Strong Like a Mountain:  A Short History of Shugendo at Mt. Koshikidake

                      Strong like a Mountain:
       A Brief History of Koshikidake-Kannon-ji Temple.

                                                                 By Jisho Schroer



The following will place Mt. Koshikdake (甑岳) in Shugendo's history. It will serve as an accessible, brief history of the mountain and Koshikidake Kannon-ji temple's relationship to Shugendo. It will also give readers an idea of the Separation Orders which were the death nail for Shugendo and practices associated with combinatory buddha-kami worship, of which Shugendo is exemplary. The article concludes with a brief look at Koshikidake Kannon-ji's revival as a Shugen sect.


Introduction:


Looking to Sakyamuni's formative experiences in the mountains and forests of Northern India, the hermits of Zhongnan, the holy saints at Mt. Sinai and the mountain ranges of Olympus, the ancient world, broadly speaking, looked to mountains as liminal, other-worldly places. These places were often culturally restricted, being the haunts of the dead (as in Japan), of wild animals, of ancestors, of the 'undomesticated' elements of society, of the rebellious and of awe-inspiring divinity.


Since ancient times in the archipelago now known as Japan, mountains have been viewed as sites where divinities descended (神の鎮座 / 神の磐座), as Pure Lands and as celestial realms inhabited by the souls (霊魂) of the dead. As watersheds, mountains have been regarded as the sites which govern fertility and provide water as the lifeblood of agricultural activity. This ancient cosmology linked to mountains (山岳信仰) and the dead (神奈備信仰) over time fused together with local kami-cults as well as doctrines related to folk-shamanic, Taoist and above all Esoteric-Buddhist thought and practice.


Shugendo emerged as a broad movement during the Heian period in the 7th century - at the crossroads of these intersecting belief systems - when practitioners began entering the mountains seeking to re-live and encounter the experiences of the founders of these teachings; a practice which placed them outside of the official ritsuryō (律令) system of state sanctions.


Among these stood out figures such as En-no-Ozunu (役君小角) and Nōjō Taishi (能除太子), recognised and revered today among the patriarchs of Shugendo's lineage. These practitioners secluded themselves and absorbed themselves in practices related to kami and buddhas and returned to benefit and respond to the life of the community with religious activity and ritual-prayer (祈祷法). Shokai Koshikidake, current head-priest of Kannon-ji, sees Shugen as the platform upon which all other religious traditions in Japan would go on to establish themselves.


From around the 9th and 10th centuries onwards, shugenja (修験者) or yamabushi (山伏) - people who had cultivated these techniques and followed ascetic practices in the mountains - began to appear in large numbers, eventually forming the beginnings of Shugendo as a distinct tradition.


During the medieval period, practitioners of Shugen were not divided according to doctrinal organisations that were clearly distinct or autonomous. It was not until late in the 11th century that practitioners formed groups that adhered to specific sets of rituals enacted at specific sites. Originally, Shugenja comingled freely with other schools, particularly the Esoteric, Pureland and Zen sects, and entered the mountains at the beginning of autumn, remained there over winter, and returned at the beginning of spring in a manner which mimicked the mountain deity's rhythms of death and renewal.


The Shugendo of the Kumano region was first connected with the temple of Onjoji (園城寺, later to be called Miidera; 三井寺), but from the 14th century it came under the control of the imperial Shogo-in temple (聖護院⾨跡) in Kyoto. This branch of Shugen eventually came to be known as the Honzan-ha (本⼭派). From around the fifteenth century, Shugenja associated with the 36 temples in the Kin-ki (近畿地方) area founded an association of Shugen guides (先達) which eventually came to be known as the Tōzan-ha (当山派) branch of Shugen, centered in Sanbō-in (三宝院), a sub-temple of Daigo-ji (醍醐寺), also in Kyoto. These two schools would go on to subsume most Shugen movements at one point or another.


By the 16th Century, Shugen doctrine and ritual was well established in the peaks of Kinpusen and Omine as well as mountains in the Kyushu, Tohoku and the Kanto regions. The doctrines of Shugenja consisted mainly of commentaries on personal memoranda based on oral-tradition, which practitioners used as guides for their rituals and practice. Later these ritual memoranda were gathered into collections which would go on to form the general basis of Shugen doctrine.


Shugenja travelled widely throughout the mountains and plains of Japan during the medieval period, but in later times, in part due to the restrictive policies of the government, they settled down and became a regular fixture of local communities. Those who settled into villages were designated village-yamabushi (里山伏; satō-yamabushi) or sect-representative-yamabushi (末派山伏; mappa-yamabushi). These village practitioners became embedded into the local community as priests at village shrines and temples and served the community of worshippers, attending to their own home life as well as the life of the community, often in the role of crafts, building, farming and development. These village-yamabushi brought with them the knowledge gained from their travels and responded to the everyday needs of the common people in the areas of education, rites of passage, funerary rites, festivals, culture, religion and education, managing local shrines and serving as guides to sacred sites. For this reason, there are many stone pagodas left over from the Edo period which honour the names of local village Shugenja.


Mt Koshikidake's original Kannon-ji temple was one example of a 'village shugen' complex affiliated with the Tozan Shugen of Daigo-ji Sanbō-in.


Historically, visiting sacred sites under the tutelage of a Shugendo sendatsu (guide) formed a kind of initiation rite for youth and many lay-fraternities appeared around Shugendo sites during this time. Researchers like Taro Wakamori suggest that folk practices which involve entering the mountains for initiation into adulthood or becoming qualified for marriage must predate and carry over into today's Shugendo practices. Religious confraternities such as those on Mt Fuji and Mt Ontake were also formed around this time in the early modern period. Goma fires were said to have lit up the night and pilgrims to sites such as Kumano were said to proceed like ants in the thousands. 


In the Beginning:
Mt. Koshikidake and Shugen in the Dewa Basin


Mount Koshikidake is a mountain located in the 'Dewa Basin' of modern day Murayama City in Yamagata Prefecture. It is a modest mountain rising for approximately 5km reaching an altitude of 1,016 m. This mountain is relatively unknown in modern Japan but has an astonishing history as both a ‘Demon’s Gate Seal’ and as a site significant to Shugendo.


The characters for 'Koshiki' carry the meaning of a rice cooking mound which the peak ('dake') is said to resemble. The term also carries connotations of the central 'hub' of a wheel. The seal of Mt Koshikidake consists of a circle surrounded by eight concentric circles, resembling a wheel and its hub which together symbolise the navagraha or nine luminaries (九曜). Mount Koshikidake's ascetic trails are said to have been significant to the Indigenous Ezo people dating back to the Jomon period and traces of ancient well sites have been found across the mountain. The stone image of Koshikidake Daigongen (大権現; great manifestation) at its peak dates back to the Heian period. There are a range of myths and legends linked to both the mountain deity (山の神) of the mountain and Koshikidake Daigongen.


Mount Koshikidake was traditionally revered as the abode of the Ame-no-Mi-Kumari deity (an agricultural divinity of water, moisture, fertility and childbirth) and as a site of amagoi rituals (rain ceremonies). Hymns passed down in the mountain's history speak to the prominent role rain ceremony's played in the mountain's culture:


今ここにこしきの嶽の跡たえてあらむかぎりの雨をこいせよ
Here in the traces of the Koshiki peak, we lament for merciful rain


Worship related to Avalokitesvara (観音) in various manifestations (usually ‘Shō-Kannon’ 聖観音) has always been popular in the Shonai plain region and we can assume that this is in part due to Avalokitesvara’s relationship with rain-making. Dragons and nagas (竜) are also related to rainmaking and traditionally Mt Koshikidake's manifestation (権現) has been held to be Koshikidake Gongen-Suiten-Ryuou 嶽権現水天龍王 (water-deva-dragon-king) with the ground form (本地; honji) of Avalokitesvara.


Buddhism’s emergence and the 'opening' of practice at Mt. Koshikidake is traditionally attributed to the legendary monk Dosho-Shonin (道昭 629-700). Dosho is considered to be one of the founding figures of Buddhism in Japan. In 653 he travelled with the support of the Emperor to China, where he studied Yogacara and Chan (Zen) under the Buddhist monk Xuanzang (玄奘 602-664), whose travels to India were immortalised in the book Journey to the West. There is a legend that says that while in China, Dosho visited Shiragi (Korea) where he lectured on the Lotus Sutra. Here he met a man 'among the tigers' who offered up a question in the Japanese language. The man declared himself to be En'no Ubasoku (En'no Gyoja), the legendary patriarch of Shugendo.


Early in his life, Dōsho is said to have roamed the Japanese archipelago, devoting himself to works that contributed to the welfare of the public. It was during this time in the fourth year of the Daishoku (648 – approximately 20 years old) that he sought out a mountain at Imperial request to act as the kimon (鬼門; demon’s gate) of the Nara Capital. This led to the enshrining of Kannon at Mt. Koshikidake and the opening of the Hakko-in temple, the predecessor of the mountain’s Kannon-ji temple.


The 'kimon'/demon's gate is associated with the direction of ‘North East’ and Mt. Koshikidake sits in this direction from the capital at the time (Nara). In Onmyodo (yin-yang style divination & geomancy), the North-East is considered a particularly incompatible/taboo direction through which negative forces can enter and leave. Shrines and temples in this cardinal direction were established to act as ‘Demon Gates’ in order to seal negative influences and for generations Mt Koshikidake’s Kannon-ji temple acted as part of a 'Honcho no Kimon' – a 'Demon Gate of the Morning'. Mt. Hiei of Tendai Buddhist fame is said to have held a similar position.


"Dewa-Shugen":


Shugendo appeared in the Dewa basin, a melting pot of permanent and itinerant ascetics as well as unique cultures like that of the matagi (又鬼), with the transmigration of the three deities of Kumano to the mountains of Dewa (historically this triad has included Mt. Gassan, Mt. Chokai, Mt. Haguro, Mt. Hayama and Mt. Yudono) — and with Nōjō Taishi’s ‘opening’ of Mt. Haguro during his ascetic seclusions there. While the three deities of Kumano are considered emanations of Yakushi (Bhaisajyaguru / Medicine Buddha), Amida (Amitabha, Amatayas), and Juichimen Kannon (Ekadasamukha Avalokitesvara), their manifestation in the Dewa region appeared as Yakushi, Amida and Shō-Kannon.


In a similar tradition, Yakushi, Amida and Shō-Kannon were also enshrined at Mount Koshikidake and in the past many worshipers attended the site in pilgrimage. During the Shoka and Muramochi periods, Mt. Koshikidake was prominent in the Dewa region's Thirty-Three Avalokitesvara pilgrimage route. In Professor Gaynor Sekimori's study of Kannon-ji she shares that:


"Eight trails connected the settlements at the foot of Koshikidake to the summit, and the remains of shukubo (pilgrim lodgings) have been discovered at Nakazawa at the entrance to the main one. Four Fudo halls also existed at the base of the mountain. The recovery of the pre-Meiji sites and trails on Koshikidake is ongoing, and further light may eventually be thrown on old mountain practices in the process."


Shugendo at Koshikidake Kannon-ji developed under both Tendai and Shingon influence, and was subsumed under the (Shingon affiliated) Tōzan-ha sect of Shugen through its connections with Mt Yudono as well as it's connections with Daigo-ji Sanbo-in during the Edo period. Documents held by Kannon-ji show that in reality the boundaries between sect identities weren't so clear and Shugenja en route to pilgrimage sites stopped at many different kinds of temples, and had mentors and teachers that varied across sectarian divisions.


The following folk-history is recorded in the `Tateokamachi Rekishi' (楯岡町歴史; History of Tateoka city) held in the collections of Hirakitan Temple (開端寺) in Murayama City:


"1300 years ago in the in the 4th year of Taika era (648; Nara period), Dosho Shonin enshrined a spiritual image at Mount Koshikidake. With the Advent of Kobo Daishi, Esoteric-Buddhism was brought to the mountain. The Shugen-Dharma of En no Gyoja was transmitted to Mt Koshikidake via Rigen Daishi [Shobo] of Daigo-ji (醍醐寺) temple."


Daigoji-Sanboin forms one of the major centres of Shugendo (Tozan-Ha). Daigo-ji itself was founded in 874 by the priest Shobo, known posthumously as Rigen Daishi. Shobo was born in 832. From a young age he engaged in mountain asceticism and lamented the decline of mountain-ascetic training since the passing of En no Gyoja. Shobo is considered the 'restorer' of Shugendo and the patriarch of the Tozan-ha lineage, which gradually grew out of the federation of temple complexes linked to Kofuku-ji (興福寺) and Todai-ji (東大寺). The re-opening of Mt. Omine by Shobo not only revived the practice of mountaineering-asceticism but also led to the 'esotericization' (in the Mikkyo/Esoteric-Buddhist sense) of Shugendo.


Note it is important to emphasise that in medieval times, the term 'religion' had no equivalent in Japan. The very concept of religion and its Japanese translation, shukyō (宗教; teaching) is a concept that was imported during the Meiji era from the West. Before the Meiji period, there was no generic word to describe religious trends in the way we see them.


In her study of Mountain Origin-Tales, Professor Carina Roth writes:


"The term 'religion' is a modern Christian borrowing which does not embrace a Japanese reality. In its Western sense, the term "religion" generally implies a notion of exclusivity which is foreign to Japan, where it is normal to follow simultaneously the teachings and customs linked to several traditions. The combinatorial religious phenomena typified by Shugendo is the corollary of this lands inclusiveness, and confirms the cohabitation of divinities with very different origins. The kami are associated with foreign lands, for example, Korean, Chinese and Indian deities, both local and universal.


As this diversity has lasted since the first exchanges between Japan and the Asian continent, it is very difficult to distinguish the truly 'indigenous' parts. What is more, deities frequently have overlapping identities, which are not confused but nested within the others like Russian dolls. Depending on the place, the occasion and the context, one or the other of the facets is put forward. These various forms of "assimilations between gods and Buddhas" (神仏習合; shinbutsu shugō), were abruptly interrupted during the Meiji Restoration, which put in place a policy of "Separation of gods and buddhas" (shinbutsu bunri 神仏分離). Even though this policy has been revoked, it has effects that last through to this day."


Shugendo's Dismantling:


The first major setback for Shugendo was in 1613 when the military government of the Tokugawa Shogunate issued a 'Regulation of Shugendo Order' (shugendo-hatto) and ordered each shrine-temple complex to merge under the auspice of one of the two major sects of Esoteric Buddhism;  Shingon and Tendai. Itinerant wandering and hermitages were prohibited, and practitioners were forced to permanently settle in monasteries or village communities. Village-Shugenja, such as those linked to Koshikidake, were affiliated through a parish system, linked to the Buddhist sects.


Before the Meiji Restoration, shrines were disorganised institutions usually attached to Buddhist temples. Under the Meiji period Separation Orders (神仏分離; shinbutsu-bunri), they were made independent systematised institutions. The separation orders triggered the haibutsu kishaku 廃仏毀釈 (Expulsion of Buddhism and Sakyamuni Movement), a violent anti-Buddhist movement that caused the forcible closure and burning of thousands of temples, the confiscation of their land, the forced return of many monks and Yamabushi to lay life or their transformation into Shinto priests, and the destruction of numerous books, statues, combinatory practices and artefacts. Temples were also prohibited from practicing rites that were now declared as Shinto, with many ritual texts being destroyed or dislocated from their original contexts.


Shugendo was outlawed and banned outright in 1872, being a typical case of the mixture of Buddhism and Shinto. Shugendo Shrine-Temple complexes were forced to choose to laicize, become Shinto shrine attendants or Buddhist priests and their practices were banned. In the case of Mt. Koshikidake, Kannon-ji temple was forced to become a shrine and it's attendant shugenja were converted into Shinto-Shrine priests. The shrine was restructured and dedicated to Sukunahikona no Mikoto (A medicine deity).


It is no stretch to say that this process was world-shattering and was the deathblow to the beliefs and worldviews of the time, with the newly approved version of Shinto being a heavily distorted version of what previously existed, reconfigured to support a new mythology presented as representing an unbroken imperial tradition. One result of the outlawing of Shugendo was that many new religions sprang up to take its place and respond to the needs of the community.


In the early 1900s, growing popular movements and protests swept across Japan preaching class struggle and revolution, inspiring fear in the ruling State. Under these circumstances Shinto shrines once more became a focus of attention due to their potential utility in enforcing nationalist State ideology. In 1906 thousands of local village shrines with their own beliefs and practices were forced into merging with the aim of retaining only one shrine in each community. This shrine would then be forced into serving as a stage for Nationalist and Imperialist ceremonies, coordinated by the new 'State Ministry of Edification'. Shinto liturgy was standardized by law and out of this violent ideological transformation emerged new 'military shrines' and 'nation-protecting shrines'. Until 1945 Shinto was to serve as the Empire's “non-religious” state cult, propagated with increasing zeal, especially after 1931 as the country headed into war.


The last bettō (別当; head steward) of Kannon-ji during this period was Kanryu, who laicised during the persecution in 1871 as Koshikidake Motoi and became a shrine priest (神職). Ishimi, the son of Kanryu, continued on as a priest but died young of tuberculosis. His son Kojiro continued this legacy, performing combinatory-rites and rituals such as jichinsai, amagoi, and kuyo. In times of drought he would climb Mt. Koshikidake to offer prayers and his son Ikuo would join him. Ikuo is the father of Koshikidake Shokai, the current head priest spearheading the school's revival.


Despite the dismantling of Shugendo at Mt. Koshikidake, Buddhist images and documents were kept in secret and combinatory style practice was carried out under the outer guise of a Shinto Priest. These documents were passed carefully down the generations to the present. The main 'Zenko-ji' style image of Shō-Kannon is still preserved and is now held at the current Kannon-ji temple in nearby Murayama city. In addition to this, there are still remnants of the site of the old Kannon-ji temple which are visited during mountain entry practice.


Mt Koshikidake's Shugen Revival:


Shugendo activity ceased for some time after it was banned following the Meiji restoration of 1868 and much Shugendo lore was lost. The destruction associated with the Meiji restoration often left little of former Shugendo sites beyond stone walls, foundation stones, or the remains of old trail paths.


At the end of World War 2 restrictions on religious freedom established during the imperialistic phase of the Taisho era were lifted and Shugen groupings resurfaced as independent organisations or were painstakingly reconstructed and revived. This led to the inclusion of religious freedom as article 20 of the 1957 Constitution. Several Shugen guilds that had been quiescent during the first half of the 20th century re-emerged and, with the rising prosperity of the 1960s, the tradition began to flourish once again. At the same time these groups were freed of their mandated relation to established Buddhist sects.


Shokai, the current head priest of Koshikidake Shugen is both an ordained Tendai Priest, among others a disciple of the famous kaihogyo (回峰行) ascetic Mitsunaga Dai-Ajari - as well as being a seasoned Yamabushi of the the Mt. Haguro sect, having practiced and served there as guide (先達) for over 25 years. It is with this background and with the permission of his master, Reverend Kokai Shimazu, previous Abbott and Great Guide of Haguro Shugen's Kotaku-ji/Shozen-in Temple, that Shokai revived his family temple which had laid relatively dormant for two generations. Shokai has worked tirelessly with the help of other Shugen-temples and head-priests in restoring Shugen sadhana ('single offering' style Shugen ritual-practice), mountain entry rituals and ordination practices.


Shokai has not only reconstituted his family tradition, but has also been a key figure in non-sectarian conversations across Shugen sects on the revival of shinbutsu-shugo (combinatory) style practice. An example of this includes a meeting in Kyoto which I attended in 2016 with the Association for Shugendo Culture Studies, which brought together Shinto and Buddhist priests associated with Mt Fuji, Daigo-ji and Shogo-in. The focus of this meeting was the revival of several practices and crafts unique to Shugendo. In 2014 I was privileged to attend a meeting on Mt. Haguro/Mt.Yudono with Shimazu Kokai and Komei Sato (Current Head Priest of Mt. Yudono’s Churen-ji temple). This meeting was centered on the revival of the 300 year old yuikesa (Shugendo vestment) held by Shokai's family and an ancient form of Dewa-Sanzan vestment (八葉しめ) made with intricately folded paper that served as a kind of wearable 'divine body' (神体).


Kokai Shonin and the Origin of Koshikidake's Yuikesa:


Kokai (光海; 1596-1658) was the original bearer of the iconic folded Shugen vestments (yuikesa) now used at Mt. Koshikidake. In the lineage of Kannon-ji he bears the title 'shonin' (上人; saint). Kokai-Shonin is most well known for his practice at Mt. Yudono's 'Wizard Swamp' (sennin-zawa). Mount Yudono, as the 'inner precinct' of Dewa-Sanzan, was known as a site of severe asceticism, including mokujiki-gyo (木食行; abstaining from cereals; fasting on pine needles and bark) and the unique issei-gyonin interpretation of 'sokushinjobutsu/ Buddhahood in this very Body'. Kokai-Shonin was known for his constant work for the good of the community, among these being the construction of a mountain bridge in Tsuruoka named 'Dainichi-Toge'. This stone pass can still be seen today and it bears a stone with his named engraved to honour his memory (see my image below).


In 1657, the Kannon-ji Temple on Mount Koshikidake was burnt down by lightning. It was Kokai-Shonin who set to work rebuilding it. Kokai used Mt.Koshikidake as his base of activities to spread the Dharma among the people. The inhabitants of this region held him in great honour and his cave ('kokai-dan') was treated as a pilgrimage site, honoured today in Koshikidake Shugen's valley-entry practice. Kokai Shonin generated a great reputation for Dewa Sanzan. In these efforts, he became a great friend of the Haguro Shugen steward Tenyuu (天宥 1595?–1675), who was responsible for Tendai Buddhism's prominence on Mt. Haguro and now considered the second 'opener' of the mountain. While Tennyu remains a controversial figure in the reconfiguration of the mountain, he is acknowledged for his efforts to restore Haguro and the maintenance of the mountain as a site of practice, along with the betto Kakuji. Koshikidake Kannon-ji temple holds a scroll painted by Tenyuu (pictured below) which was signed by him as the steward of Mt. Haguro.


This Jewel
Has returned to Mount Haguro
A moon of the Buddhist Law.


Haiku poem by the famous Matsuo Bassho commemorating the Haguro Shugen steward, Tenyuu,


In 1658, after a life of spiritual cultivation, Kokai-Shonin began a period of fasting, ending his life in the style of issei-gyonin 'Sokushinbutsu' in a cave on Mt. Koshikidake. He entered meditative absorption and passed September 15, 1658. The people of the time requested that Kokai leave his vestments to preserve his memory. 350 years later, the original vestment has been restored by Koshikidake Shokai and serves as one of the current vestments used in the sect today. The surplus bears dharma-wheels in the style of Tozan-Shugen. It depicts the three images of the three mountains of Dewa; Mt Haguro, Mt Yudono and Mt Gassan.


Revival in Context:

Mountain Belief: Nature and Humans, Kami and Buddhas
By Masataka Suzuki, Professor Emeritus, Keio University
Translated & Edited by Jisho Schroer.


Shugendo is an original path formed through the meeting of Buddhism, Taoism, Yin-Yang-do, Shamanic practices and so on 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, practitioners entered the mountains and teachings were exchanged between these priests and the masters encountered in the mountains. During the Kamakura period, two groups emerged and established 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 'kami-buddha separation decree' (shinbutsu bunri), any remnants 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, its 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 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 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 began 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 peoples and laymen.


The beings that guided them in the mountain included Indigenous peoples, 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 these tales became folk-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 center act as a stimulus to reconsider its beliefs and practices introspectively? This is a question for future study.


Further Reading & References:


For further reading please see my translation of 'The World of Yamabushi Doctrine and Practice' and Shokai's forthcoming book, 'Shugen: Rebirth through Nature'. For an indepth look at Mt. Koshikidake's revival see Professor Gaynor Sekimori's, "Shugendo Past and Present" linked below:


• Mountains and Rivers are Destroyed but the State Remains Alan Grappard


• Private archives of Koshikidake Shugen


Shugendo Past and Present: Restoration at Nikko and Koshikidake Gaynor Sekimori


Dewa-Shugen: The Spirit of Yamagata


• Shugendo: Japanese Mountain Religion - State of the Field and Bibliographic Review Gaynor Sekimori


• Ascesis and Devotion: The Mount Yudono Cult in Early Modern Japan Castiglioni


• A Mountain Set Apart Dewitt


• Haguro Shugendo and the separation of Buddha and Kami worship 1868-1890 Sekimori


• The Meiji Constitution the Japanese experience of the West and the shaping of the modern state Kazuhiro


• A New History of Shinto Blackwell


• ‘Dog-men,’ Craftspeople or Living Buddhas? The Status of Yamabushi in Pre-Modern Japanese Society Rambelli


• Correlations Between the Body and Buddhist Doctrine Goy


• Notes on the Revolution of the Image of Shugendo Amada


Yamagata Museum Commemorative Exhibition on Dewa-Shugen


• Haguro Shugen: History and Mountain Entry Rites by Miyaki Hitoshi