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Shugendō (修験道) is an ancient Japanese religion in which enlightenment or oneness with kami is obtained through the study of the relationship between Man and Nature. Shugendō literally means "the path of training and testing." It centers on an ascetic, mountain-dwelling lifestyle and incorporates teachings from Old Shinto, Buddhism and other Eastern philosophies including folk animism. Shugendō practitioners are the most direct lineage descendants of the ancient Kōya Hijiri monks of the eight and ninth centuries. The focus or goal of shugendō is the development of spiritual experience and power.
En no Gyōja is often considered as having first organized shugendō as a doctrine.
With its origins in the solitary hijiri, shugendō evolved as a sort of amalgamation between esoteric Buddhism, Shinto and several other religious influences in Japan around the 7th century, including imported Taoism. Buddhism and Shinto coexisted and were amalgamated in the shinbutsu shūgō and Kūkai's syncretic view held wide sway up until the end of the Edo period.
During the Meiji Restoration, when Shinto was declared an independent state religion separate from Buddhism, shugendō was banned as a superstition not fit for a new, enlightened Japan. The shugendō temples were converted into Imperial Shintō shrines. Some shugendō orders found protection through incorporating state-sponsored Buddhism into their doctrines.
In modern times, shugendō is practiced by diverse temples and sects, mainly by the Yoshino yamabushi of Dewa Sanzan (Tendai sect), Kinpusen-ji and Ishiyama-dera Shingon sects, retaining an influence on modern Japanese religion and culture.
Those who practice shugendō are referred to in two ways. One term, shugenja (修験者), is derived from the term shugendō, literally meaning "a person of training and testing", i.e. "a person of shugen."
The other term, yamabushi (山伏), means "one who lies in the mountains". Supernatural creatures often appeared as yamabushi in Japanese myths and folklore, as is evident in tales of the legendary warrior monk Saitō Musashibō Benkei and the deity Sōjōbō, king of the tengu (mountain spirits).
Modern shugenja in Japan and throughout the world are known to self-actualize their spiritual power in experiential form through challenging and rigorous ritualistic tests of courage and devotion known as shugyō. Pilgrimages involving mountain treks are embarked upon by shugenja and, through the experience of each trek, as well as years of study, "rank" is earned within the sect. The rituals are kept secret from the neophyte shugenja and the world at large. This denju ensures the true faith of the neophytes and maintains the fear of the unknown as they embark upon the austere journey. This secrecy was also borne out of previous episodes of persecution and oppression of shugenja as a threat to the ruling military hegemony. Many modern shugenja maintain the practice of relative anonymity in their daily lives.
- Miyake, Hitoshi. The Mandala of the Mountain: Shugendō and Folk Religion. Tokyo: Keio University Press, 2005. ISBN 9784766411287.
- Sutra on the Unlimited Life of the Threefold Body (translated into English)
- Shugen: The Autumn Peak of Haguro Shugendo