū), we read:

"..Gyōson received the great Dharma-teachings of the three divisions, the practices of the various holy principal-images, the profound methods of the hōma and was granted abhiṣeka. Following his ordination, he would not stay in his residence but rather would worship Maitreya at the main-hall. At the age of twelve he began the practices of Acalanatha-Vidyaraja. At seventeen he left in pursuit of his training and did not return to Kyoto for eighteen years. During this time he practiced at Omine and Katsuragi, places well known for the realisation of of spiritual efficacy and testimony. He gave up his life in this way for a span of fifty years without retreating in his practice. In this time, he never missed his services and hōma-dedications. Counting the days, they amount to more than 8000 before and after his wandering. He also conducted hundreds of worship-services (礼拝; raihai) daily.."

In this way, we can see that Gyoson spent the majority of his life undertaking disciplined training and cultivation (苦修練行; kūshū-rengyō). Such training in varying degrees was characteristic of the period and constituted something that all practitioners (験者; genja) aspired to. That is, this 'mountain-asceticism' (山修行; yama-shugyō) among sacred mountains developed in tandem with the spread of Esoteric-Buddhism. In the Nara period (710–784), we continue to see this trend of mountain-asceticism with practitioners such as Gyōki (668–749) [who practiced outside of the official system] and Ryōben (689 – 773). During the Heian period (794-1185), too, mountain-asceticism was recognised as one of the most important aspects of Buddhist training. Saichō (Dengyō-Daishi) and Kūkai (Kōbō-Daishi) represent the greatest efforts to sweep away the corruption which began to characterise much of the clergy in the Nara period and their teachings encouraged the rise of what we now know as Heian period Buddhism.

In Zhiyi's (Tendai-Daishi) Móhē zhǐguān/Mahaśamatha-vipaśyanā (摩訶止観; maka-shikan), we read that Zhiyi advocated seclusion in peaceful places and that the suitability of a dwelling place could be ranked by three: "First, the deep mountains and distant valleys, second, places renowned for dhūta-asceticism, third, a monastery of the sangha." Here, Zhiyi affirms mountain-forests as the best places to practice. Saichō, too, wrote of his pursuit of the Dharma amidst mountains and forests in his Clarifying the Precepts (顕戒論; kenkairon). In his Rules in Six Parts (六条式; rokujōshiki), Saichō spoke of remaining at Hieizan for twelve years and wrote that "Sages who act and speak wisely, dwell in the mountains and guide the people are treasures of the nation." Kukai throughout his works also praised practice amidst the forests and mountain streams. The Susiddhi-kara (蘇悉地經; sōshitchi-kyō), too, speaks of practicing in the mountains and finding suitable locations therein. The Arcane Dharani of Akṣobhya's Retinue (不動使者陀羅尼祕密法; fudō-shisha-darani-himitsu-hō) and the Secret Dharani Sūtra of Holy Acalanatha (稽首無動尊秘密陀羅尼経; keishū-mūdōson-himitsu-darani-kyō), too, both reinforce the sentiment that a sacred place deep in the mountain-forests is necessary for the cultivation of the Dharma.

The magnificence that characterised Heian period Buddhism was already set in motion during the Nara period, though it was Kukai who perfected these esoteric doctrines and, as an advocate of practice in the mountain-forests, arose as the perfect representative of those times. This attitude continued to pervade the Mahayana and the custom of mountain practice became even more widely spread. One after the other, priests of both Tendai and Shingon entered the mountains which were known as sacred, and this, in combination with the traditions and faith in En'no Ozunu propagated the traditions of mountain sages (聖; hijiri). Thus in the Heian-period folk-song anthology, Songs to Make the Dust Dance (梁塵秘抄巻; ryōjin-hisho-kūden-shū), we find a plethora of folk-songs which speak to the widespread existence of these practitioners:

"Where are the hijiri? Where?
Omine, Katsuragi...
oh, Mino! oh, Katsuo!
In the south,
Nachi and Shingu of Kumano!"

articles | the emergence of esoteric-buddhism and mountain-valley asceticism