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SHUGENDŌ is a distinctive Japanese tradition combining both indigenous and imported traditions, particularly Buddhism, and featuring the mastery of magical and ritual techniques to be practiced in and around sacred mountains. The name Shugendō means literally "the way [dō ] of mastering [shu ] extraordinary religious power [gen ]"; the connection with sacred mountains is not included in the term but is implicit. Practitioners were called shugenja, "persons [ja ] who master extraordinary religious power," but the more common name by which they have been known is yamabushi, "those who sleep [or lie down, bushi ] in the mountains [yama ]"in other words, those who make mountains their home. Shugendō arose in part out of the ancient Japanese tradition of sacred mountains, but also features some Taoist influence, and especially ritual, divinities, symbolism, and doctrine from Buddhism.

Although Shugendō groups trace their origin to the late seventh- and early eighth-century tradition of En no Ozunu, the institutional organization of Shugendō did not take place until about the eleventh century. Eventually more than a hundred mountains were headquarters for a number of main traditions and many local variations of Shugendō, which was never unified on a national basis by a single teaching or a single authority. Shugendō is the general term referring to all aspects of this waythe mountain headquarters, the ecclesiastical organization, the teachings and practices, and the overall ethos of gaining magico-religious power through special training in sacred mountains.

This pervasive movement, which spread rapidly throughout all areas of Japan except the island of Hokkaido (which was developed later), was one of the main channels for disseminating religious teachings (such as elements of Buddhism) to the common people. It flourished until shortly after the feudal period, when in 1872 the government abolished Shugendō (partly in the attempt to "purify" Shintō and separate Buddhism from Shintō). With complete religious freedom in 1945 after World War II, some Shugendō groups have been able to reorganize, but they do not compare in size or vigor to the flourishing movement that existed from the eleventh through the nineteenth century.


The two main formative elements for Shugendō are the prehistoric Japanese heritage of sacred mountains, and imported traditions (from Korea and China) of religious realization. Although these two sets of elements eventually became almost imperceptibly intertwined, it is important to distinguish them in order to understand the emergence of Shugendō.

Sacred mountainsincluding particular beliefs and practices associated with themhave been so important in Japanese religious history that scholars have used the terms sangaku shinkō (mountain beliefs or cult) and sangaku shukyō (mountain religion) to refer to this nationwide but unorganized, highly localized phenomenon. Prehistoric practices surrounding sacred mountains were shaped by the character of the kami associated with a site and the type of worship accorded that spirit.

The claim has been made that in prehistoric times, before rice agriculture was introduced to Japan, there was a "pure hunting culture" and that the "original" mountain kami was a hunting divinity worshiped on the summit of the mountain. The significance of this theory is that, if substantiated, it would point to a hunting culture and a mountain kami related to hunting as the first Japanese precedent of religious practices on the mountain peak. However, there is insufficient evidence to support the claim, and because prehistoric conditions are so poorly documented, it is unlikely that such evidence will be found.

The earliest form of religious practices at Japanese sacred mountains for which there is archaeological evidence is related to the ptotohistorical period just before and after the common era, and closely associated with agriculture. These archaeological finds occur at the foot of mountains (rather than at the peak), often in conjunction with large boulders. Some of the finds are the stone representations of jewels, mirrors, and swordsthe so-called imperial regalia, important to the imperial family and in Shintō. The ritual bowls and mortars also found there have led some scholars to conclude that the boulders (often venerated even today as the temporary dwelling place of kami) were the altars on which offerings were made. The mortars and ritual bowls may well have been for brewing and offering a special "overnight" sake (rice wine) that is mentioned in the Kojiki and Nihongi, early chronicles of Japan. The protohistorical evidence for sacred mountains shows that kami were believed to dwell within the mountains and that they were worshiped at the foot of mountains, probably in connection with fertility (offering of rice wine in connection with the rice harvest, a venerable tradition still honored in Shintō).

The second set of formative elements for Shugendō was the host of beliefs, symbolism, and ritual imported to Japan from the Asian continent. Especially Buddhistbut also some Taoistnotions and techniques of religious realization interacted with the indigenous Japanese phenomenon of sacred mountains to create the peculiar blend of traditions that coalesced into Shugendō. One of the major changes brought about by the imported traditions is that it shifted interest in sacred mountains from the foothills to the peak. The primary influence for this change seems to have been Buddhism, whose practitioners viewed sacred mountains as ideal locations for practicing Buddhist austerities and mastering ritual and magical techniques. Taoist notions were added to the mystique of Japan's sacred mountains, so that they came to be viewed as the dwelling place of "mountain wizards" (xian in Chinese, sen or sennin in Japanese).

The legendary figure En no Ozunu is viewed by Shugendō followers as having established the precedent of practicing Buddhist austerities, overlaid with a Taoist mystique, in Japanese mountains. He is first mentioned in the Shoku nihongi record of 699, when he was banished on the charge of misusing his magical powers to control people. This simple notice connects his practice of magic with a sacred mountain, Katsuragi. The ninth-century account of the Nihon ryōiki contains the full-blown tradition of En no Ozunu used by Shugendō leaders to glorify their legendary founder: here he is treated as a miraculous figure who exemplified the ideals of Buddhist asceticism and Taoistic mysticism, in the context of sacred mountains. Following these ideals, En no Ozunu withdrew into a mountain cave and practiced the Buddhist magical formula of the Peacock King (Kujaku-ō), thereby gaining magical powers such as the ability to fly through the air. After competition with a jealous kami, he became a Daoist wizard and ascended to Heaven. In this account he is called En no Ubasoku (ubasoku is the Japanese rendering of the Sanskrit term upāsaka, "unordained Buddhist practitioner"); in Shugendō he is honored as En no Gyōja, in other words, En the Ascetic. Legends developed proclaiming that En no Gyōja had opened up the mountains of Yoshino, Ōmine, and Kumano, some of the earliest institutional centers of Shugendō.

There is no substantial record of the life and activities of En no Ozunu, but his tradition of gaining special religious powers by practicing Buddhist and Daoist techniques of religious realization within the precincts of sacred mountains became the precedent for a host of practitioners on many sacred mountains. Especially during the Heian period (7941185), unorganized wandering ascetics developed such practices. There were various names for these practitioners: ubasoku (Skt., upāsaka ) drew heavily on Buddhism; hijiri ("wise man, holy man") and onmyōji ("master of yin and yang, " fortuneteller) utilized especially the techniques derived from Onmyōdō ("the way of yin and yang "); genja ("person of extraordinary religious power") used various techniques. These practitioners conducted austerities and pilgrimages within sacred mountains while practicing specific techniques (such as reciting Buddhist sutras and magical formulas) to gain special religious powers; some of them used this power to provide rituals of blessing and healing to laypeople. Gradually some sacred mountains became centers for organizing these practitioners into institutional groups. One of the foremost was Kumano, which from about the eleventh century had become popular as a pilgrimage site for the imperial family and, increasingly, for the nobility and other people as well.

Shugendō was a major channel for unifying and continuing such diverse practices. Prominent sacred mountains became Shugendō centers that attracted large numbers of practitioners and molded their beliefs and practices into distinctive blends of doctrine and action. While revering En no Gyōja as the founder of Shugendō and generally accepting all the diverse elements within this tradition, local centers revered a specific person who founded practice at that mountain (usually called the one who "opened the mountain") and developed a particular pattern of holy sites, symbolism, doctrine, and ritual.

Dynamics and Significance

By about the thirteenth century, Shugendō had become a highly organized tradition with many well-established local variations. Although each center emphasized its own particular blend of teachings and practices, some features were common to most groups. Distinctive forms of dress and ritual tools were arranged in sets of twelve or sixteen items: several characteristic items by which Shugendō practitioners were recognized are the small black cap (of Buddhist origin), the seashell or conch, the priest's staff, and a portable altar. The set of twelve or sixteen items had its own symbolism, as did each aspect and measurement of a particular item. For example, the portable altar, which contained a few Buddhist scriptures, tools, and maybe a small statue (such as Fudō) for worship while the practitioner was on pilgrimage in the mountains, symbolized the cosmos from which the initiate was reborn as a result of his mountain practice.

Such complex symbolism could also occur on a grander scale. For example, worship at Kumano featured a pattern of three sacred mountains viewed as three interrelated cosmic worlds (mandara, from Skt. maala ): one mountain represented the Womb World Mandala (taizōkai ), a second mountain represented the Diamond World Mandala (kongōkai ), and the third represented the higher union of these opposites in a Womb and Diamond World Mandala. In doctrinal terms, the three maalas express the teaching of Esoteric Buddhism of a higher reality; in practical terms, the maala s and Japanese sacred mountains became permanently interrelated, so that the pilgrim who visited these sacred mountains and followed prescribed rules of purity and training was sure to realize the attainment of Buddhahood. Similar patterns of three sacred mountains, with local variations, are found at other Shugendō headquarters throughout Japan.

The most conspicuous religious performances within Shugendō are the ascetic procedures followed by pilgrims during periodic retreats on sacred mountains, tracing a Buddhist pattern of ten stages from hell and beastly existence to heaven and the enlightened status of Buddhahood. The formal pattern of ten stages is common to Buddhism generally, but Shugendō centers gave dramatic turns to such doctrinal teachings. For example, the first stage of hell, which meant weighing one's karman, or past (here, evil) conduct, was acted out in some Shugendō traditions by lowering a yamabushi over a precipice with a rope, in which position he was required to confess all his sins. This is typical of the Shugendō emphasis on asceticism in concrete and experiential terms. Perhaps the outstanding ritual performance of Shugendō is the fire rite called Saitogōma, which may derive in part from indigenous Japanese fire rites. (The word goma is related linguistically to the Indian terms soma or homa. ) The immediate precedent of Saitogōma is the heritage of fire rituals in Esoteric Buddhism, but the Shugendō rite, an outdoor night ceremony performed as the culmination of a period of religious realization, combines the notion of attainment of Buddhahood with the general sense of gaining power from ritual association with sacred mountains.

By participating in successive mountain retreats (often called "peaks"), a Shugendō initiate acquired the ability to minister to laypeople, and the veteran yamabushi increased in rank in the local organization. Each center had its own complex rules of training and sets of ranks. As Shugendō became more highly institutionalized, especially from about the thirteenth century, the older tradition of wandering, unorganized practitioners gave way to the establishment of a central headquarters that trained and controlled individual yamabushi. These yamabushi lost their status as individual wandering ascetics, and although they continued to be viewed as possessing the mystique and power of sacred mountains, they spent more of their time in an itinerant ministry, dispensing charms and blessings from the sacred mountain to common people. There emerged complex networks of parish relationships between Shugendō headquarters and many families in the surrounding area, with itinerant yamabushi both carrying blessings from the mountain to the people and also guiding individual believers on pilgrimages to the mountain. As yamabushi leaders called sendatsu guided their parishioners on the pilgrimage, walking from outlying areas to the sacred mountain, they stayed each night at specially designated lodging houses.

At times the competition between rival Shugendō groups erupted into violence and disputes that had to be settled by secular authorities. In their role as itinerant ministers, sometimes accompanied by wives who assisted in rites of possession and exorcism, yamabushi were very influential in spreading religious traditions to the populace; they taught practical versions of Esoteric Buddhism, and disseminated the Kōshin cult (derived in part from Daoist tradition). As they mingled with the people, yamabushi came to be associated with the long-nosed mountain goblin called tengu; they were also suspected of abusing their right of free travel by acting as military spies. By Tokugawa times (16001867), people viewed yamabushi more as popular exorcisers than as mountain ascetics, and yamabushi frequently appeared in plays as pseudoreligious or comical characters. In short, the institutionalization of the yamabushi career led to their popularization at the expense of their ascetic and religious character.

The proscription of Shugendō by the Meiji government in 1872 was due primarily to the desire of the new rulers to "restore" Shintō to a pure state, free from foreignthat is, Buddhistinfluence, in order to support the notion of the emperor as head of the nation and its indigenous religion (Shintō). Shugendō, being a patent amalgam of Shintō and Buddhism, was an obvious obstacle to such a program. The moral and financial corruption that had plagued Shugendō since the late Tokugawa period was another possible reason for the proscription, which resulted in the splitting of Shugendō centers into independent Buddhist and Shintō elements. With the enactment of freedom of religion in 1945, however, some Shugendō traditions surviving in Buddhism and Shintō were revived and new Shugendō organizations appeared.

Shugendō is significant as a good example of the emergence of Japanese religion from the interaction of indigenous and imported traditions. Most of the elements that make up Shugendō are found throughout Japanese religious history, even to the present day: indeed, several founders of Japanese new religions have been connected with Shugendō, or have displayed similar patterns of religious behavior, such as retreat on sacred mountains for the practice of austerities and the attainment of sacred power.

See Also

En no Gyōja; Onmyōdō.


The original research on Shugendō is found in Japanese publications, which include many compilations of original documents, as well as detailed studies of particular Shugendō organizations. Three major studies especially valuable for their synthetic interpretation are Wakamori Tarō's Shugendōshi kenkyū (Tokyo, 1943); Hori Ichirō's Wagakuni minkan shinkōshi no kenkyū, 2 vols. (Tokyo, 1953); and Miyake Hitoshi's Shugendō girei no kenkyū (Tokyo, 1971). Miyake has also written a shorter, convenient overview in Shugendō: Yamabushi no rekishi to shisō (Tokyo, 1978). Representative of the resurgence of interest in Shugendō and the publication of many specialized studies is the series "Sangaku shūkyōshi kenkyū sōsho" (Tokyo, 1975).

Western-language publications on Shugendō are still relatively few. The first modern work on Shugendō is Gaston Renondeau's Le Shugendō: Histoire, doctrine et rites des anachorètes dits Yamabushi (Paris, 1965), which emphasizes historical documents and treats Shugendō mainly in terms of doctrinal developments out of Tendai and Shingon. Hartmut O. Rotermund has written two major works on Shugendō. His earlier work, Die Yamabushi: Aspekte ihres Glaubens, Lebens und ihrer sozialen Funktion im japanischen Mittelalter (Hamburg, 1968), traces Shugendō as viewed in Japanese literature. His later work, Pèlerinage aux neuf sommets: Carnet de route d'un religieux itinérant dans le Japon du dix-neuvième siècle (Paris, 1983), is a detailed study of the travels and experiences of one yamabushi through his writings. In A Religious Study of the Mount Haguro Sect of Shugendō: An Example of Japanese Mountain Religion (Tokyo, 1970) I have utilized my fieldwork with a contemporary Shugendō group to interpret its religious worldview.

New Sources

Hitoshi, Miyake. Shugendo: Essays on the Structure of Japanese Folk Religion. Edited by H. Byron Earhart. Ann Arbor, 2001.

H. Byron Earhart (1987)

Revised Bibliography