Shugendō (修験道?) is a highly syncretic religion that originated in Heian Japan in which enlightenment is equated with the attainment of oneness with the kami (神?), i.e., the spirits or phenomena that are worshiped in the Shinto religion. This perception of experiential "awakening" is obtained through the understanding of the relationship between humanity and nature, centered on an ascetic, mountain-dwelling practice. The focus or goal of Shugendō is the development of spiritual experience and power. Having backgrounds in mountain worship, Shugendō incorporated beliefs or philosophies from early Japanese religious beliefs, Taoism and esoteric Buddhism. The 7th century ascetic and mystic En no Gyōja is often considered as having first organized Shugendō as a doctrine. Shugendō literally means "the path of training and testing" or "the way to spiritual power through discipline."
With its origins in the solitary practitioners (hijiri) in the 7th century, Shugendō evolved as a sort of amalgamation between Vajrayana, Shinto and several other religious influences including Taoism. Buddhism and Shinto were amalgamated in shinbutsu-shūgō, and Kūkai's syncretic religion held wide sway up until the end of the Edo period, coexisting with indigenous elements within Shugendō.
During the Meiji Restoration, when Shinto was declared an independent state religion separate from Buddhism, shugendō was banned as a superstition not fit for a new, enlightened Japan. Some Shugendō temples converted themselves into various officially approved Shintō denominations.
In modern times, shugendō is practiced mainly in Tendai and Shingon temples, retaining an influence on modern Japanese religion and culture. Some temples include Kimpusen-ji in Yoshino (Tendai), Ideha Shrine in the Three Mountains of Dewa and Daigo-ji in Kyoto (Shingon).
Those who practice shugendō are referred to in two ways. One term, shugenja (修験者), is derived from the term shugendō, literally meaning "a person of training and testing", i.e. "a person of shugen." The other term, yamabushi (山伏), means "one who lives in the mountains". Supernatural creatures often appeared as yamabushi in Japanese myths and folklore, as is evident in tales of the legendary warrior monk Saitō Musashibō Benkei and the deity Sōjōbō, king of the tengu (mountain spirits). Shugendō practitioners are the most direct lineage descendants of the ancient Kōya Hijiri monks of the eight and ninth centuries.
Modern shugenja in Japan and throughout the world are known to self-actualize their spiritual power in experiential form through challenging and rigorous ritualistic tests of courage and devotion known as shugyō. Pilgrimages involving mountain treks are embarked upon by shugenja and, through the experience of each trek, as well as years of study, "rank" is earned within the sect. The rituals are kept secret from the neophyte shugenja and the world at large. This denju ensures the true faith of the neophytes and maintains the fear of the unknown as they embark upon the austere journey. This secrecy was also borne out of previous episodes of persecution and oppression of shugenja as a threat to the ruling military hegemony. Many modern shugenja maintain the practice of relative anonymity in their daily lives.
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- A Look at Japanese Ascetic Practice
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- Koryu Shugen