Human culture does not exist independent of human experience. When cultures meet for the first time, they interact. Like chemical reactions; sometimes the result is rather neutral, sometimes it is volatile, and every so often the components interact so wonderfully together that it creates a symphony of beauty, so much so that it almost seems that they were made for one another.
Such was the case when Buddhism was first imported into Japan from the Chinese mainland (circa 552 CE) and began to blend with the local mountain religions that have been in existence longer than anyone is able to remember. The result was a form of ascetic Buddhism sometimes described as a blend between esoteric Buddhism (vajrayana) and “Shintō”. It is known as Shugendō.
The Shugendō traditions find their heart right in the backyard of where I am living (quite literally, I often jog on this trail), based heavily along the Ōmine pilgrimage route that runs through the Kii peninsula.
Pictured above is a Yamabushi (mountain ascetic). Traditionally, the practitioners undergo rigorous training to incorporate themselves with the local powers and to synchronize with the Earth’s energies/”gods”. Some practitioners used to spend 3 entire years wandering the woods until they attained what they were searching for.
Typical with most religion in Japan, I do not believe that Shugendo (or really any form of Buddhism in Japan), is supercharged with any sort of traditional rational system of logic that is propped up and battled against others. It could be, I suppose, but it isn’t. One will never find themselves in an argument over religion in Japan.
One of my favorite paintings I have ever seen was in a Shugendoō temple on Yoshino Yama. The picture showed thousands and thousands of yamabushi in white robes, leading up to a god whose visage was embedded in the form of a waterfall. Some of the yamabushi were much further on the path than others, while some were just beginning. Looking at the painting though, it becomes apparent that the stream of yamabushi are not only a part of the stream leading off from the bottom of the waterfall, they are the water itself, and that there is really nothing to lead up to, they are already apart of it. But this is why they live their lives the way that they do; simply because they are of that water. There is no struggle, only lives lived to be in tune with nature.
On this cliff, the yamabushi take turns hanging each other off the cliff with no support other tan a simple rope harness held in place by ones clenched back muscles. If one relaxes, the rope slips off and one could easily plummet to their death. Hanging over the edge, one’s mind may remain empty, or perhaps think about the future and the brevity of their lifespan. Assuredly, they are brought face to face with the fact that death is close to us all.
Mt. Omimine Temple (UNESCO)
Somewhat a point of controversy for the last century has been the fact that large parts of these trails are forbidden to women. The practitioners seem to be in no hurry to change this policy.