Tag Archives: yamabushi

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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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?