The Wisdom of the Yamabushi
"When we climb a mountain, it is god that is pushing us from the back, and the one who gets us to the top."
In the mountains of Japan, above mist-covered forest, there remain the echoes of powerful ascetics, in legend bestowed with supernatural powers and shrouded in mystery. Throughout history, some have been mountain guides, showing nobles around the sacred trails of the Kumano Kodo. Most have disappeared into myth, and their numbers have dwindled throughout history. These are the Yamabushi, the mountain hermits and ascetics from Japan. Here is the conversation I had with one of them.
Tetsuji-sama is the owner of Sasayuri-Ann, a villa in the mountain town of Fukano, near the city of Nabari. He is a practitioner of Shugendo, a religion that incorporates esoteric Buddhism, elements of Shintoism and Taoism, in a way of life that stresses discipline and endurance as a path to enlightenment. The Yamabushi-Shugendo monks have a close relationship with the mountains.
“‘Yama’ is mountain in japanese,” Tetsuji explains. “So a Yamabushi is someone who meditates in the mountains.”
I ask him if it is only the mountain aspect that differentiates them from other sects.
“Shugendo is special because most sects say ‘a monk is a monk’, but for us, anyone can become a monk. A normal person can also be a monk because the secrets of enlightenment should be for everyone.”
He continues in an open manner.
“Shugendo-Yamabushi practitioners are normal persons who learn the activities of a monk and can, in that way, strive for enlightenment. You know, I am a businessman as well as a monk.”
It seems contradictory to a certain extent. I usually picture a monk as someone who has renounced the world. I would learn from Tetsuji the one-sidedness of that position.
“Before the Government of Meiji, there were half a million of us, when the total population of Japan was 30 million. Then, 150 years ago, Shugendo was prohibited by the Government of Meiji, and our numbers dwindled to maybe 3 of 4 thousand. Today, active practitioners like me… we number perhaps 300 or 400.”
I am baffled by his account. A couple hundreds in a country of over 120 million!
He continues to tell me of the actual practices of the Shugendo-Yamabushi.
“There are three main practices,” he begins. “As you know very well, there is Zen, which is a sitting meditation, right?”
I am not unfamiliar with meditation, though my mind is far from quiet, and prone to impromptu abysses.
“Zen meditation is the most important. We do it while chanting and praying, even if just for a few seconds, a few minutes, or a few hours. This type of meditation is essential for monks.
“Second, we practise walking meditation, which for the Yamabushi takes the form of mountain climbing. This can be very tiring. At the beginning, you are thinking about money, business, your bank account, family troubles… many things will come to your mind. But after two or three hours, the concerns of daily life begin to disappear. After 4 or 5 hours, your mind is clear.
“Lastly, we have blowing meditation, with a bamboo flute. When going up the mountain, we also use a conch-shell.”
He shows me a huge shell, adorned with straps and with a mouthpiece on one end. It looks cumbersome, to say the least.
“You need very strong lungs, to blow on this while climbing a mountain,” he says. “Breathing is very important for enlightenment.”
GO ON AN AMAZING HOLIDAY
For a westerner such as myself, a mountain can hardly be dissociated from its summit ― from conquering its summit, that is. Even such enlightened mountaineers such as Walter Bonatti, who saw climbing as a spiritual endeavour, seemed to always be possessed by a desire to conquer the mountain ― or themselves, through the mountain. I ask Tetsuji what he thinks about western mountaineering.
“Yes! There is a complete difference between the Yamabushi and western climbers. Western mountaineering cannot escape the context of Christianity… the idea of one supreme god, and that man, made in his image, is at the top of everything in the planet. In this philosophy, humans can conquer a mountain, or harvest anything from nature.
“The understanding of the Yamabushi is to harmonise with nature. When we climb a mountain, it is god that is pushing us from the back, and the one who gets us to the top. For the westerner, it is an achievement of the self. For us, it is meditation and at the same time god helping us to get to the peaks.”
I wonder what he thinks about people ― such as myself ― who turn to the mountains for sport or self-fulfilment instead of spirituality. Can we, perhaps in our own way, be on our path to enlightenment?
“I think you can, because it is an universal law, and it applies to everybody, no matter who you are.”
There is a difficult question on my mind. Travellers seek authentic experiences, and they often have an urge to get in touch what they deem lacking in their places of origin. Religiosity and spirituality are two common examples. So I finally dare to ask, if visitors to his villa actually get closer to wisdom, or if it is just an illusion.
“Many of our guests come here with a thirst for spirituality. They are very interested to learn of the Yamabushi way of life. Guests stay with us maybe a couple of days, maximum 4 days. It is a very short time. But the people that come here already have an interest in Yamabushi ideas: that life is not only business, or money, or family, or travel, even that life is not only for this world. So my mission is to give a hint to people, that life is not restricted to the material.
“There is a Japanese proverb,” which he recites in Japanese. “This means, that the spirit comes first, and the physical body second.
“Modern life has it backwards. There is no vitamin for the soul, no supplement for the spirit. So I try to give my guests a hint that we exist first in the spirit. But how to prove it? That is my challenge.”
A hefty challenge to say the least. I tell him that in many western minds, there is the physical body first… and that’s it!
He laughs, I don’t know if with disbelief or compassion.
I can understand that westerners are seeking for another type of wisdom, when our own cultures have pretty much renounced their spiritual traditions. I raise the issue of discipline; despite my lifelong affair with mountains, I don’t see myself turning into a hermit anytime soon.
“The Yamabushi practice in the mountains as well as in daily life. The time we spend in the mountains is relatively short, stretching to ten days or maximum two weeks. The practice in our daily life is perhaps the most difficult, because it is continuous. But if you exist only in the city-side of life, you will lose the reality of the universal law. If you go to the mountains, you come back with something great, you awaken again in nature. There you learn that you are not only a carpenter, a businessman, or a teacher. In the mountain, your bank account or your high position in society has no meaning.
“The Yamabushi knows daily life as well as mountain life, so he can balance the two. If you only live in the mountain, it is crazy. If you only live in the city, that is crazy too. To balance both aspects, that is Yamabushi.”
When I ask him to describe his approach to the mountain and nature, he makes a dragon with his hand, and then a sword. Before entering the mountain, he prays, and he uses the sword to cut down evils and devils. The dragon guides him to safety in the mountain.
I ask how his guests feel about what they experience in Sasayuri-Ann.
“My intention is that our guests experience Japanese culture, religion and spirituality. Then they reflect: Oh, where is MY own identity?
“What about my culture? What about my traditions? This is a vital turning point for the guest. When they go back home, they realise they have roots of their own. For example, when I was 19 I went to India. At that time, I didn’t know anything about religion, traditions, or spirituality. I just didn’t know.
“I saw many things in India, Nepal and Thailand, but in hindsight, they all taught me that I’m Japanese.
“What is Japanese?” he asks with a chuckle. “What is a human being? Travel raises many questions, and to find answers you have to go back to your roots. The more traditions and cultures you encounter, the more questions will arise about yourself. My mission in Sasayuri-Ann is for guests to recall the value of their identity.”
The future cannot exist without history, the former is built on the latter. Tradition and culture make for strong foundations. And so, in the scenic mountain town of Fukano, the history of the Yamabushi endures.
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How to get there:
There are daily flights from Hong Kong to Osaka. From there, take the Kintetsu Limited Express to Nabari. From there, your best bet is to take a cab to Sasayuri-ann, which is a short 20 minute ride.
What to do there:
In addition to meeting Tetsuji-sama, which is an experience in of itself, you are in for a gourmet experience at the villa. You can also join Tetsuji in a walk to a nearby waterfall, where you will benefit from his wisdom. Sasayuri-ann offers a wide array of meaningful activities, such as yoga and zen meditation, blowing meditation workshops, eco-tourism and even traditional Japanese farming experiences.
You can visit Sasayuri-ann's website, and we at Blueflower organise tours near Osaka that include this particular ryokan, as well as in-depth experiences in the Kumano Kodo, a place of enormous significance to the Yamabushi.