The Way of Cultivating Ascetic Powers


The History of Shugendo
Shugendo ... can be loosely translated as “path of training to achieve spiritual powers.” Shugendo is an important Kami-Buddha combinatory sect that blends pre-Buddhist mountain worship, Kannabi Shinko 神奈備信仰 (the idea that mountains are the home of the dead and of agricultural spirits), shamanistic beliefs, animism, ascetic practices, Chinese Yin-Yang mysticism and Taoist magic, and the rituals and spells of Esoteric (Tantric) Buddhism in the hope of achieving magical skills, medical powers, and long life. Practitioners are called Shugenja 修験者 or Shugyosha 修行者 or Keza 験者 (those who have accumulated power) and Yamabushi 山伏 (those who lie down in the mountain). These various terms are typically translated into English as ascetic monk or mountain priest. (Onmark/Shugendo)

The history of Shugendo can be roughly divided into four periods. The first period extends to the end of Heian period before the two schools of Honzanha and Tozanha were formed. It can be called pre-Shugendo or primitive Shugendo. Based on early views of mountains as sacred space (seichikan) or gateways to the other world (takaikan), the number of ascetics using mountains and forests as sites of religious practice gradually increased. Groups of shugen gradually coalesced thanks to the rise of mountain-centered Buddhism and esoteric Buddhism in the Heian period. By the end of the period, sacred mountains throughout the country had become well known as sites of ascetic religious practice. Particularly prominent among those mountains were Mount Yoshino, as exemplified by Fujiwara Michinaga’s “holy mountain pilgrimage” (mitake mode) there in 1007, and the “three mountains of Kumano” (Kumano sanzan), to which the retired Emperors Shirakawa, Go-Shirakawa, and Go-Toba all made pilgrimages (Kumano mode). Pilgrimages to the three Kumano mountains in fact flourished to such a degree that the parade of visitors came to be known as “pilgrimage of ants to Kumano.” (Encyclopedia of Shinto)

The second period extends from the formation of the two Shugendo branches Honzanha and Tozanha to the forcible “separation of Shinto and Buddhism” (Shinbutsu bunri) in 1868 and the abolition of Shugendo itself in 1872. This can be called the period of sectarian Shugendo, and can be divided into early and late halves centering on the bakufu’s issuance of the Shugendo hatto (Ordinance for Shugendo) in 1613. Shugendo flourished during the early half of the period. Mount Omine, including the peaks of Yoshino, Omine and Kumano, was considered the religion’s central place of training and practice and En no Ozunu came to be seen as its patriarch. Periodic intensive mountain retreats (nyubu shugyo, or buchu shugyo) were arranged, and the Honzanha and Tozanha branches developed organizationally. Furthermore, various sacred mountains throughout the country — from the “three mountains of Dewa” (Dewa Sanzan) in the northeast to Hikosan in Kyushu — displayed independent development as places of Shugendo practice. The Shugendo hatto of 1613 represented an official recognition of the dual existence of the Honzanha and Tozanha branches. Both groups continued their organizational development through the early modern period. However, on the whole the practice of mountain retreats (nyubu shugyo) became formalized, ritual spells and invocations (kaji kito) performed for the common people became the primary religious activities, and yamabushi practitioners commonly began residing in villages (sato yamabushi) instead of mountains. From the mid Edo period, lay people commonly participated in mountain retreats as well, and Fuji gyoja (Mount Fuji ascetics) in the line of the founder known as Miroku and Ontake gyoja (Mount Ontake ascetics) in the tradition of Fukan and Kukumei were active. (Encyclopedia of Shinto)
“Mature” Shugendo in Edo Japan
The role undertaken by shugenja who settled in [local] communities was to respond to the various mundane needs of the common people in the areas of disease and problems of daily life, offering religious services such as fortunetelling and divination (bokusen 卜占), obtaining oracles through mediums (fujutsu 巫術), prayers (kito 祈祷), and exorcism (chobuku 調伏). Thus, in the Edo period the shugenja were responsible for offering “this-worldly benefits” within the context of the religious activities of the common people, and played a major role in these religious activities. (Religious Rituals in Shugendo, 101-2)

The third period of Shugendo history extends from the Meiji-period separation of Shinto and Buddhism and abolition of Shugendo, to the end of World War II in 1945 and ensuing promulgation of the new Religious Corporations Ordinance (Shukyo hojinrei). With the abolition of Shugendo, practitioners went in three directions — they either grew their hair and became Shinto priests (shinshoku), joined the Tendai or Shingon sects of Buddhism, or returned to secular life — and Shugendo ceased to exist as an organized religion. However, Shugendo was essentially carried on within the Tendai and Shingon schools of Buddhism, and in such sectarian Shinto (kyoha Shinto) groups as Fusokyo, Jikkokyo, and Mitakekyo. (Encyclopedia of Shinto)
The fourth period of Shugendo history runs from the promulgation of the aforementioned postwar Religious Corporations Ordinance to the present. A wide variety of new Shugendo organizations exist with an equally wide variety of affiliations, from the old Honzanha and Tozanha groups and independent practitioners who formerly were associated with particular mountains, to new religions of a Shugendo nature. (Encyclopedia of Shinto)

The Structure of Shugendo Rituals
[P]ractices in the mountains (nyubu shugyo) and consecration (shokanjo) involve spiritual identification with the central deity Fudo Myoo through reception of a secret transmission while the shugenja is in the mountains. These rituals signify the rebirth of the ascetic as a Buddha who has acquired the ability to control or utilize the power of Fudo. Therefore the central element which forms both of these rituals is the symbolic action exhibited in a state of identification with the central deity Fudo Myoo. The performance of various practices and rituals in the mountains assumes that the mountains are a supernatural realm, the dwelling of various deities and objects of worship such as Fudo Myoo, separate from the realm of our daily lives. This belief is based on a religious worldview which considers the mountains to be a symbol of the universe. (Religious Rituals in Shugendo, 108-9)

Thus it can be said that the structure of the Shugendo ritual system is as follows. First, the shugenja identifies himself with a deity in order to learn, through an oracle, which evil deity or evil spirit is causing misfortune. He then wields the supernatural power of his deity or its retinue, and finally exorcizes or removes the evil influences. Within this structure on can see that the three elements of identification, manipulation, and exorcism are the three central motifs of the Shugendo ritual system. (Religious Rituals in Shugendo, 113)

The Religious Worldview of Shugendo and Shugendo Rituals
The supernatural spiritual world of Shugendo contains a large syncretistic pantheon of various kami, deities, Buddhas, spirits, and so forth which are believed to control the daily lives of human beings. Fudo Myoo plays a central role in this pantheon. The residents of this spiritual realm, with Fudo Myoo in the center, can be classified into three types of entities.

First are various Buddhas and other Buddhist mikkyo-type figures such as Fudo Myoo and Dainichi Nyorai (大日如来, Mahavairocana), specifically Shugendo objects of worship such as Zao Gongen , and kami which are enshrined by many shrines all around Japan or which have a universalistic character. These kami often serve to symbolize the universe as a whole.

Second, kami with a more individual or local character such as tutelary deities, guardian deities, the retinue of more powerful figures, and so forth. The members of this second group often serve as the retinue of those in the first group. Zao Gongen and some of the kami enshrined in many shrines around Japan were originally local figures like those in the second category, but later took on a more universalistic character.
Third, the evil deities and evil spirits which are the actual causes for various misfortunes. When these evil deities and spirits are brought under control by the shugenja and “enshrined” in a small shrine, these deities take on the character of those in the second category.

Shugendo teaches that a human being is a product of the universe and is himself a “small” universe. Thus all things, including human beings, are thought to have the same nature or character as the divine, the primary and original form of all things. Therefore it is possible for a human being to become a divine being. A shugenja, by cultivating ascetic practices in the mountains (a symbol of the supernatural spiritual world or of the universe itself) and by receiving secret transmissions, can become spiritually identified with Fudo Myoo, who already possesses a universalistic character. If you will recall the structure of Shugendo ritual as outlined above, shugenja first enter the mountains and receive consecration in order to achieve identification with Fudo Myoo and gain the ability to control Fudo Myoo’s spiritual power. The shugenja who have obtained this spiritual power can communicate with the more local and individual spiritual entities who are believed to have a more intimate relationship with the daily lives of the people, and can thus discover the causes of the people’s misfortunes, and identify which evil deities or spirits are to blame. On this basis the shugenja use their universalistic spiritual power to manipulate the individual deities (category 2) and control the evil deities and evil spirits (category 3) and thus exorcise or remove evil influences. (Religious Rituals in Shugendo, 114-5)