Tag Archives: early modern

Were there female yamabushi?

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。)

And later,

“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?

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The hues of early modern religious thought

One of my dissertation sections deals with a school I’ve translated as the “Mystical Source Shinto of the Shugen Single Reality” (Shugen Ichijitsu Reisō Shintō 修験一實靈宗神道).  It was crafted by Join 乘因 (1682–1739), a head priest of Mt. Togakushi (the main site of my research) in the early 18th c.

So you might be wondering why the name of the school is so long?  Or you might be considering returning back to your Facebook news feed.  Before you do – ! – here’s the answer:  It’s composed of a multitude of religious influences – much of which is worked into the title.  Shugendo, Buddhism, two strands of Shinto (one of which deifies the shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu!), beliefs at Togakushi, and even some Daoism.

The main source for my study is Join’s treatise on this school, The secret record of the Mystical Source Shintō of the Shugen Single Reality, which I’ve translated and annotated.  One challenge in translation has been tracking down the various influences and seemingly myriad textual references Join draws from in constructing the text.

As an experiment today, I colored the text according to these influences.  For example, Shugendo = orange; Daoism = purple; Togakushi connections = yellow highlight.  It’s allowed me to better visualize the various components in play.

Image

The chart in the middle shows how these components are interwoven with each other. (I was going to add a close-up of it, but its totally illegible.  Also, I wish the different colored paperclips represented something but they don’t.)

Anyway, based on Join’s multiplicity of influences, I hope to make the following point in the dissertation:

Join’s school is one example of the rich growth of religious thought and practice during the Edo period (1600-1868).  Unlike religion in the modern world – characterized sectarian institutions and often divorced from secular realms of society (at least in theory), doctrine and praxis were highly fluid at this time. This is especially evident in the numerous schools of Shinto that appear – a stark contrast with the state-constructed, uniform Shinto of the modern era.

Join is commonly thought of as a heretic in the field of Japanese religions, but this conclusion arises from the mistaken application of distinctly modern ways of considering religion.  Once we accept the hybridity of early modern religious life for what it is, its hues, textures, and tones become more evident and interesting to visualize.


The Great Spring Festival (春季大会), Honjo, Saitama Ken, part 1

Last week, I took the two hour local train from Shinagawa up to Honjo, Saitama to check out an annual festival at the Fukan Reijo (literally, the “numinous site of Fukan”).  Fukan was an eighteenth century ascetic who is said to have “opened up the mountain” (開闢) of Ontake.  Before this, the mountain had guarded by local ascetics who only climbed it after long periods of seclusion.  Through a sudden possession by the Great Avatar Zao (大権現座王) while on Ontake, Fukan was able to climb to the summit, thereby opening it to ordinary people afterwards.

Today, various confraternities (講) based mainly in the prefectures of Saitama and Gunma continue to gather at the Great Spring Festival and other smaller events to pray to Fukan for immediate benefits (現世利益) like the prevention or healing of disease, financial concerns, etc.

Numerous confraternities participate in the festival and each has a specific role to fulfill for the larger program of events.  The rituals are largely based on shugen practices dating back to at least the Edo period (1600-1868).  They comprise a mix of divination rituals, invitations to deities to enter the ritual space, and ‘extreme’ (in X Games parlance) events traditionally intended to showcase special powers acquired by the ascetics involved.

The festival will be divided into two blog posts:  this one will cover the preparations and rituals leading up to the shugen event of saito goma 採燈護摩;  and the next will cover the saito goma and events after.  Also, special thanks to my advisor, Suzuki Masataka (Professor of Social Sciences at Keio Daigaku) for painstakingly answering questions I had regarding these pictures.

As the name suggests, the Great Spring Festival takes place on April 10th, just as the sakura are in full bloom. In the background is the Fukan Hall.

One of many altars set up for the festival. It consists of mochi (rice cakes), sake, flowers, fresh vegetables and fruit, prepared as offerings.

The events begin with a procession of all specialists to Fukan Hall. Leading the procession is the resident priest of Fukan Reijo.

The procession is announced by the horagai 法螺貝, an instrument made mainly of a single large conch shell, typically used by practitioners of Shugendo.

Within the procession, a tengu wards off evil spirits with his sword.

Young children, dressed up in costume, are seen as occupying a liminal space between humans and the spirit world. Thus, their presence plays an important role as the practitioners will soon be hoping to engage with this realm.

A confraternity prepares one of many goma 護摩, which will later be lit in succession.

A confraternity boils water for the yudate 湯立て ritual, where water, once brought to a boil, is flung throughout the area.

The resident priest performs chants and mudra (hand gestures) before the saito goma, a major outdoor goma ritual specific to Shugendo.

Preparing a goma with incense on top. This goma will be the first to ignite, with its flame then carried to other gomas. Designated as the most powerful specialist here, he wields a shakujo 錫杖 staff in one hand and a vajra dagger in the other.

A shrine priest slices a sword through the air, ridding the space of evil spirits before the saito goma is lit.