Mountains, Mummies, and Modern Art: Ascetic Practice in Yamagata Prefecture

David McMahon [Profile]

[2014.10.04] Read in: Русский |

For over a thousand years, Yamagata Prefecture, on the Sea of Japan side of the northern Tōhoku region, has drawn pilgrims and mystics to its mountains. As the native Shintō faith intertwined with imported Buddhism, Yamagata became the site for scores of shrines and temples, some of which remain to the present day.

Pilgrimage to the Three Holy Mountains

The holiest of all the sites in the region are the three sacred mountains of Dewa, or Dewa Sanzan (literally: “three mountains of Dewa”): Gassan, Haguro, and Yudono. These peaks boast what is thought to be Japan’s longest history of mountain worship, stretching all the way back to Prince Hachiko, a sixth-century royal who devoted his life to religion, establishing centers of worship on all three mountains.

The five-story pagoda of Mount Haguro.

The slopes of Mount Haguro, the lowest and most accessible of the three sacred peaks, are particularly rich in shrines, Jizō statues, and other religious iconography, along with a stunning five-story wooden pagoda built without nails in 1372, itself a reconstruction of a similar monument built over a thousand years ago. Historical figures like the great poet Matsuo Bashō and the twelfth century warrior monk Benkei are also said to have lingered on this hallowed ground.

After the area was visited in the late seventh century by their spiritual forebear En no Gyōja, the three Dewa peaks became a site of great importance to the yamabushi (literally, “those who lay in the mountains”), a sect of ascetic adherents of Shugendō, an ancient religion combining aspects of Shintō and Buddhism.

Shrines at the base of Mount Haguro.

These mountain mystics, clad in white and saffron robes and bamboo skullcaps, revere the fearsome-looking divinity Fudō Myōō and devote themselves to the contemplation of nature and study of martial arts. In the village at the base of the mountain are numerous lodgings that still host these pilgrims, serving traditional vegan shōjin ryōri in the austere quarters of the often thatched-roofed buildings.

Self-Denial in Pursuit of the Inner Buddha

The monks from the area around nearby Mount Yudono became famous for an even more rigorous strain of asceticism, with rather macabre results.

The main hall of Dainichibō.

The temple Dainichibō stands near a prehistoric cedar tree beneath which, according to Chief Abbot Endō Yūkaku, Mimorowake—son of the first century Emperor Keikō—is buried. The original temple is said to have been established in 825 by Kūkai, the pioneer of esoteric Buddhism. Among his many teachings, Kūkai espoused the concept of sokushin jōbutsu: that all living things carry within them the potential to attain Buddhahood.

The temple’s medieval statue of Fudō Myōō.

Over the centuries, with this aim in mind, some devout followers attempted to mummify themselves prior to death through a punishing six-year regime. For three years they kept to a meager diet of nuts and berries while exercising relentlessly to eliminate body fat. This was followed by a further three years eating only bark and roots. In the final phase, they drank preparations made from the arsenic-laden water of a local spring and the lacquer-like sap of the urushi tree, eliminating intestinal bacteria and essentially varnishing their innards.

At the culmination of the process, a monk would enter a narrow stone pit and assume a position of prayer. This tomb was covered with a stone slab through which protruded a bamboo pipe to enable the subject to breathe. Each morning, if still alive, he rang a small bell. When the chimes finally ceased, the other priests would remove the pipe and seal the tomb, leaving it for a thousand days.

Frozen in Prayer for All Eternity

When the lid was opened, in most cases, the tomb contained a rotten corpse. But if everything had gone according to plan, there would be a perfectly preserved mummy, still in the lotus position. This sokushinbutsu would be transferred to the temple, dressed in lavish vestments, and revered as a Buddha—one who had not died, but had rather entered a state of perpetual prayer for the benediction of mankind.

Shinnyokai-shōnin, the sokushinbutsu of Dainichibō.

Along with an incredible collection of antique statues, some dating back to the Nara period (710–94), Dainichibō is home to the sokushinbutsu Shinnyokai-shōnin, a priest said to have achieved Buddhahood in 1786, at the age of 96. The nearby temple Chūrenji (also founded by Kūkai) also hosts a sokushinbutsu named Tetsumonkai-shōnin, as well as a series of sumptuous murals—some antique, some modern—decorating the ceilings of its many chambers.

Chūrenji (left) and one of the ceiling murals from the temple’s interior (right).

In all there are some two dozen sokushinbutsu worshipped at temples throughout this region. Although monks attempting the feat became so numerous in the nineteenth century that the Meiji government outlawed the practice, Yamagata Prefecture remains the only place where successful sokushinbutsu exist.

  • [2014.10.04]

Translator and editor, Graduated from the University of York in 2001 and followed a longstanding interest in Japanese music to move to the country two years later. Remained active in the Tokyo music scene throughout 10 happy years as an English teacher; began freelance translation in mid-2012. Joined in 2014.

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