What is Shugendo?

The Germination of Mountainous Buddhism

Three quarters of Japan is mountainous. Mountains, which provide us rich blessings, have been revered as the isolated otherworld where divine spirits rest.

The sacred ground was originally tabooed land where no one was allowed to enter. However, after the introduction of Buddhism into Japan in the Nara period (8th century), monks pushed deep into mountains seeking for places suitable for their ascetic practices. Thus, mountains have gradually become considered as the Pure Land where Buddhas live.

The pioneer in Shugendo En-no-Gyoja entered Katsuragi and Omine Mountains. Saicho opened Mt. Hiei, while Kukai opened Mt. Koya. A number of priests have followed such great predecessors' paths: the founder of Daigoji Temple Shobo, the founder of the 1000-day pilgrimage So'o, and so on.

The word “Gen” means the supernatural power attained by sympathizing with divine spirits through ascetic practice. The ascetics who made the achievements had been admired under the name “Genza” or “Shugenja,” which means "the obtainer of Gen."

Tozan Sect and Honzan Sect

Shugenja have also been called as Yamabushi (lit. mountain dwellers) for they practice in deep mountains like hermits. In the 11th century, Yamabushi had gradually formed groups at the feet of Omine Mountains: one in Yoshino and another in Kumano. Practicing ascetic training at sacred spots in Omine Mountains such as the summit of Mt. Sanjogatake, they often engaged in guiding pilgrimage journeys of Emperors and nobles.

With strong support from major temples in Nara including Kofukuji Temple, Yamabushi group in Yoshino resulted in Tozan Sect. The sect became one of major Shugendo schoo. After the Azuchi-Momoyama period (16th century), Daigoji Sanboin Temple played a role as the authoritative representative.

The group in Kumano formed Honzan Sect when Zoyo of Onjoji Temple was appointed to Kumano-Sanzan-Kengyo (the administrator of Kumano Three Mountains) in the late Heian period (mid-12th century). The sect flourished as another major Shugendo school that Shogoin Temple represented.

Both sects expanded their powers by commanding Yamabushi all over Japan. However, there were also independent sects that advocated original origins, namely, Mt. Haguro and Mt. Hiko.

Regardless of schools, Yamabushi traveled all across Japan for their training and engaged in religious activities in villages. As a result, they also contributed to spread various cultures such as Kagura Dance and Sword Dance, while they often engaged in intelligence activities by confidential orders of rulers in a turbulent period.

Shogunate's Control

In 1613, Tokugawa Shogunate issued Shugendo-Hatto acts against Yamabushi. Every Yamabushi were reorganized into either Tozan Sect or Honzan Sect, while a few groups, such as Mt. Omine, Mt. Togakushi, and Mt. Haguro, were put under the direct control of Rinnoji Temple or Kan'eiji Temple both administrated by Tenkai, who took an active part in policies of religions in the Shogunate.

Due to the act, Yamabushi were also prohibited to wander. Therefore, many of them became Sato-Shugen (lit. villager Yamabushi) who settled in villages and supported locals with their incantations and prayers.

Around the same time, as common people had gradually gained economic strength, mountain pilgrimages to major sacred mountains including Mt. Omine, Mt. Fuji, Mt. Ontake, Mt. Ishizuchi, and Mt. Haguro became very popular.

Religious Persecution and Restoration

After the Meiji Restoration in 1868, Shugendo was banned by the government. It is said that there were more than 170,000 Yamabushi at the time. Every Yamabushi was forced to belong to either Shingon Sect or Tendai Sect as a monk. Not a few of them decided to become Shinto priests or went back to the land instead.

When freedom of religion was guaranteed to all later, the disappearing tradition of Shugendo, which had barely been preserved by strong-willed Yamabushi, finally came around. Since then, several schools have been succeeding the light of Shugendo in modern Japan.

The Teaching of Shugendo

The teaching of Shugendo has been developed focusing on the realization of Buddha with one's worldly body.

Dainichi Nyorai (Mahavairocana), who is considered equivalent to our universe, as well as Mandala of the Two Realms that captures the Buddha's work, are principal objects of worship for Shugendo practitioners. Fudo Myo'o (Acala) and Zao-Daigongen also play important roles in the trainings. Moreover, the mountain that an ascetic enters is considered as a Mandala by itself. Every natural phenomenon in the mountain is interpreted as Buddha's sermon there.

Yamabushi wear distinctive costumes such as the Twelve Things of Shugendo like Tokin (head gear) and Yuigesa (Buddhist stole), which represent the self-image as a Buddha. Secluding themselves or moving in Mandalas of mountains, Yamabushi experience the Ten Spiritual Realms progressively through secret rituals performed according to traditional programs. Thus, Yamabushi eventually reach the stage of becoming a Buddha in this earthly world of existence.

When accomplished the training, Yamabushi go back to the everyday world. They are supposed to prove their supernatural powers acquired in mountains by demonstrating the usage of spirits at will, fire-prevention, fire-walking and blade-walking. Such traditions are still passed down partially at festivals like Kaeru-Tobi in Yoshino, Karasu-Tobi in Haguro, and Hashiramatsu in Kosuge. In villages, Yamabushi engaged in incantations, augury, shamanism, cursing and exorcism in response to people's requests.

“Shugyo Tokugen (Train and Acquire)” and “Jisshu Jissho (Practice and Prove)” are phrases that depict the way of Yamabushi, who live as Boddhisatva in daily life with powers obtained through severe trainings in mountains. Even now, Dojos of Shugendo are awaiting who is willing to get into the world of strict ascetic training to be Yamabushi.


Miyake, H.[宮家準]. (1986). Shugendo Jiten [修験道辞典. Shugendo Dictionary]. Tokyo, Japan: Tokyodo Shuppan [東京堂出版].

Suzuki, M.[鈴木正崇]. (2015). Sangaku Shinko - Nihon Bunka no Kontei wo Saguru [山岳信仰 - 日本文化の根底を探る. The Mountain Worship - Exploring the Foundation of Japanese Culture]. Tokyo, Japan: Chuo-Koron Shin-Sha [中央公論新社].