Thursday, October 30, 2014

Reflection on Shugendo

I am sharing my brief summary and few personal thoughts on 

Shuma Iwai’s Mountain Ascetics and Rituals in Shugendō: An Example of Japanese Folk Religion. 


            In Shuma Iwai’s paper, Japanese people can be described as people who worship gods in nature such as the sun, moon, stars and mountains.  Shugendō is a folk religion in Japan which is regarded as a syncretistic religion because it is influenced by Buddhism, Taoism, and Shamanism. The word Shugendō literally means “Way of mastering magical power.”  The two main objective of Shugendō is to develop supernatural powers by means of mountain asceticism and apply this power in the local community.[1]

            Shugendō was known to be a Shinto-Buddhism amalgamation and the Meiji government tried to avoid this syncretism.  It was then that Shugendō was officially forbidden and separated Shinto and Buddhism.  However, after the World War II, there is the Religious Corporation Ordinance that made Shugendō autonomous again.[2]

Iwai outlines Shugendō’s structure in the context of its worldview, yamabushi, and rituals.  It also has biblical analysis to compare and contrast Shugendō and Christianity in a way on how to lead the Shugendō practitioners to Christianity.[3]

            Mountains are believed to be sacred grounds that made many people to worship those. Deities and gods are considered to be residing in those mountains.  Iwai mentioned that mountains are considered object of worship because of three reasons.  The first reason is that Japanese used to bury their dead in the mountains.  They believed that the spirits of their ancestors dwell in the mountains.  The second reason is that mountains are regarded as transitional location between this world and the other world.  The third is reason is because of the height and the vastness of the mountains, people considered these as the link between the heaven and the earth.[4]

            People believed that the mountains provide blessings and protection to their agriculture. With regards to this, the mountain deity goes down from the mountain to bless the rice fields.  This happens every eighth of April and people believed that this will bring them rich harvest when Autumn comes. [5]

            Japanese people viewed mountains as ”female” because they believe that mountains have supernatural power to give birth and rebirth of human beings and animals.[6] In relation to this, Japanese believed that a “life starts as a spirit enters an infant.” Death happens when the spirit leaves that body.  Japanese people would want to continue the family line even after the death of a family member.  During a death of a family member, they performed a ritual in order for that member to die peacefully.  They continue performing the ritual every seven days for seven weeks after the death.  They keep doing ceremonies “one hundred days, one year, three years, seven years, thirteen years, and thirty three years after the funeral.”  Japanese believed that their ancestors becomes a deity after thirty three years and later on be born again as a human or non-human being.[7]

These are people who practice Shugendō who are believed to obtain supernatural powers by doing mountain asceticism. Some practices include “fasting, abstinence, and hanging over cliffs.”  They also “repent, confess their sins, and communicate with Buddha.”  In order to acquire their supernatural powers, first they have to go on a journey to various shrines and temples.  Second, they do traditional ceremonies at shrines. Third, they perform rituals, and lastly they carry out “magico-religious” practices.[8]

            Japanese people believed that unwanted events that happen to them are caused by negativity in them.  With this in mind, they ask for the yamabushi to cleanse them from their sufferings.  In order for them to have the “power” of cleansing, they have to go to the mountains for the austerity training.  They believe that this enables them to gain supernatural powers.  Entering the mountain is like experiencing a hypothetical death and being reborn after the training.[9]  Since Japanese people believed in different gods in nature, together with the yamabushi, they perform different worship rituals for each god.[10]

Biblical Response

Biblical Worldview
Christians believe that “God reveals himself in the Scripture, in Jesus Christ, and in the Holy Spirit.” The Scripture is our guiding principle on how we should live our lives.  God descended to earth through the incarnation of Jesus Christ.  The ministries in the life of Christ show the revelation of God.  The Holy Spirit inspires and guide people on how to live.[11]

Biblical Evaluation
            Christians based their reasons on the ideas that “God’s revelation is through the Scripture, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit.”  By following this thought, any Christian can communicate with God without the intercession of certain people unlike in Shugendō.  Shugendō believers believe in things that are sensible such as rituals, festivals, and other more.  In order for the Shugendō believers to embrace Christian beliefs, there are four steps to do.  First is to study the beliefs of the people to learn why they do things as they do.  Second is to look at the Scripture and see the interpretation about the current beliefs and practices.  Third is to pray and seek God for directions and answers,   And lastly, the practices in Shugendō must be replaced by Christian worldview.[12]

Ministries of Japanese Churches
            It is the duty of the Church leaders to guide non-believers biblically.  One thing that is very essential to do so is through teaching and learning of Scripture.  Most importantly, prayer and guidance from God must always be remembered to transform non-believers to Christian worldview.[13]


Even in other religions, specifically Shugendō, finding God in all things is also eminent.  For the Japanese people, they see God in everything.  However, they see different gods for every entity.  Unlike for us Christians, we see the same God everywhere.

The belief that mountains have mystical power to cause birth and rebirth have similar concept in Christianity.  The birth of Jesus Christ is mystical.  Jesus Christ was “conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary.”[14]  The rebirth and resurrection have similar concept of being alive again.  The rebirth is being born again with the same soul but can be in different body.  In resurrection, Christ is alive again.  But the life is no longer in a human body, but rather, a glorified one.

The rituals in Shugendō have similarities in Catholic and other Christian practices.  When it comes to death, similar to Shugendō, Filipinos do a memorial forty days after the death of the person.  It is believed that the spirit is wandering on earth in that time span.  It is like saying that the spirit of the dead is not yet resting peacefully until the fortieth day after death.  Why do Filipinos think that way and not just believe that the spirit of the dead went to the Father immediately after dying?

There is this Yamabushi which is similar to our Catholic Priests.  Both terms practically pertain to being priests.  Those who aspire to become one attend a lengthy spiritual training and education to serve the community.  I have known of some Catholic priests who went on retreats to some faraway and secluded mountains.  They were able to observe the “challenging” practices of the community living there.  They have the option not to participate in the actual activities.   Some priests do not only observe but also do everything the community do.  I was thinking that even as new aspirants and young seminarians, they must be already exposed to Shugendō-type austerity practices for their formation. That is without the expectation of gaining supernatural powers. This can be a factor that may influence them to become a better pastor in reality and not only theoretically.

However, do we really have to transform other religious beliefs to Christian worldview?  Does it not make us think that their current religion is inferior to Christianity?  Is it not enough that someone believes there are higher beings out there that can bless and create a better world?   But still, as Christians, it is our duty and responsibility to preach the Gospel.

[1] Shuma Iwai. "Mountain Ascetics and Rituals in Shugendō: An Example of Japanese Folk Religion." Evangeli, Spring 2008: 28.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid, 29.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Ibid, 30.
[11] Ibid.
[12] Ibid, 31.
[13] Ibid.
[14] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd ed.

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