The chains hanging off the cliff were massive. Each link measured about the size of an ovular basketball. I hung there halfway up that section of the climb chuckling to myself as to why anyone would think this is a test. But dumbshits like me had been negotiating this mountain for 2,000 years to prove that they could become Yamabushi. They trained and tested on the mountain, the microcosm of the world…the living four-dimensional mandala.
Some of the other O-Noborisama (basically, “holy climbers/ascenders”) were in trad get-ups: white pajamas and straw flip-flops. I was in dirty cargos that had seen more miles than a Texas lot lizard, my trusty multi-continental Scarpa approaches, and one of my Def Leppard T-shirts—my white Hysteria one. (Ever the iconoclast.) This was “a wild ride, over stony ground” after all.
This mountain, though not exactly tall, was steep as shit and mentally taxing. There were few peaks in the country that had served as testing grounds for wannabe Shugendo newbs. They were all tricky. You’d clear one set of obstacles, break through the clouds (again, somehow)…and see that the vast majority of the mountain was still above you. At the sheer bits, those big-ass chains hung down for you to use. Anyone else climbing the mountain just took the switchbacks.
Near the pinnacle, before the last set of nut rolls, there was a shrine. At that shrine, I met up with a priest and we went over some shit. He asked me questions. I answered. I asked him questions. He answered. He had been waiting at the top of the last set of chains.
Like any of us would do at a checkpoint, I pulled out my topo map. The priest looked at it, frowned, and asked where I got it. I asked him if his question was part of the test. He frowned again, and very Japan-ically (ergo, disapprovingly) sucked his teeth. I asked what kind of dipshit would climb a mountain without a map—if they had one.
We both looked at the map. He asked where I was on the map. I pointed. He asked where I was headed. I pointed. The peak was about a klick away. We talked for a few minutes about Shugendo, and mountain religion, and why—in the distance—I could hear the whale-song of conch shells through the valleys. We talked about some of the other Holy Peaks (seven total, in Shugendo).
Before I folded my map up to head on my way, I pointed out a half-klick trail that led to the peak off a small road on the backside of the mountain. I asked if I could’ve taken that one to get to the top, and skipped the playground equipment on the front side. He laughed. Loud. Slapped my shoulder. Said I’d found the Ura-no-michi, the mountain’s true path. (It’s also, coincidentally, how the shrine and shops get their supplies/merch.)
“Better get to the peak before the rain starts,” he said, looking at the clouds that were just overhead. He walked off toward the shrine shops, still laughing.
I rung sweat out of my Karate Kid headband, tightened my ruck straps, and started hoofing it past the other climbers.
This spiritual path wasn’t, honestly, adhered to by very many Japanese warriors. However, every practitioner of Shugendo who has made it into the historical record was known for being far superior to even above-average samurai with regards to toughness, cleverness, and (tactical) prowess. Japanese folklore, history, literature, and theater (?!) are littered with BAMF Shugendo dudes.
The “religion” itself developed out of pre-historic Japanese Taoist-like Shinto offshoots. Over time, it added several esoteric Buddhist principles (and rituals) and worked itself into a comprehensive system of practice, understanding, application, and success/failure. Individual themes and ideas melded and merged into groups of themes and ideas. Some stuff stuck around, other stuff failed the gut-check and got cut.
Fundamentally, Shugendo is all about cultivating and maintaining a relationship with the Kami we mentioned in the last piece of this series: the spirits, energies, forces, and/or gods that permeate Japan’s little slice of the cosmos. It managed to jump the track on Shinto, where it included Buddhist-like concepts of enlightenment and transcendence. And this awakening is centered around an understanding of, and physical AND spiritual experience with, the individual in nature (specifically, mountain nature, which one cannot possibly avoid in Japan).
Linguistically, Shugendo means “the way of training and testing.” And that’s exactly how the understanding and experience is gained. You learn it. You drill it. You hash the shit out while you live it. If at some point you are short on elbow grease or know-how, the mountain, or something on it, will eat you.
Historically, Shugendo was syncretized by a man named En no Gyoja in the 7th century. En has gone down historically as one of those aforementioned BAMFs, and, as such, has hit demigod status in these circles.
Practitioners of Shugendo fall under two very distinct names: Shugenja (“Shugen person,” or “training and testing person”) or Yamabushi (“one who sleeps in the mountains”). The latter gets jacked up all the time by people who can’t function linguistically in Japanese. See…yama means “mountain” and bushi is also the way you pronounce one of the Japanese words for “warrior.” Thus, people like to call these practitioners mountain warriors.
Nomenclatural dipshittery notwithstanding, most of these guys were highly proficient in the age-old Japanese pastime of cuttin’ fools. (And they were known for their spear work.) In terms of how Shugendo relates to this here warrior religion stuff, Shugendo shared/borrowed several esoteric aspects from Shingon Buddhism—those being, primarily, the acquisition of supernatural powers along the road to enlightenment.
Those powers included stuff like invincibility, hyper-awareness, superhuman movement, and being able to subsist without stuff like food, water, or even air. Tales abound of Yamabushi not getting cut by a warrior’s blade, or moving from one side of the country to another in just one night of running. Part of surviving the mountain was understanding it. Once you got that understanding to a high enough level, you gained sustenance from the mountain itself. Thus, lame shit like rice balls and water were rendered superfluous.
The ever-popular sitting under a freezing waterfall thing that Asians seem to love so much? Shugendo thing. Now you know.
The esoteric Buddhism that eventually pervaded Shugendo is what drew anyone to the path. And the fact that Shugenja permeated Japanese lore helped. Throughout the medieval period, Shugenja were both admired and feared. This, combined with the fact that the Japanese (I would say still) believed that the mountains were damn near overrun with a massive pantheon of crazy spirits, demons, and deities, meant that a no-name Yamabushi’s street creds went about as far as any human’s could go J-side.
Legit swordsmen would reach such a level of expertise/body count on battlefields and backstreets, eventually the only real way to up the ante was to head out into the mountains and find some crazy fucker to teach you the real “good stuff.” Even Miyamoto Musashi eventually went to the mountains, as did Yagyu Munenori. (Look ’em up. They’re both badasses.)
At a bare minimum, what you’d get from Shugendo training is thicker skin, a massive set of homeostatic variables (read: nuts), and an absolute shit-ton of wilderness survival skills. Legend went that you’d gain a oneness with your cosmos and transcend the mountain, all along the way picking up all kinds of tricks, tactics, and mutant powers…with which to further engage a long laundry list of crazy shit out in the wilds of Japan while very specifically not dying.
(This all ties in to my slow-motion suicides anecdote.)
Shugendo still holds an important place in modern Japanese religion(s), even though damn near no one practices it. Shugendo got a weird rewrite at the end of the Shogunate, when Tom Cruise got to Japan to sort things out. Since it didn’t really fit into the new mold of how the Emperor Meiji wanted things, it literally got chopped up and split between Shinto and Shingon-shu Buddhism.
Shinto was the snobbier of the two, and immediately began to play all that shit down and choke it out. Shingon-shu (covered later in this series) was happy as a lark to basically “get all their files” and set out working their curriculum into the overall Shingon system. (Which was really just all that shit coming back home, since the fundamentals were from Shingon anyway.)
Today, you can still find “Yamabushi” at shrine and temple festivals, wearing their very specific outfits. Although your average Shinto shrine will laugh those dudes off as weirdos, they still respect the roots. And the average Shingon temple, though also appreciating the roots, look at Shugneja as a bunch of bumpkins.
This author’s experience with Shugendo has two very tight bookends. On one side, you have the same shit that pervades damn near all traditional Japanese culture: hollow doctrine. They walk the walk, in the right costume, at the right times, in the right places…but grasp precisely jack shit about what they are doing or why. On the other…I am humbled to ruck or climb with those dudes. A few—probably literally only three to five dudes on the island—”get it.” You see it in how they handle themselves. How they interact with you. How they interact with the mountain. They’re all in. They’ve BTDT, and managed results. (I’m not saying they’ve got superpowers, but I’m also not saying they don’t. I’ve never seen any of ’em do anything too crazy. But not too unlike some grizzled ancient SNCO, you just know somewhere deep in your programming that you just simply do not fuck with them.)
I’ve been on a lotta mountains on this planet–five continents, now, I guess. I’ve been on a lotta Japanese mountains. Probably been on more of them at this point than I have not been on them, if that shit makes any grammatical sense. No mountain “hits” me like a Japanese mountain does. I realized that looong before I ever started dicking around with near-dead Japanese religions in the backwoods. And when I did realize it, I was never the same after.
Featured image courtesy of haikugirl.me