Shugendo by Krautbauer



Fudo Myo-O Gallery


Shugendo: "The Way of the Yamabushi"

by Erik Krautbauer

Shugendo the religion and the Yamabushi practitioners

Shugendo was the religion, Yamabushi the practitioners, and the mountains of Japan are where it all transpired.

The word Shugendo directly translated means the 'way' of practicing or mastering magico-ascetic powers. Plainly put Shugendo was a method for developing spiritual powers. The origins of Shugendo can be traced back as far as the 7th century CE, a pivotal time in Japan's religious history. The ruling government of the time, (the Yamato Clan), stringently tried to enforce state sponsored Buddhism as the countries official religion.

Due to the inaccessibility of the this bureaucratic state sponsored religion much of the population was still given to aspects of indigenous religions to fulfill their daily needs. Shugendo eventually evolved as a hybridized religion comprised of 'indigenous' Japanese shamanism, Kannabe Shinko, and naturalized attributes of Tantric Buddhism, Religious Taoism, and Confucianism. In essence Shugendo came to be a Japanese religion comprised of all religious influences that had reached Japan, and though its no longer practiced it's influence can still be found today in the Shingon and Tendai sects of Buddhism. Other more subtle aspects of the Shugendo faith, such as its reverence for the mountains, were, prior to its formation, and still remain to be, deeply ingrained aspects of Japanese culture.

En No Gyoja or En the 'ascetic'

One man is given legendary status as the founder of Shugendo. He is known by the name En No Gyoja or En the 'ascetic'. He is said to have been a master of many magical arts and later is even touted as being a part of the direct transmission of Buddhism. It is known among scholars that a myriad of influences over a substantial period of time were responsible for the resulting formation of Shugendo, yet it is En the Ascetic later referred to as En no 'Ubasoku' (the term for an unordained Buddhist ascetic) who is credited as the founder, and was made a model for other practitioners to emulate.

It is believed that En No Gyoja was historically known as En no Ozunu. En no Ozunu appears in official Japanese national log of events or the ' Shoku Nihongi' of the year 699CE. It is in this year that En was banished from society, following the charge that he "misused his magical powers to control people." (Snellen, 151-239) In this account En is described as an extraordinary individual who was a practitioner of magic on Mount Katsuragi. By the 9th century 'nihon ryoiki' a full tradition had surrounded him as the ideal mountain ascetic. From this point on our subject was known only as En no Gyoja or En no Ubasoku, and tales and lore give accounts of him imprisoning deities to do his biddings, his ability to fly and his miraculous appearances in nearly all of the Mountain regions in Japan.

A collection of tales dated 823 CE contains a story in which En the Ascetic gathered a multitude of gods and demons and exhorted them, saying, "You are to build a bridge reaching all the way from Mount Katsuragi to Mount Kinpu in Yamato." The deities were distressed at this, and during the reign of the emperor at the Fujiwara Palace, the Great Deity Hitokotonushi of Mount Katsuragi became enraged and slandered him saying: "E no Ubasako is scheming to overthrow the emperor." ...The Great Deity Hitokotonushi was bound in a spell cast by En the Ascetic and has not to this day been released from that spell. (Kyokai, 823) . In this way En the man was transformed from an outcast mystic into the idealized founder of the Shugendo tradition who embodies the ideals of Buddhist Asceticism and Taoist mysticism.

En no Gyoja: idealized mountain ascetic

En no Gyoja as the idealized mountain ascetic was the prototype for the Yamabushi. His image and lore were key influences in the unification of many unorganized wandering ascetics into the new movement of Shugendo. The term Yamabushi directly translates into 'one who sleeps in mountains', and was used to describe those ascetics who, like En, chose the mountains exclusively as their ascetic training grounds. These men would withdraw from ordinary society in exchange for the benefits of rigorous mountain life. They would often maintain a special diet, such as pine needles mandated by Religious Taoism, to gain magical powers. They would also subject themselves to physical trials such as standing under cold water falls for extended periods.

These Ascetics sought out sacred mountains as a training ground (doba) and a shelter from society where they could freely put to use many different religious techniques. In Japan as with many east Asian cultures mountains themselves are considered sacred regions where deities reside. These unpopulated and unregulated areas of the country were seen a places where man could interact directly with nature and the spirits contained within. Gary Snyder points out in his essay ,"Blue Mountains Constantly Walking" that there were a few highly formalized sacred areas which were modeled after a symbolic mandala.

It was thought that to walk within these areas was to enact specific move within a spiritual plane. Hence we can see that these hills were not only sought out as a place of religious and spiritual freedom, but also the strong spirituality that was seen to be within the hills themselves.

Aside from the physical rigors the Yamabushi subjected themselves to, these men often memorized Buddhist Sutras, continually repeating certain phrases from these Sutras or Taoist magical formulas. There are three canonized Sutras which became integral parts of the Shugendo. The Lotus Sutra was adopted by Shugendo and has continued to maintain a special space within much of Japanese Buddhism. The Avilokitsvara (a recognized bodhisattva) Sutra was also adopted. I was unable to obtain any significant information about this Sutra at this time.

The Yamabushi recited the Heart Sutra daily as a part of morning prayers. Along with this canonized sutra the Yamabushi would also recite The Sutra on the Unlimited Life of the Three fold Body, an apocryphal text attributed to En no Gyoja. The contents and messages of these sutras provide insight as to the core beliefs and values of the Yamabushi. The most evident belief present in all of these texts is the ability for each man to obtain and experience enlightenment first hand. It was not until much later that folklore attempted to legitimize the transmission of these teachings by linking En no Gyoja to recognized teachers of Buddhism such as Nagarjuna. It seems as though the original Yamabushi were less concerned with matters of this nature, and more concerned with their own personal religious experience. It is not until the 9th century that scholars begin to take interest in the pedigree of their texts.

It is important to note that not until the 9th century time that formal religious adepts take interest in Shugendo as an organized religion. The original Yamabushi practitioners of the 7th and 8th centuries were of a more eclectic nature seeking out first hand religious experience.

In the process obtaining this experience the they would appropriate fragments of the many different religious influences of the time and apply them to situations as needed. It is in this fashion that they adopted their own form of dress, with many attributes being drawn from Buddhist influences. The outfits of the Yamabushi often consisted of a Buddhist hood (tokin) and surplice (kesa), and a white robe (signifying purity).

They also carried with them a Buddhist staff (shakujo) and a (oi), which is a portable alter in the form of a backpack filled with scriptures and other religious needs. Two other distinctly mountainous tools adopted and worn were an ax (ono) and a conch shell (hora). It is said that often times these Yamabushi would even borrow the rosary of the lay Buddhist monks. Unlike the lay monks the many of the Yamabushi did not practice celibacy nor did they wear the ritual shaved head. Our eclectic mountain men often took wives, and wore their hair long or untrimmed.

Shugendo Vision

At this point we can observe the interesting scope of the formation and progression of Shugendo. Initially we have the practices of a single individual, En no Gyoja who became the embodiment of an idea that's time had come. These actions were enough to interest many wandering ascetics who were in search of a new personally attainable truth in the rigorous training and eclectic practices. Also unregulated personal and religious freedom of the mountains is a large draw.

Soon these practices begin to evolve, slowly developing a distinct quality unique among the new mountain men. This unique assembly of thought and practice begins to attract the attention of the court and nobility, presumably the only ones aside from the wanderers, with sufficient leisure time to consider such matters. The interest of these educated nobility spawns the organized canons of the Shingon and Tendai sects which eventually make the Shugendo religion and the mountain retreats accessible to the general populace.

This shift to a canonized and analytically smoothed-over doctrine eventually outmodes the original frontiersman of the Shugendo faith causing them to be seen as primitives or even dim caricatures of themselves. This learned and ritualized form of Shugendo flourishes for many years until much later (the 19th century), when a government sponsored religious reform makes Shinto Japan's official religion. In this shift Shugendo along with many other religions are forced to die out or remain in small secretive pockets. This outlines an archetypal progression from direct, unconscious or semiconscious experience of wonderment, to thought and analysis, to death or reabsorbtion, leaving Shugendo essentially dead to experience and alive only as a shell or a fossil.

Shugendo was at one time a religion of true life and vitality. Beat poet Gary Snyder is a modern figure who fancied that he could still feel that vitality of the Yamabushi in their writings and in their ways. In his book of collected works entitled The Practice of the Wild he includes an entire piece on the Yamabushi which he hinges around Dogen Kigen's essay Sansuikyo, "Mountains and Waters Sutra" written in the year1240. Snyder discusses Dogen 's interest in the mountains saying" Dogen is not concerned with "sacred mountains" or pilgrimages, or spirit allies, or wilderness as some special quality. His mountains and streams are the process of the earth, all of existence... They are what they are, we are what they are.

For those who would see directly into essential nature, the idea of the sacred is a delusion and an obstruction: it diverts us from seeing what is before our eyes: plain thusness. Snyder provides us with some excerpts from Sansuikyo beginning with the opening paragraph. If we can strive to understand Dogen's sentiments the Shugendo vision may not be dead. In fact this very understanding can serve us as building block in all of our spiritual constructs, present, and future.

"The mountains and rivers of this moment are the actualization of the way of the ancient Buddhas. Each, abiding in its own phenomenal expression, realizes completeness. Because mountains and waters have been active since before the eon of emptiness, they are alive at this moment. Because they have been the self since before form arose, they are liberated and realized."
~ Mountains and Rivers Sutra ~

© Erik Krautbauer

.........................................External LINKS
About Shugendo
A Look at Japanese Ascetic Practice
The Sutra on the Unlimited Life of the Threefold Body
Yamabushi - The Third Force
En no Gyoja: idealized mountain ascetic.
Searching for the Lost Scrolls


......................................... BACK TO

SHUGENDO Fudo Myo-O Gallery

En no Gyoja 役行者、E no Ozunu 小角

En no Gyooja and Shugendo … An Essay

Hitokotonushi 一言主 "God of One Word" at Katsuragi Mountain, 一言主神社


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