The Japanese Shugendo Religion, Explained

Taichi Tani is a monk in a village in Kochi Prefecture on Shikoku Island.  Although Shikoku is famous for its pilgrimage and numerous Shingon Buddhism temples, Mr. Tani’s temple is outside the pilgrimage route and from another tradition: Shugendo. Shugendo is a Japanese religion mixing Buddhism, Shinto, and Taoism. Ascetic training in the mountains is a central practice.

The young monk told me about the core values of Shugendo, how anyone can integrate some of its aspects in daily life, and his role as a “guide to Buddhism.”

“I Did Not Want to Become a Monk”

Why did you decide to become a monk?

To be honest, originally, I did not like this profession. My grandfather used to be the head priest of this temple before me. Since I was very little, I observed him, and even though I loved him as a person, I kept having doubts. I wondered, “Does he really know the meaning of the sutras?” Even as a child, I understood that he acted like a monk but did not really know the meaning of what he was saying. 

In high school, I started reading books about Buddhism. I started thinking that the Buddha’s teachings were great, but what the Buddhist monks in Japan were doing did not match with it. That is why I did not want to become a monk.

My master at the temple impressed me so much that I decided to be like him someday.

Before he passed away, my grandfather got sick and stayed in the hospital for a year. I often went to see him during that time. I realized his health would not get better. I wanted to reassure him before he passed away, and I told him I would undergo monk training. 

In Buddhism, there are many different sects. Some of them do not require training to become a monk or a head priest. In my sect called Honzan Shugenshu, you must undergo training for a year or two in Kyoto, at a temple called Shogo-in. I trained there for two years, intending to do something completely different when I get out.

However, my master at the temple impressed me so much that I decided to be like him someday. If I had not met him, I would have never become a monk.

Many people are sitting on the floor inside a temple. Several Buddhist statues can be seen on the altar.
Mr. Tani (left) during a Dharma talk in his temple

Some time ago, I interviewed a Buddhist monk who practices in the streets of Ginza in Tokyo. He said the same: that he would have never become a monk if he had not met his master. What made your master so special?

I was 21 years old at the time, and he was 60 years older than me and in very good shape. What impressed me is that he was not bossy, even though he was the most important person of this sect. 

For example, when he left the temple to go to the doctor’s or buy things, he never asked people to drive him. He would take public transportation. And when he came back, he always held garbage in both hands. Our temple was in the middle of the city, and he would pick up rubbish or empty cans that he noticed in the neighboring streets. It was natural for him. Half of the temple is turned into accommodation, and kids often stay there during school trips. The kids exchanged greetings with him when we were coming back from town like this, but they most probably thought he was the janitor. 

Every morning, we had to wake up at 5:30 in the morning and sing sutra together. My master never overslept once. I overslept many times [laughs]. Ringing the morning bell was part of my training. A few times, I woke up because the bell rang: my master was ringing it instead of me. He never scolded me. He just rang the bell.

He never said difficult things. He showed the way through his actions. I learned a lot by watching him.

What were you planning to become in the future before you changed your mind?

I wanted to become a musician! [laughs] Since I was 13 years old, I played the guitar and was in a band. I loved the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and we played a lot of covers. But when I was 18 years old, I injured my left hand and could not play anymore. So, I started making house music and techno music on my computer. I do not make music anymore, but I still listen to music a lot!

What is a typical day for you?

I am not very diligent so I do not chant sutras every morning, but I do wake up at 6 a.m.. Mornings are hectic because I am the father of small children. Actually, I do come to the main building and chant sutras for 10 minutes. After that, I bring my children to kindergarten and school. After 8 a.m., things calm down a little, and I can work.

A man with a shaved head is playing at catching insects with two small children, a girl and a boy
Mr. Tani and his children

Like most Buddhist monks in Japan, most of my work is chanting sutras during funerals. It happens mostly on Saturdays and Sundays. On the other days, most of my work is listening to my parishioners and giving them advice, cleaning up the temple, and writing calligraphy. I also do a lot of research and study.

So, being a monk is a never-ending learning process?

I never went to university; I entered monk training right after finishing high school. I realized I lacked a lot of knowledge regarding Buddhism and spirituality, so I learned by reading a lot.

The Core Principles of Shugendo

Even if you are a very important person in society, once you enter deep nature, you are just a fragile human being.

What is Shugendoand where does it come from?

Shugendo itself was born in Japan. It is a folk religion with more than 1,300 years of history. Its main base is Buddhism, but it also integrates Shinto, for example, the belief that deities are present everywhere in nature, and views from Chinese Taoism. 

What do Shugenja [Shugendo practitioners] believe in?

We do not worship a specific deity or bodhisattva. As in Japanese Buddhism and esoteric Buddhism in general, there are many deities and bodhisattvas. However, the bodhisattva Dainichi Nyorai [Vairocana in Sanskrit] is central. Initially, they are a deity coming from Brahmanism. They are not a person; they are a symbol of the universe. They represent the universe’s principles and beauty. 

A Buddhist statue. The bodhisattva has a crown and is sitting leg crossed
A statue of Dainichi Nyorai

We believe that Dainichi Nyorai manifests by becoming various bodhisattvas. To Shugenja, Dainichi Nyorai often appears under the form of Fudo Myoo [Acala in Sanskrit]. 

What do you mean by “appears”?

Buddhism scholars and researchers often consider Shugendo as being occult. We believe in spirits. I cannot see ghosts or apparitions. I have never seen lights or Fudo Myoo suddenly standing before me [laughs]. Still, I think bodhisattvas manifest differently depending on the person.

I have had particular experiences that I interpret this way. During my practice, I have felt feelings that I usually cannot feel in daily life. I am very grateful for it, so I turn these feelings into words and try to express them to people. 

A fierce-looking bodhisattva statue. It is standing up, holds a sword, and is surrounded by flames
A statue of Fudo Myoo

What is the essential practice for Shugenja?

Entering the mountain and walking a hike from the beginning to the end. In the mountain, we also practice meditating under waterfalls or climbing mortally dangerous rocks. The idea is to be conscious of how small we are by experiencing the fear of death. 

Even if you are a very important person in society, you are just a fragile human being once you enter profound nature. If you fall, you die. You realize your life is precious. This can sound obvious, but we go into the mountain to be fully aware of that fact.

Is it to feel it through your body and not only by thinking?

Yes. That is why putting things into practice is very important in Shugendo. 

Unfortunately, I cannot leave my temple for long periods, but I make sure to hike Mount Fuji once per year.

Mr. Tani practicing meditation, hands joined, under a waterfall
Mr. Tani practicing under a waterfall

What is the central value in Shugendo?

Humility. Another word for Shugenja in Japanese is “Yamabushi,” which means “those who bow down before entering the mountain.” Respecting the mountain is central in Shugendo. You should not enter it boasting that your trip to the mountain will be easy; you should not underestimate it. You should stay humble. 

Shugendo priests wear a special outfit. Could you tell us more about it? 

Shugendo is divided into many branches, and costumes may vary, but all have the common objective to represent Dainichi Nyorai. The outfit is called “suzukake,” and its shape imitates the shape of a Ghanta, a small bell that is often used in esoteric Buddhism.

Mr. Tani climbing a rock dressed in the Shugendo priest outfit: white and beige clothes. He has a sort of hat on his forehead, pompons around his neck and straw sandals
Mr. Tani climbing a rock dressed in the Shugendo priest outfit

We also wear many items and accessories, which all have meanings. For example, the six pompons symbolize the six paramitas [Buddhist perfections one should try to attain, such as patience or honesty]. The accessory on our forehead has 12 parts, and it represents the 12 nidanas of dependent origination. It is like the reasons for human life and death, divided into 12 pieces. 

How to Integrate Shugendo Principles in Daily Life

I have heard that even regular people can practice Shugendo ascetic training. Is it true?

Yes, it’s true. One of my elders created the group Shugendo “Yamato Shugen-kai,” with whom I hike Mount Fuji every year. One of the members who hikes with us comes from another Shugendo sect, and he is actually working in a stock company. He does a desk job. He practices his spirituality this way.

If one wants to become a Shugenja, do they need to undergo special studies or training?

To wear the particular outfit I explained earlier, you are supposed to enter a temple of the Shugendo sect of your choice, study, and receive a certification. But if you say, “I am a Shugenja,” then you are one [laughs]. If you like the mountain and consider you are doing Shugendo practice, I think you are a Shugenja.

We just keep adding and adding things to our lives. Practicing Shugendo is doing the opposite.

If someone would like to introduce the Shugendo spirit into their daily life, what can they do?

What I am going to say is my personal opinion about it. I think that the most important thing is to practice subtracting instead of adding.

As human beings, we tend to think that we lack something, that we should get some specific skill. We all have an ideal version of ourselves we aim at. For example, I wish I could speak better English, and I should study more. We are all trying to fill the gaps we find in ourselves.

The whole world and the economy revolve around this idea: “You lack this, so buy this.” Or, “If you buy this, you will become the ideal version of yourself.” So we just keep adding and adding things to our lives.

Practicing Shugendo is doing the opposite. When you enter the mountain, you need to subtract things. Or rather, they reduce naturally. As I said earlier, even if you are a CEO or a wealthy person, you become humbled by nature and your own body. You realize there are simple things that you cannot do and that your life is precious. The idea is to practice subtracting, but it will become something more for you in the end. 

For me, the formula is the following:

Enlightenment = the self – (knowledge + practice)

This formula does not mean that knowledge has no meaning. On the opposite, the more you have, the better your subtraction will be. 

Two shugenja on top of Mount Fuji
Mr. Tani climbing Mount Fuji with another Shugenja.

So, to go back to your question, I recommend avoiding adding too much to your daily life. Right now, because of the Coronavirus, the world is living in anxiety. Many people are currently studying to get as many skills as possible because they are afraid of how the future will be.

But if you do the opposite and get rid of what is useless, you will see what you really want to do in your life more clearly. You will get back to your core qualities, such as gentleness. No specific knowledge is required to feel or think the Shugendo way. If you can find a Shugenja to guide you, just go into nature and walk with them.

It is like getting your kokoro back to its original nature. 

Yes. Speaking of which, I believe that the kokoro, which the Japanese love so much, is not located inside of us. People tend to locate it in their brains or their heart. However, I believe it expands outside of ourselves—that ourselves and our bodies are, in fact, located inside the kokoro.

For example, even if you decide that you will be in a good mood today, if someone tells you something unpleasant, you will get sad. On the opposite, when you are depressed, your motivation and kokoro will change if you receive good news. I think the perception of the kokoro is way more on the outside than people believe.

Being a Guide to Buddhism

I am no one extraordinary. My intention is to be a kind of guide to Buddhism.

I noticed that you have a YouTube channel! Apart from your usual monk duties, what other activities are you doing?

My main activity is during funerals or ceremonies and prayers related to someone who passed away. The people there are gathered for the person who passed away and not to hear a Buddhist preach. So it is not the right place to teach Buddhism to people. 

So I needed a place to introduce people to Buddhist principles. I do it a little on the YouTube channel I started three years ago. I also teach in special classes for older people, or to the children of my village. I am also part of the Buddhist Youth Club, a gathering of young monks of Kochi Prefecture, and we sometimes teach children.

I am married, I have children, and I admit I also drink alcohol. My way of living is very different from the Buddhism of ancient times. I am no one extraordinary. I have no intention to earn money by pretending to be someone extremely serious. I want to be honest and do something I like, so my intention is to be a kind of guide to Buddhism. I just want to share some Buddhist teachings that I find great with other people or talk to them about inspiring Buddhist personalities. Since my parishioners give me donations for my living, it is my duty to provide them with something inspiring or useful for their daily lives, not only prayers.

Mr. Tani teaching on his Youtube channel
On his YouTube channel, Tani-san has a few videos explaining some core Buddhist principles and sutras.

You are also involved in the local tourism of your village, Hidaka-mura.

One of my goals is to make people familiar with Mount Otaki and get more involved with it myself. For five or six years, I have been weeding the mountain because I wanted it to look like when I was a child. 

Now, I also work as a guide for the village. For example, I am guiding a tour during which I guide people to the mountain and introduce Shugendo a little bit. Still, my objective is not to attract attention to my temple. 

I do not do it as a monk, but as an inhabitant of Hidaka-mura and as a father. I want to be proud of the village my children are growing up in. That is why I want to improve the already-existing qualities of this place. 

Do you have any personal objectives for the future?

I would like to publish a book. I want to explain sutras such as the Heart Sutra, as I did on YouTube, but in paper form.

Shugendo is not about learning something new. It is about rediscovering something you have already known from the beginning.

Earlier, you talked about the importance of subtracting things. Is there any other message you would like to get through to people?

I would like people to realize that although they are very important, they are also very small.

Nowadays, we have smartphones, computers, and in Japan, we can have access to everything, get deliveries even if we live in the deep countryside. It is easy to feel like we are mighty, almost godlike. Intelligent people can process all the right information to improve their living conditions and environment.

However, all of this is just power that we borrow. For example, if your smartphone breaks, there is very little chance that you can repair it yourself. Also, we should not believe that we know everything just because we have access to a lot of information. We are just good at using tools. 

These false impressions disappear once you are in nature. I also think that many people are getting exhausted from dealing with so much information all the time. Going into nature can help us realize that we do not need it as much as we may think.

Shugendo is not about learning something new. It is about rediscovering something you have already known from the beginning.

Shugenja walking in the forest, Mr. Tani in front

What Shugendo Can Teach Us in the Current Times

One of the core principles of Buddhism is to live in the present moment, a reason being that it is impossible to forecast what will happen anyway. The year 2020 has shown us how our plans can go through a drastic change and how unexpected, terrible events can suddenly affect us.

However, knowing it and experiencing it are two different things. Even though I believe most people today agree that we should live in the present moment more, it is hard not to feel anxiety and worry about what will be coming next.

I realized from social media that while they are staying home, many people feel guilty if they do not spend their time productively. Many of us believe that we should work more, learn more, do more sports, accomplish even more than during our previous “regular” lives since we are home. Is it really reasonable to put so much pressure on ourselves while we are facing so much uncertainty?

Shugendo teaches us to go back to the basics of human nature. No matter how intelligent, wealthy, or powerful we are, we are going to die eventually. Whether you are climbing a colossal rock without any climbing gear or whether you are facing a new deadly virus, realizing how small we are can feel overwhelming.

However, Shugendo reminds us that there is no void to fill up inside, that to feel complete, we must do the opposite. Life is precious. You are alive. It is good enough.

Born in France, I've been living in Japan since 2011. I'm curious about everything, and living in Japan has allowed me to expand my vision of the world through a broad range of new activities, experiences, and encounters. As a writer, what I love most is listening to people's personal stories and share them with our readers.