What is Shugendō?

Shugendō is a 1300 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 spiritual death & rebirth (擬死再生の修行), pilgrimage, ascetic practices, retreat and meditation. 


"Shugendō is a Bodhisattva practice where house-holders and common-people aspire to hone their bodies and minds through the Six Perfections (六波羅蜜; Pāramitā) and awaken to the ultimate reality of a Buddha through the dignity of daily-life."


What does 'Shugendō' mean?

One literal way to translate the term is gen wo osameru michi (験を修める道). That is, Shugendō is the Way (道; Do) 'Testing' the Teachings and Generating Spiritual Power [revealing virtue] (験; Gen) through Direct-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 through the body (身に習う; mi ni narau) and engaging in practices which go beyond the habitual processes of the body-mind. The main characteristic of Shugendō as a sect is its focus on combinatory Buddha-Kami practices (神仏習合; shinbutsu-shugo) and its unique approach to mountains as  gestation-grounds for experiencing the doctrine of these teachings.


How did Shugendō come to be?

Looking to Shakamuni'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 and the mountain ranges of Olympus, the ancient world, broadly speaking, looked to mountains as liminal, other-worldly places where the veil to the divine was a little thinner. These places were often culturally restricted, being the haunts of the dead (as in Japan), of wild animals, of ancestors, of the 'undomesticated' elements of society, of the rebellious and of awe-inspiring divinity.


Shugendō emerged as a broad movement in 7th Century Japan at the crossroads of Taoism, Buddhism, Shintō and folk belief systems 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 movement. For a more in depth history see here.


What are the methods characteristic of Shugendō?

Buddhist practice involves developing an experiential understanding of concepts like fundamental non-production (anutpada; 本不生, honpushō), emptiness (sunyata ;空, kū), 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 and 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). 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. 

Another important aspect of Shugendo is that it is fundamentally a lay practice — a tradition orientated towards the non-monastic or householder (婆塞; ubasoku).


As a sect which due to historical reasons is closely linked to the Esoteric-Buddhism of the Shingon and Tendai 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

Mountain Buddhism: Rebirth Through Nature

 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.).