Up in the mountains of Dewa Sanzan in Japan, all is silent except for the chirping of the birds and the gurgling streams. The weather is cold and harsh for the most part, the trails long and steep. But despite it all, Dewa Sanzan has been Japan’s most ancient and sacred mountains and the site of worship and enlightenment for the Yamabushi for more than 1400 years.
The Yamabushi are Japan’s mountain worshippers and the believers of shugendō, an ancient religion dating back to the Heian Period (794-1185 CE). A yearly pilgrimage takes them to the depth of the natural environment where their rituals, chanting and ‘forest bathing’ is said to bring them enlightenment. The pilgrimage is no pleasure hike either- it is only through rigorous self- discipline and immersing oneself in nature can the Yamabushi attain spiritual rebirth. For as long as the Japanese can remember, the entire process of what goes on during the pilgrimage has been kept under wraps by the Yamabushi, its mystery further intriguing the rest of the world. For the better part, no photographs are allowed up at the sacred sites and the Yamabushi have been forbidden to talk about too. However, in recent times, Yamabushi training programmes have been authorized, inviting foreigners to take part in the pilgrimage, which is how the world is gaining more insight into the custom.
Shugendō: A History
It was the introduction of Buddhism in Japan from the Korean Peninsula that paved the way for the emergence of shugendō. During the Heian Period, classical art and literature flourished in Japan. When Buddhism was introduced into the country, it created a problem as the religion was more of an effective tool for promoting a strong central state. Moreover, the Japanese emperor’s beliefs and power was deeply rooted in his Shinto origins, according to which he was the direct descendant of the Sun Goddess Amaterasu. Embracing one religion over the other would definitely create problems and doubts over his power, so the emperor decided to let both religions flourish and co- exist in the nation. This led to the emergence of shugendō- an amalgamation of the native Shinto and esoteric Buddhism, along with some influence and practices of folk Shamanism and Taoism.
Though it is not known exactly who the founder of this syncretic religion was, it is generally attributed to En no Gyoja, a Japanese mystic and ascetic believed to have possessed supernatural powers. The court banished him in 699 for the same reason and according to legend, Gyoja flew to Mount Fuji to train, worship and practice asceticism or shugendō. It is believed that those who first studied Buddhism and shugendō did so under Gyoja, and hence Gyoja is credited as the first mountain priest or Yamabushi. Shugendō focuses on mountain worship and asceticism. It is true that these were already practised in Buddhism, however, shugendō believers take the practices to another level- it includes subjecting themselves to strict diets, self- discipline and rigorous training.
For hundreds of years, shugendō thrived, but its existence came under threat during the nineteenth century. The Meiji Era (1868- 1912 CE) brought several reformations to Japan and the country was transformed from a deeply spiritual and agricultural one to an industrial nation, influenced by Western technology and culture. In 1872, shugendō was completely banned and many of the sacred sites and symbols were destroyed. Although Buddhism wasn’t banned, it was formally separated from Shinto. Shinto was established at the official religion of Japan. The move came from the emperor to strengthen the imperial line and his divine powers.
But the end of the Second World War brought yet again many changes to the country. The emperor’s divine powers were revealed to be mere fabrication and his role and influence was reduced. The subsequent religious freedom throughout the country saw the resurgence of shugendō.
Yamabushi are devout shugendō believers. There are two divisions of the Yamabushi- in the Kansai region and Shinto varieties in Tohoku. For those based in the Kansai region, the centre of worship is in Yoshino Mountain and the Kimpusenji Temple, while for the Shinto variety, it is Dewan Sanzan or the three sacred mountains with its shrines.
The literal meaning of ‘Yamabushi’ is ‘one who prostrates on a mountain’ or a ‘mountain priest.’ During the early rise of shugendō, the Yamabushi were the hermits or wandering monks who lived amongst the mountains went through intense, gruelling training. Amongst others, the training included sitting under freezing waterfalls to meditate and practice endurance, practices of self- denial, even jumping over flames, training in martial arts and often fighting alongside the samurai, earning the title of great warrior priests. These rituals arose from the belief that only by distancing oneself from society, abstaining from worldly pleasures and focusing on one’s connection with nature can the Yamabushi abandon their self and attain enlightenment to seek spiritual rebirth.
The traditional role of the earliest mountain priests included guiding people to find their true nature, teach them discipline and train them in the ways of the warrior. Though some Yamabushi continue these ancient practices till date, the term ‘Yamabushi’ has come to denote anyone who believes in shugendō. Since its birth, shugendō is not without its own changes. While its basic beliefs and practices have changed little, the modern Yamabushi aren’t the ancient priests and monks living the solitary life. Today, they are regular people with everyday jobs like farmers, businesspeople and shop clerks who undertake the annual pilgrimage to Dewa Sanzan. During the pilgrimage, they follow the strict practices of the religion- the training, spiritual hikes and rituals. So in essence, shugendō is now more about the beliefs than the actual daily lifestyle.
In the mountains of Dewa Sanzan, there are many Shokubo, which are the ancient mountain lodges that serve as places of rest and meeting of the Yamabushi during their pilgrimages. For the Yamabushi, everything that comes from the mountains is sacred and abundant with natural and spiritual energy. So by consuming the fresh mountain vegetables and being in the lap of nature, the body become is bathed in spiritual energy. Local shokubo in serve shojin ryori, the traditional vegetarian cuisine of the Yamabushi. Many of these ascetics work as innkeepers at the Shokubo. During the early days, the local Shokubo amounted to more than 300 while today, the number has dwindled to around just 29. These Shokubo accommodate both the Yamabushi and the travellers seeking to understand the Yamabushi.
The Sacred Mountains
Till date, shugendō has continued to be part of the everyday lives of the Japanese, since some of its aspects is based on folk shamanism. The practice of mountain worship has always prevailed in Japanese society. Almost every mountain has a deity and a shrine, some of which see yearly pilgrims. The phenomena connecting religious rituals and beliefs with the mountains is called sangaku shinkō.
The Dewa Sanzan consists of three sacred and ancient mountains in Japan- Mount Haguro, Mount Gassan and Mount Yudono. The mountains first started functioning as a centre of worship more than 1400 years ago in 593 AD and the credit goes to Prince Hachiko. Prince Hachiko was the first son of Emperor Sushin, who was Japan’s 32nd emperor and the ruling king at the time. In 593 AD, Emperor Sushin was assassinated by the Soga clan and the prince fled the then capital of Japan, Kyoto. He arrived in the Dewa province and following the advice of his nephew, Prince Shotoku, fled to Mount Haguro. According to legend, Hachiko encountered the Goddess of Mercy, Kannon. He then devoted his life to religious pursuits, thus starting the endurance of difficult ascetic exercises and long periods of penance. His practices led to him worshipping Haguro Gongen, the mountain deity and eventually he began worship at Mount Gassan and Mount Yudono too. Hachiko built shrines on each of the three peaks so that the mountain deities would be pleased. In addition to this, he also built a temple to enshrine all three deities at the foot of Mount Haguro, thus bringing peace and prosperity to the Dewa province.
Following the Dewa Sanzan mountains establishment as the centre for acetic beliefs, a lot of people began undertaking an annual pilgrimage to the shrines during summer, trekking thousands of miles to pay reverence and meditate. Although it was the site of religious worship for many belief systems, it was particularly important to shugendō and its followers since En no Gyoja is believed to have meditated there.
After the Meiji Restoration in 1868 and the election of Shinto as the official religion, many priests returned to secular life. When the end of the Second World War saw the reinstatement of shugendō, it also meant a change in the designation of the shrines on Dewa Sanzan. Today, the shrines of Mount Yudono and Mount Haguro are considered as Kokuhei Shōsha (The lowest ranked, nationally significant shrines) while the shrine on Mount Gassan are considered as Kanpei-taisha (The most highly ranked Imperial shrines).
Although Mount Haguro is the smallest of the three mountains, it has a significant role it is the entryway to the other two mountains. It is also the only mountain that is accessible throughout the year, while heavy snowfall during winter prevents a pilgrimage to Mount Gassan and Mount Yudono. Moreover, it is also the home of one of Japan’s national treasures, the Haguro Five-story Pagoda. Mount Gassan is the tallest of the three and home to a variety of rare alpine plants and marsh vegetation. The mountain’s peak is the second highest point in the Shonai Region of Japan. Due to the snow in winter, Mount Gassan is only accessible from late spring to early fall. Mount Gassan is connected to the other two through a long ridge. The mountain is believed to be the home of the ancestors, so a pilgrimage through it means passing through the Land of the Dead to seek rebirth.
Mount Yudono is considered the most holy and the heart of all three mountains. The Yamabushi and other ascetics believe that until they have scaled Mount Yudono, they haven’t entered holy land, thus making their pilgrimage incomplete. The mountain is also famous for the goshintai, a sacred object believed to have direct connections to god. The sacredness and the shrine of Mount Yudono is worshipped as hallowed land that has to be kept secret, so it’s no surprise that photography or video recordings are strictly prohibited.
For the Yamabushi, each of the mountain is a different step on the long journey to rebirth. Mount Gassan, also the Mountain of the Moon, represents the past where the ancestors rest, while Mount Haguro stands for the present and they pray for worldly happiness. Mount Yudono represents the future and the site of rebirth.
Yamabushi training and pilgrimage
To become a certified Yamabushi, one must first complete the Akinomine Autumn Peak Ritual held at the Dewa Sanzan Shrine, which lasts for a week. It is the ritual through which the Yamabushi is officially initiated.
Before the Yamabushi start for the mountians, they gear up. They are clad in white robes, straw sandals, Buddhist rosary beads and sometimes a conical hat fashioned out of woven wood slats. At other times, they have a black pillbox that provided both protection and a cup to drink out of. Some of the Yamabushi also take conch- shell trumpets. A walking stick is mandatory to ensure balance in the uneven mountain terrain. Walking the mountain trails is one of the main activities of being a Yamabushi. During the early days, pilgrimages were a regular activity but now it is only done annually.
The hike begins at the gateway at the foot of Mount Haguro, also known as the great red torri. The gateway denotes the entrance to the holy ground where the mountain deities live. From here, a huge stairway with 2446 stone steps (around 1.7 km) takes the Yamabushi to the peak of the mountain. The path dates back to 1648 and is lined with around 580 cedar trees, some of which are hundreds of years old. The hike is no ordinary hike. It is a test of endurance, a kind of meditation, purification and the worship of the deities. The most noticeable thing about the pilgrimage is the silence (except for the birds and streams) – no talking (excluding the chanting which is part of the ritual) is allowed throughout the journey. Most of the modern technology like phones and wrist watches are permitted either. Neither is brushing one’s teeth, bathing, reading or writing. The point is to be aware of the present and immerse oneself with nature without being distracted by other worries. One becomes extremely aware of the natural environment. Serene well- being baths the body. As they climb up the mountain, the group chants in unison, “Sange, sange, rokkon shojo,” meaning “I repent, I repent, purify my sixth sense.”
The hike takes the Yamabushi to the Sanjin Gosaiden Shrine, the shrine of all three deities. The hike ends at Mount Yudono, which as said before, is the holiest of the three mountains and thus the climax of the pilgrimage. The site is so sacred that neither photographs nor speaking of what happens there in detail is allowed. So the exact nature of the rituals remain a secret to this day. What is known is this- Mount Yudono has ice cold waterfalls and pools under which the participants have to stand for a minute and chant some mantras. Then uttering the word, ‘Uketamo,’ which means ‘I accept,’ the Yamabushi step into the pool. Even during the summer months, the water remains extremely cold, so unsurprisingly, this practice is discontinued by the end of summer. Through immersing themselves in the mountains, they become part of the natural spirits and emerge from the mountains enlightened. The death of their worldly self is the only way they can attain spiritual rebirth (hence they adhere to the white robes.)
Other known activities include meditation while sitting or standing under freezing waterfalls, visiting the sites believed to be where the gods reside, prayers and nigh walking. Besides this, they also walk on hot coals (though this is only followed by few now), battle sleep deprivation and follow a strict diet of mountain vegetables. After the week long mandatory ritual, the Yamabushi can decide for themselves how long and how often they wish to walk in the mountains.
In the past, Yamabushi training and the rituals were kept secret and only limited to men. Today, anyone can participate- man, woman or a foreigner who wishes to study and learn the Yamabushi way of life. By opening up their doors, the Yamabushi hope to keep their teachings, traditions and philosophy alive, beyond the mountains of Dewa Sanzan.
During the early periods, shugendō was a major spiritual movement in the country. Today, it is a different matter. Today, the number of Yamabushi has dwindled significantly. Only few follow the many rituals like the water purification or the saito goma (fire ceremony). Many of the Japanese themselves see the religion and the practices as an ancient custom, portrayed only in during temple festivities. But let’s hope that the Yamabushi opening their doors and welcoming everyone will keep the tradition alive.