What is Shūgendō?               


Shūgendō (修験道) is a Dharma tradition characterised by combinatory ritual-practice, mountain-asceticism, pilgrimage and periodic retreats centered on ritual death & rebirth.

As a practice-path, Shūgen's roots extend into ancient folk-traditions related to mountains and ancestors. Gradually these absorbed and influenced aspects of both Shinto (kami-faith) and Daoist (yin-yang) thought, ultimately to be shaped through the doctrines and practices of Esoteric-Buddhism.

⭐ What does 'Shūgendō' mean?

Shū (修) signifies ascecis; the action of studying, testing, pursuing and cultivating. Gen (験) signifies the fulfillment, efficacy and testimony of cultivation.  is one of several pronunciations of the character meaning way (道; michi).

That is, on a basic level we can understand Shūgendō as a way (道; ) of  practicing (修; shū) to reveal and confirm our innate virtue and wakefulness (験; gen).

Shūgen isn't a religion based on passive participation, rather it is characterised as a school of thought based on practice (実践宗教; jissen-shūkyō).

The use of the term ascetic here refers to engaging in practices which take one beyond the habitual processes of the body-mind. The main characteristics of Shūgen as a denomination are its approach to combinatory buddha-kami ritual practices 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 Shūgendō come to be?

"..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, coexisting in seeming contradiction all come together in this figure of `mountain`.."
— Professor Naito Masatoshi, folklorist at Tohoku University (my translation)

Looking to Sakyamuni's formative experiences in the mountains and forests of Northern India, the mountain-hermits of Zhongnan, 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.

Shūgendō emerged as a broad movement in 7th Century Japan at the crossroads of Daoist, Buddhist 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 and Nōjosen, recognised and revered today among the ancestor-patriarchs of this 'folk' movement. 

⭐ What are the defining features of Shūgendō's teachings?

It is important to understand that the hybridity and so-called 'combinatory' nature of Shūgendō 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 master-practitioners. With this said, it must be understood that Shugen, as it is understood today among its legitimate denominations, is fundamentally a path of the Buddhadharma.

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

The Buddhadharma cultivates a liberatory understanding of mind and the root kleshas. As in Esoteric-Buddhism & Mahayana more broadly, the practice-path of Shūgendō involves cultivating bodhi-wisdom and an experiential understanding of the doctrine.

It is said that the Buddha teaches 84,000 remedies for 84,000 afflictions. These 84,000 afflictions in turn are the doorways into wakefulness; each with their own methods depending on the disposition and inclination of the afflicted. All denominations of Buddhism employ a variety of methods to cultivate wakefulness and widen the scope for compassion, wisdom, clear perception and skillful-means. 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; nenbūtsu).

Shūgendō's defining method is the use of periodic retreats and unique practices involving the ritual 'entering' of mountains and valleys. In Shugendō, these places are transformed into sites of practice where practitioners are initiated into an experiential understanding of the doctrine. Shūgendō 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 faith and practice. 

Another important aspect of Shūgendō is that it is fundamentally a lay practice. This means that as a tradition it is orientated towards the non-monastic or householder. The majority of participation in Shugen comes from non-ordained practitioners. Advanced paths of practice into priesthood however are reserved to those who have taken a commitment to a direct student-teacher relationship, ordination (tokudō), as well as consecration/initiation (abhiṣeka).

Periodic retreat is complimented and deepened through the practice of ritual (sādhanā) taught in the context of the teacher-disciple relationship. These include various altar practices, such as homa, pūjā and ritual-prayer (kaji-kito). As a sect which due to historical reasons is closely linked to the Esoteric-Buddhism of the Shingon and Tendai lineages, consecration, ritual-practice and the direct teacher-disciple relationship are considered paramount. The Esoteric-Buddhist viewpoint  - an extension of the Mahāyāna perspective - is characterised by yoga; the creative union of body, speech and mind.

⭐ Further Learning:

I will share with interested readers some short introductions by renowned figures from across various the various lineages of Shūgendō. 

ubasoku | what is shugendo?