What is Shugendō?

Shugendō is a 1400 year-old syncretic tradition of training and testing, combining elements of Esoteric-Buddhism, mountaineering-asceticism, Shinto and Taoist thought, as well as ancient folk beliefs and practices related to mountains and ancestors (山岳信仰; sangaku-shinko and 神奈備信仰; kanabi-shinko). Shugendō above all is characterised by its periodic rituals of death & rebirth (擬死再生の修行). 


"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?

One literal way to look at the term is gen wo osameru michi (験を修める道). Shu (修) or osameru signifies the action of studying, testing, pursuing or cultivating. Gen or ken (験) signifies the efficacious result 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 Shin-'To". That is, Shugendō is the Way (道; Do) of  'Testing' the Teachings and Generating Spiritual Power [revealing virtue and testimony] (験; gen) through Disciplined Practice/Ascesis (修; shu).


The use of the term ascetic (苦行/修行; kugyō/shugyō) here refers to the fact that emphasis is placed on approaching doctrine and the mind through the body (身体を通して心に入る), and engaging in strenuous practices which take one beyond the habitual processes of the body-mind. The main characteristics of Shugendō as a sect 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 uncertainty, of imagination, of inspiration and hierophany, of the unhabituated, of creative energies; places of dreams, fears, ecstasy and despair, places where the edges the psyche became porous, places of the 'undomesticated' elements of society; of the rebellious, 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) as axis-mundi.


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?

As in Mantrayāna & Māhayāna more broadly, the practice of Shugendō involves cultivating an experiential understanding of fundamental non-production (anutpada; 本不生, honpushō), emptiness (sunyata; 空, ), dependent-origination (pratītyasamutpāda; 縁起, engi), the aspiration to develop the heart of wakefulness for others (發菩提心; bodhicittotpāda/ hotsu-bodaishin) and uncovering one's innate nature (佛性; bussho).

All the schools of Buddhism employ various methods to achieve this understanding in order to widen the scope for compassion, wisdom, clear perception and skillful activity (方便; hoben/upāya). Generalising, Zen Buddhism for example focuses on zazen (坐禅; seated meditation) and the Pureland schools focus on nenbutsu (念仏; devotional recitation practice on the Buddha Amida).


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 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), in which practices still however require a commitment to a direct student-teacher relationship, ordination (得度; tokudo) and consecration/initiation (灌頂; abhiṣeka/kanjo).


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.).