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Shugendō is a syncretistic Japanese Buddhist tradition of mountain ascetic practices that incorporates elements from shamanism, indigenous Japanese folk beliefs concerning mountains and spirits of the dead, and Daoist magic. The word Shugendō literally translates as "the way of cultivating supernatural power." Its practitioners are known as yamabushi (those who "lie down" in the mountains) or shugenja (ascetics, or "those who cultivate power"). Although their role has evolved and changed over the years, these figures were expected to accumulate religious power by undergoing severe ascetic practices in the mountains, such as fasting, meditating, reciting spells or Buddhist texts, sitting under waterfalls, gathering firewood, abstaining from water, hanging over cliffs to "weigh" one's sins, retiring in solitary confinement to caves, and performing rituals such as fire ceremonies. Shugenja then drew on this power to provide services, such as guiding pilgrims, performing religious rites, and demonstrating superhuman feats like walking on fire, as well as divination, exorcism, and prayers.

Historical development and characteristics

In pre-Buddhist Japan, religious activities included shamanistic trances, communication with spirits, and festivals and rites celebrating the descent of the agricultural deities from the mountains in the spring and their return to the mountains after the autumn harvest. Mountains were also believed to be the residence of the dead. As Buddhism was being assimilated into Japanese society in the sixth century (if not earlier), ascetics entered mountainous areas to undergo religious austerities. These persons were not always Buddhist monks, but included an assortment of solitary hermits, diviners, exorcists, "unordained" Buddhist specialists (ubasoku), and wandering religious figures (hijiri). The most famous of these was En-no-Gyōja (En the Ascetic, also known as En-no-Ozunu; ca. seventh century), a prototypical ascetic with shamanic powers and the semilegendary founder of Shugendō, stories of whose activities are in evidence at almost every mountainous area with an ascetic tradition.

By the early Heian period (ninth century) many Buddhist ascetics, especially those associated with the tantric schools, entered Mount Hiei and Mount Kōya (the headquarters of the Tendai and Shingon Buddhist schools), as well as other mountains such as Mount Kimbu in the Yoshino region. Various mountainous areas throughout Japan developed their own traditions, among them Hakusan and Mount Fuji in central Japan, the Haguro peaks in the north, Mount Ishizuchi in Shikoku, and Mount Hiko in Kyushu. Each had its own religious history, its own set of deities, its own web of associations with other sacred sites, and its own community of Shugendō practitioners. Shugenja from these areas performed religious services and guided pilgrims to popular sacred sites like Mitake and Kumano. These shugenja gradually became organized by the middle of the Heian period (tenth century), usually in connection with the pilgrimages of retired emperors and aristocrats. In time its institutional structure formed two major pillars: the Honzan-ha headquartered at Shōgo-in and affiliated with Tendai Buddhism, and the Tōzan-ha headquartered at Kōfukuji and Daigoji and affiliated with Shingon Buddhism. In this way the older shamanistic and mountain ascetic practices were incorporated within the teachings and practices of tantric Buddhism, and Shugendō came to represent a large portion of the dominant syncretistic worldview of medieval Japan. In the early modern period (lasting from the seventeenth century to the nineteenth century) the role of most shugenja shifted from that of ascetic wanderer to that of someone settled in a local society as oshi (teacher) or kitōshi (a diviner who offers "prayers").

Today Shugendō represents only a shadow of its former self, though Shugendō-related activities, such as the kaihōgyō Tendai practice of "circumambulating the peaks" on Mount Hiei and Shugendō-influenced rituals and activities in some of the new religious movements of Japan, are still practiced. A syncretistic mix of traditions, Shugendō was outlawed in the late nineteenth century as part of the attempt by the Japanese government to "purify" Shintō of its "foreign" elements. Shugendō specialists were forced to identify themselves either as Buddhist monks or Shintō priests. With the postwar declaration of religious freedom in the second half of the 1940s, Shugendō organizations recovered their independence and many activities, such as the Yoshino-Kumano pilgrimage along the Ōmine range and the seasonal retreats at Haguro, have been revived by their former institutional centers.

Buddhist aspects of Shugendō

Buddhist aspects of Shugendō are reflected in its doctrinal and ethical teachings, rituals, cosmology, and ascetic practices. These are based mainly on tantric Buddhism as it evolved in the Tendai and Shingon traditions in Japan. Examples include the reinterpretation of traditional Buddhist categories, such as the ten realms of existence (from hell to Buddha) and the six pĀramitĀ (perfections), in terms of the physical and spiritual progress made by ascetics as they advance through the mountain trails and trials. Fire ceremonies (goma) and other Buddhist rituals also underwent transformation. Cosmological and symbolic significance was assigned to Shugendō geographical sites based on the configuration of the womb realm (taizōkai) and diamond realm (kongōkai) maṆḌalas. In this way the mountains came to be identified with the body of the cosmic Buddha Mahāvairocana (Japanese, Dainichi), and entering the mountains took on the added meaning of becoming integrated with the Buddha and attaining enlightenment. The belief that buddhahood can be attained within this life is a central tenet of Shugendō faith and a major goal of its practice. Traditional Buddhist and Buddhist-like figures (buddhas, bodhisattvas, and guardian deities) were incorporated into Shugendō worship, along with completely new figures. Especially important is Fudō (myōō; the unmovable), a fiery and angry looking representation of the role of the cosmic Buddha in destroying the passionate afflictions of this world. Fundamental Buddhist practices such as meditation (seated, walking, or otherwise on the move) and the recitation of sūtras belong to the basic activities of Shugendō. Thus, while it is misleading to speak of Shugendō only in terms of Buddhism, its adherents consider themselves Buddhists and it is not inaccurate to consider it part of the Buddhist tradition.

See also:Japan; Shintō (Honji Suijaku) and Buddhism; Space, Sacred


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Miyake Hitoshi. Shugendō: Essays on the Structure of Japanese Folk Religion, ed. H. Byron Earhart. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Center for Japanese Studies, 2001.

Renondeau, Gaston. Le Shugendō: Histoire, doctrine, et rites des anachorètes dits Yamabushi. Paris: Imprimerie Nationale, 1965.

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Swanson, Paul L. "Shugendō and the Yoshino-Kumano Pilgrimage." Monumenta Nipponica 36, no. 1 (1981): 55–84.

Swanson, Paul L., and Tyler, Royall, eds. "Shugendō and Mountain Religion in Japan." Special issue of Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 16, nos. 2–3 (1989).

Paul L. Swanson