Shugendo and the System of Reiki

Bronwen and Frans StieneArticles, English, Video 1 Comment

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Some of the founders of new religions had revelatory experiences while performing religious practices on sacred mountains, and some of the rituals created by new religions bear the imprint of Shugendo rituals; indeed, the highly syncretic character of Shugendo laid down a precedent for the syncretic pattern of most new religions.

Miyake Hitoshi – Shugendo – Essays on the Structure of Japanese Folk Religion

The influence of Shugendo on the origin of many of the new religious movements in Japan, for example, is increasingly recognized.

Paul Swanson, Permanent Fellow and Director, Nanzan Institute for Religion and Culture

The Japanese term for new religions is Shinshukyo and this term is used to classify new religious organizations since the middle of the 19th Century. These new religions “reflect fundamental religious values and attitudes that have been held since ancient times”(Varley, Paul. Japanese Culture. 4th edition p. 335) such as the values of early Japanese Shamanism and the qualities of Japanese folk religions (which includes the power to heal).

This is not to say that the system of Reiki is a religion as we understand the term in the West. The Japanese new religions do vary in their levels of religiosity and the system of Reiki is not religious in in the commonest sense of the term; traditionally there is no element of worship within the system. Yet, the system of Reiki shares its evolution and influences with these Japanese new religions.

And one of the major influences on the Japanese New Religions is Shugendo.

It is believed that Mikao Usui was a Shugendo practitioner. To support this understanding, Mikao Usui’s memorial stone states that he practiced kushu shinren. This is a 21 day practice which is a form of shugyo or “severe training” – an aspect of Shugendo training. The memorial stone also states that he practised divination, yet another aspect of Shugendo practise.

Many of our students have asked us about Shugendo, what it is and where they can find out more information about it.

We have therefore collected some information about Shugendo for you all to enjoy. We also asked film makers Mark Patrick McGuire & Jean-Marc Abela to write a piece about their new DVD “Shugendo Now”. We hope that this will add a further richness and understanding to your Reiki practise.

Here is a brief description of Shugendo by Shugendo priest Rev. Kuban Jakkoin:

Shugendo is the Way to achieve Siddhi or Way of vigourous practices to develop inner power, founded by Enno Gyoja 1300 years ago in Japan. It is the first tantric mountain method mixed with Daoism & shamanism (shintoism). Some of Shugendo sects follow either Tendai or Shingon. Shugendo is a mountain practice where the mountain is seen as the perfect three dimensional womb and diamond mandala of Dainichi Nyorai. It involves many prolonged ascetic practices in nature of 21, 100 or even 1000 days.

Shugendo Books

Unfortunately there are not many books in English on the subject of Shugendo. However, if you are interested in Shugendo then these two books come highly recommended by us:

Shugendo Essays on the Structure of Japanese Folk Religion by Miyake Hitoshi. The best place to buy this book is at the Center for Japanese Studies, The University of Michigan as it is very expensive on Amazon.

The Mandala of The Mountain – Shugendo and Folk Religion by Miyake Hitoshi & Gaynor Sekimori. To buy this book click here, or if you read Japanese you can buy lots of Shugendo books on Amazon Japan.


Shugendo Websites

Shugendo Videos

“Hashiramoto-Goma” is a ritual handed down from generation to generation among Yamabushi who belong to Shogo-in temple, Kyoto. You can watch them on Youtube here.

Shugendo Temples in Japan

Just in case you visit Japan and want to visit some of the Shugendo temples.

Shugendo Movie

Shugendo Now is more a poetic film then an analytical account of Shugendo.

From the Mountain to the City and Back Again:
Reflections on Making the Documentary Shugendô Now
Jean-Marc Abela & Mark Patrick McGuire


How does one integrate lessons learned from nature in daily life?

This feature documentary is an experiential journey into the mystical practices of Japanese mountain asceticism. In Shugendô (The Way of Acquiring Power), practitioners perform ritual actions from shamanism, “Shintô,” Daoism, and Tantric Buddhism. They seek experiential truth of the teachings during arduous climbs in sacred mountains. Through the peace and beauty of the natural world, practitioners purify the six roots of perception, revitalize their energy and reconnect with their truest nature – all while grasping the fundamental interconnectedness with nature and all sentient beings.

How does one return to the city after an enlightening experience in the mountains?

More poetic than analytical, this film explores how a group of modern Japanese people integrate the myriad ways mountain learning interacts with urban life. With intimate camera work and a sensual sound design the viewer is taken from deep within the Kumano mountains to the floating worlds of Osaka and Tokyo and back again.

Might the two be seen as one?

Purify the six roots of perception

There is a chant you will hear several times if you watch this film. It’s “Rokkon shojô,” which can be translated as “Purify the six roots of perception.” This we believe summarizes the intention of the film “Shugendô Now.”

We are living in times of over-saturated media. Be it intense reality television shows caked with advertising or the billions of Internet videos that showcase anything about everything or apocalyptic movies on the big screen that turn sacred knowledge to popcorn. Everywhere are attempts to divert our attention to the next incredible whatever. I find this to be exciting and frightful at the same time. What are the opportunities to learn within this buzz of information? How do we integrate it all into our beings?

With this film we hope to offer something different. A film experience that cleanses the sensorial palate. Stories about individuals, families and institutions that highlight the extraordinary in the mundane. Through an esoteric tradition, we explore the universal and fundamental connection we all have with Nature. Like Henry David Thoreau once said: “All of Nature is doing her best each moment to make us well. She exist for no other end. Do not resist her.”

We present to you a film that doesn’t explain it but embodies it. Although many ideas are shared by the participants in the film, for us the most important is the heart connection we want to establish with the viewer. We want people to come out with a sense of peace and an open heart, with a desire to bathe in a waterfall, walk on a mountain or cook a good meal with friends. It brings us pleasure to present a film that doesn’t shock people with terrible news about our World, but a film that inspires the viewer to appreciate and be connected with the World that we’re terribly destroying, despite ourselves.

Jean-Marc Abela

“Are there any more real yamabushi (mountain ascetics) around here?”

While in graduate school research into Japan’s distant past felt self-indulgent and disconnected, but activist and writing projects juxtaposing the Japanese cases with ruptures closer to home helped keep what I was doing accessible, relevant, and in rare instances, transformative. I had my first taste of ethnographic fieldwork in Japan in the summers of 2002 and 2003. It was during these initial encounters that I met several of the ascetic priests and lay people who appear in this film. I can remember asking, quite naively, at the reception desk of Kimpusen-ji temple if there were any yamabushi still walking the mountains and doing fierce austerities.

In fact, there were. Many. Two hundred or so arrived the following day in their full regalia for the annual Frog Hop festival. It is a tribute to their unfailing generosity and kindness that they invited me to join them on the Lotus Ascent of Mount Ômine depicted in the film. I also met Tateishi Kôshô and spent a week at his rural training center The Forest of Mountain Learning. His creative reinvention of the tradition and environmental and social activism impressed me immensely. This encounter helped clarify for me what I had long hoped for: solid scholarship and activist engagement could coexist with the pursuit of spiritual practice. In Kôshô’s company I learned to stop asking so many questions and instead simply walk the mountains, weed the rice fields, scrub the toilet. To listen and observe. I made a few rolls of slide film, took some field notes, drank a lot of sake, bathed daily in a waterfall, and continued to let all these thoughts and ideas simmer. It was wonderful. But it could also be dangerous at times—physically, emotionally, and politically—in the company of these powerful and charismatic practitioners.

And then after eleven years of studying Japanese, six years of study, reflection, and engagement with Shugendô and Japanese religious and perhaps most significantly, marrying and leaving the states for Canada and becoming a public college teacher, I felt like giving ethnographic filmmaking a try. In the summer of 2006 I met Jean-Marc on a rooftop garden in Montréal. We began to discuss how it might make an interesting film to bring together his camera and cinematic storytelling skills and my Japanese language ability and experiences living and doing research in Japan. So in the summer of 2007 we met in Tokyo and got down to work. It has been a beautiful exchange. Compared with academic research and writing, which can be a solitary, even monastic experience, filmmaking as we have experienced it has been interactive, collaborative and joyful.

Jean-Marc taught me to record sound and we simply got down to it, allowing the natural world of southwestern Japan to become the star of the film. We wanted to present the raw experience of the climb from the perspective of the everyday man. This meant we had to try to make a film while doing everything the pilgrims were doing, without breaking ranks or getting in anyone’s way. Or worse, tumbling off the side of the mountain, which is a real danger and what I feared Jean-Marc would do while courageously climbing with his Steady Cam. We then retreated for three weeks at Tateishi Kôshô’s training center in Kumano to observe and document his daily activities. Here the word engagement seems more appropriate than retreat. Each evening Jean-Marc sat down to capture and select footage while I catalogued and summarized the audio recordings. The idea was to begin editing while the sounds and images were fresh; where we could still hear the roar of the cicadas and feel the relentless and bone-tiring humidity of Japan’s rainy season. Our fellow pilgrims and guides could also give feedback and let us know what they thought of what we had captured; whether we got it right or missed things entirely. Given that we worked well into the evening and arose most mornings at five for daily meditation, sleep came at a premium. Jean-Marc, as far as I could see, slept only during head-knocking car rides to the bee appeasements and prayer offerings.

Although some scholars stress the necessity of objectivity in research, I wonder if this inclination toward dispassionate study doesn’t prevent insights and meaningful exchanges? What do we do when we love the practices and places we study and the people we have met? If they inspire and challenge us on profound levels? Or worse, when we despise them or they us? (That happens far less, by the way.) I’m impressed and inspired by the work Tanaka Riten, Gojô Ryôki, Hisagishi Shinsei, Tateishi Kôshô and many other ascetic standouts do and the vibrant lives of engagement they lead. I want to share their work and ideas with as many as possible. Can there be room for appreciation and exuberance in this kind of filmmaking? Will my scholarly and Jean-Marc’s aesthetic credibility be compromised? Should we even care? Maybe, but maybe the risks of doing what might be called poetic ethnography are indeed worth taking when the stakes are as high as we find them in this age of crisis and possibility. When each day a new batch of horrors and delights arrives on the front doorstep. When very few seem to be taking any responsibility at all for the state of our natural world, political, economic and social lives.

Thank you for this opportunity to share the film and our website. DVDs are available from the site and we would welcome invitations to screen the film in your community.

Mark Patrick McGuire 

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