Realm of Yamabushi Ascetics and Ancient Living Buddhas

Iwanesawa Jinja 2006
Iwanesawa Jinja

(This excerpt was taken from Japan Today: Japan News and Discussion)


Living in modern Tokyo, one can be forgiven for doubting that anybody wants to undergo serious ascetic training. Perilous hikes on sheer mountain slopes, food and sleep deprivation, solitary meditation, prayers and other religious rituals are distant and exotic adventures. Yet only a half-day’s journey from the metropolis, followers of the ancient Japanese religion Shugendo continue to practice “the way of training and testing.” Their goal is nothing less than enlightenment in this very lifetime.

These are the “yamabushi” (“one who lies in the mountains”), and modern mortals can still follow their pilgrimage in Dewa Sanzan– the three mountains of Dewa–one of two main centers in Japan where “shugenja” (followers of Shugendo) still practice and keep the tradition alive.

Dewa is the name of an old Japanese province that is now part of Yamagata Prefecture in northern Honshu. Three mountains — Mt Haguro, Mt Gassan and Mt Yudono — are considered sacred by the “shugenja” who go there once a year on a pilgrimage to practice their faith.

Travel there in the right season and you can follow the alpenhorn-like sound of the conch shell, blown by “yamabushi” masters decked out in esoteric outfits, as they lead rows of white-clad pilgrims up the mountains. New Age is short lived in comparison to this syncretistic folk religion based on mountain worship, incorporating elements of Shinto, Buddhism and Taoism that dates back over 1,400 years.

Traditionally, the pilgrimage route starts at Toge, a small village at the foot of Mt Haguro. Pilgrims walk up a 1.7-km-long stone path, the Ishi-dan, set amongst a forest of 350- to 500-year-old Cryptomeria trees, before reaching the summit where they pray to three deities, one for each mountain peak, at the Sanjin Gosaiden shrine.

In the old days people walked, but many modern-day pilgrims can’t resist the shortcut of catching a bus that takes them from Mt Haguro to Mt Gassan. Some slopes of the 2,000 meter-high Gassan are covered in snow even in mid-summer, providing an unusual sight. Yudono shrine is not located on the summit of Mt Yudono but in a valley with a descent so steep that steel ladders and ropes must be used by pilgrims and adventurers alike.

Historically, women were forbidden to worship at the shrine. They were only allowed as near as Dainichibo, a temple at the foot of Mt Yudono. It is said to have been established by Kobodaishi (774-835), the founder of the Shingon sect of Buddhism and probably Japan’s best known saint.

Legend has it that after coming back from China where he underwent Buddhist training, Kobodaishi petitioned the ruler at the time to build a temple. Baffled about where the location should be, he threw two ritual objects used in Buddhist ceremonies into the air. The first hit a cedar tree standing near Dainichibo, and the second hit a pine tree on Mt Koya. He promptly established a temple at each site, both of which are still places of worship, as are the trees that still stand there today.

The main attraction at Dainichibo, however, is a fellow named Daijuku Bosatsu Shinnyokai Shonin. He is one of a number of so-called “Living Buddhas” that can be found in temples in the Yamagata area. They appear much like mummies in priest’s robes. However, unlike their famous counterparts in Egypt, they were not mummified after death. They self-mummified themselves while still alive by following a severe ascetic routine as part of their Buddhist religious training.

While ascetic exercises are not for everyone, mere mortals can simply meditate in the superb mountain scenery of the Dewa Sanzan area. Enjoy your own spiritual awakening: catch a glimpse of some fascinating esoteric traditions that reveal the mystical side of Japan so often forgotten in the urban jungle of Tokyo.



File:Five tier pagoda at Mt. Haguro 2006-10-29.jpgThe five story pagoda near the base of Mount Haguro

Yamabushi blowing shell.

Dewa Sanzen

Roads of Oku: Travels in Japan by Dennis Kawaharada

Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia: Yamabushi

Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia: Three Mountains of Dewa

YouTube: “Magical Japanese Yamabushi Ascetis Inteview”

Three “Brother” Mountains of Dewa (Japan)

日本語: 蜂子神社。山形県鶴岡市大字手向。出羽三山開祖の:蜂子皇子を祀る神社。 Englis...
Image via Wikipedia

Your name is Hachiko, Prince Hachiko. It is the year 593 AD. Your father, Shusun, the emperor of Japan, has been murdered by the Soga clan. You barely escaped with your own life before they could kill you as well. Broken-hearted and afraid, your home stolen by the wicked Soga, you wander  the countryside, almost aimlessly until one morning you wake from your bed on the grassy earth where you fell asleep the night before. You find a three-legged crow watching you sleep. It’s yellow eyes flick back and forth as if carefully examining you.

Intrigued by this strange creature,  you follow it to a place where three brother mountains rise in the near distance. The smallest mountain, the one closest, you name Haguro, “black wings,” in honor of the odd, little bird who led you there. You will always remember the mountain as “birth” since it is the smallest, like a new-born babe and because for the first time in weeks, you feel reborn as if your life has taken on new meaning.

In this uncharted land, you spend many days enduring difficult ascetic exercises as well as a period of penance and mourning for your dead father. Because of your devotion, you are greeted by Haguro Gongen, the deity of the mountain. In honor of the god, you travel to the tallest brother mountain who you then name, Gassan, “Moon Mountain.”

The middle brother is next and you name it, Yudono, the “Forbidden”. Because of your continued devotion, you are greeted by two more deities. Back at Haguro’s summit, you build a beautiful temple dedicated to the three mountain gods.

Soon news travels of the sacred mountains so that pilgrims make the journey from far and wide to worship the three deities of the mountains. It soon becomes a place of learning for BuddhismShinto, and TaoismEn no Gyōja and Kūkai arrive to found the Shugendō or Yamabushi (mountain warrior) sects Even the famous poet, Matsuo Basho comes to meditate and write many of his magnificent haiku. And so this place that you ran to after you lost everything except your life becomes a blessed refuge of peace and meditation for many generations to come.

References and further reading:

Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia/Three Mountains of Dewa