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

Strong like a Mountain:
A Brief History of Shugendo

at Mt. Koshikidake.

The following will place Mt. Koshikdake (甑岳) in Shugendo's history. It will outline the unique 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 Shugendo sect.

Shugendō's Emergence:

Looking to Shakamuni Buddha's formative experiences in the mountains and forests of Northern India, the mountain-hermits of Taoism, the experiences of holy saints on Mt. Sinai, the sages of Yoga 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. With their special brews of turbulent weather mountains act as liminal, otherworldly spaces. At the same time mountains are providers; they catch clouds, shed water, give refuge and cleanse the spirit, and act as the natural sacred sites towards whose summits we express our gratitude and awe.

From ancient times in the archipelago now known as Japan, mountains were viewed as sites where divinities descended (神の鎮座 or 神の磐座) and as celestial realms (浄土) inhabited by the souls (霊魂) of the dead. As watersheds, mountains were regarded as the sites of the mikumari-kami (水分神) which governed fertility and provided water as the lifeblood of agricultural activity. This ancient cosmology linked to mountains (山岳信仰; sangaku shinko) and the dead (神奈備信仰; kannabi shinko) fused together with what became Shinto as well as doctrines related to Taoism and Buddhism.

Shugendō emerged as a broad movement during the Heian period (794-1185) in the 7th century, at the crossroads of these beliefs, 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 control of the ritsuryo (律令) state sanctions. Among these people stood out figures such as En-no-Ozunu (役君小角) and Nōjo Taishi (能除太子), recognised and revered today among the spiritual ancestors of Shugendo. These people secluded themselves and absorbed themselves in practices related to Kami and Buddhas (神仏; shin-butsu), and returned to benefit the life of the community with magico-religious activity and ritual-prayers (祈祷法 kito-ho/kaji-kito). The famous ascetics of the various Esoteric-Buddhist sects are representative of these figures. Many techniques for manipulating and controlling these forces were introduced through folk-shamanic, Taoist and Esoteric-Buddhist influences. Around the 9th and 10th centuries, Shugenja (修験者), people who had cultivated these techniques and followed ascetic practices in the mountains, began to appear in large numbers, and eventually formed the beginnings of Shugendo as a distinct religious tradition. Due to their practices, these people were also called Yamabushi (山伏); 'those who submit themselves in the mountains'. 

During the medieval period, practitioners of Shugendo were not divided according to doctrinal organisations that were clearly distinct or autonomous. It was not until late in the eleventh century that practitioners formed groups that adhered to a specific sets of rituals enacted at specific sites. Originally, Shugenja 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 (山の神; yamanokami) cycle of death and renewal (擬死再生; gishisaisei). During the formative period between the 10th and 12th centuries, the core practice of Shugendo was winter confinement. Around the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, Esoteric-Buddhism introduced a way of thinking called hongaku shiso (本覚思想); the idea that all things, including plants and earth, posses fundamental (original) enlightenment. This influenced all schools of Buddhism, including Shugendo, which incorporated its ontology. 

The Shugendo around the Kumano area 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 Shugendo eventually came to be known as the Honzan-ha (本⼭派). Around the fifteenth century Shugenja associated with the 36 temples in the Kin-ki (近畿地方) area founded an association of 36 guides (先達; sendatsu) which eventually came to be known as the Tozan-ha (当山派) branch of Shugendo, centered in Sanbo-in (三宝院), a sub-temple of Daigo-ji (醍醐寺), also in Kyoto. These two schools eventually formed the major branches of Shugendo under which most schools at one point or another were subsumed.

By the 16th Century Shugen doctrine and ritual was well established in the peaks of Mount Kinpusen and Mount Omine as well as mountains in Kyushu, Tohoku and the Kanto regions. The doctrines of Shugenja consisted mainly of commentaries on personal memoranda (切紙; kirigami) which Yamabushi used as guides for their rituals and practice. Later these were collected into collections. Some of the more central works include the Yamabushi Nijigi (The meaning of Yamabushi) by Yuban, the Shugen Seiten and Shugen Shinkansho (the book of the mirror of the heart) attributed to the restorer Shobo (理源大師; Rigen Daishi), the origin stories of the Shozan Engi, the works of the Tozan Yamabushi Gyōchi and the collections of Akyubo Sokuden.

Shugenja travelled widely throughout the mountains and plains of Japan during the medieval period, but in later times, in part because of the restrictive policies of the government, they settled down and became a regular part of local communities. The local Shugenja who settled in villages in large numbers brought with them the knowledge gained from their travels, and responded to the needs of the villages by becoming priests of the local Buddhist temple or attendants of the shrines of the tutelary Kami. These village Shugenja (里修験者; Sato-Shugenja) became deeply involved in the life of the community and their role was to respond to the everyday needs of the common people in the areas of education, rites of passage, funerary rites, festivals, culture, religion and education. They managed local shrines and served as guides to sacred sites.

From the Edo Period onward, Shugendo had already penetrated almost every facet of folk religion. The married yamabushi, permanently settled in scattered villages, was a major influence in the infiltration of Shugendo into almost every corner of the country and into almost every aspect of folk religion.

The local yamabushi was deeply entrenched in the life of his village, as even their residence indicates. Many of the Yamabushi residences were called nagadoko or nagatoko, a combination of Shinto and Buddhist architecture. Usually the yamabushi residence was outwardly little different from other houses in the village. Inside it included a Buddhist idol, space for believers to gather, as well as the private rooms for the Yamabushi's family. From this local centre, neither a temple nor a shrine, they carried out religious services which affected the whole life of the village, from before birth on through death and beyond.

In late medieval times there arose the combination of Buddhist and Shinto style architecture, known as gongen zukuri. In terms of Shinto architecture, the gongen zukuri features the Haidan (oratory or hall of worship) and Honden (inner sanctuary) joined together under one roof. The Nagadoko style derives from the gongen zukuri.

Mt Koshikidake's Kannonji temple was one example of a 'Village Shugen' (里修験) complex.

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 Tare 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 Shugendo practices. Religious confraternities such as those on Mt Fuji and Mt Ontake were also formed around this time. Goma fires 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 Shugendo in the Dewa Basin

Mount Koshikidake is a mountain located in the 'Dewa Basin' of Yamagata Prefecture, in modern day Murayama City. It rises for 5km reaching an altitude of 1,016 m. This mountain is relatively unknown in Japan but has an astonishing history as both a ‘Demon’s Gate Seal’ and as a site significant to Shugendo. The word Koshiki carries the meaning of a rice cooking mound which the peak 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 8 circles, resembling a wheel and its hub which symbolise the navagraha or nine luminaries (九曜; 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 (大権現; great manifestation) at its peak dates back to the Heian period. 

Mount Koshikidake was traditionally revered as the abode of the Ame-no-Mi-Kumari deity (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. 


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

Worship related to Avalokitesvara (観音; Kannon) in various manifestations (usually ‘Sho-Kannon’ 聖観音) has always been popular in the Shonai plain region and we can assume that this is in part due to Kannon’s relationship with rain-making. Dragons and nagas  (竜; ryu) are also related to rainmaking, and the slopes of Mt.Koshikidake are associated with dragons.

Buddhism’s emergence and the 'opening' of practice at Mt. Koshikidake is attributed to the monk Dosho Shonin (道昭 629-700). Dosho is considered 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 philosophy (唯識宗) and Chan (Zen) under the Buddhist monk Xuanzang (玄奘 602-664), whose travels to India were immortalized in the book Journey to the West. There is a legend about his return from China that says Xuanzang had given him a magical kettle. Whenever any medicine was prepared in the kettle, it could cure any illness. The monk travelling with Dōshō was supposedly cured before embarking on the sea trip back to Japan. However, while at sea a great storm came upon them. A diviner on board said that the sea god wanted the kettle. Dōshō at first resisted, but eventually gave in, and the storm immediately abated. Dosho is also credited with introducing cremation to Japan. There is a legend compiled in the ninth century which states that while in China, the monk 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, 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 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 vast mountainous territory located in the northern part of Honshū was associated with the North-Eastern (tōhoku 東北) direction from the Kinki 近畿 region of the Imperial capital, which corresponded to the portion of space presided over by the zodiacal signs of the ox and tiger (丑寅艮; ushitora) according to the cosmological tradition of the Way of Yin and Yang (onmyōdō /onmyo-gogyo-setsu; the theory of Yin-Yang and the five elements.). The ushitora corridor was the spatial gate through which evil influences and demons could penetrate and destroy the world of humans. The security of this dangerous and fluid border, which separated wrathful deities from human beings, was entrusted to specific powerful elements of the natural landscape: the sacred mountains (霊山; reizan). The sacred peaks of Tōhoku were considered to be the first line of guardians standing along the ushitora direction in order to protect the archipelago." 

The kimon is associated with the direction of ‘North East’ and Mt. Koshikidake sits in this direction from the capital at the time (Nara). In Onmyodo (Taoist Yin-Yang 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 held a similar position.

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 (now known as Mt. Gassan, Mt. Chokai, Mt. Haguro, Mt. Hayama and Mt. Yudono) — and with Nojo 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 (Amitābha, Amatayas), and Juichimen Kannon (11 faced Avalokitesvara), their manifestation in the Dewa region appeared as Yakushi, Amida and Sho-Kannon (Avalokitesvara's ground form).

In a similar tradition, Yakushi, Amida and Sho Kannon were also enshrined at Mount Koshikidake and in the past many worshipers attended the site in pilgrimage. In the Muromachi period (1336-1573) Mt. Koshikidake was prominent in the Dewa region's 33 Kannon pilgrimage route. Tradition states that eight trails connected the settlements at the foot of Koshikidake to the summit, and the remains of shukubô (lodgings) have been discovered at Nakazawa at the entrance to the main one. Four Fudô halls also existed at the bottom 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. There are various tales linked to the Yama-no-Kami (山の神 Mountain Deity) divinity of the mountain and Koshikidake Daigongen, Sho-Kannon’s avatar-manifestation (権現; gongen).

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

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, shukyo (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 the Shozan Engi, 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 shûgô 神仏習合), 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.

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):

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 law of En no Gyoja was transmitted to Mt Koshikidake via Rigen Daishi of Daigo-ji (醍醐 寺) temple.

Daigoji-Sanboin forms one of the major centers of Shugendo (Tozan-Ha). Daigo-ji itself was founded in 874 by the priest Shōbō, 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 Tôdai-ji (東大寺).

"According to legend, when Shobo was 58 he was ordered by Imperial decree to vanquish the great serpent at Mt. Omine. En-no-Gyoja suddenly appeared to Shobo when he blew his Conch Shell Trumpet while traversing the Kinpusen region. Guided in a state of ecstasy, he received the secret initiation (kanjo) from the Founder. It is with this background that he re-opened the Gate of Shugendo of Mt. Omine. In the biography of Shobo, he says, "Filled with joy, I was led by the founder [Enno Gyoja) through the Kinpusen region and was handed down the Ein-Kanjo & Reisoujou [恵印灌頂 /霊異相承 - Dharma initiation & rites which became the foundation of the Tozan school] in the Pureland of Ryuju [Nagarjuna]."

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.

Shinbutsu Bunri:

The Destruction of Shugendo and Syncretic Practice

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; the Shingon (Tozan-Ha) and Tendai (Honzan-Ha). This period saw the increased  'Buddhification' of Shugendo.

If this law allowed for the official recognition of Shugendo, it also marked its transformation and decline. Nomadic life and hermitages were prohibited, practitioners had to settle in monasteries or village communities. Ordination became compulsory, the practices regulated and limited by the authorities. Around the beginning of the 17th century shugenja began settling permanently in villages, driven from their mountain temples and shrines by war or the regulations. Village shugenja, such as those linked to Koshikidake, were affiliated through a parish system, linked to the Buddhist sects.

The major blow came with the shinbutsu bunri (神仏分離) separation orders of 1868, which sought to 'clarify' the distinctions between 'Foreign' Buddhas and 'native' Kami.  In the Meiji era (1868–1912), when Japan was forced to open its doors to the West, Shintō came under the influence of Christianity, and the leaders of the new unified Imperialist  State began to embrace the idea of monotheism as a unifying and modernizing force.  

"Japan's political powers had witnessed the piecemeal devouring of Qing-dynasty China by the Western powers, and were determined that Japan should not suffer the same fate. They staked the future of the nation on a concerted effort to understand the poltical and legal structures that appeared to be the source of the strength and dynamism of Western civilisation"
Takii Kazuhiro

"The modern state could not tolerate a discourse on sacralization that did not mesh 
with its totalitarian notion of territory…. Otherness was reduced…"                                                                                                                                  (Grapard, 2005, 90)

In 1868 the New Meiji government ordered that the boundaries between Buddhism and Shinto be 'clarified'. This legislation is known to scholarship by the general term of the kami-buddha separation laws (shinbutsu bunri). As a result the very basis of the of the shugenja, characterised by deity-buddha combination through the veneration of Gongen, was placed in jeopardy. Shrine-temple complexes were divided into their component parts or changed as a whole to either a shrine or a temple and shugenja were forced to decide whether to become shrine priests, take Buddhist ordination, or abandon their calling completely.

The government sought to establish a State Shinto with Ise Shrine as its center and all local clan deities within their own place within this overriding structure. They selected a single Shintō deity from the countless Kami scattered over the Japanese archipelago and elevated it to the position of supreme being. This was the dawn of State Shintō. It is no stretch to say that this process was accompanied by world-shattering violence 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. 

Before the Meiji Restoration, shrines were disorganised institutions usually attached to Buddhist temples; under the Meiji period Separation Orders, they were made independent systematised institutions .The separation orders triggered the haibutsu kishaku (Expulsion of Buddhism and Shakamuni), 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 artifacts. 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 in 1872, being a typical case of the mixture of Buddhism and Shinto. Shugendo Shrine-Temple complexes were forced to choose to become Shinto Shrines or Buddhist temples 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).  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 Betto (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 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 statues and documents were kept in secret and shinbutsu-shugo 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 Sho-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 pilgrimage. Mt Koshikidake still has fraternity groups connected to its worship.

"The Koshikidake Shugendo backlog includes valuable sources of information about the life and concerns of a village shugenja and contains letters related to shipping, village admin and education, as well as sutras, divination manuals and more than 400 ritual manuals detailing the veneration of various deities and rites such as the Hoshiku and the Gumonjiho according to the Ono-ryu of Daigoji. It has a very rich archival collection, consisting both of ritual manuals, mainly from the Daigoji and Negoroji (Shingi Shingon) lineages, and a large amount of eighteenth and nineteenth century documents which attest to the diverse role occupied by village-based shugenja (sato shugen / mappa shugen). They represent a rich store of information about the activities, both religious and secular of an Edo period shugendo complex."

The 'Permanent Ascetic' Kokai Shonin (光海上人) and the Origin of Koshikidake's Yuikesa (Folded Surplus/Stole)

The Buddhist-ascetic Kokai (光海; 1596-1658) was the original bearer of the iconic Yuigesa of Mt.Koshikidake. In the lineage of Mt. Koshikidake he bears the title 'Shonin' (上人; Saint). Kokai Shonin practiced as a permanent ascetic in Mt. Yudono's 'Wizard Swamp' (Sennin-Zawa). Mt Yudono 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' (involving meditation at death and inducing self-mummification). 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 honor his memory.

In 1657, the Kannonji Temple on Mount Koshikidake was burned down by lightning. It was Kokai Shonin who set to work rebuilding it. Kokai used Mt.Koshikidake as his base of activities to spread his teachings among the people. The inhabitants of this region held him in great honour and his cave ('Kokai-Dan') was treated as a sacred site. Pilgrimage to Kokai Shonin's cave forms part of the Valley Entry practice of today's practice at Mt. Koshikidake. Kokai Shonin generated a great reputation for Dewa Sanzan. He was a great friend of the Betto Tenyuu (天宥 1595?–1675) who was responsible for Tendai Buddhism's prominence (over Shingon) on Mt. Haguro and considered the second 'opener' of the mountain. Koshikidake Kannonji temple holds a scroll painted by Tenyuu (pictured below) which was signed by him as the Betto (別当 steward) of Mt. Haguro. The complex topic of art in Shugendo will be covered in another article, but I will mention that every line of the scroll painting was interspersed with prostrations and mantras to Kanzeon Bosatsu (Avalokitesvara).  

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

                   —Haiku poem by the famous Matsuo Bassho

                         commemorating the Betto Tenyuu

In 1658, after a life of spiritual cultivation, Kokai 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 Yuigesa to preserve his memory. 350 years later, the original Yuikesa has been restored by Koshikidake Shokai and serves as one of the current designs used in the sect today. This kesa is of great importance as very few examples survived Shugendo's outlawing and kesa were almost always buried with their owners. 

The Yuikesa bears dharma-wheels (horin/rinbo) in the style of Shingon Tozan-Ha Shugendo. It depicts the three images of 'Dewa-Sanzan' (The Three Mountains of Dewa); Mt Haguro, Mt Yudono and Mt Gassan. These are symbolised respectively as the three legged crow (八咫烏) which guided Nojo Taishi to Mt. Haguro (birth), a rabbit (Mt. Gassan - death) and a blossom (Mt. Yudono - rebirth).

Mt Koshikidake's Shugen Revival

"Shugendo was abolished with the establishment of Nationalist (State) Shinto during the Meiji era in 1872. The horrendous excesses of the edict still affects us today. The practice of Shinbutsu Bunri has yet to heal. Shugendo is however being revived and revitalized. It addresses all levels of belief, from the ancient veneration of nature spirits, to the philosophically challenging concepts of the Madyamika doctrines of the Prajnaparamita. The spirit of Shugendo, which holds nature to be sacred and which seeks for harmony in connection with the natural world, is a vital message for the future of our planet. Shugendo maintains the vitality of ancient knowledge and also points to a way forward for living in harmony with tomorrows world. Shugendo is a unique expression of humanity's spirituality."

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 roads.

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.

Shugenja obstinately resisted the changes and were determined to regain independence. Yamabushi like Shimada Bankon (Tendai) and Umiura Gikan (Shingon) called for the promotion of Shugendo scholarship. Very few devotees visited what had become Shrines in the Omine mountains, preferring to gather at the Gyojado. Despite bans on the performance of rites shugen style activities were widely caried out. Shugenja performing religious services at altars within their own homes continued to practice. Sectarian divisions within the Buddhist sects further brought change; in 1874 Tendai split into the sanmon and jimon branches.

As the 19th century progressed Shogoin, as a Jimon temple, reinstituted it's Shugen consecration rites and in 1899 it sponsored a large scale celebration on the occasion of the 1200th anniversary of the death of Jinpen Daibosatasu (En no Gyoja). Within the Sanmon branch, Kinpusenji was made the head temple of all shugenja affiliated with it, including Hagurosan. The Daigo stream also celebrated the anniversary of En no Gyoja in 1900. The Hanaku-no-mine flower offering peak was revived in 1911 and it has continued ever since. Despite the ban, shugendo groups were gradually enabled to operate independently within the Shingon and Tendai controlled branches.

Shugen related mountain activities also took place in other parts of the country, for example Ontakesan, Hakusan, Ichizuchisan and Homanzan. With the lifting on restrictions on religious organisations after the second world war, the shugendo groups that had unwillingly been part of Buddhist sects for seventy years saw their hopes realised and a large number of independent Shugendo sects emerged and were revived.

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) monk Mitsunaga Dai Ajari - and a Yamabushi from the Mt. Haguro sect, having practiced and served there as Sendatsu (先達) for over 25 years. It is with this background and with the permission of his teacher Kokai Shimazu, previous Abbott and Great Guide of Haguro Shugendo's Kotaku-ji/Shozen-in Temple, that Shokai revived the Koshikidake sect which had laid relatively dormant for two generations. Not only has he reconstituted his family tradition, but he has been a key figure in non-sectarian conversations across Shugen sects on the revival of Shinbutsu-Shugo (combinatory) 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 (Shingon and Tendai) priests as well as Shugendo ascetics 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 stole) held by Shokai's family mentioned above, and an ancient form of Dewa-Sanzan kesa (八葉しめ; hachiyoshime) made with intricately folded paper that served as a kind of wearable 'divine body' (神体; shintai). 

For Shokai, restoring Shugendo is above all about restoring the old mountain routes (and by extension, practices associated with shinbutsu-shugo). But equally important for the future of the revived Shugendô is that participants, by performing such practices as Shugenja, gain a sense of cohesion. This re-establishment of identity is a core theme within modern Shugendo. The restoration of ritual practice, meditation, mountain-entry and the ascetic training of members through it, has been at the core of Shugendo's revival in general.

Aside from lay participation, there are also pathways towards receiving precepts and taking ordination (tokudo; 得度). Training consists of various preliminary practices leading to stages of initiation (灌頂; kanjo/abhiseka) and learning a hierarchy of rites, manners and rituals. This process begins with preliminary exercises centered on norito & sutra study, prostrations (raihaigyo), meditation, daily liturgical services (gongyo), progressing to various Law manners (kito-ho/kuyo-ho 供養法) which build the foundations for more advanced practices centering on deity-yoga (本尊瑜伽). Practitioners learn this ritual calendar in sequence as well as progressing according to their participation in Mountain Entry/Valley Entry ascetic retreats (Mine-iri/ 入峰修行 Nyubu-Shugyo). Similar to other Esoteric-Buddhist sects, rites and rituals require extensive direct oral teaching once the outer form has been mastered, with manuals written in a way that include intentional gaps and mistakes.

Koshikidake Kannon-ji:

A Time-capsule of ancient shinbutsu-shugo (combinatory) Shugendo Practice

From Gaynor Sekimori’s “Shugendo Past and Present”:

With the ongoing discovery of archival material, dating in the main from after the seventeenth century, much more is becoming known about Shugendo networks, lifestyles and organization in the early modern period, and it can no longer be sustained that there is nothing of interest to study in Shugendo after the ‘itinerant yamabushi’ idealized by Wakamori was no longer the paradigm of a shugenja. The work of Kanda Yoriko and her team in the villages around Mt Chókai (on the Yamagata/Akita border) has already been referred to (Kanda 2003); a great wealth of material for understanding the life of the yamabushi in the area and their activities have been uncovered. Family and temple records such as the Arayama, Nanshóji and Daisen’in archives are being used to trace such things as the activities of sendatsu (pilgrim guides) and the involvement of yamabushi in village ritual.

New collections are being discovered regularly and await scholarly attention. One example is the Koshikidake archive (Higashine, Yamagata), some 600 documents belonging to the descendants of the priests of the Tózan-ha temple, Kannonji, which disappeared in the early Meiji period to become a Shinto shrine (see Sekimori 2008). Besides ritual texts, which are being used to reconstruct the lost traditions of the temple, there is a wealth of documentation concerning the life of a Shugendo priest in the early modern period – exchanges with the civil authorities, land registers, taxation documents, communications with the head temple, trading papers, religious licenses, and so on (Sekimori 2005c). An exemplary study of a village shugenja using similar types of documents is Yamamoto 1995 (in Japanese). Recent Japanese scholarship remains interested in institutional history, where the detailed studies of Sekiguchi Makiko are particularly important, given that Tôzan-ha, her field of interest, has received less scholarly attention than the other main Shugendo lineages of the early-modern period.

"The way the ritual practices, particularly those associated with mountain-entry, have been revived aptly demonstrates the contrast between premodern and modern shugenja. While both are described as "neither fully clerical nor fully lay" (hanzô hanzoku) the nature of their identity is bound up in the social mores of the different times. Edo period shugenja were, on the whole, ordained priests who happened to have families. They were professionally bound to their position as shugenja, and most supervised village temples or small shrines and halls. They advanced in rank according to the number of mountain-entry practices they did. This is the pattern associated with the priests of Kannonji at Koshikidake. The Nikkô situation was somewhat different, in that the shugenja affiliated with Rinnôji could perhaps best be described as salaried workers, with specific duties and responsibilities to the temple. Thus the long and time-consuming practice circuits, for example, were part of their workload. Modern Shugendô cannot support "professional" shugenja, and full-time ordained priests in Shugendô temples such as Kinpusenji are greatly in the minority."

⦿ References:

• 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
• 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
• Embryological Symbolism in the Autumn Peak Ritual of Haguro Shugendo 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 Shugendō Amada
• Yamagata Museum Commemorative Exhibition on Dewa-Faith 
For more articles see: Mandala of the Mountain or contact me with any questions.