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【Did you know..?#1】 Why do Yamabushi do things?

Updated: Apr 1, 2020

Who are those mysterious Yamabushi priests? What are they doing during their even stranger rituals? What are they singing in their unintelligible chants? Let us answer the questions you might have regarding Dewa Sanzan's Yamabushi in this short article.

Note: I will talk of Dewa Sanzan's Yamabushi as "priests" (and not "monks" as other Yamabushi in Japan are usually called in English) since Dewa Sanzan's practice has been directed by a shrine (Dewasanzan-jinja 出羽三山神社) since 19th century. Shinto or Buddhist terms don't really change what Yamabushi fundamentally do and are, but I thought it was more appropriate to call Dewa Sanzan's practitioners the way Dewasanzan-jinja sees them. I hope it won't be too confusing.

1. Why do Yamabushi sit or stand under waterfalls?

This is called taki-gyô 滝行: "waterfall training". Taki-gyô is accomplished in order to purify the body from its kegare 穢れ ("filth", "stains", "sins"). The taki-gyô is said to be a derived form of misogi 禊, a rite that can be accomplished in rivers, in the sea, or in lakes, and is said to have been existing even before Shinto got its name as a religion.

Since gods are the incarnation of cleanliness and purity, water became naturally an object of worship and rituals for Japanese people.

The first misogi practice to have been recorded in writings was found in the Kojiki 古事記 ("Records of Ancient Matters", written in the 8th century) accomplished by Izanagi no mikoto, the deity that created the Japanese archipelago along with his spouse, when he returned from the realm of the dead after having tried to convince (in vain) his dead wife to come back to the Living. Covered with kegare from his visit to the dead world, he entered the river to cleanse his body and mind. Practitioners of shugendô enter waterfalls to clean their body and spirit, in order to enter a nearly divine state.

2. Why do Yamabushi love mountains so much?

The word yamabushi 山伏 itself reflects how much shugendô practitioners worship the mountain. In Japanese, the word is composed of: yama 山 ("the mountain") and fusu 伏す ("to prostrate oneself") : "the ones that bow down before the mountain"

But why the mountain? What is so special about it?

Shugendô got its name as a religion at the end of Heian Period (794-1185) but its practices are much older than that. Shugendô relies in reality on a mix of practices inherited from ancient mountain-worships, shamanism, Taoism, and esoteric Buddhism. In a time when individual graves didn't exist yet to bury deceased persons, the Dead's souls were thought to be resting in the mountains, overlooking at their descendants living in the plains from the mountain's peak and protecting them. Thus, it was the place where one had to go to pay visit to the Dead. But the mountain was for most commoners a dreadful place full of dangers: wild bears could attack at any moment, the forests were so deep one could easily get lost trying to go back, and the dark fog at night didn't help locating oneself in the mountain's labyrinth. Those who dared to venture in the mountain were seen as supernatural beings by the commoners who feared it.

Those "supernatural beings" are precisely Yamabushi. Yamabushi "tamed" the mountain by training inside its forests. They knew every bit of it, and could safely lead non-trained people to the top.

For Yamabushi, the mountain represents a challenge to be accepted, a place where they can earn "supernatural" powers and honor the Ancestors.

3. Mountain, water... Yamabushi seem to worship those two elements without distinction, why?

Sanjingôsaiden shrine in front of Kagamiike (Mirror Lake), with statues of the dragon goddess of water

As stated before, Yamabushi priests worship both water (by doing waterfall training for example) and mountains (by climbing mountains for instance) indiscriminately, but why? Is there a link between the two? If yes, what is it?

If I told you the deity living in the mountains was the goddess of water, would it make things clearer..?

Her name is Mikumari no kami 水分神: "the goddess who distributes water" (even though Mikumari no kami's gender is not clearly defined, we can think it was a female as deities related to water were often females). It was thought that every spring, the goddess(es) of water living in the mountain came down to the shrines in the village, to bring moisture to the fields (thus make the harvests abundant), then would go back to the mountain after having shared the fresh rice in autumn with the commoners.

In other words, Yamabushi train in the mountains to bring water to the plains by pleasing the water goddess(es) living inside. In Haguro especially, you can see a relic of the water worship just in front of the Sanjingôsaiden shrine. The lake in front of it is called Kagamiike 鏡池, and is said to be the womb where the dragon form of the goddess Ukanomitama no Mikoto 倉稲魂命 (goddess of agriculture and crops -a "water type" goddess) has been waiting for birth. Since then, Yamabushi say the goddess reflects on the lake, hence its name: Kagamiike 鏡池: "the mirror lake". Kagamiike is the starting point of many yamabushi rituals, particularly during Shôreisai's winter ritual festival, or Aki no mine iri's autumn retreat rituals. This shows how water, mountain and agriculture are tightly linked in yamabushi culture.

On the video above, the Yamabushi are singing the Sangohaishi 三語拝詞, a Shintoist purification prayer in front of Kagamiike Lake. It became the official chant of Dewa Sanzan along with the Sanzanhaishi 三山拝詞 song after the Meiji Restoration in 1868 instead of the Buddhist incantation: Namu Kimyô Chôrai Zange Zange Rokkon Zaishô unnun 南無帰命頂禮懺悔々々六根罪障云々) for obvious shinbutsubunri reasons (see our articles on the subject).

Here are the lyrics of the Sangohaishi prayer:

Moro moro no tsumi kegare harai misogite sugasugashi

Cleansed of all my stains and sins, I'm purified 諸々の罪穢けがれ 祓禊て清々

Tootsu kami emi tamae izu no mitama o sakihae tamae

Joy to the god Tootsukami (god of ancestors), and happiness to the Emperor 遠津神笑み給へ 稜威の御霊を幸へ給たまへ

Amatsu hitsugi no sakae masamu koto ametsuchi no muta tokoshie narubeshi

May the Imperial family prosper, for eternity 天津日嗣の栄坐むこと 天地の共無窮へなるべし

Thank you for reading the first article of our series 【Did you know..?】that we plan to update several times a month. Stay tuned !


MIYAKE Hitoshi 宮家準, Shugendô : sono rekishi to shugyô 修験道―その歴史と修行, Kôdansha Gakujutsu bunko 講談社学術文庫, 2001, 364 pages.

Nihon no kamisama o kangaeru kai 日本の神様を考える会 (ed.), Nihon no kamigami no subete ga wakaru 日本の神々のすべてがわかる, Nihon bungeisha 日本文芸社, 2008, 199 pages.

GORAI Shigeru 五来重, Yama no shukyô: shugendô annai 山の宗教—修験道案内, Kadokawa Sofia bunko 角川ソフィア文庫, 2008, 270 pages.

SHIMAZU Hiromi 島津弘海 & KITAMURA Minao 北村皆雄, Shugen : sennen no shugen, haguro yamabushi no sekai 「修験—千年の修験、羽黒山伏の世界」, Shinjuku Shobô 新宿書房, 2005, 367 pages.



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