What is Shugendō?               

By Jisho

Shugendō (修験道) is a syncretic tradition of training and testing characterised by sādhanā, mountaineering-asceticism and periodic retreats centered on ritual death & rebirth.


As a practice-path, Shugen combines elements of Esoteric-Buddhism, mountaineering-asceticism, Shinto and Taoist thought, underscored by a foundation of ancient folk beliefs and practices related to mountains and ancestors.


It is important to understand that the hybridity and so-called 'combinatory' nature of Shugendō is not just a mish-mash of random practices without any sense of inner-logic. Rather this process of exchange and harmonisation took place across generations of practitioners. With this said it must be understood that Shugen, as it is practiced today among its legitimate denominations, is fundamentally a path of the Buddha-Dharma. 


"Shugendō is a bodhisattva practice where house-holders and common-people aspire to hone their bodies and minds, and awaken to the ultimate reality of a Buddha through the dignity of daily-life."


What does 'Shugendō' mean?


Shu (修) or signifies the action of studying, testing, pursuing or cultivating. Gen or ken (験) signifies the testimony of ascetic discipline. Do is one of several pronunciations of the character meaning 'Road' (道; michi) similar to the 'Dao' in Daoism, Way (Do) of Buddhism or 'To' (Way) in Shinto


That is, Shugendō is the Way (道; do) of  'revealing virtue and testimony (験; gen) through disciplined practice/ascesis (修; shu).


The use of the term ascetic here refers to the fact that emphasis is placed on approaching doctrine and the mind through the body, and engaging in practices which take one beyond the habitual processes of the body-mind. The main characteristics of Shugen as a denomination are its focus on combinatory Buddha-Kami ritual practices (神仏習合; shinbutsu-shugo) and its approach to mountains (and what we now relate to as 'nature') as gestation-grounds for experiencing the doctrine of these teachings.


How did Shugendō come to be?


Looking to Sakyamuni'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, the inspiration of Cadair Idris and the mountain ranges of Olympus, large sections of the ancient world, broadly speaking, looked to mountains as liminal, other-worldly places where the axis-mundi or omphalos took form. These places were often culturally restricted - underworld or otherwordly - being the haunts of the dead (as in Japan), of wild animals, of ancestors, of undomesticated energies, of homage and of awe-inspiring divinity.


That the Japanese archipelago is covered by 70% mountainous terrain led to the natural arising of this worldview, and the interweaving of Buddhist cosmology further reinforced the sacredness of mountains, with its centering of Mount Sumeru (須弥山; shumisen).


Shugendō emerged as a broad movement in 7th Century Japan at the crossroads of Taoist, Buddhist, Folk-belief and Shintō thought, when people began entering the mountains seeking to re-live and encounter the experiences of the founders of these teachings. 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 this 'folk' movement. 


What are the methods characteristic of Shugendō?


The Buddhadharma aims at the cultivation of wholesome and balanced states as the basis for nurturing an understanding that liberates the mind by transforming the root kleshas of clinging, aversion and ignorance. As in Mantrayana & Mahayana more broadly, the practice-path of Shugendō involves cultivating bodhi-wisdom and an experiential understanding of the doctrine.

All denominations of Buddhism employ various methods to cultivate wakefulness and widen the scope for compassion, wisdom, clear perception and skillful activity. Generalising, Zen Buddhism for example focuses on seated meditation (坐禅; zazen) and the Pureland schools focus on  devotional recitation practice on the Buddha Amida (念仏; nenbutsu).


Shugendō's defining method is the use of periodic retreats and unique practices involving the ritual 'entering' of mountains and valleys (入峰; nyubu/mine-iri). In Shugendō, the sacred topography of the natural world becomes the site of practice (行場; gyoba), where practitioners are initiated into an experiential understanding of the doctrine. Shugendo can be said to possess, in the words of Reverend Riten Tanaka, a 'glocal' outlook, combining both global/universal and localised, place-based understandings of practice. 

Another important aspect of Shugendō is that it is fundamentally a lay practice. This means that as a tradition it is orientated towards the non-monastic or householder (婆塞; ubasoku). The majority of participation in Shugen comes from non-ordained practitioners. Advanced paths of practice into priesthood however do require a commitment to a direct student-teacher relationship, ordination (得度; tokudo), aspirational commitments as well as consecration/initiation (灌頂; abhiṣeka/kanjo).


Periodic group retreat is complimented and deepened through the practice of ritual-sadhana. As a sect which due to historical reasons is closely linked to the Esoteric-Buddhism of the Shingon (真言) and Tendai (天台) schools, initiation, empowerment, ritual-practice and the direct teacher-disciple relationship are considered paramount. The Esoteric-Buddhist  viewpoint (Tantric Mantrayana/Vajrayana) - an extension of Mahayana - is characterised by yoga (本尊瑜伽); the creative union of the practitioner's body, speech and mind.


To flesh this out a little further, the following pages will introduce readers through short articles by renowned figures from across various schools of Shugendō. 


—Articles: What is Shugendo?


 野観心十界曼荼羅; Kumano Ten Realms Mandala

 観心十法界図: Ten Worlds Mandala

The practice of Shugendo is '十界頓超の行'; the practice of realising the Ten Realms in the heart-mind (一心十界.).