Japan's mountain ascetic hermits

BBC -- May 12
For more than 1,400 years, Yamabushi monks have been walking Japan's sacred mountains, believing that this harsh natural environment can bring enlightenment.

In an ancient forest of towering cedars, all was silence except for the chirping of unseen birds. Suddenly I heard the tinkling of a bell. Through the mist, a dozen figures emerged, walking in single file. Led by the Tolkienian figure of a man with a long grey beard, they looked like ghosts, dressed all in white.

They were Yamabushi: Japanese mountain worshippers. For more than 1,400 years, centuries before anyone spoke of "forest bathing", Yamabushi monks have been walking the sacred mountains of Dewa Sanzan (literally, "the Three Mountains of Dewa Province") in Yamagata Prefecture. But theirs is no pleasure hike. Through immersion in nature and rigorous self-discipline, the Yamabushi seek spiritual rebirth.

Yamagata lies in Tohoku, the northernmost region of Japan's Honshu island. Much of Tohoku is isolated, mountainous and prone to some of Japan's heaviest snowfalls. It is the land that haiku poet Matsuo Basho described in his book Narrow Road to the Deep North (1689).

The sacred status of the three mountains – Mount Haguro, Mount Gassan and Mount Yudono – dates to 593 AD when Prince Hachiko fled Japan's then-capital Kyoto following the assassination of his father, Emperor Sushun. Prince Shotoku, the Emperor’s nephew, advised Hachiko to flee to Mount Haguro, where it was said he would encounter Kannon, the Goddess of Mercy. Prince Hachiko built shrines on each of the three peaks so that the mountain gods would remain there, thereby ensuring peace and prosperity for the region.

He established the mountains as a centre for Shugendo, a unique Japanese form of mountain worship that dates back to a time when mountains were considered to be deities. As it evolved, Shugendo incorporated elements of Shinto, Buddhism and Taoism.

Shugendo is the religion of the Yamabushi. "Historically, the Yamabushi lived on the higher mountains of Japan. They would spend years on end in the mountains," explained Tim Bunting, Yamabushido Project Leader and Yamabushi Master Assistant. "For example, the Yamabushi who self-mummified to become Sokushinbutsu (Living Buddha) had to spend at least 1,000 days in the mountains." The self-mummification process involved severe fasting over an extended period, and the practice was outlawed more than 100 years ago during the Meiji Era (1868-1912).

Today, there are some 6,000 Yamabushi in Japan. They believe that Shugendo's ascetic training in the harsh natural environment of the mountains can bring enlightenment.