Sense the Primordial Gods with your Five Senses
Have you ever heard the phrase, “Sangaku-shinkou”? The belief that the mountains themselves are gods is an ancient, indigenous faith that can still be found in various regions around the world. Starting with its tallest mountain, Mt. Fuji, deified mountains can also be found throughout Japan.
Among Japan’s many sacred mountains, the Omine mountain range in the southern region of Nara is famous as being one of the most divine.
The Omine mountain range is where the unique Shugendo religion of Japan, a mountain asceticism incorporating Shinto and Buddhist concepts, was born 1300 years ago. Even today the Omine mountain range is deeply worshipped by practitioners who visit the region for ascetic training.
The main route for ascetic training is the pilgrim trail to the sacred mountain, Mt. Omine. Ryusen-ji Temple is important as the first location for ascetic training, but it can also be enjoyed by ordinary visitors.
Breathing the bracing, purifying air among these sacred mountains will let you sense a portion of their ancient spirits.
Asking the Chief Priest of Mt. Omine’s Ryusen-ji Temple, “What is Shugendo?”
Shugendo is neither Shinto nor Buddhism, but rather a faith that combines Japan’s ancient worship of mountains with the teachings of esoteric Buddhism.
In Japan, it is normal to call practitioners of Shugendo “Yamabushi.” Shugendo believes that gods and buddhas exist within all of creation, and that by training one’s body and spirit in the deep mountains, miraculous powers can be attained.
We asked Chief Priest Etsuo Okada of Mt. Omine’s Ryusen-ji Temple, to provide us with an easy to understand explanation of Shugendo.
-Episode of Chief Priest Okada
The essence of Shugendo’s belief is that the mountains themselves are gods and buddhas. For a practitioner of Shugendo, to enter a mountain is the experience of entering the body of a god.
Rain becomes water, trees create air, and the forest raises animals. Long ago, we humans, who lived in the plains and fields, lived by the blessing of the mountains.
Shugendo started with the people of the fields facing the mountains and giving a prayer of thanks. To share our gratitude even more clearly, Shugendo developed the practice of entering the mountains and training the sensitivity of our body and spirit.
Purify your Heart with the Sacred Spring Water of Ryusen-ji Temple
Within the belief of Shugendo, which considers the mountains themselves to be gods, water holds an eminent position as the origin of life.
Water is also the origin of Ryusen-ji temple, and the earth from which the temple’s sacred water abundantly spring forth is deified as the home of a dragon god.
The temple is surrounded by a guardian forest, and with spring water flowing forth from a sacred cave, you feel deeply embraced by nature even while standing in the temple grounds.
With an abundant spring of sacred water, Mt. Omine is an important location for water meditation, and many practitioners of Shugendo visit the mountain during its open season from May to September to purify their body and spirit.
The practitioners then form into groups called “Kou” and together walk the three-and-a-half-hour trail from Ryusen-ji Temple to the Mt. Omine Temple at the peak of the mountain. Even today, the Mt. Omine pilgrim trail is a holy site that protects the tradition of only allowing men to enter.