Saitō Goma is a Shugendō fire ritual. Its origin can be traced 3000 years ago to Vedic religion. In Japan, it was introduced by Buddhists, who continue performing it to this day. The Yamabushi adopted the ritual but introduced some unique elements.
The Saitō Goma is a frequent public event performed outdoors. The Yamabushi prepare a structure made of logs and cover it with green branches. Through a series of actions and prayers, the Yamabushi invoke Fudō Myōō to burn away defilements and to solicit blessings. Requests of laypeople are collected in the form of sticks with wishes written on them and burn in the pyre.
In April of 2018, I attended two Goma performed by the same group of Yamabushi. One event took place in Osaka and the other on Kyoto. I did not understand all the symbolism of the ritual actions, but I was moved by the ceremony. The Goma is a remnant of old religious ways still finding its way to the human soul.
After some research, I found a description of the Saitō Goma written by Paul Swanson, a Japanese religion scholar. He describes the ritual as part of a Yamabushi mountain pilgrimage but his explanations fit most of what I observed and photographed. I transcribed his text below:
“There are many kinds of goma of varying complexity and efficacy, but perhaps the most important of them all is the Saitō goma, which consists of four introductory rituals and the burning of the central fire. The four rituals are yamabushi mondō (catechism), hokyū no sahō (Sacred Bow ceremony), hoken no sahō (Sacred Sword ceremony), and ono no sahō (Sacred Ax ceremony).
At Mt Ōmine the Shugenja progress in order of rank over Ōmine Bridge to the precincts of a shrine where a dōjō, or sacred area, has been prepared. The whole area is encircled by shimenawa, or sacred rope, identifying it as a sacred place, and most of the pilgrims sit around the pile of wood in the center.”
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Question: As a Yamabushi, a disciple of the Shōgo-in Monzeki, you are expected to be aware of the proper significance of Shugendō. We will now test you, as is our custom.
Answer: I will answer.
Q. What is the meaning of the two characters Yamabushi? What is the meaning of Shugendō?
A. Yamabushi are those who enter the mountains [which symbolize] the absolute nature of the Law, where they conquer the enemy, blind desire. Shugendō
is the Way which shows how to perform ascetic practices and reap the benefits from these austerities.
Q. Who was the founder of Shugendō?
A. The founder of Shugendō was En-no-Gyōja, Jimben Daibosatsu. Born on the first day of the sixth year of the reign of Emperor Jomei in the village of Kayahara in the land of Yamato, he entered the mountains near Katsuragi when he was seventeen, and opened up the peaks of Ōmine for esoteric practices when he was nineteen. In the fourth year of the reign of Emperor Saimei, he was inspired to practice in a crevice behind a waterfall on Mt Minoo, where he worshipped the Peacock Bodhisattva and received the deepest secrets of the law. He traveled up and down Ōmine thirty-three times in all, and when he was sixty-eight years old he rose up to heaven from the peak of Mt Minoo.
Q. What is the principal object of worship of Shugendō?
A. In general, the mandalas of the Diamond and Womb Realms; the focus of ascetic practices is Fudō Myōo, the fierce-looking manifestation of the teachings of Dainichi Buddha.
Q. What is the meaning of the tokin [skull cap] on your head?
A. This tokin symbolizes Dainichi’s crown of full and complete wisdom. The twelve sections symbolize the twelve-linked chain of dependent origination. The six on the right represent the six paths of destruction and return; the six on the left, the six paths of transmigration. Therefore this skull cap also signifies the unity of the common and the holy, the sacred and the profane.
Q. What about the suzukake [robe] you are wearing?
A. This is the lawful wear for practicing asceticism in the mountains. The bell [on the side] is a five-pronged vājra, symbolizing the perfect state of meditation of Dainichi, and the sound of its ringing is a sermon on his Body as the manifestation of the law.
Q. What is the meaning of the yuigesa [cloak] on your shoulders?
A. This is the special monk’s robe worn by followers of Shugendō. It has nine folds, representing the nine worlds and the interpenetration of all worlds in the world of buddhahood. The three sections at the back represent the unity of the three bodies of the Buddha, the six folds in front represent the six virtues.
Q. What about the cord around your waist?
A. This is called the kai-no-o, and is a tool for use in maneuvering on steep cliffs or in times of danger or emergency. It symbolizes the Diamond Realm, the absoluteness of the Law.
Q. What is the significance of the shakujō [staff] in your hand?
A. The staff represents the Cosmic Law; it is the staff of wisdom showing all sentient beings the way to enlightenment. Through the sound of the rattling [of the metal rings at the top of the staff], sentient beings are awakened from their dream of illusion in which they bear the sufferings of the three worlds and the six ways.
Q. If all this is true, then answer this: why do you, a Buddhist, wear the skin of an animal?
A. This is called a hisshiki. It is patterned after Monju Bodhisattva, who rides on the back of a lion. It symbolizes the courage and speed necessary to practice austerities in the mountains. It represents the unillumined, completely merged, unobstructed nature of the Law. As for its practical use, it serves as a blanket to sit on sharp tree trunks or rocks.
Q. What is that sword attached to your waist?
A. This is Fudō’s sword of wisdom. Its cuts off hindrances, demons, and the passions and attachments of this world.
Q. What about the straw sandals which are called yatsume no waraji [eight-eyed sandals]?
A. They represent walking on the eight-petalled lotus.
Q. What is the meaning of the burnt offering of the Great Saitō Goma?
A. The burnt offering of the Great Saitō Goma is the secret offering of Shugendō. It is comparable to the Buddha’s wisdom which, like fire, completely burns away and consumes all the passions and attachments of this world. The ceremony clearly expresses the rational aspect of the Law. It burns away the polluted accumulations [karma] of life and death, and it leads us to rely on the foundation represented by the letter . [It encourages us] to make our residence in the land of the five Buddhas, [and teaches us] to enter the six great concepts; it also signifies the non-duality of ourselves and the Buddha. The ritual, activity, and appearance of the goma all have varying significance.
Your replies leave no doubt that you are a true yamabushi. If that is the truth, again I say, if that is the truth, then you may pass.
I introduce here a comment of scholar Carmen Blacker related with this part of the rite:
Fire and requests
Most of the symbolic meaning of the actions and implements from here on are secret, revealed only to the initiated, and thus a complete understanding of the goma ceremony, its symbolism and significance, is beyond the grasp ofthe outsider. As the goma fire burns, the saitō-shi stands up from time to time and with a long forked pole traces over the fire the letter , symbolic of Mahavairocana Buddha.
To his left are piled 108 sticks in twelve bundles, and these are handed to him one by one by an attendant. The saitō-shi uses his hōken to make a cut on each side of these bundles before casting them into the fire. This symbolizes the cutting away and burning of the 108 passions and attachments. All the participants then stand for a final round of horagai blowing and sutra chanting.”
Here a video with some moments of the ceremony:
Swanson, Paul l. (1981). Shugendo and the Yoshino-Kumano Pilgrimage. An Example of Mountain Pilgrimage. Monumenta Nipponica. Vol. 36, No. 1 (Spring, 1981), pp. 55-84.
Blacker, Carmen. (1975). The Catalpa Bow. A Study of Shamanistic Practices in Japan. London: George Allen and Unwin Ltd.