» Articles: Presentation: Introducing Shugendo and Mount Koshikdake

The following is a transcript of a presentation given by Shokai Koshikidake in 2019 to introduce the world of Shugendo at Mount Koshikidake in basic terms to a non-Japanese audience. Some of the images referenced and their caption are below the article.

For more articles see the blog Mandala of the MountainEdited by Jisho. 

Good evening everybody. Let me introduce myself. My name is Shokai Koshikidake. I am the head priest of Koshikidake Kannon-ji Temple (甑嶽山観音寺). I was born in 1958; I am 60 years old.

People can become Shugendo practitioners as lay-householders (non-monastics), because Shugendo originally was a religion for lay people.

All my disciples have their own jobs as well as their religious duties. For example, they may work as carpenters, farmers, mechanics, salary-men or martial arts instructors. There is a great variety of workers and each of their jobs differ. The Koshikidake school really is a mixed bunch.

What is your image of Shugendo? It may be tough, strict, or mysterious.

I think all these images are correct, and incorrect. Many Westerners think Shugendo is a religion of martial artists or related to some kind of fantasy cosplay image like ninja or samurai. Although there are some connections, and I know that these kinds of people as retainers must have had spiritual strength, I doubt they truly practiced Shugendo, because it takes a long time to master and it has several religious precepts that must be upheld.

I’d like to start by telling you about the historical background of Shugendo.

The key word here is 'Mountain'. Japan is a mountainous country; nearly 70 percent of the land is covered by mountains.

In ancient times, people relied on the mountains for their survival and mountains formed the backbone of their lives. Over time, mountains were sanctified. In Japanese mythology there is a story concerning ninigi-no-mikoto (瓊瓊杵尊). In this story the grandson of the sun goddess is said to have descended from the heavens to the peak of Mount Takachiho (高千穂). The mountains were seen as liminal spaces where the boundaries between heaven and earth blurred, and where deities would descend.

The ancient beginnings of what we call Shinto (神道) was the practice of heaven, earth, and nature/human. 

In 552, Buddhism was brought to Japan. This resulted in a conflict between the Mononobe (物部) clan, an anti-Buddhist faction, and the Soga (曽我) clan, who were a pro-Buddhist faction. The Soga clan came out on top, and since that time many aspects of ancient shinto were assimilated into Buddhism.

To highlight this 'syncretic' nature, I'd like to show you some historically significant material as evidence. This is a statue named Kongou Sekishou Zenshin Uhou-douji  (雨宝童子), a manifestation of the Buddha Dainichi-Nyorai which is a honji-butsu (本地仏) of Amaterasu Oomikami (天照大神), the sun goddess of Shinto. 

This figure displays the sun goddess holding a wish-fulfilling jewel (宝珠) and scepter, adorned with a five-ringed pagoda (五輪塔). All these adornments are Buddhist implements. This ancient statue of is a clear expression of the moment when ancient Shinto deities were completely enmeshed with Buddhism. The statue is only about 4cm tall. It is one of the important images held by Koshikidake Kannon-ji temple, and it was made in the 15th century in the Muromachi (室町) era.

This wooden statue is also a treasured figure held by my temple. It is a statue of En'noGyoja (役行者), a founding figure in Shugendo, and it was also made around the 15th century. It is very realistic. 

Thus, the sanctuaries in mountains became the places where Buddhas live. 

During this period, practitioners following the Dharma would enter the mountains as a place of practice. En'no Gyoja was the prime example of this. Mountains thus were transformed into sites of practice. Typical examples of mountains where Shugendo practice was undertaken are those in the Omine (大峰) area which is located between Nara (奈良) and Wakayama (和歌山) prefectures. This area was also the site of En'no Gyoja's practice. Three Buddha's were enshrined 

Three Buddhas were enshrined in Kumano (熊野) mountains in the Omine region.

They are Thousand Armed Kannon Bodhisattva (観音菩薩) which embodies the qualities of compassion, the Medicine Buddha, Yakushi-Nyorai (薬師如来), and Amida Nyorai (阿弥陀如来) who vows rebirth in the Western Paradise. From these three Buddhas we can see that Kumano became a place where the common people undertook pilgrimage (熊野詣 Kumano-Mode) in order to alleviate their sufferings, heal their ailments and seek a peaceful death. 

These 3 statues are enshrined in Tosenji (東仙寺) temple in Shingu (新宮市), Wakayama Prefecture (和歌山). The Yakushi Nyorai and Amida Nyorai images were created late in the Heian (平安) period (11th century). The Thousand Armed Avalokitesvara image was created in Asakusa (室町) period(15th century).

In Yamagata prefecture (山形) there is a famous mountain range called Dewa-Sanzan (出羽三山) which repeats the pattern of Shugendo found in Kumano. The same type of mountain worship was formed across the nation. 

Koshikidake Kannon-ji (甑嶽山観音寺) was originally founded by the monk Dosho (道昭) in 648, and originally belonged to the Hosso (Yogacara) school (相宗) which is the oldest Buddhist sect in Japan. Shugendo was introduced to the mountain via Tozan-Ha's Shobo (宝聖) in 874. Kannon-ji temple at one point belonged to Mt Yudono (湯殿), a most secret place and one of the three sacred mountains which forms Dewa-Sanzan. 

Let me talk about Mt. Koshikidake (甑岳) for a moment. Dosho Shonin (道昭上人) who first brought Buddhism to the mountain is an important figure in Japanese Buddhism. He later went to China during the Tang Dynasty. When he returned he spread his teachings through Asuka-dera/Hoso-ji Temple and established the Yocacara/Hoso School (法相宗).

At that time in the beginning of the 7th century, the political situation was unstable in Japan and the capital city was not clearly established. People in Japan strongly believed in a spiritual world. 'Kimon' (鬼門) means the direction of the northeast, and temples would be placed in this direction to ward off negative forces. Dosho was sent to find a Kimon spot for the new capital, which at the time was located in the Asuka region (明日香) in Nara (奈良). This was Mount Koshikidake. If you look at the image below, you can see that there is a 45 degree line separating the capital and Mt. Koshikidake. This is the Kimon direction.

In 1868 Shugendo was banned as the Ordinance Distinguishing Shinto and Buddhism promulgated in 1868 prohibited the syncretization of Kami with Buddhism. This destroyed social relationships at the time, temples were abolished or converted into shrines. Everything changed, and many statues and documents were destroyed. This was the end of the beliefs of shinbutsu-shugo (神仏習合) which existed before the Meiji era (明治).

For this reason there is a lot of debate in Shugendo, and no lack of objections between priests, practitioners and scholars. To give you an example, more than ten years ago I visited my home temple of Arasawa-ji in Mt. Haguro (羽黒). Two scholars were staying their with their students. I thought i'd take the opportunity to get their opinion on the meaning of 'Ya-Ho!' (ヤッホー) which is yelled by practitioners at the end of a certain part of our training at Mt. Haguro (秋の峰). One argued "弥宝歳" (both pronounced Yaho). 弥 means ‘now’, ‘at the supreme moment’. 宝歳 means ‘treasure year’. This means ‘Now we get into the supreme moment’, that is, celebrating the accomplishment. The other scholar disagreed and insisted that it means "弥破う". "破う" means to break. "弥破う" means that ‘now is the moment when we break the barrier of vicious circle of struggle of life’. That is, "let’s break the vicious circle of Rebirth in the six worlds." The debate got heated and I slipped away quietly without them noticing.

At another time, I was asked to give a lecture on Haguro-Shugendo (羽黒修験) in Tokyo. I was asked about the unique costume we use, which features a checkered pattern. I replied that it represented the sun and moon, that is, Yin and Yang (陰陽) because that is what I was taught by my teacher Kokai Shimazu, who served as the head of the Haguro school at the time. After my lecture, another priest gave a lecture, and said that the real meaning of the costume represents Fudo-Myoo's rock-seat (不動明王瑟瑟座). You may know that some Fudo statues have stone staged painted with a checkered pattern. Those in the hall looked on suspiciously at the differing answers. Anyway, that may give you some idea that scholars, priests and practitioners insist on objections with each other and that the true shape of Shugendo can be elusive.

I believe Shugendo can be a simple concept; it does not have to be so difficult. I will show you two words. One is "Jinen-Jobutsu" (自然成仏) which means we are originally realised. The other is "Sokushin-Jobutsu" (即身成仏) which means we can realise this in our lifetime. We are originally realised, but we cannot see it, because we are caught up with attachments, defilements and desires. If we die to these, our spiritual awakening will naturally be disclosed. In Shugendo, the way of death is important. We believe we should die with out own awareness and intention, to reveal our awakening. 

You may know about the famous mummy priest Shinnyokai-Shōnin (真如海上人) of Dainichi-bo (大日坊) on Mt. Yudono. Some ascetics when it was their time to die, chose to due in meditation, and their bodies remained for the people to see. This figure shows that he became a Buddha and threw away his body after death. I worry that the audience will focus on the object of the mummy, and for the uneducated person it looks like something frightening. Instead, maybe we can emphasize the compassion and intention of the priests who chose to die that way.

On the other hand their are also Mikkyo (密教) rituals such as Ajikan meditation (阿字観) and the Goma ceremony. These allow one to reach the ultimate state in this very life. Kukai (空海) the founder of Shingon (真言宗) is still said to be sitting in meditation at Mt. Koya (高野山). Servant priests make offerings of meals and clothes to him twice a day (奥之院・御給仕僧). In contrast to Shinnyokai, they say that Kukai never died; he has been living hard.

Entering the Peak: Mountain Asceticism at Mt. Koshikidake (入峰修行)

In Shugendo, we enter the mountain and experience the ten realms (十界) of Buddhist cosmology. These include the realms of Hellish fear, the desperation of the Hungry Ghost realm (餓鬼界), the dullness and brutality of the Animal world (畜生界), the jealousy of the Warring Spirits (修羅界), Human attachment and gratitude (人間界), God-like arrogance (天人界), Learning (聞聲界), Realisation (縁覺界), Bodhisattva-hood (菩薩界) and Buddhahood (仏界). This mandala is projected onto the mountain and thus training depends on the layout of the landscape and its geography.

There are many secret aspects to this practice, but I'd like to introduce a few details concerning the Mountain Pilgrimage Retreat as it is practiced at Mt. Koshikidake. Not all practices are included. For example Hunger is not experienced because it takes time to stave, though an understanding of this realm will be developed through through the experience of fasting.

In Shugendo, the ritual to enter the mountain is very important in signifying the border between our casual lives and the other world. We have to make certain that we make this deep shift in order to experiences this world through the mountain.

At first, our names are called as Shugendo practitioners in front of the Torii gate (鳥居前での点呼), and we are purified in the Yamanokami (mountain deity) shrine using an old Shinto (古神道) manner and a unique Shugendo implement called a Bonten (梵天/梵天加持). After this, we ask permission to enter the mountain and swear that we will not commit bad behaviour during mountain training. Inside the shrine of the mountain deity (山ノ神神社内部) it is possible to understand the generous character of old Japanese animism. At the Mountain Peak Altar (峰行祭壇) you can also see the syncreticism of Shugendo.

It is very important to put an end to our casual life. We have to be conscious about the meaning of mountain training. Because of that, we wear a Yamabushi (山伏) uniform which is layered in symbols, purify ourselves, and get permission to enter the mountain from the deities. Yamabushi means to submit to the mountains. Practitioners must strike a bell and swear an oath before they depart (申渡し&出立の様子).

Mt. Koshikidake is a popular hiking spot but we must recognize that we are entering the mountain which functions as a stage for the purpose of spiritual training. We are entering the mountain to experience the Ten Realms ideologically. To enter this spiritual phase, we symbolically perform a funeral for ourselves, experience death and make a break with our bodies. We draw water for ourselves (取水作法&葬列) for the last time at the Fourth Bridge (四番目の橋&水杯) before embarking on a funeral procession towards the 'other world' (黄泉渡り) which will connect us with the Ten Realms (山ノ神神社からの行列).

In Japanese, the number 4 is pronounced ‘Shi’, which is the same pronunciation as the word death. The significance of the fourth bridge lies in the fact that it reminds us to be conscious of the image of death. Once we cross the fourth bridge the ritual of rebirth begins. We then approach the entrance of the mountain trail without speaking (黄泉渡り) as a sign that we have lost our bodies. The silent parade makes us remember that we are in the infernal regions (上へ). Although later we will experience the pain of acrid smoke as part of the Hell Ream practice, in this moment we are conscious of the procession from Paradise towards Hell.

There are ten slopes, large and small, like a dragon clinging to the sword. Though these ten slopes do not correspond to the Ten Realms, they remain very important in letting us dedicate ourselves to the Mountain Pilgrimage.
They allow us to imagine the mountain as divine territory an experience a spiritual shift. We receive a special purification rite at the crossing border between two worlds and will continue on into the tabooed land (九字十字作法).

Just beyond this trail, there is a secret place (清水之権現) where we will undergo waterfall ascetic training later. We receive the power of the sacred water by chanting the Sutra of water. This ritual which involves purification by sacred water also corresponds to a portion of the daily liturgies we perform.

The fourth slope (四の坂) is the most demanding point of the journey. We crawl up on all fours like animals striving to reach the top first (左へ移動). This is the animal realm of immediacy, brutality and stupidity. It is difficult to realize these ideas on an ideological level, but if we cultivate the correct mindset and have our inner worlds connect to the universe, these mountain training exercises will act to awaken us. Once we have accomplished mountain training we can recall the entire process by memory and recitation to continually sharpen ourselves.

We arrive at the edge of Mt. Tsugayama (津河山) where we can rest for a while. But here we are on cusp of the six realms of desire, the 'fire break' area. For this reason, we have to purify that which we carry over from our casual lives (防火線). Here we chant the Sutra of Fudo Myo-Oh (不動明王) because Fudo transforms into a judge who decides our final destination. We pray to Fudo to receive protection and escape from the six realms of desire.

Fudō Myō-ō (不動明王)

Since you asked about Fudo-Myoo. I'd like to briefly touch on his nature.

Fudo Myoo is one of the most popular figures in Japan due to his impressive appearance. He is an aspect of Dainichi-Nyorai (大日如来). Some may think that he is some kind of warrior god because of the big sword in his hand and wrathful appearance. However it is not a weapon, but a Buddhist implement to drive off attachments.

I want you to look closely at his appearance. His head is large and disproportionate to his small body. His body is short and stocky like that of a child. Fudo Myoo's hair is modeled off the servant-slave class found in ancient India. His basic character is that of a devoted servant to Buddha.

Each element of his appearance carries layers of meaning just as the way his sword does. To put it simply, the wrinkles in the middle of his forehead express his mercy and compassion towards the agony of the world's people. He squints horribly with his eyes facing different directions, but this symbolises his far reaching gaze. He bares his canine teeth which point up and down, showing his bodhicitta and compassionate action. The rope he is holding is to bind evils and rescues people, relieving those bound with suffering. The nimbus-flame he shoulders is in the shape of a firebird of legend that eats up the three poisons.

His skin is often shown as the colour of mud, symbolising the mud of samsara where the people drown. His body is covered with mud due to his diving into this pond. It symbolises his mind to save people in agony and hopeless grief. Fudo Myoo is a deity who has great mercy and behind his horrible appearance. It is told that these scary appearances are considered to be the aspects of Dainichi Nyorai which forcibly guide those who cannot be educated by preaching alone.

Let me talk more about Fudo Myoo from another point of view. In the giant universe of folk and Buddhist cosmology there are a group of famous deities called Ju-o (十王) who are regarded as the '10 judges of hell'. Ju-o are held to be awesome existences because they preside over the weighing of karma belonging to the dead person. The first judge the dead is called Shinkoo (秦広王). Shinkoo is considered to be an avatar of Fudo Myoo. He determines the destiny of the dead. This means that Fudo Myoo can manage our lives even after death.

On this occasion I would like to explain my point of view concerning the connection between Buddhism and other religions. First I have to tell you about the concept of 'Chuu'. It is a period of mourning in Buddhism which lasts
seven weeks. Common practice says the dead must appear before a different judge every week. 7 judges administer justice during this period. After the Chuu period, the 3rd, 7th and 33rd anniversaries will continue on as
important days. This is the reason 10 judges in total are needed.

These ten deities called Juo did not exist in early Buddhism. They are deities which were originally found in the Ten Kings of Hell in ancient Manichaeism, founded in Iran in the 3rd century. I have been thinking that the ten judges in Manichaeism and the Sabbath which occurs every 7 days in Christianity were combined along the Silk Road to form the concept of 'Chuu'. This combined with the influence of Chinese thought, which produced the worship of the Juo in 10th Century China. One of the deities, Taizan-O (泰山王), for example who is the 7th judge of the Juo, is a Chinese deity.

Continuing on,

In the realm of Humanity we practice ritual confession, which is unique to humans. We climb upwards chanting the sutra, ‘Zange, Zange, Rokkon Shojo (懺悔 懺悔 六根清浄)’ which means to purify the six sense roots. There is a manner for confessing our transgressions at the beginning of our prayers (登拝). We cannot praise the deities unless we practice confession. It is the same process in the mountains except we are not seated. This concludes the preparation for prayer.

At the next stage we experience the awe in the wide field of vision high up in the mountain as the Heavenly Realm (見晴台). But this level is still part of the six realms of desire. To escape this vicious cycle, we reaffirm our oath to Buddhahood and strike a bell (鳴子). In Shugendo, the sound of the conch-shell trumpet, Shakujo, bells and drums are very important. The have the ability to cut off the illusions caused by the six sense organs, expel evil spirits and awaken us. We hit the bell firmly and escape from the vicious cycle of the six realms of desire.

We continue onwards from the Six Realms of Desire to the Four Noble Realms, crossing from Mt. Tsugayama to Mt. Koshikidake. The trail goes through the pocket between the two mountains and evokes the feeling of falling into a bottomless pit. We continue to crawl ahead chanting the Mantra of Light (光明真言) for the spirits of the dead.

The Realm of Learning involves performing a ritual at a sacred site of chestnut trees where the ruins of the ancient Kannon-ji temple (寺屋敷跡) stand. We offer incense to the successive head priests and deities existing in the mountain. Though it looks like we are close to the peak of the mountain, there remains a tough trail ahead. This symbolically connects us to the Realm of Learning. While we are in the four Noble Realms there still remains the risk of acting hastily in a self-conceited or self-gratifying manner. Many practitioners fall into evil courses because of their self-complacency and we should be mindful that evil is always watching and waiting for a chance to deceive us. Thus we pray for the protection of deities in order to accomplish our vows and mountain training safely.

We arrive at a sacred site where an old pine tree stands (老松). This is regarded as a holy existence of Mt. Koshikidake. We can relate to the deities at this site. To connect with the deities we have to recognise the existence of beings beyond humans and other species. We chant 'Hongakusan' accordingly (本覚讃読誦), which tells how spiritual awakening exists in our minds and how the existence of deities is felt inside us. The summit of Mt. Koshikidake is near, but still feels so far away to us (頂上へ向かう行者).

We chant the Rokuharamitsu Sutra (六波羅蜜) which tells us the six practices of compassion, morality, patience, effort, meditation, and wisdom. These practices remind us of the mental state of the Bosatsu (菩薩 Boddhisattva). We are determined to devote ourselves to the relief of living things by looking out over the city where people live. We must etch that in our heart forever, because this is the noblest aim of our practice.

What we realize through mountain training is that all aspects of creation are parts of the universe which is the world of Buddha. The ten steps from hell to Buddha all belong to this world. If there is a hell we must go there, we must confess our transgressions and give thanks in the world of the human, and be elegant in the world of devas. We should accept everything and go through all processes towards Buddhahood with 'Uketamau!'. At the peak of the mountain (天空), we chant the Kannon sutra (頂上での勤行) and take an oath to take away suffering and the agonizing steps which other beings experience. 

There are many other important events, secret rites, rituals and layers of meaning, but I hope this gives you some idea of what is involved in the Mountain Entry Practice of Shugendo.