Shugendo Practice Today: death and rebirth in the mountain

Dr Gaynor Sekimori (SOAS)

Saturday, 16 February, 2008; 14:15-16:15

Keynes Hall, King's College, Cambridge

Probably the image of the yamabushi ??that first springs to people's minds is that of Benkei ??in the kabuki play Kanjincho???. He wears the distinctive tokin??, a black pillbox cap, high on his forehead, and a surplice decorated with large pompoms called a yuigesa???. But the yamabushi is not simply an historical figure; he remains part of a living tradition called Shugendo???. Shugendo refers to beliefs and practices associated with sacred mountains. Before 1872, when Shugendo was banned by the new Meiji government, around 2000 mountains in Japan were sites of Shugendo shrine-temple complexes; today only a few remain, most notably temples associated with Ominesanji at Yoshino, Nara prefecture, and the temple of Kotakuji at Toge, Yamagata porefecture, which preserves the tradition of Haguro Shugendo. Most were converted into shrines in the 1870s, and the majority have lost all memory of their Shigendo past. Interestingly, though, Shugendo has been undergoing somewhat of a resugence over the past two decades or so, and has been restored in a number of places, such as Nikko, Kubotesan, Koshikidake and others. In addition, growing numbers of practitioners (gyoja ??) are affiliated with large Shugendo temples like Kinpusenji in Yoshino and Daigoji in Kyoto.
Practice rather than doctrine is at the heart of Shugendo, and the core practice is called mineiri ??? (mountain entry rituals), which originally occurred at each of the four seasons. Traditionally the most important was the Akinomine ?? (Autumn Peak). It was a ritual experience of death and rebirth in the mountain, enacting the ten stages of rebirth (jikkai shugyo ????) according to Buddhist thought. Today this form is preserved only in one place, Hagurosan (Yamagata prefecture), at the temple of Kotakuji. Here participants symbolically die (a funeral ceremony is held the first night), are conceived, grow in the womb of the mountain, and are finally reborn. In the course of their foetal growth they are subjected to rituals such nanban ibushi ????, representing the hells, undertake a three day fast (hungry spirts, gaki ??), and are forbidden the use of water (animals, chikusho ??). I will describe the practice with illustrative material and analyse its structure in terms of Shugendo thought. I will also discuss why the Akinomine, and other similar practices, are attracting so much interest among "ordinary" people today.