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What’s up with religion in Japan?

Written by Timothy Bunting

Born Shinto, Married Christian, Cremated Buddhist

What’s the difference between a Shinto shrine and a Buddhist temple? Ask any Japanese person and they’d probably tell you Shinto shrines are for worshipping Kami gods, and Buddhist temples are for worshipping Buddha. Simple enough, right? Now, ask that same person how they can worship both, even though they are two different religions. What do they say? Well, there’s a saying in Japan: born Shinto, married Christian, cremated Buddhist. This seemingly paradoxical phrase describes Japanese attitudes towards religion quite well. Put simply, Japan is very open when it comes to religion and has historically accepted many different philosophies and ideologies. Over time, these moulded into the Japanese psyche, and there’s no better place to see this in action than on the Dewa Sanzan, the three sacred mountains of Dewa in Yamagata Prefecture.

The Dewa Sanzan: A Hotpot for Religion in Japan

The Dewa Sanzan are a hotpot of Japanese religion. Officially, the three peaks are Shinto, under the control of Dewa Sanzan Shrine, but by no means was this always the case. In fact, for the majority of their history as a spiritual training ground, the Dewa Sanzan have been Buddhist. Remnants of their Buddhist history exist all over the mountains. For example, the Five Story Pagoda is clearly a Buddhist artefact yet it stands on Shinto shrine grounds, and likewise Sanjingosaiden, the building that houses Dewa Sanzan Shrine, is in the formerly Buddhist Jakkoji Temple at the top of Mt. Haguro. If you’re looking for places that stayed true to their original founder’s beliefs, only Churenji and Dainichibo Ryusuiji Temples on Mt. Yudono fit that bill. Due mainly to politics, everywhere else has switched allegiances sometime in the past 1,000 years or so, and some places multiple times at that. So you may be wondering, how did this all start?

Animism and Shintoism: Where it all started

Otaki falls of Mt. Yudono of the Dewa Sanzan in Autumn
Objects of nature, such as Otaki Waterfall on Mt. Yudono have been revered since ancient times in Japan.

For the ancient Japanese, everything from the trees, to the rivers, to the rocks, to the mountains, to the waterfalls, absolutely everything was felt to be possessed. This primitive worship of nature is known as Animism in English, and is commonplace in indigenous cultures the world over.

From this animism the Shinto belief developed in which these spirits came to be known as Kami (gods or deities). These days, Kami are worshipped in a variety of rituals at shrines throughout the country, such as at Kamidana (altars) in households, family shrines, and public shrines run by priests, for example at Dewa Sanzan Shrine, where the gods of the three mountains of Dewa are enshrined. Originally, this worship of Kami was a way of life that didn’t have a name. It wasn’t until Buddhism came to Japan that the term Shinto, meaning the way of the gods came into use, in contrast to the worship of Buddha.

The head of Shintoism is the Japanese Emperor, ruler of the longest uninterrupted empire in history that dates back to Emperor Jimmu in 660 BC. The imperial family is said to be descended from Amaterasu, the goddess of the sun enshrined at Ise Grand Shrine in Mie Prefecture. Incidentally, Amaterasu’s younger brother is Tsukuyomi-no-mikoto, the god of the moon enshrined in Mt. Gassan.

Seasonal festivals, called Matsuri, such as the Hassaku Festival, Shoreisai Festival, or the Flower Festival and rituals such as the Peak Rituals are held in the Dewa Sanzan in honour of the Kami gods at these shrines. Another popular Shinto ritual is Shichi-go-san (lit. seven-five-three). Throughout Japan each year on the 15th of November, young children dressed in kimono, often for the first time, pay a visit their local Shinto shrine in a rite of passage said to drive out evil spirits and wish for a long life.

Fudomyo'o at Suganotaki Waterfall on Mt. Haguro
The Buddhist God Fudomyo’o at Suganotaki Waterfall on Mt. Haguro

What about Buddhism?

So, what about Buddhism? It goes without saying that to understand religion in Japan, you have to understand the relationship between Shintoism and Buddhism. In the 6th Century, Buddhism was brought to Japan via Korea by Buddhist monks. Buddhism spread throughout Japan first by the Soga Clan, and then in large part thanks to Empress Suiko who actively encouraged its acceptance amongst the townspeople.

Then in the 8th and 9th centuries, Esoteric Buddhism (Japanese Mikkyo) was brought to Japan from China by Kukai and Saicho, founders of the Shingon and Tendai sects respectively. Shingon temples sprung up all over the Dewa Sanzan, such as Jakkoji Temple on Mt. Haguro, the current Dewa Sanzan Shrine, and on Mt. Yudono, such as Dainichibo Ryusuiji and Churenji Temples.

From Tendai Buddhism, many famous Buddhist sects formed, such as Jodo Pure Land Buddhism, Soto Buddhism, famous for Zen, and Nichiren Buddhism. Mt. Haguro and Mt. Yudono were originally both of the Shingon sect. However, in an apparent politically motivated move in the mid-1600s, Mt. Haguro switched to the Tendai sect to become the same sect as the ruling Tokugawa Shogunate. This move allowed to the establishment of the 2,446-step stone stairway and the Shukubo pilgrim lodge village.

Sanjingosaiden at the top of Mt. Haguro is the main hall of Dewa Sanzan Shrine (Shinto), but it used to be Jakkoji Temple (Buddhist)
Sanjingosaiden at the top of Mt. Haguro is the main hall of Dewa Sanzan Shrine (Shinto), but used to be Jakkoji Temple (Buddhist)

So, how were Shintoism and Buddhism able to coexist?

Originally, the Japanese weren’t very accepting of Buddhism and the spread was slow, however they soon learned to coexist largely thanks to a theory called Honji Suijaku. According to Honji Suijaku, some Indian Buddhist deities (known as Honji, lit. original ground) choose to appear in Japan as native Kami gods (referred to as Suijaku, lit. trace) to more easily provide salvation to the Japanese. Together the two form an indivisible whole called a Gongen (Avatar), basically a combination of a Chinese Buddha and a Japanese Kami god. It’s also claimed that Kami gods are subject to Karma, and as such they require Buddhism to provide for their salvation.

Following the acceptance of this theory, many Shinto shrines were attached to Buddhist temples and vice versa. Devoted to both Kami gods and Buddha, these complexes were called Jingu-ji, and they sprung up all over Japan, with one famous example being Seiganto-ji Temple in Wakayama Prefecture, a part of the Kumano Sanzan Shrine complex.

Master Hoshino of Daishobo leads Yamabushi training on the Shinkyo bridge over the Haraigawa River on Mt. Haguro of the Dewa Sanzan
Master Hoshino of Daishobo leads Yamabushi training on the Shinkyo bridge over the Haraigawa River on Mt. Haguro of the Dewa Sanzan

In other words, these religions have basically lived side by side since then, right?

Well, yes and no. Shintoism and Buddhism have lived side by side for centuries, however there was also one belief to come out of the combined worship of the two. You may have heard of Shugendo, the knowledge gained on the path (do) of ascetic practices (shu) of divine natural powers (gen). Shugendo developed in the 7th century before Shingon and Tendai Buddhism came to Japan, through a combination of Shintoism, pre-Buddhist mountain worship, Vajrayana Buddhism, primitive folk practices, and Taoism.

Honji Suijaku is at the core of Shugendo and it was because of this theory that the founder, En no Gyoja, was able to organise the beliefs, philosophies, doctrines, and ritual systems of these religions into a combined doctrine, now known as Shugendo. Technically speaking, to become a religion, beliefs need to have their own unique doctrines and theories. Since Shugendo developed out of the theories and doctrines of other religions it cannot be classified as a religion. Rather, Shugendo is more of a way of life that incorporates ascetic training, hence the classification as a do (path or way).

The beliefs in Shugendo were very similar to Esoteric Buddhism, and Shugendo has been practiced in Shingon and Tendai temples for centuries, such as at Shozen’in Koganedo Temple on Mt. Haguro, or at Churenji and Ryusuiji Dainichibo Temples on Mt. Yudono. Along with Mt. Omine in Nara Prefecture and Mt. Hiko in Fukuoka Prefecture, the Dewa Sanzan developed as one of the main centres of Shugendo in Japan, and even developed its own denomination, Haguro Shugendo.

Yamabushi at Prince Hachiko Shrine during the Hassaku Festival on Mt. Haguro of the Dewa Sanzan
Yamabushi at Prince Hachiko Shrine during the Hassaku Festival on Mt. Haguro of the Dewa Sanzan

Wait, Haguro Shugendo? The Dewa Sanzan has its own religion?

Essentially, yes. The Dewa Sanzan has their own school of Shugendo, Haguro Shugendo, whose followers are called Shugenja or Yamabushi. Yamabushi got their name by spending extended periods of time training in the austerities in the mountains. Yama means mountain, and bushi comes from fuseru, which means to promulgate, or to be on all fours, owing to the Yamabushi tendency to be crawling all over the mountains during their training.

The Yamabushi originally believed that humans are already partly Buddha, and that by training in austerities in the mountains they could attain Buddhahood in the current world. This belief led to the self-mummified monks known as Sokushinbutsu, Living Buddha or Buddha Mummies that trained in the Shingon temples on Mt. Yudono. These days the belief behind entering the mountains depends on your denomination, with Shinto Yamabushi believing they can attract the spirits of the Kami gods into their souls. Either way, Yamabushi learn from nature by physically placing themselves on the mountains and undertaking various ascetic challenges, then use their acquired skills to help the people.

Sen'ninzawa on Mt. Yudono where Buddhist monks trained in the austerities on a mission to become Sokushinbutsu Living Buddha
Sen’ninzawa on Mt. Yudono where Buddhist monks trained in the austerities on a mission to become Sokushinbutsu Living Buddha

What are the core beliefs in Haguro Shugendo?

At the core of Haguro Shugendo is the philosophy of Uketamo (Oo-keh-tah-mo) practice by the Yamabushi which has powerful implications for all those who follow it. Uketamo has many interpretations in English, but is perhaps best translated as I accept. In essence, by placing themselves in nature, then learning to accept the power of nature, Yamabushi gain – absorb even – an implicit understanding of Uketamo. For those who undertake Yamabushi training, once you incorporate Uketamo into your life, once you are able to accept things for what they are, life becomes easier.

Taking part in Master Hoshino of Daishobo pilgrim lodge’s Yamabushi training is an excellent way to see the syncretism of Buddhism and Shintoism through the lens of a Shugendo follower. This is simply because Master Hoshino’s training is the only training that incorporates Buddhist, Shinto, and Shugendo practices. It is highly unusual to pray the Buddhist Heart Sutra in a Shinto shrine, for example, and in fact it may be the only such training in the whole of Japan. Those interested can see more at Yamabushido.jp.

Who or what do followers of Shugendo worship?

Depending on their denomination, Shugendo followers worship both Shinto Kami gods and Buddha, as well as their combined Gongen (avatars) based on the Honji Suijaku theory mentioned earlier. The principle god of Shugendo is Zao Gongen, who is said to have appeared before En no Gyoja, the aforementioned founder of Shugendo. Zao Gongen has since been enshrined in all the mountain temples built in his honour, such as Mt. Yoshino in Nara, Mt. Ishizuchi in Ehime, and Mt. Mitoku in Tottori. Zao Gongen is ordinarily represented with the third eye on his forehead, his hair standing up, holding up a three-pronged Vajra (weapon with diamonds), wearing an animal skin, with an expression of rage on his face and one leg raised while the other is placed on a rock.

Mt. Yudono of the Dewa Sanzan in Autumn
Mt. Yudono of the Dewa Sanzan in Autumn

What about the Dewa Sanzan?

Each of the Dewa Sanzan mountains have their own Gongen, with Dai (great) added to denote greatness. The names are Haguro Daigongen, Gassan Daigongen, and Yudono Daigongen, for Mt. Haguro, Mt. Gassan, and Mt. Yudono respectively. Haguro Daigongen is the Shinto manifestation of Kan’non Bodhisattva (Sanskrit Avalokitêśvara), the Buddha of Worldly Benefits. Gassan Daigongen is the Shinto manifestation of Amida Nyorai (Sanskrit Amitābha), the Buddha of Immeasurable Light and Love. Finally, Yudonosan Daigongen is the Shinto manifestation of Dainichi Nyorai (Sanskrit Vairocana), the Supreme Buddha of the Cosmos.

The three avatars were collectively known as the Haguro Sansho Daigongen, and the Honji Buddha of each Gongen was held at Jakkoji Temple at the top of Mt. Haguro until the Meiji Restoration in 1868. Furthermore, in ancient times the three mountains were known as the Haguro Sanzan or the Oshu Sanzan, after the three Gongen, where they flourished as training ground for Shugendo followers for centuries.

What happened to religion in Japan during the Meiji Restoration?

In 1868, there was a civil war in Japan called the Boshin War fought between the de facto rulers of Japan at the time, the Tokugawa Shogunate, and forces supporting the Imperial court (the Emperor). The Imperial Court won, and this instigated the Meiji Restoration, when Japan went from a feudalistic society to an industrial powerhouse in a matter of mere decades.

From the middle of the Edo period (1603-1868) a growing number of Japanese, many of them nationalists, began to see Buddhism as a foreign import that didn’t uphold the values of the native Shintoism. In combination with Shinto-based nationalism, the rise in popularity of Confucianism, and a greater interest in general about ancient Japanese literature and culture, Buddhism’s reputation diminished rapidly. The newly-formed Meiji Government supported this view, and it culminated in an active attempt to abolish Buddhism, and eventually every religion in Japan other than Shintoism, including Shugendo.

Massha shrine on Mt. Haguro. Before 1868, this area would have been covered in Buddhist artefacts and temples.
Massha shrine on Mt. Haguro. Before 1868, this area would have been covered in Buddhist artefacts and temples.

What was the Dewa Sanzan like before then?

Up until the Meiji Restoration in 1868, Mt. Haguro and Mt. Yudono were almost entirely separate temple complexes. Mt. Haguro even had its own pilgrimage of rebirth both for Yamabushi living on the mountain, and those who were brought to the mountains by the Yamabushi. Mt. Haguro would have been similar to Mt. Koya in Wakayama Prefecture, a mountain practically entirely covered in Buddhist artefacts such as temples, lanterns and funeral pyres. Mt. Koya was largely protected from the abolishment of Buddhism at this time thanks to its remote location in the middle of a mountain range.

Mt. Yudono was training ground for monks, including the self-sacrificing Sokushinbutsu Living Buddha or Buddha Mummies. The famed peak was also an extremely popular destination for domestic pilgrims as home to the sacred object of worship representing rebirth. Before then, Mt. Yudono wasn’t officially one of the three Dewa Sanzan, rather it was known as Oku-no-in or the Temple in the Depths, a name which it has kept until today. Mt. Yudono did however play an important role as the final destination in the pilgrimage of rebirth. Only after pilgrims had visited the three Dewa Sanzan at the time: Mt. Haguro, Mt. Gassan, and Mt. Hayama (which represented the pure land of Yakushi Nyorai, Sanskrit Bhaiṣajyaguru) in inland Yamagata Prefecture, were they worthy of visiting Mt. Yudono and it’s sacred object of worship.

What happened when they tried to banish Buddhism?

As you know, up until this point Shintoism and Buddhism were basically conjoined at the hips. However, the anti-Buddhist sentiment was so strong that they enacted the Kami and Buddhas Separation Order in 1868. This meant Buddhist temples and monks all throughout the country were given an ultimatum, switch to Shintoism, forget religion altogether and become secular, or stay Buddhist and fear retribution. Fearing the worst, the Dewa Sanzan chose (for the most part) to switch to Shintoism. In the end, the efforts to rid Japan of Buddhism eventually failed, but not before inflicting a huge amount of damage to Buddhist relics all over the country.

Yamabushi train on Mt. Gassan of the Dewa Sanzan under the guidance of Master Hoshino
Yamabushi train on Mt. Gassan under the guidance of Master Hoshino

What happened to the monks?

Mt. Haguro had been part of the Tendai-Buddhist sect, Mt. Gassan Shizen Suihai (Nature Worship), and Mt. Yudono the Shingon-Buddhist sect. There were many full-time Yamabushi living in the temples of Mt. Haguro who were known as ‘Yamabushi disallowed from having wives’, as opposed to those who lived at the base of Mt. Haguro in the Shukubo Pilgrim lodges, the so-called ‘Yamabushi allowed to have wives’. Needless to say, many of the monks both at the top and bottom of the mountain made the switch to strictly Shintoism, which they partly were already.

As Shugendo was an amalgamation of both religions, and therefore not entirely Shinto, it was eventually banned in 1872. Yamabushi who chose to stay Shugendo were forced to associate themselves with either the Tendai or Shingon Buddhist sects. At this time, Gongen Avatars were also outlawed and their statues were either destroyed, hidden, or moved to nearby temples.

At this time the makeup of the Dewa Sanzan changed to Mt. Haguro, Mt. Gassan, and Mt. Yudono, and Jakkoji Temple at the top of Mt. Haguro was renamed Sanjingosaiden, lit. the ‘collective hall of the three gods’, and home to newly designated Dewa Sanzan Shrine.

Mt. Haguro's Five Story Pagoda
Mt. Haguro’s Five Story Pagoda

So, what about the Five Story Pagoda, a clearly Buddhist structure?

Unfortunately, many of the Buddhist temples and relics on the three mountains were destroyed. There was a temple on Mt. Haguro just above the Ninosaka Tea House called Gohonbo that purportedly hosted up to 5,000 monks, and there were also temple buildings in the area surrounding the Five Story Pagoda that met their demise at this time.

Where else can I see this on the Dewa Sanzan?

You can see remnants of this time all over the Dewa Sanzan. As luck would have it, some of the temples were repurposed as Shinto Shrines helping avoid destruction, including the Five Story Pagoda, and Kezoin Temple which changed to Saikan. If you go into the main hall of Saikan, you can see a sign that says Haguro Sansho Dai Gongen, or the three Gongen (Avatars) of Haguro (referring to the three mountains of Dewa). Saikan is also famous for Dewa Sanzan Shojin Ryori (Ascetic Cuisine), which became Shinto at this time meaning fish and meat were incorporated into the ascetic meals for the first time ever.

Haguro Sansho Daigongen inscription in the main hall of Saikan on Mt. Haguro of the Dewa Sanzan
Haguro Sansho Daigongen inscription in the main hall of Saikan

The Massha shrines that dot the path up Mt. Haguro previously held Buddhist deities, which were then switched to hold their Shinto equivalent. The Haguro Sansho Daigongen statues held in Jakkoji were then relocated to Shozen’in Koganedo Temple at the base of Mt. Haguro. At this time, all Haguro Gongen branch temples throughout Japan were changed to Haguro or Ideha Shrine.

In addition, the red Zuishinmon gates that mark the entrance to Mt. Haguro originally held the Buddhist gods Raijin and Fujin, the god of thunder and wind respectively. The statues were moved to nearby Shozen’in Koganedo temple, where many of the other Buddhist statues are now located, including the three that were in the Five Story Pagoda. Now, there are two Shinto gods in their place. The concrete shrine gates in front of the Zuishinmon gates has characters that have been scratched off, as they denote the mountain’s Buddhist history.

Take a close look at the Jizo statues next to the Five Story Pagoda. You will notice that a few of them have had their heads chopped off. In addition, in Shinto, the dead are believed to be impure, so you typically never see a grave in shrine grounds. However, there is a graveyard on Mt. Haguro next to Reisaiden adjacent to Dewa Sanzan Shrine.

Massha shrines at the base of Mt. Haguro. Before 1868, this area would have been covered in Buddhist artifacts and temples.
Massha shrines at the base of Mt. Haguro. Before 1868, this area would have been covered in Buddhist artefacts and temples.

Were there people who didn’t convert?

Yes, there were. Staying true to their founder Kukai (Kobo Daishi)’s wishes, two temples on Mt. Yudono, Ryusuiji Dainichibo and Churenji, refused to make the switch just as they had in the 1600s when Mt. Haguro converted to the Tendai sect. This meant that Sokushinbutsu Living Buddha training continued until it was outlawed in the early 1900s. However, this refusal also led to Dainichibo’s chief priest being assassinated for not converting.

There were also three Buddhist temples on Mt. Haguro that didn’t convert to Shintoism that also survived the widespread destruction; Shozen’in Koganedo, Kotakuji, and Kongoji’in. Shozen’in is famous these days as the Buddhist hosts for the Akinomine Autumn Peak Ritual, known as the Jikkaigyo the Ten Buddha Worlds training.

At this time they also tried to ban the peak rituals on the Dewa Sanzan, which are core rituals in Shugendo and core rituals for the people of the Shonai region. Before long, the townspeople petitioned for their revival. The Akinomine Autumn Peak Ritual, an important Yamabushi initiation ritual, and the Fuyunomine Winter Peak Ritual were reinstated, this time with a Shinto flair. This is where the Shinto Yamabushi first appear, the only place in Japan where this is still the case. As such, both of these two rituals survived and they culminate in the Hassaku Festival and Shoreisei Festival respectively.

What happened after that?

The attempt to ban Buddhism was accepted as a failure and had died down by 1873. This was largely because people still required services that Buddhism provided, such as funerals, graves, and ancestral rites. However, this didn’t stop the government claiming Shintoism was morally superior, which eventually led to the events of World War II. However, by then religion in Japan had changed forever.

After World War II, freedom of religion was restored and many formerly Buddhist temples and followers switched back to their original denominations. Notably the Dewa Sanzan stayed Shinto, which is why there are two Akinomine Autumn Peak Rituals that happen alongside each other, the Buddhist one, and the newer Shinto one, at the end of August every year.

Reisaiden at the top of Mt. Haguro
Senbutsudo where hundrers of Buddhist relics are on display, and Reisaiden, the Hall of Ancestral Spirits at the top of Mt. Haguro

Will Dewa Sanzan Shrine ever hand back power to the Buddhists?

It’s not likely anytime soon, however in recent years there has been more of an effort to pay respect to the Buddhist history of the Dewa Sanzan. In fact, in a sign of respect, Buddhist statues and relics that were hidden during the Meiji Restoration have made their way back to Mt. Haguro. When you enter the main building of Dewa Sanzan Shrine, look for the path behind the shoe shelves. Between Sanshuden, the main office of Dewa Sanzan Shrine on Mt. Haguro, and the adjacent Reisaiden, the hall of ancestral spirits, there is the Senbutsudo, Hall of 1000 Buddha. Here hundreds of Buddhist statues and relics that were hidden during the purge in the Meiji Restoration are on display.

What are things like now?

Generally things are pretty good. Even though the Dewa Sanzan has had a pretty tumultuous history, in general, peace reigns. There certainly are feelings of animosity amongst the different groups, mainly against Dewa Sanzan shrine for taking control of what was originally not theirs, but people have by and large accepted things. Who knows what the future holds, over its more than 1,000-year history, the Dewa Sanzan have been Shinto for only 150 years. If you want to live Japanese religion, pay a visit to the Dewa Sanzan. You’re sure to be impressed.

Timothy Bunting

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Tim Bunting is a Dewa Sanzan Shrine Yamabushi with over 10 years’ experience living beneath the three mystical peaks. He is a self-professed Dewa Sanzan nerd, and is currently working on the Yamabushido project and Dewa Sanzan Monzenmachi Project with Megurun Inc. His roles including assisting in Yamabushi trainings, translating, interpreting, and curating Dewasanzan.com.

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