What is Shugendo?  

Shugendo (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, Shugen's roots extend into ancient folk-traditions related to mountains and ancestors. Gradually these absorbed and influenced aspects of both Shinto and Daoist thought, ultimately to be shaped through the doctrines and practices of esoteric Buddhism.

It is important to understand that the hybridity and so-called 'combinatory' nature of Shugendo 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.

"Shugen 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."

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).

Shugendo's defining method is the use of periodic retreats and unique practices involving the ritual 'entering' of mountains and valleys. Shugen can be said to possess, in the words of Rev. Riten Tanaka, a 'glocal' outlook, combining both global/universal and localised, place-based approaches to belief and practice. 

Another important aspect of Shugendo 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 retreats comes from non-ordained practitioners. Advanced paths of practice into priesthood also exist, however they 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, puja 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 (abhiṣeka), ritual-practice and the direct teacher-disciple relationship are considered paramount. The esoteric-Buddhist viewpoint  - an extension of the Mahayana 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 Shugendo. 

ubasoku | what is shugendo?