Shugendo and the Yamabushi: a mountain religion

The immersion in nature as a spiritual experience and the seek of spiritual growth through activity and rituals resonate with me. So, when I found Shugendo, it inevitable fascinated me.

Shugendo ( 修験道 ) is an amalgam of magico-religious practices coming from Shamanism, Taoism, Shinto and Buddhism.  Its roots reach prehistory; its legendary founder lived in in the 7th century but, it was under the influence of Buddhism, particularly Esoteric Buddhism in the form of the Tendai and Shingon sects, that Shugendo turned into an organized religion. In 1868, under the political reform that reinstalled the imperial line to power, the Meiji government forcibly separated Shintō and Buddhism. As part of this reform, in 1872, Shugendo was banned. In 1946 that ban was lifted and Shugendo reappeared.

 

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Monks and beliefs

Shugendo practitioners acquire spiritual powers through ascetic practices in the mountains. In the medieval period of Japan, these ascetic monks, known as Shugenja ( 修 験 者) or Yamabushi ( 山伏 ) played an important religious role in the local communities. Yamabushi responded to the various needs of the common people, offering religious services such as divination, praying for the wishes of their followers and performing purification rituals. Yamabushi provided spiritual assistance for all kind of vicissitudes.

Shugendo venerates various Buddhist divinities and the kami of Shinto. Fudo Myoo, Zao Gongen and Dainichi Nyorai (Vairocana Buddha) play a central role in this pantheon.

 

Fudō Myō-ō,
Fudō Myō-ō is benign deity originally revered in Buddhism. Fudo Myo-o (Acala), at Okunoin, Koya, Japan — photo by jpatoka

 

Yamabushi ascetic training

Aspiring Yamabushi undergo initiation rituals in the mountain. During these retreats various ascetic practices are cultivated. The training requires that the candidates fast, walk long distances, recite a mantra while seated under a waterfall, endure irritating fumes in a room and chant sutras among other ritualized activities. These rituals are enactments of symbolic dead and rebirth. Through mountain practice Yamabushi believe they can achieve a high spiritual state which endows them with mystical powers.

 

 

Shugendo ( 修験道 ) is a living religion in Japan. There are active groups all over the country. Yamabushi still train in traditional ways; they organize hikes and perform rituals for the spiritual well-being of the community.

Shugendo is a lesser-known religion of Japan, probably because their temples are in the mountains, or rather their temples are the mountains. It is a very interesting religion that is worth knowing and preserving.

 

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I will be writing more about Shugendo, so, if you like this post, please subscribe to receive an email notification or give Mythic Japan a Like in Facebook.

 

References

Religious Rituals in Shugendo. (1989). Miyake Hitoshi. Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 1989 16/2-3.

A religious study of the Mount Haguro sect of Shugendō: an example of Japanese mountain religion. (1970). Earhart, H. Byron.

Shugendo: Japanese Mountain Religion – State of the Field and Bibliographic Review. (2009). Gaynor Sekimori . Religion Compass 3/1 (2009): 31–57, 10.1111/j.1749-8171.2008.00124.x

Other texts about Shugendo at the Nanzan Institute for Religion and Culture.

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