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Connecting the Past and Present of Shugendo – The Revival of Japan’s Ancient Mountain Ascetic Tradition, Part Six

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En no Gyoja accompanied by Zenki and Goki on the grounds of Sakuramotobou, in Yoshinoyama, one of 36 pilgrimage temples.
Image courtesy of the author

A man named En no Gyoja is venerated as the founder of Shugendo (Shugendo no Kaizo). He is a legendary figure who is said to have lived in the second half of the seventh and early eighth centuries. Fast forward to the 21st century, a pilgrimage in his honor was established in 2001 on the 1,300th anniversary of his supposed ascension in 701. 

This pilgrimage was intended as an entry point to the world of Shugendo and an introduction to En no Gyoja, about which the majority of modern-day Japanese know only little, if anything at all. In this way, the newly created pilgrimage should make a great contribution to the revival of Shugendo. 

The 20-year anniversary of this pilgrimage passed in 2021, which raises the question how successful have the promotional efforts been to date?. One thing is certain, the legend of En no Gyoja has survived throughout the centuries even without a dedicated pilgrimage to his name.

Wayside shrine with a small statue of En no Gyoja in Yoshinoyama. Image courtesy of the author

The ancient tale of a wizard turned saint

A man by the name of En no Ozunu is mentioned in one of Japan’s ancient records. He is thought to be the individual who is now venerated as En no Gyoja (En the Ascetic) and is considered to be the founder of Shugendo, although this status was not introduced until much later.

The word gyoja refers to a person (ja) who is undergoing ascetic training (gyo) in the sacred mountains of Japan in order to gain mystic power. This word is applied to En-no-Ozunu, who became the role model for all gyoja to follow. 

He is also referred to as En no Ubasoku (En the Layman) whereby ubasoku is the Japanese term for the Sanskrit word upasaka or Buddhist lay practitioner. In other words, he was not an ordained monk nor was he affiliated with any particular temple. 

En no Gyoja is typically depicted with a lean body, strong legs, and a stern facial expression. He is usually clad in some sort of cape and he wears geta wooden clogs. In one hand he holds a scroll and in the other a shakujo (ringed staff), and he often sits upon a rock. Usually he is shown with two attendants by his side, supposedly a demon couple known by the names Zenki and Goki. 

En was born in the Katsuragi Mountains as a member of the Kamo clan, which has lived in these mountains for generations. Exact dates are not known but some legends state that he was born on 1 January 634 and that he “ascended” in 701. In his younger years he is said to have accumulated a great knowledge of medicinal plants and became known as a healer. Legend tells us that he entered the mountains at the age of 32 to engage in ascetic practices. 

Exactly what kind of training En underwent is difficult to establish due to a lack of sources, but scholars agree that he trained in the mountains and practiced some sort of “magic.” He is also called a shaman and a diviner. We can only speculate that he might have practiced a mix of indigenous nature worship mixed with Taoist divination and early Buddhist incantations and rituals. 

Buddhism came to Japan in the sixth century, when the indigenous religion based on nature worship, now known as Shinto (The Way of the Gods), was practiced. With Buddhism came also Confucian thought, Taoist practice, and I Ching divination. 

The indigenous and imported religious practices were linked and practiced together by mountain ascetics such as En no Gyoja. As these ascetics lived in the mountains and forests, they also had an in-depth knowledge of the natural environment and of edible and medicinal plants. However, En was not the only person who secluded himself in nature. There were wandering monks, hermits, shamans, diviners, healers, pilgrimage leaders, and others. Yet En is the person who became most famous, or perhaps infamous, and hence people passed on stories about him.

Wayside shrine dedicated to En no Gyoja near Dorogawa Village
at the base of the Yoshino-Omine Mountain Range.
Image courtesy of the author

In reality, there are very few facts that we know for sure that could allow us to reconstruct the full story of En’s life. The earliest record of a person named En no Ozunu is written in the Shoku Nihongi, the Chronicles of Japan Continued, a record of imperial history from 797. 

One passage talks about a man named E Kimi no Ozunu, who lived in the Katsuragi Mountain Range where he practiced magic. This man was later denounced as being dangerous to the emperor and the state as he was considered a powerful wizard who could summon demons and bind them with a spell. Consequently, he was captured and banished by then Emperor Monmu (681–707) to the remote Izu Island at the base of Mount Fuji, which was almost 400 kilometers from the then capital in Fujiwara (present-day Kashihara City, Nara Prefecture).

View over Yoshinoyama in the foreground and the Katsuragi Mountains in the background. Image courtesy of the author

The next record is from the year 823 and is found in the Nihon Ryoiki, a collection of tales compiled by a monk at Yakushi-ji, a temple in Nara, which from 710–94 was Japan’s first permanent capital. In this account En no Gyoja is linked to Mount Kinpu in the Yoshino-Omine Mountain Range. 

The record states that En no Ubasoku summoned local deities and demons and demanded they build a bridge between Mount Katsuragi and Mount Kinpu. This angered the local deity of Mount Katsuragi, and led to the denunciation by one of En’s disciples at the imperial court and his subsequent banishment. 

Historical sources state that he was eventually pardoned by the emperor. There are different versions of what happened next: he is said to have returned to the Katsuragi Mountains and then either entered Nirvana or immigrated to China. In 1799, he received the posthumous title Jinben Daibosatu (Miraculous Great Bodhisattva) from Emperor Kokaku.

Stories about En no Gyoja became more and more elaborate and colorful over time until he became the stuff of legends, which have been retold in literature and in the performing arts. Even now, in 2021, he still stirs the imagination and has become a figure in the world of manga, anime, and computer games.

Pamphlet promoting the pilgrimage with key locations shown on a map. Image courtesy of the author

A modern-day pilgrimage waiting to take off

The En no Gyoja Reishi Fudasho (Pilgrimage to the En no Gyoja Sacred Places) takes pilgrims to 36 temples scattered across six prefectures in the Kansai region of Japan that have a connection to En no Gyoja. There is a statue of him at each of these temples, some of which are said to have been founded by En no Gyoja himself, although not all of these temples remain in the Shugendo lineage. 

The number 36 refers to the 36 Kongo Doji (Diamond Princes). These are Buddhist deities in the form of boys who attend a higher-ranking deity, typically Fudo Myoo (Immovable Great Wisdom King), one of Shugendo’s main deities. 

Whereas other famous pilgrimages in western Japan, such as the Shikoku Pilgrimage (四国遍路, Shikoku Henro) and the Saikoku Kannon Pilgrimage (西国三十三所, Saigoku Sanjusan-sho), have pilgrimage traditions of more than 1,000 years, the pilgrimage to En no Gyoja sites was created recently by a group called the En no Gyoja Reishi Fudashokai. The secretariat, or the En no Gyoja Kaishokai, is located at Kinpusen-ji, a temple on Yoshinoyama.

Zao Hall of Kimpusen-ji on Yoshinoyama. The temple one of the pilgrimage destinations and also hosts the En no Gyoja Kaishokai.
Image courtesy of the author
View of Hozan-ji on Ikomasan Mountain in the Katsuragi Mountain Range, overlooking the Nara Plain. Image courtesy of the author
Fudo Myoo statue by the entrance to Shipporyu-ji, Inunakisan Mountain.
Image courtesy of the author

To support the pilgrimage, a website was created and a guidebook published, informing prospective pilgrims about the history of En no Gyoja and providing a short description of each temple, including the location and how to access. 

One-third of the 36 temples are located on or near Yoshinoyama, a mountain-top village that is one of the main centers of Shugendo. Yoshinoyama is situated at the northern end of the Okugakemichi, the ascetic-training trail that connects to the Kumano Sanzan, the Three Grand Shrines of Kumano, in the south of the Kii Peninsula. The Okugakemichi is said to have been opened by En no Gyoja, who, according to legend, wandered widely, opening many mountains for ascetic practices and establishing many sanctuaries.

Place of prayer along the Okugakemichi where En no Gyoja is venerated. Shugendo practitioners place fuda (wooden plaques) here.
Image courtesy of the author
Statue of En no Gyoja together with Zenki and Goki near the Sho-no-Iwaya cave, a sacred place along the Okugakemichi.
Image courtesy of the author
Shrine dedicated to En no Gyoja on the Okugake ascetic training trail. Image courtesy of the author

Another third of the 36 temples are located around the Kasturagi mountain range. This area is thought to be the place where En no Gyoja first practiced and has now become known as the Katsuragi Shugen trail. 

Two established Shugendo temples in Kyoto, Shogo-in and Sanbo-in (Daigo-ji), are also part of this pilgrimage. Shogo-in is the head temple of the Honzan-ha, while Sanbo-in (Daigo-ji) is the head temple of the Tozan-ha. These are the two main factions of Shugendo, influenced by Tendai Buddhism and Shingon Buddhism respectively, that were formalizedduring the Edo period (1603–1867). 

Almost all of the 36 temples belong to either the Shingon or Tendai schools of Buddhism, or to Kinpusen-ji Shugen Honshu. There are no historic trails connecting these temples, but pilgrims visit them by car or public transport rather than walking. 

There is also no prescribed set of prayers, but pilgrims are free to follow their own way or to use the prayer book of each temple. The sequence of prayers depends on the Buddhist deities venerated at each temple. Since the pilgrimage is dedicated to En no Gyoja, the Saint’s Mantra is chanted in addition to the Heart Sutra. Dedicated pilgrims light a candle, burn incense, and place coins in the offering box. 

Then pilgrims collect the dedicated seal in the nokyocho (納経帳), a stamp book that is presented at each temple. Many pilgrims also collect another stamp on a scroll. Both will serve as proof of the dedication of the pilgrim and the completion of this pilgrimage.

Receiving dedicated stamps in the nokyocho as proof of having visited the 36 temples. This stamp is from Sakuramotobou.
Each temple is connected to a mountain that was the original place of shugyo (ascetic training). The name of the mountain is written
in the top right-hand corner. Image courtesy of the author
Another stamp on a scroll that later serves as commemoration of the pilgrimage. Image courtesy of the author
Completed pilgrimage scroll, framed and displayed in one of the temples. Image courtesy of the author

Small steps to reach a noble goal

The leaders of the En no Gyoja Kaishokai envision that the En no Gyoja pilgrimage has opened a new chapter in the history of Shugendo whereby everyone, not only followers of Shugendo, are invited to visit the temples associated with the founder of Shugendo and the holy mountains where En the Ascetic is said to have practiced. 

It is hoped that a visit to these places will bring more people into contact with the world of Shugendo and the virtues of its founder, and with the ascetic training practices in Shugendo’s dojo, which is nature and the Great Outdoors. 

Progress is slow: one person at a time. Data is difficult to obtain, but the actual number of pilgrims per month seem to be very low. One temple explained that in September 2021 there were fewer than 20 pilgrims and even fewer in the same month a year earlier. The numbers are probably even lower now due to the impact of the pandemic compared with pre-pandemic years. 

A quick survey among a group of five Shugendo practitioners revealed that only one had undertaken the pilgrimage. The others stated that “they had visited these temples anyway so there was no need to make it into a pilgrimage.” 

The one person who completed the pilgrimage had taken advantage of an event that has taken place roughly every five years since the inauguration of this pilgrimage. At this event all 36 temples are present with a stall where stamps can be collected at Kimpusen-ji for the duration of one week. The author is in the process of doing this pilgrimage and hopes to report again in more detail about the various sacred sites connected to En the Ascetic in a future article. 

Related features from BDG

Connecting the Past and Present of Shugendo – The Revival of Japan’s Ancient Mountain Ascetic Tradition, Part One
Connecting the Past and Present of Shugendo – The Revival of Japan’s Ancient Mountain Ascetic Tradition, Part Two
Connecting the Past and Present of Shugendo – The Revival of Japan’s Ancient Mountain Ascetic Tradition, Part Three
Connecting the Past and Present of Shugendo – The Revival of Japan’s Ancient Mountain Ascetic Tradition, Part Four
Connecting the Past and Present of Shugendo – The Revival of Japan’s Ancient Mountain Ascetic Tradition, Part Five
Connecting the Past and Present of Shugendo – The Revival of Japan’s Ancient Mountain Ascetic Tradition, Part Seven

See more from The Shugendo Diaries by Alena Eckelmann

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