Tag Archives: Shugendo

Mountain Veneration and Prehistory of Shugendo


By H. Byron Earhart, 1970

We have been engaged in research using Japanese sources to discover the nature of ancient Japanese worldviews and practices dealing with nature and the universe. We found striking the prevailing attitude of honor and reverence for the forces of nature in general and mountains in particular. This is not surprising since the Japanese archipelago has a limited landmass which is mostly mountainous and the sea is nowhere distant.

Although we are not directly interested in the Shugendo mountain practices of the yamabushi we feel that they no doubt can tell us a lot about earlier worldviews. In the course of its history, Shugendo has evolved from what we might call proto-Shinto to include many elements of religious Taoism and a great deal of esoteric Buddhism.

Before we begin, we point out that early populations held mountains to be the abode of kami, deities, and so the people did not live in the mountains but rather at the foot of them. We have found this to be an ancient Hawaiian practice as well.

Earhart lists six ‘persistent themes in Japanese religious history.’ We call attention to three which interest us most: (1) man, kami, and nature are closely related; (2) family, both living and deceased, is a basis of the religious unit; (3) ‘religion’ permeates into everyday Japanese life. [However, the Japanese people seem not to consider themselves religious per se. There was no Japanese word for ‘religion’ until interaction with the West prompted the defining of such a word.]

Shugendo began in prehistory. Many activities were associated with sacred mountains, such as agricultural ceremonies at the foot of sacred mountains, not on the mountains themselves. After the 6th to 7th centuries, elements of Buddhism and Taosim were incorporated, such as pilgrimage and retreat in the mountains and rituals on mountain tops. It is said that En no Ozunu in the 7th century was the first to do so.

Sangaku shinko is the term used for mountain beliefs, and includes all the aspects in which mountains play an integral role in religious activity. Japanese scholars have devoted their attention to sangaku shinko.

Archaeologists have found at many sites various sacred uncut boulders called iwakura, ‘seat of kami.” The academic, Ooba Iwao in the 1940s has published on this topic. Mountains have a sacred character as dwelling places of kami, as burial sites of important leaders, and as sacred sites of great beauty. They are always found in creation stories, in ritual sites, and in genealogy of gods and men.

Sangaku shinko is earliest datable to agricultural rituals held at the foot of mountains. Even earlier rituals which have left no artifacts are possible, such as those of hunting and gathering.

Ooba concludes that the earliest shrine sites were at the foot of mountains. Although modern day priests say that their shrine was originally founded on a mountain top, we would not agree. The shrine buildings on mountains came much later. The mountain itself was held so sacred that no ancient practitioner would have constructed a permanent shrine there.

Mountain shrines called yama-miya were not originally shrine buildings but rather holy places around mountains visited by shrine priests. See, e.g., Yanagita Kunio who reports that priests of Ise visited yama-miya in spring and fall and erected temporary shrine altars.

Yanagita (1947) states that earliest shrines were natural formations such as trees and waterfalls. Prior to organized shrine worship, there were indeed holy places or ritual sites called yama-miya within the mountains. Activities included rituals for descent of kami from mountains, offerings to kami in the valleys, and veneration of clan ancestors. We must remember that kami are considered ancestors of clans.

Mountains are sacred because they are sacred in their own right, they are places where kami dwell, they are the revered other land of spirits of the dead, and are sites for rituals honoring kami and the dead.

Yanagita differentiates two classes of yama no kami, mountain kami. One group are agricultural kami which take on two forms, mountain kami and field kami depending on the season of the year. These practices developed into the obon festival of the dead and also into fertility rituals.

The other group are the mountain kami of men who worked in the mountains such as hunters of game and woodcutters.

Hori Ichiro (1951) found that the yama no kami of both types were almost always female. They had twelve offspring that represented twelve months of the year. The twelfth day of the month was sacred to these kami. These believers did not enter the mountains on the twelfth day of the twelfth month.