The way of Shugendō

In a rare interview with a Japanese Shugendō monk, Aaron Millar learns about this extreme and uniquely eastern form of nature worship

The entirety of Japan’s Kumano region, just a few hours south of Kyoto, is sacred to the followers of Shugendō, who have lived and walked these arduous mountain slopes for thousands of years. While walking the Kumano Kodō pilgrimage trail, I happened upon a rare opportunity to interview a Shugendō monk.

Ryoei Takagi met me in a small room behind his temple foyer near the Grand Shrine Nachi Taisha. In the distance I could hear the roar of the Nachi-Otaki, the tallest waterfall in Japan, revered locally as a living God. We sat together on small stools surrounded by golden bowls, ancient sutra scrolls and the drifting scent of cedar wood incense smoke. The 15 minutes I spent with him were the most inspiring of my whole trip, and the ideals of Shugendō – which he explained to me that day – now play a central role in the way I live my life.

Aaron Millar: What is Shugendō?

Ryoei Takagi: Shugendō is with nature and nature is the place where the God is living. Shugendō is nature worship.

Why is the Kumano region sacred to Shugendō?

In Japan we have a lot of steep mountainous areas. It’s hard for us human beings to live there and that’s why we think there’s something spiritual and sacred about them. We have to respect them. That’s why Shugendō is based in the mountains, because it’s hard.

When I walked the Kumano Kodō I felt that difficulty – it made me feel small and humble. Is that the point of Shugendō’s mountain training?

Shugendō makes you feel small and insignificant; being in nature makes you feel this. It’s one of the purposes of Shugendō. But the teaching of Shugendō is that you go into the steep mountains and you prostrate and purify yourself, and you do the training. Then you get granted magic supernatural powers. And with them you have power to help the people.

How do you purify yourself in the mountains – what is the training?

We pray and pray until you feel like nature and your body and your heart are mixed altogether, are the same thing. So finally you feel like you’re one with nature. You have walked the pilgrimage route so you might have gained enough space to feel that. You should remember that feeling when you are packed with people in the London Tube!

As I walked it I found that my mind was going very fast, and I had to find a way to go past that and be calm. Is that similar to what Shugendō practitioners experience?

Shugendō is an experience to talk to yourself, to think about yourself and find again something new. We think that Kumano is the best place to do the training to achieve this.

And the physical exertion, the hardness, does that help the process?

Yes. Ascetic practices are one of the ways in which we do this.

Can you explain a little about the magic powers you mentioned?

In Shugendō, or any other of the world’s religions, the final purpose is always the same: to pray for people, their happiness, to disappear people’s suffering.

The law of Shugendō is that people tend to be selfish, and always have desire, but it causes hardness, like disaster, like death, like sadness. Shugendō monks are trying to disappear those sufferings from people. The law of Shugendō is to lose desires and pray for people.

Through my training I can predict people’s future. I can see people’s heart inside. I feel that power from the training.

I’m really interested in how connection to nature helps people lose the ego, the desire, that you talk about – how does being in nature help you achieve this law of Shugendō?

Those thoughts, that way of thinking, nature doesn’t have them – it’s just pure. It just is. That’s why nature is the place for training.

In western psychology there are many schools of thought that argue that connection to nature is a vital part of human wellbeing and happiness. Can you relate these ideas to Shugendō beliefs?

Yes, it can be connected. The legendary founder Engyo, he had the thoughts about co-existence with nature.

Do you think the beliefs of Shugendō have a role to play in ecology and the way we should take care of the planet?

The only way is gratefulness – to have a gratefulness to the nature; to have appreciation to the nature and to take good care of nature. We can’t rebuild nature.

I’ve heard about the Shugendō training under the waterfall. Can you explain the thinking behind this?

I’ve experienced this, Nachi has 48 waterfalls – not just the big one – and those smaller falls are where we do the training. In winter we meditate under the water for 45 minutes at a time.

We do the training under the waterfall because water is considered as origin of all creation. It is life. We can’t live without water. So we thank the water. Don’t you feel the same thing in Europe?

In a western scientific way of thinking, people believe that water is essential for life and is the source of all life. So I guess it’s the same idea, but coming at it from a different perspective.

It’s an interesting way of thinking you have, but here it’s a little bit different. For us, water is life.

Thank you so much for your time. It’s an absolutely inspiring belief and I hope to communicate a small part of it to people and inspire them to maybe visit here or connect with nature in a positive way.

I wish you breathe the fresh air here, and drink water and make some room in your heart to feel something. And if you feel that, I am very grateful. This is Kumano Kodō, this is what we believe.

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