— strong like a mountain:  a short history of shugendo at mt. koshikidake

A Brief History of Koshikidake-Kannon-ji Temple.

      by Jishō 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 Kannon-ji temple's relationship to Shugendo. I will also aim to introduce readers to the Meiji Period anti-Buddhist persecutions and Separation Orders which greatly impacted Shugendo. The article concludes with a brief look at Kannon-ji's revival as a Shugen temple.


"..Mountains can be said to hold a never-ending sense of mystery the world over. This may be because they exist in space-time which is neither the heavenly-celestial plain nor the earth. Moreover, mountains are watersheds which give birth to myriad forms of life and existence. The deity of the harvest-field is said to return home as the mountain-deity in winter. In many regions, the mountain-deity is worshipped as a divinity which gives birth to new life. On the other hand, the mountain is also considered to be a place of death where the spirits of the dead go to join ancestors. The ambivalent nature of life and death, heaven and earth, beginning and end, creation and destruction all coexisting in seeming contradiction all come together in this figure of `mountain`.."
— Professor Naito Masatoshi, folklorist at Tohoku University (my translation)

Looking to Śākyamuni'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 descend, as Pure Lands and as realms inhabited by the spirits 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 and the dead 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.

"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."
— Kusawake Kenko, The Ideological Development of Ancient Mountain-Worship (my translation).

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. Among these stood out figures such as En-no-Ozunu and Nojo Taishi, recognised and revered today among the patriarchs of Shugendo's lineages. Shodo (previously: 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 or yamabushi - practitioners who had cultivated these techniques - 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 and established specific sets of rituals enacted at specific sites. Originally, Shugen comingled freely with other schools of thought, particularly Esoteric, Yogacara, Pureland and Zen. Early in its formation, winter confinement was a defining practice, seeing practitioners enter the mountains at the beginning of autumn, remaining there over winter, and returning at the beginning of spring in a manner which mimicked the mountain deity's rhythms of death and renewal.

The Shugen traditions of the Kumano region came to be managed by Onjoji (later to be called Miidera), but from the 14th century they came under the control of the imperial Shogo-in in Kyoto. This stream of Shugen eventually came to be known as the Honzan-ha. From around the fifteenth century, Shugenja associated with the thirty-six temples in the Kin-ki area founded an association of Shugen guides (sendatsu) which eventually came to be known as the Tozan-ha stream of Shugen, centered in Sanbo-in, a sub-temple of Daigo-ji, also in Kyoto. These two factions would go on to subsume most Shugen lineages at one point or another.

By the sixteenth century, Shugen doctrine and ritual was well established in the Kinpusen and Omine region as well as mountains in the Kyushu, Tohoku and the Kanto regions. The doctrinal-texts of Shugen 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 generalised 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 (satō-yamabushi) or sect-representative-yamabushi (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 roles 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, 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. The diaries of Edo period yamabushi such as the Tozan-ha chief priest Senkoin Noda (1756-1835) reveal their journeys alms-begging across mountain villages where they taught locals the latest in farming and poetry, as well as prayer and the provision of religious services. To give another example, many of the folk beliefs and performing arts that are still alive today in the Dewa-region are surprisingly often connected to the former village-shugen activities, albeit in a different form following the Meiji-period separation orders. Prior to the Meiji Period, Koshikidake-Kannon-ji was one example of a 'village shugen' temple-complex with connections to the Tozan stream of Shugen as well as the Shugen of Dewa Sanzan.

Historically, visiting sacred sites under the tutelage of a Shugen sendatsu (guide) formed a kind of initiation rite for youth and many lay-fraternities appeared around Shugendo sites during this time. Researchers such as Professor 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 connected with 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 a humble history as both a ‘kimon’ seal and as a site significant to Shugendo.

The character for 'Koshiki' carries the meaning of a cooker 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 nine luminaries (Skt. navagraha; Jp. kuyo). 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 at its peak dates back to the Heian period. There are a range of myths and legends linked to both the mountain deity and Koshikidake Daigongen.

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

Here in the traces of the Koshiki peak, we lament for merciful rain

Worship related to Avalokiteśvara in various manifestations (usually shō-kannon) has always been popular in the region of the Shonai plain in part due to Avalokiteśvara’s relationship with rain-making. Dragons and nagas are also related to rainmaking and traditionally Mt Koshikidake's manifestation was worshipped as Koshikidake Gongen-Suiten-Ryuou with the ground form (honji) of Avalokiteśvara.

Buddhism’s emergence and the 'opening' of practice at Mt. Koshikidake is traditionally attributed to the legendary monk Dosho Shonin (629-700). Dosho is considered to be one of the founding figures of Buddhism in Japan. In 653, he was supported by the Emperor to travel to China where he studied Yogacara and Chan  under the Buddhist monk Xuanzang (602-664), whose travels to India have been immortalized in the book Journey to the West. There is an episode in a book of setsuwa (stories of miraculous happenings) compiled in the ninth century that describes how Dosho, while in China, 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, Dosho 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, at around age twenty, that he sought out a mountain at Imperial request to act as a kimon for the capital. This led to the enshrining of Avalokiteśvara at Mt. Koshikidake and the opening of the Hakko-in temple, the predecessor of the later Kannon-ji temple.

The kimon is associated with the north-east direction and Mt. Koshikidake sits in this direction from the capital at the time. According to Onmyodo (yin-yang style divination & geomancy), north-east is considered a particularly incompatible/taboo direction through which malevolent forces can enter and leave. Shrines and temples in this cardinal direction were established to act as kimon 'demon-gates' in order to seal malevolent influences and Koshikidake-Kannonji acted in this role for centuries. 


Shugendo appeared in the Dewa basin - a melting pot of permanent and itinerant ascetics as well as unique mountain-cultures - with the transference of the three deities of Kumano to the mountains of Dewa and with Nojo Taishi’s ‘opening’ of the three mountains of Dewa during his ascetic seclusions there. Historically this triad of Dewa-Sanzan has included Mt. Gassan, Mt. Chokai, Mt. Haguro, Mt. Hayama and Mt. Yudono. While the three deities of Kumano are considered emanations of Bhaiśajyaguru (yakushi), Amitabha (amida), and Ekadaśamukha Avalokiteśvara (juichimen kannon), their manifestation in the Dewa region appeared as Bhaiśajyaguru (yakushi), Amitabha (amida), and Arya-Avalokiteśvara (sho-kannon),

In a mirroring of this tradition, these three figures were also enshrined at Mount Koshikidake and in the past many worshipers attended the site in pilgrimage. Kannon-ji temple shifted to the foot of the mountain in the first year of the Onin era (1467) and became a village-temple in the third year of the Kan'en era (1755). During this period the temple was added as an 'extra stop' (#36) on the Thirty-Three Avalokitesvara Pilgrimage of Mogami and flourished as a site of pilgrimage. 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) Tozan-ha stream 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 enroute to sites of practice 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 `History of Tateoka City' (tateokamachi rekishi) held in the collection of Kaitanji Temple in Murayama City:

"Thirteen hundred years ago in the in the Taika era (648), 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 temple."

Daigoji-Sanboin forms one of the major centers of Shugendo. Daigo-ji itself was founded in 874 by the priest Shobo, known posthumously as Rigen Daishi. Born in 832, from a young age Shobo engaged in mountain austerities 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 and Todai-ji. The re-opening of Mt. Omine by Shobo not only revived the practice of mountaineering-asceticism, but also led to the 'esotericization' (in the 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 (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" (shinbutsu shugō), were abruptly interrupted during the Meiji Restoration, which put in place a policy of "Separation of gods and buddhas" (shinbutsu bunri). 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 Kannonji, were affiliated through a parish system, linked to the Buddhist sects.

With the advent of the Meiji Period, the government at the time sought to match the threat of Western modernity ideologically. Part of these reforms involved the clarification and separation of Shinto and Buddhism into distinct bodies. Before the Meiji Restoration, shrines were disorganised institutions usually attached to Buddhist temples. Under the Meiji period Separation Orders (shinbutsu-bunri) however, they were turned into independent systematised institutions. The separation orders triggered the haibutsu kishaku (Expulsion of Buddhism and Sakyamuni Movement), a violent anti-Buddhist movement which 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 to be 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 this context, Kannon-ji temple was converted into a shrine and it's attendant shugenja were converted into Shinto-Shrine priests. The shrine was 'restructured' and dedicated to the deity Sukunahikona no Mikoto.

It is no stretch to say that this process was world-shattering 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. This period of Shugen's history is characterised by its suppression and subsequent varying degrees of resistance, compromise, collaboration and absorption by other sects.

The early 1900s saw growing popular movements and protests sweep across the nation 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 reconfigured into serving as a stage for Nationalist and Imperialist ceremonies, coordinated by the new 'State Ministry of Edification'. Shinto liturgy was standardised by law and out of this ideological transformation emerged new 'military shrines' and 'nation-protecting shrines'. Until 1945, Shinto was to serve as the Empire's state-religion, propagated with increasing zeal, especially after 1931 as the country headed into war.

Kannon-ji in the Meiji Period:

The last head-steward (bettō) of Kannon-ji during this turbulent period was Kanryu, who in 1871 laicised and became a shrine priest during the persecutions. Ishimi, the son of Kanryu, continued on as a priest until he died of tuberculosis. His son, Kojiro, continued this legacy, dedicating himself to the practice of the Dharma as well as  combinatory (kami-buddha) rites and rituals. In times of drought he would climb Mt. Koshikidake to offer prayers and perform services, and his son Ikuo would join him. Ikuo is the father of Shodo, the current head-priest spearheading the temple's revival; a task which was wished upon him by his grandmother, Shiu.

Despite the dismantling of Koshikidake-Kannonji, Buddhist statues, 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 Arya-Avalokitesvara 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.

Koshikidake Kannon-ji's Shugen Revival:

Shugen activity ceased for some time following the Meiji period persecutions 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 freedoms established during the imperialistic phase of the Taisho era were lifted and Shugen groupings resurfaced as independent organisations or were painstakingly reconstructed and revived. Several Shugen lineages 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.

Shodo (previously Shokai), the current head priest of Kannonji, is both a priest of the Tendai sect as well as a yamabushi of the Haguro-Shugen sect, having practiced and served there as practice-guide (sendatsu) for over 25 years. During his time at Haguro, he helped to establish the Fraternity of Dewa-Sanzan - a group of yamabushi associated with Haguro Shugen committed to efforts towards Shugendo's ongoing revival at Dewa-Sanzan - and was also the driving force behind the first documentation of Haguro Shugen's akinomine at the request of the Daisendatsu at the time, Kokai Shimazu. It is with this background and with the permission of his master, Reverend Kokai Shimazu - previous daisendatsu of Haguro Shugen's Kotakuji/Shozen-in Temple - that Shodo revived his family temple and mountain-entry practice.

Shodo has worked tirelessly with the help of other Shugen-temples and head-priests (particularly in the Dewa/Yamagata area) in restoring Shugen sadhana (eg: the 'single offering' style Shugen ritual-practice), mountain entry rituals and ordination practices.

Shodo has not only reconstituted his family temple, 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-Sanboin 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 meetings at Dewa Sanzan with Rev. Shimazu Kokai and Rev. 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 Shodo's family and a premodern form of Dewa-Sanzan vestment made with intricately folded paper which serves as a kind of wearable 'divine body' (shintai).

Throughout Mt. Koshikidake's history it has been strongly associated with harvest-divinity (作神; sakujin) and Avalokiteśvara-faith. This history remains present in the form of stone monuments (eg: those dedicated to Haguro) and stone torii-gates. Temples associated with Shugen and Esoteric-Buddhism faced the frequent threat of complete destruction throughout the power-struggles of the Kamakura period, the period of the Northern and Southern Courts, as well as during the Muromachi period. Not only were buildings demolished, but those that were aligned with the losing side often saw stone-monuments, cornerstones and the foundations of temples completely erased, destroying any memory of their existence. Koshikidake-Kannonji was cleverly able to extend its life-expectancy by aligning itself with the Southern Court all the way up to the Meiji Period anti-Buddhist persecutions and separation orders. At Haguro today one can still see remnants of many decapitated stone buddhas tossed into the scrub as well as stone tablets with Sanskrit letters scraped off.

Deep in Mt. Koshikidake there is a river named Shimoanja. The term anja here means ascetic (行者; gyōja). Old documents held by Kannonji show that there was a waterfall known as Takizawa-Okami (滝沢大神) associated with Āryācalanātha Vidyārāja which functioned as a main training-ground for practitioners. Today, however, this area barely runs with water due to it being redirected towards the district's water supply. Off the main trail near the ruins of an old gold-mine is a site known as passing through the womb (胎内くぐり; tainaikūguri) which mirrors the Haguro site of higashi-fudaraku. Near here, too, is a a rock-site associated with the practice of confession which overlooks a cliff, known as Kṣitigarbha-rock (地蔵岩; jizōiwa). These are just a few examples of many sacred sites in the mountain, which, with great effort, have been revitalised and revived as sites of practice. During the Meiji Period separation orders, these practice sites were all left out of documents which had to be submitted to the commissioner responsible for overseeing the 'separation' of temples and shrines.

Kokai Shonin:

Kokai (1596-1658) was the original bearer of the iconic folded Shugen vestments (yuikesa) now used among those at Mt. Koshikidake. He bears the title 'reverend' (shonin). Kokai-Shonin is most well known for his connections to Mount Yudono, the 'inner precinct' of Dewa-Sanzan known as a site of severe asceticism, including mokujiki-gyo. Kokai Shonin was known for his constant activity for the benefit 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.

In 1657, the Kannon-ji Temple on Mount Koshikidake was burned down by lightning. It was Kokai Shonin who set to work re-establishing the temple. From here, Kokai used Mt.Koshikidake and its village-base of Murayama as the foundation of his activities and teaching. The local population held him in great honour and his place of seclusion ('kokai-dan') was treated as a pilgrimage site, honoured from afar today in Koshikidake Shugen's valley-entry practice. Kokai Shonin generated a great reputation for Dewa Sanzan. In these efforts, he became a close friend of the Haguro Shugen steward Tenyuu (1595?–1675), now considered the second 'opener' and restorer of the mountain, and the person responsible for politically aligning Haguro with the Tendai sect via the high-priest Tenkai (1536-1643). While Tenyuu 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. Kannon-ji temple holds a scroll painted by Tenyuu 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 cultivation, Kokai-Shonin began a period of fasting, ending his life in the style of  a Dewa 'sokushinbutsu' in Mt. Koshikidake. He entered meditative absorption and passed September 15, 1658. Parishioners at the time requested that Kokai leave his vestments to preserve his memory. 350 years later, the original vestment has been restored and serves as one of the current vestments used by practitioners today. The surplus bears dharma-wheels in the style of Tozan-Shugen. It depicts symbols of the three mountains of Dewa; Haguro, Yudono and Gassan. From my translation of The Kesa of Kokai Shonin:

"The kesa features various designs connected to the three mountains of Dewa. First, the great legged three legged crow which guided the revered founder of Haguro Shugen, the great bodhisattva Shoken (照見大菩薩; shoken-daibosatsu), second, the cherry blossoms which are a symbol of Yudono, and third, the dragon divinity of Haguro which is mentioned in the Collection on the Three Mountains (三山雅集; sanzan-gashu) as having destroyed a bandit-invasion are all beautifully woven into the fabric. The front cord is woven in a special way so as to tighten when it gets wet with rain or dew.

Legend tells us that Kokai (1597-1652) was revered as a great high priest. In a copy of a document (明治二巳巳年漆山社寺御役所届出控) submitted to the shrine-temple office in the second year of the Meiji period held by my family temple, it is written that the temple was destroyed by fire in the fourth year of the Keian era, and Kokai Shonin is said to have ended his life in the vicinity of the temple in the fashion of a Yudono sokushinbutsu the following year. The place where Kokai entered was called the Kokai-altar (光海壇; kokaidan) and it is said that his followers continued to worship him following his death. Also known is Kokai's close friendship with the Haguro betto Tenyuu. A image of Avalokitesvara painted in gold paint given to Kokai is still held by Kannonji today.

At Mt. Dainichi's (大日山) Chofukuji temple (長福寺) (# 26 on the 33-Avalokitesvara Pilgrimage), there is a stone monument dedicated to Kokai which is said to have been dedicated to the Dainichi Pass over the Yutagawa River in Tsuruoka. The writing engraved on the stone monument also features the words 'Yudono' and 'Mokujiki Gyoja'. Oral tradition in the area says that Kokai was involved in the construction of this pass and that he must have established a practice of mokujikigyo. This supports the view that he was considered a greatly revered figure in the Dewa and Shonai regions. Professor Gaynor Sekimori, upon examining the kesa, suggested that there is a strong possibility that it represents the kesa of Haguro and Dewa Sanzan when it still belonged to the Tozan-ha lineage (当山派).."

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, Daoism, Onmyodo, 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. 

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 centre act as a stimulus to reconsider its beliefs and practices introspectively? This is a question for future study.

Shugen outside of Japan?

Those outside the East-Asian Buddhist tradition may be surprised to learn that in contrast to other traditions, ordination (tokudo) takes place as the first-step in East-Asian Buddhism and is no reflection of any real capability in regards to teaching, understanding or practice-experience. As with any tradition, the relatively new idea of courting the West comes with its issues. There are many people out there advertising their involvement with Shugendo in the West who are unqualified, have minimal doctrinal/practice experience, have been ex-communicated or lack formal connection to a denomination. In this climate of misinformation and misappropriation, it is always recommended to check in with the head temple of the denomination in question so as to verify any claims. 

Further Reading & References:

For further reading please see my translation of 'The World of Yamabushi Doctrine and Practice' and Shodo'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 Grappard

• Private archives of Koshikidake Shugen

Shugendo Past and Present: Restoration at Nikko and Koshikidake Sekimori

Dewa-Shugen: The Spirit of Yamagata

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

• The Emergence of Esoteric-Buddhism and Mountain-Valley Asceticism

Connecting the Past and Present of Shugendo – The Revival of Japan’s Ancient Mountain Ascetic Tradition, Part One Eckelmann