Teaching Shugendō (A Japanese Mountain Religion)

Shugendō 修験道 (literally, the “way of cultivating efficacious powers” in the mountains) is a fascinating subject to teach in the university classroom. It offers broad potential for discussion on the nature of mountain asceticism, Japanese religions, popular religion, women and gender, ritual, cosmology, religious hybridity, esoteric Buddhism, pilgrimage, healing, and more.

For those interested in teaching a unit on it, here is a short list of sources that I’ve found works well in the undergraduate classroom. Its very bare bones, so please add comments and questions below!

IMG_1436.1

A yamabushi, or practitioner of Shugendo, playing the horagai. (Sanjogatake, Omine mountains)

Two recent films:

Paul Swanson reviews them in the Japanese Journal of Religious Studies (hereafter, JJRS) (2010, 37/2).

Mark McGuire, co-director of Shugendo Now, has an article on contemporary Shugendō and environmental concerns in the Kumano region that goes very well with the film. JJRS (2013, 40/2, 323-54).

Introductory readings:

Gaynor Sekimori has translated the following works by Miyake Hitoshi 宮家準 (present godfather of the field):

  • Mandala of the Mountain (Keio University, 2005). Excellent topical overviews broken down by chapters that can be assigned separately or collectively. Note that it may only be available for purchase in Japan.
  • “Shugendo,” A History of Japanese Religion (2001, ed. Kazuo Kasahara, 455-74). A short but broad-ranging introductory essay on early modern Shugendō.

Women and Gender:

  •  Benard Faure, “Crossing the Line,” in The Power of Denial: Buddhism, Purity and Gender (Princeton, 2003). This chapter gives an overview of nyonin kekkai 女人結界 (the practice of banning women from sacred peaks), especially pp. 219-235.
  • Helen Hardacre “The Cave and the Womb World,” JJRS (1983, 10/2-3, 149-74). An insightful analysis of a cave ritual as it relates to issues regarding women and gender.
  • Despite nyonkin kekkai, women still participated in mountain-related rituals, as shown in this 18 minute mini-doc on the Nuno Bashi (cloth bridge) rite at Mt. Tateyama (scroll down to the second embedded movie on the web page for the English narration version).

Pilgrimage:

  • Paul Swanson “Shugendo and the Yoshino-Kumano Pilgrimage: An Example of Mountain Pilgrimage,” Monumenta Nipponica (1981, 36, no. 1: 55–84).
  • Ann Bouchy “The Cult of Mount Atago and the Atago Confraternities,” Journal of Asian Studies (1987, 46/2, 255-77).

Mountain worship in Japan:

  • Hori Ichiro 堀一郎 “Mountains and Their Importance for the Idea of the Other World in Japanese Folk Religion,” History of Religions (1966, 6, no. 1: 1–23). Dated (and needs to be taught critically) but a classic, nonetheless.
  • Allan Grapard “Flying Mountains and Walkers of Emptiness: Toward a Definition of Sacred Space in Japanese Religions,” History of Religions (1982, 21, no. 3: 195–221). One of Grapard’s numerous works on Japanese mountain ritual and thought. This one is another classic, discussing sacred space in premodern Japan and the esoteric mandalization of mountains.

Other resources:

There are many more English-language books, articles, and resources on Shugendō (and of course, much more in Japanese), but this will get you started with some ideas for teaching it in your next course.

Again, add to the conversation with suggestions and questions below!

About calebscarter

I specialize in Japanese religions within the broader context of Buddhism and East Asian cultures. Within these fields, I focus especially on Shugendō, a mountain-based tradition in Japan developed largely from esoteric, Zen and Pure Land Buddhism with additional influences from Chinese religions and local spirit worship (later identified as Shintō). I approach these subjects from an interdisciplinary perspective that draws on literary, economic, political, social and intellectual history. I received my Masters (2008) and PhD (2014), both in Buddhist Studies from UCLA, with a BA (2000) in Philosophy from Colorado College. I currently teach full-time for the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures at UCLA. Outside of research and teaching, I play a three-stringed instrument from Okinawa called the sanshin and spend time with my family at nearby playgrounds and campgrounds. I also love the outdoors, especially climbing in the mountains—an orientation that has in many ways shaped my current intellectual path. View all posts by calebscarter

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