Practitioners of Shugendo have often been referred to as yamabushi 山伏, meaning those who ‘sleep in the mountains.’ Throughout Japan’s medieval and perhaps early modern periods, these hardcore ascetics engaged in a curriculum of harsh mountain austerities that included remote peregrinations, secluded meditation in caves, submersion under frigid mountain waterfalls, and a meager diet of mountain flora and vegetation.
It is typically assumed that yamabushi were only men, in part because women were forbidden from entering numinous mountains for fear of polluting the space (a practice known as nyonin kekkai 女人結界). So I was surprised to recently read several lines from a sixteenth century Shugendo text alluding to female practitioners. The text, Shugen mondō (Questions and answers regarding Shugen[do]), was composed by an unknown author at Togakushi-san in 1561. The passage reads,
“The pure, true women [of Shugendo] recite chants and they attain the fruit [of awakening] just like the [male] upāsakas (i.e. lay practitioners).” (清信女読、是得道得果道同優婆塞。)
“The good lads and good women of our school moreover, do not shave their heads.” (善男子・善女人、尚以於吾等宗不剃髪。)
This is especially surprising given references to nyonin kekkai in an earlier text composed at Togakushi. Forbidding women from entering the Togakushi peaks presumably continued without interruption until the late nineteenth century, when the practice was abolished at most sites throughout the country (the famous Mt. Ōmine continues to be an exception).
On the other hand, women established routes around the perimeter of Togakushi and other numinous peaks. These circuits allowed them to come close enough to worship the mountain and its resident gods. This practice also supported a growing cottage industry throughout the early modern period. Blind female oracles, known as miko 巫女, also have a strong place in Shugendo, though I’m not sure how far back records date. And then there were male/female couples during the Edo period who worked in cooperation to rid evil spirits from their clients (the male shugenja would temporarily transfer the spirit from the client on to his female partner in order to manipulate and eventually banish it).
So historically, women certainly played central roles within Shugendo. Still, I couldn’t help but be surprised to find overt inclusion and equal treatment of women in the lines above – especially given the seemingly hostile attitude towards them setting foot in numinous mountains.
Then again, the complexities of gender roles and attitudes in historical contexts are perhaps not easily bridged by modern modes of understanding of gender. How should we situate the role of women in Shugendo, both historically and in the present context?