Shugendo Defined by Mark Schumacher
Iconography expert Mark Schumacher explores Japan’s little known Shugendō sect, a blend of pre-Buddhist mountain worship, shamanistic beliefs, animism, ascetic practices, Chinese Yin-Yang mysticism and Taoist magic, and Esoteric (Tantric) Buddhism in the hope of achieving magical skills, medical powers, and long life.
The Japanese spiritual practice known as Shugendō can be loosely translated as the "path of training to achieve spiritual powers." Shugendō is an important combinatory sect that blends pre-Buddhist mountain worship, Kannabi Shinkō (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 or Shugyōsha or Keza (those who have accumulated power) and Yamabushi (those who lie down in the mountain). These various terms are typically translated into English as ascetic monk or mountain priest.
Practitioners perform seclusion, fasting, meditation, magical spells, recite sutras, and engage in austere feats of endurance such as standing/sitting under cold mountain waterfalls or in snow.
As a general rule, this sect stresses physical endurance as the path to enlightenment. Practitioners perform seclusion, fasting, meditation, magical spells, recite sutras, and engage in austere feats of endurance such as standing/sitting under cold mountain waterfalls or in snow. Another particular practice of Shugendō devotees is to set up stone or wood markers along mountain trails, presumably to leave proof of their mystical journeys up the mountain. There are also precise procedures the practitioner must observe when entering into any sacred mountain space with each stage consisting of a specific mudra ( hand gesture with religious meaning), mantra (sacred verbal incantation) and waka (classical Japanese poem).
This loosely organized sect includes many types of ascetics, including unofficial monks, peripatetic holy men, pilgrimage guides, blind musicians, exorcists, hermits, diviners, wandering holy men, and others.”
Says scholar Paul L. Swanson in Shugendō and the Yoshino-Kumano Pilgrimage: “Shugendō is a religious practice which took the form of an organized religion about the end of the Heian period (794-1184) when Japan's ancient religious practices in the mountains came under the influence of various foreign religions. This loosely organized sect includes many types of ascetics, including unofficial monks, peripatetic holy men, pilgrimage guides, blind musicians, exorcists, hermits, diviners, wandering holy men, and others.”
Shugendō as a religious tradition nearly dissappered in the Meiji era (1868-1912). In 1868, the government outlawed the fusion of Shintoism and Buddhism, and in 1872 the government banned Shugendō as a superstitious religion. Shugendō sites became either Shintō shrines (thus losing their Shugendō heritage) or they became branches of the Tendai or Shingon schools of Buddhism. A large number of practices were lost and mountain-entry rituals in particular were not kept up. Adds Shugendō scholar Gaynor Sekimori: “Shugendō was banned in 1872 for its eclecticism by a reformist government anxious to be perceived as having shed the shackles of a ’feudal’ or benighted past. Shugendō priests were given the choice of becoming (Shintō) shrine priests or fully ordained priests within the Buddhist tradition (Tendai or Shingon) to which their institutions had been affiliated, or giving up their religious role completely. The very small number (less then ten per cent) who joined Buddhist institutions found themselves ranked inferior to regular priests and encouraged to integrate with their new sects rather than try to maintain their Shugendō traditions. Initially they were forbidden to wear their distinctive robes, to perform Shugendō-style rituals, and to conduct Shugendō-related activities.”
Today Shugendō is staging a comeback.
Shugendō was not allowed to exist independently thereafter until 1946, when the old legislation was rescinded. This legislative change prompted a large number of Shugendō schools / lineages / groups to declare their insititutional independence from Tendai and Shingon and Shintō. Today Shugendō is staging a comeback. Some of the main Shugendō sites in Japan are Mt. Kinpusen, Mt. Ōmine, Dewa Sanzan, Mt. Hakusan, and Mt. Izusan. At Mt. Ōmine, women are still forbidden to enter the mountain (for historically, women have been considered disruptive to the monastic practices of male practitioners).
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