En No Gyōja

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EN NO GYŌJA (634?701), literally, "En the ascetic (ācārya )"; famous Japanese mountain ascetic and hijiri. Details of his life have been recorded, inter alia, in the Nihon ryōiki (820) and in his biography, En no Gyōja hongi (724). He is also known as En no Ozunu, En no Shōzunu, Shōkaku, or simply as the Master En.

En no Gyōja was born to a family of Shintō priests in the village of Kuwahara in Yamato province (Nara prefecture). Although he converted to Buddhism as a youth, he decided to forgo ordination as a monk and to remain a layman. As a result, he is often referred to as En no Ubasoku, "the layman En," after the Japanese transcription of the Sanskrit upāsaka ("layman"). At the age of thirty-two he retreated to Mount Katsuragi (Nara prefecture) and adopted the severe life of a mountain ascetic, clothing himself in grasses and living on the bark of trees. In a cave on the mountainside he installed a copper statue of his patron the bodhisattva Kujaku Myō-ō (Skt., Mayūrīrāja), who is believed to assume the shape of a bird in order to dispense his mercies. For more than thirty years En no Gyōja practiced austerities and meditation in front of this statue. During this period he also forayed to other famous peaks, including the Omine range and Mount Kimbusen, which later became important centers of yamabushi activity. His experience of enlightenment, the culmination of years of ascetic practice, he recorded in this way:

Long ago I listened to Shaka (i.e., Śākyamuni Buddha) himself as he was preaching on the Eagle mountain [Gdhrakūa]. Later I became an emperor of Japan and ruled the empire. Here I am now on this mountain in a different body, to engage in the work of saving sentient being. (Coates and Ishizuka, 1949, p. 18)

Tradition relates that with the attainment of enlightenment En no Gyōja became endowed with miraculous powers, including command of the winds and clouds and even of the indigenous kami; his use of a Buddhist spell (dhāraī ) to exorcise the god Hitokotonushi offered vivid proof of the superior magical power available to the practitioner of Buddhism and went far to establish his reputation. Such episodes, however, brought him the disfavor of the public officials, who were chary of the potential for political and social disruption presented by such episodes, and so in the year 700 he was exiled to the island of Izu. The account in the Nihon ryōiki reports that during his exile he walked nightly from Izu to the mainland in order to ascend Mount Fuji. In 701 he was allowed to return to Kyoto, after which he traveled to Kyushu to continue his ascetic practices until his death later that year.

En no Gyōja's reputation as the prototypical mountain wizard, who commands the powers of nature and engages in prolific displays of magical prowess gained through his ascetic activities, led him to be canonized as the founder of the Shugendō sect of mountain ascetics. In his doctrines, En no Gyōja is recorded to have attempted to harmonize the Japanese respect for nature and belief in the sacrality of mountain precincts with the teachings of Buddhism. His followers in later generations came to recognize in certain mountain peaks and caves the indigenous equivalents of the Kongōkai (Diamond Realm) and Taizōkai (Womb Realm) maala s of the Tendai and Shingon esoteric traditions in Japan. En no Gyōja's legacy continued to inform the mind of Heian Japan (7941185): instances of his legend may be found in the Makurazōshi (Pillow sketches) of Sei Shōnagon and in the Konjaku monogatari (Narratives of past and present). As late as 1799 he was awarded the honorary title Daibosatsu Shimben, "Great Bodhisattva of Divine Change."

See Also



Coates, H. H., and Ryūgaku Ishizuka. Honen the Buddhist Saint. 5 vols. Kyoto, 1949.

Hori Ichirō. Folk Religion in Japan. Edited and translated by Joseph M. Kitagawa and Alan L. Miller. Chicago, 1968.

New Sources

Ishikawa, Tomohiko, and Hiromu Ozawa. Zusetsu En no Gyōja: Shugendō to En no Gyōja emaki. Tokyo, 2000.

Miyake, Hitoshi. En no Gyōja to Shugendō no rekishi. Tokyo, 2000.

Zenitani, Buhei. En no Gyōja denki shūsei. Osaka, 1994.

J. H. Kamstra (1987)

Revised Bibliography