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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!

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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!

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An App to Ghostly Haunts in Japan

In my Japanese Folklore and Festival course this fall, we devoted much time to pouring through historical sources from the medieval period (Tale of the Heike, oni legends, and temple origin tales), early modern yokai encyclopedia and illustrated monster parades, and rural tales collected by folklorists in the early twentieth century (like Yanagita Kunio‘s Legends of Tono).

But I also wanted to show my students that folklore and ghost legends are not simply a thing of the past or of the countryside (as often nostalgically portrayed in folk studies) but remain relevant today.

For this, I turned to an iPhone app I recently discovered while in Japan called Hontō ni iite wa ikenai basho 本当に行ってはいけない場所, or “Places you definitely want to avoid.” True to the title of the app, the person who introduced me to it was extremely reluctant to do so because he was worried I was actually going to seek out these places. To date I have not, but I have found it to be an interesting guide to present-day beliefs on ghosts and haunted sites in Japan.

The app, also referred to as Shinrei Suppoto 心霊スポット (“places where the spirits dwell”), effectively visualizes haunted Japan through a map which pins sites across the country. Densely populated areas like Tokyo and Osaka or cities with long histories (Kyoto or Nara) host dozens of haunts while scattered pins mark other notorious sites across the archipelago.

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Haunted places purported in Tokyo and the Kanto region.

And no surprise that many of the infamous sites relevant to famous Japanese legends pop up. For Tokyo, we looked at Suzugamori 鈴ヶ森, a major execution ground on the southern outskirts of Edo for most of the Tokugawa period (1600-1868) – first with photos and background of the area, and then through the app. (Some of the photos I used came from this interesting blog post on the history of the area, others from my time living just up the road from the site.)

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The former mass execution site of Suzugamori.

Spirits of people with shady convictions (sometimes politically motivated) have long been thought in Japan to linger in the world, carrying out vengeful acts on the population and the state in return for their premature demise. Much time, devotion, material resources have been allocated over the course of history toward appeasing these ghosts (known as goryō 御霊, literally “revered spirits”) through the construction of shrines, production of ritual, and posthumous lofty titles. These steps sometimes led to the deification of such spirits.

So with estimates of a staggering 150,000 executions at Suzugamori over roughly two centuries, it is easy imagine a fair share being carried out under dubious accusations (see for example, Punishment and Power in the Making of Modern Japan by Daniel Botsman). Hence the numerous votive stele offering blessings to the dead as well as a Buddhist temple on the premise to provide memorial services.

Shinrei Suppoto thus provides the following description:

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Details of Suzugamori and why you should avoid it.

“Based on rumors and confirmed reports, there are a great variety of ghosts.

The site served as an execution ground until Meiji 3 (1871)…

[Various methods of execution that were employed follow.]

A great many of those executed did not commit any crime. The execution and death-by-fire post holes remain.”

We see a classic aspect of folklore here in the first line – its vernacular nature. Of course, we shouldn’t discount other modes of transmission, including recent digital platforms like this one.

In this sense,  Shinrei Suppoto demonstrates the continued life of ghosts and haunted places throughout Japan. Incidentally, I found no parallels to this app from a preliminary search on the Apple Store for North America, but a good one appeared for another country with a similarly long history of ghoulish tales and spooky haunts – England.

Given the layout of the map on Shinrei Suppoto, I initially thought the pins were crowd-sourced. That would be especially cool for the folklorist as it would better reveal the interests of users beyond the data provided by the app’s developer. We’ll have to wait for an updated version or a different app for that information to emerge.

In either case, its a fun tool to introduce in the classroom, and if you dare, use for your next itinerary to Japan.

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Haunted Japan


Field Trip to Wat Thai

Today I took students of my Intro Buddhism course at UCLA to Wat Thai, a Thai Theravadan Buddhist temple in North Hollywood. Its the oldest Thai temple in the United States (founded in 1972) and serves as a home base for the Thai community residing in greater Los Angeles. There is a main hall, a Thai language school, residence quarters (housing visiting monks from Thailand), a kitchen and dining area, and many small shrines and statues dotting the premise.

Today was the third time I’ve taken a class here and it’s always a wonderful experience. Than Dusit Sawaengwong, one of the long-term resident monks, introduced us to a simple form of meditation, followed by a short talk on Thai Buddhism and the history of Wat Thai. This was followed by a delicious meal of Pad Thai!

 IMG_0672Altar of the main hall of Wat Thai.

IMG_0687An ordained tree (evident in the robes wrapped around it)! This is a common practice among the Thai laity. While there we met the woman who looks after the tree.

IMG_0689 People retire their old and broken buddhas, bodhisattvas and deities under the tree. Apparently the practice is common enough that the monks have to periodically clear out the base of the tree. I hesitated ask where the images go from there…

IMG_0675  Students receiving a tour of the premise over the summer.

IMG_0685.1A shrine devoted to Guanyin (J. Kannon, Skt. Avalokitêśvara), interesting in that Thai do not worship this bodhisattva. Rather, Buddhists from other traditions (East Asian Mahayana here) patronize Wat Thai as well.

FullSizeRenderThe group from today’s visit standing in front of the Main Hall. Also present here is Frederick Ranallo-Higgins (lower left) and Matthew Hayes (behind the lens), teaching assistants for the course and Buddhist Studies PhD students at UCLA.


Photo Archive of Japanese Religions

S7Photo Archive of Japanese Religions

A beautiful collection of photographs by Japanese religions scholar Ian Reader has just been uploaded on to the Nanzan Institute website.  The photos are organized into thematic categories (shrines, temples, festivals, pilgrimage, etc.) and each contain helpful descriptions.  Photos can be downloaded free of charge.  Well worth a visit!  Visit site here.


Edo period texts from Togakushi

After about a year of requesting to view archives at Togakushi Jinja that are relevant to my research, I finally finagled my way into seeing a number of them on my last visit before returning to the States.

These documents were archived and catalogued in the 1960s and have since sat in a storage shed at the shrine, for the most part untouched.  A huge thanks to local scholar and priest, Futazawa Hisaaki 二澤久昭, who spent hours rummaging through them (apparently in disarray) and then further hours helping me to decipher some of them.  Futazawa-San by the way, descends from one of the Edo period cloisters (shukubō 宿坊) and has converted his into a wonderful Japanese inn and serves delicious food.

Here are samples of some of the texts we checked out.

These first three images are from a text titled the Dai hannya hōsoku 大般若法即 (Regulations of the Great Heart).  I haven’t looked closely at it yet but the title refers to Prajñāpāramitā literature and the nature of the text is ritualistic.  It’s not listed in the catalog so was a surprise to find.

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The date on the last page here reads Keichō 慶長 3, or 1598.

The two volume set below, titled the Shugendō hiketsu hōsoku 修験道秘決, was the most exciting text of my find and will probably factor into my assessment of Shugendō at Togakushi during the Edo period.  Its undated but based on the content, must have been composed in a hundred year period between the 1720s and 1818.IMG_2961

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This is a registry of Togakushi-san’s from 1814 (Bunka 11).  It lists 32 Shugendō households affiliated with the mountain at this time.
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The information for each yamabushi 山伏 presented here includes his rank, year of birth, year of tonsure, temple location and name, and his affiliated Togakushi cloister.
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Often these yamabushi would serve as disciples to the priests of the mountain and eventually succeed them.  For this reason, Shugendō became central to the identity, practices, and thought of Togakushi during the Edo period (I argue), despite its subordination to the Tendai Buddhist institution at this time.

At the end of the Edo period, there was a major drive at Togakushi to strengthen its branch of Shugendō.  This next text, titled the Togakushi-san Kenkōji kanjō saikō gan 戸隠山顕光寺灌頂再興願 was composed by the mountain’s chief administrator (bettō) in 1861.IMG_3006

The effort only lasted a few years, as the temple-shrine complex was converted into a national shrine at the beginning of the Meiji period.

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I climbed Fuji twice last Monday! Mini Fuji, that is.

As always, the official climbing season for Mt. Fuji began last week on July 1st.  And with the Fuji-san opening (山開き) so opened the mini Fujis (富士塚).

As Fuji worship expanded during the Edo period (1600-1868), Fuji confraternities (Fuji kō 富士講) popped up around the country, especially the Kanto area.  These associations – some of which still exist – would pool money together so that a few members from each community could make the pilgrimage each year.  The rest who stayed behind though could still hit the symbolic summit by climbing their locally established Fuji.  Some of these mini peaks were small hills while others were made by piling up large rocks.

Some mini Fujis are still connected to shrines and confraternities.  I visited two of them in Tokyo last week while they were celebrating the opening of the season:  Onoteruzaki Jinja in Daitoku and Fuji Jinja in Komagome.  Onoteruzaki only opens their mini Fuji on June 3o and July 1 of each year (climbing the real peak often began the night before on the 30th).  Meanwhile Fuji Jinja celebrated with three days of festivities and auspicious crafts.


Criticizing Female Exclusion in Fifteenth Century Japan

Part of my research this year has been devoted to a text entitled The Transmitted Account of Kenkō-ji of Mt. Togakushi (Togakushi-san Kenkō-ji ruki 戸隠山顕光寺流記), compiled by the monk, Jikkokusō Ujō 十穀僧有通, in 1458.

Among the many vivid aspects it provides on the religious culture at Mt. Togakushi in the mid-fifteenth century, a passage I came across on the mountain’s practice of nyonin kekkai 女人結界 (a boundary prohibiting women) especially sparked my interest.  With some help from my research advisor, Suzuki Masataka (who’s written extensively on the practice) and medieval Buddhist scholar, Iyanaga Nobumi, I came up with a translation for the following passage:

A transcription of the Kenkoji ruki.  The translated passage begins on the right, 8th line in.

A transcribed page from the Kenkoji ruki. The translated passage begins on the right, 8th line in.

“On the twenty-sixth day of the eighth month of the first year of the Kōhei 康平 era (1058), during the reign of Goreizei-in 後冷泉院, a bright light was radiating out from atop a giant tree fifty cho 町 from Honnin [now Okusha of Togakushi-san].[1]   It seemed like a mysterious and unusual living being.  The image was that of a divine true body (mishōtai 御正躰).

At that time, there was a young girl of twelve to thirteen years of age in such mental and physical agony that she passed out on the ground.  When asked why, she said, “I am the avatar of Jizō 地蔵, the greatest of the three avatars of this mountain, who stands on the left side.[2]  That area is a bordered land (kekkai chi 結界地), upon which the trace of women has been removed.  Because this defies the Buddha’s orders and ignores his original vow, the benefits of conversion are shallow and scarce.  Please erect a building in this place and have me installed.”

Many had their doubts.  They insisted that if this was really the divine oracle [of Jizō], then have [the bright light] moved into the sleeve of someone among the priests and laity.  Then, it flew down into the sleeve of a śramaṇa among them who had great faith.  He worshiped it, [making it] the site of the honored form of the bodhisattva Jizō.  Not moving for days, he built a shrine with an attached hermitage.  It became a hut in which to pursue the Dharma.

The place where the divine true body [of Jizō] flew down is called Fushigami 伏拝. The temple was first named Fukuokain 福岡院 and later became known as Hōkōin 寶光院 [now Hōkōsha of Togakushi].”

The alleged tall tree of Fushigami, where a bright light radiated from and a young girl was possessed by the bodhisattva Jizō (though this tree was probably planted later - Edo period?).

The alleged tree at Fushigami where a bright light radiated from above and a young girl below fell under the possession of the bodhisattva Jizō (though this tree was probably planted later – Edo period?).

Nyonin kekkai became widespread among sacred mountains in the medieval period so it’s no surprise that the practice was adopted at Togakushi-san as well.  What is fascinating here is the apparent critique of it at Togakushi in the comment–voiced by Jizō–that it defies the Buddha’s vow (it’s said that Sakyamuni welcomed both men and women into the sangha).  As a result, conversion to Buddhism at the mountain provides limited benefit.

Is this Jikkokusō Ujō’s own opinion inserted into the text or does it reflect a wider spread sentiment?  Whatever the case, its uncommon to see a critique of the practice coming from within a religious community in premodern Japan.  Max Moerman (Localizing Paradise, 2005) discusses other examples, but this one seems particularly pronounced.

Fushigami (literally, to “lie down and worship”), an allusion to the Kumano site of Fushigami, is marked to this day on the old path (古道) between Togakushi’s Hōkōsha and Chūsha shrines.  Given the geography of the mountain, this would mean that Hōkōin accepted women while the temple complexes of Chūin (now Chūsha) and Okuin (now Okusha) remained off-limits at this time.

The boundary was later moved in 1795, as evident from an engraved stone marker still standing in between Chūsha and Okusha.  (Here’s a Japanese map of the shrines of Togakushi.)  The practice was abolished in the Meiji period.

It’s anyone’s guess as to why the boundary was moved between the medieval and early modern periods.  The erection of the stone nevertheless, suggests that the rule may have not been strictly enforced up until then.  Why after all, reestablish a rule if no one is breaking it?


[1] One chō equals approximately 109 meters.

[2] This orientation is likely referring to the triad of buddhas/bodhisattvas at Togakushi.