There are two major branches in Tsuruoka's Buddhism practice:



Practitioners of Zen Buddhism seek enlightenment (satori 悟り) through meditation and peace of soul. The Buddha they worship is Gautama Buddha (Shakamuni nyorai 釈迦如来) and the practitioners of Zen follow his sayings strictly. Zen Buddhism is one of the branches that belong to the "Great Vehicle": Mahayana.

The practice most commonly known of Zen Buddhism is zazen 座禅, the art of mindful sitting.

Practitioners of Shingon Buddhism seek Nirvana in their present body through esoteric practices.

Shingon is an Esoteric branch of Vajrayana. The Buddha they venerate is Vairocana Buddha (dainichi nyorai 大日如来).

It follows a rule of secrecy (it is called the Buddhism of Secret 密教 after all) that discourages writings and favours spread by practice. Its founder is Kûkai 空海 (also called Kôbô Daishi).

The practices most commonly known in Shingon rites are gomataki 護摩焚き (fire ritual) and sokushinbutsu 即身仏: live mummification.












the BUDDHIST purge

The Buddhist Purge (haibutsukishaku 廃仏毀釈) is a politico-religious movement that took place under the government of Meiji's Restoration, during a period when nationalist resents peaked and when people sought a true Japanese identity. As Buddhism was regarded as a "bastard" religion imported from the outside, people turned towards Shinto, considered as the "real Japanese religion". In 1868, March 28th, Meiji government proclamed the national interdiction of places that possessed a double Shinto-Buddhist identity, a trait that used to be the norm for centuries in several religious sites in Japan (also known as shinbutsushûgô 神仏習合). Since then, Buddhist icons, statues, paintings, writings, buildings, have been destroyed in such places so they could entirely become shinto sites.

Tsuruoka was no exception during Haibutsukishaku, but there are still a lot of places remaining that present both traits.

For instance, the buddhist icons in Mt. Haguro's Five-Storied Pagoda have been replaced by a shintô god's statues, as well as the niô 仁王 buddhist gods's giant statues that were keeping Mt. Haguro's entrance gate (Zuishinmon 随神門) have been replaced by shintô statues of Toyoiwamado no kami 豊石窓神 and Kushiiwamado no kami 櫛石窓神.


A practice born in Shingon Buddhist Temples, and that is particularly noticeable around Mt. Yudono. Monks who sought to become Buddha in their present body (main principle of Shingon school), endured a long process of hunger and dehydration to dry their flesh out and mummify their bodies by themselves.



Shinto worships no less than 8.000.000 gods, all present in nature or natural phenomenons. Its sacred writings: The Kojiki 古事記, relate how Japan archipelago was built and the divine lineage of the Emperor


Shinto has long coexisted with Buddhism, and Japanese worshiped Buddhas and Bodhisattvas as much as they venerated the nature's gods. After Meiji Restoration (1868), Shinto became Japan's national religion to the detriment of Buddhism



SHONAI jinja






Kihi jinja





Shinbutsushugo 神仏習合 is a term that designates the coexisting relation between Shinto and Buddhism. 

Shinbutsushugo was strong in Tsuruoka, since it is itself the foundation for shugendo (see section below), but it is still visible nowadays in any commoner's house: the Buddhist praying altar (butsudan 仏壇) and the Shinto praying altar (kamidana 神棚) are both in the same room: one on top of another, while the norm in Japan would want them to be separated.


Shonai Shrine was built on former Tsuruogaoka-jo 鶴ヶ岡城's foundations. Tsurugaoka-jo was the castle of Shonai Clan's leaders: Sakai Family. This clan had such a well developed military force they didn't loose a war since they came to power, until Boshin War exploded.

For this reason, military and samurai culture was flourishing in Shonai region, and a clan school was opening in early 19th century: Chidokan. When Boshin War ended, it marked the end of the samurai system and Tsurugaoka-jo was demolished. But Shonai Jinja shrine continues to tell Sakai Clan's glory in several festivals and events, such as Shonai Taisai festival.



What is Shugendo?

Shugendo is a syncretism of Buddhism and Shinto principles. The adoration of nature as it can be found in Shinto is at the base of Shugendo beliefs, and a lot of rituals or practices are inspired from Shingon rites, as for example the use of fire to purify a site. Shugendo monks are called Yamabushi 山伏 : "the ones who bow in front of the mountain". The mountain and its nature are the all mighty elements in Shugendo doctrine. Shugendo practitioners have to untertake a full week (4 days for females) of training, completely cut from the modern word, in the mountains.


The training aims to teach someone how to resist pain (suffocation, cold, hunger and fatigue). It is expected from the shugendo apprentices to not shave, wash, brush their teeth, put on makeup nor use technology so they are able to experience what the true nature of their body is.


It is considered there are three main "Holy Sites" of Shugendo in Japan:

Ominesan (Nara Prefecture), Hikosan (Oita/Fukuoka Prefectures), and

Dewa Sanzan.

Shugendo sites in Tsuruoka

dewa sanzan



Zao Gongen 蔵王権現 is the divinity venerated in Shugendo religion, even though he is from Buddhist origins. He is supposed to be an entire Japanese buddhist god, that does not find his origins in Indian Buddhism.

He first appeared to En no Ozunu during his mountain practice in Mt. Kinpu (Nara Prefecture). He is the god of Undying Truth, the All-Mighty god who possesses all the strength of the universe.


En no Ozuno 役小角 was a sorcerer who lived during the 7th century and died (presumably) in 701 who actively promoted the fusion of Buddhism and Shinto (shinbutsushûgô 神仏習合) and performed meditation in mountains.

At the age of 17, he started studying the art of conjuration in Gangôji Temple. His sorcering skills were so good rumors said he cured Fujiwara no Kamatari (a politician who frequently advised Emperor Tenji) from a long time disease. But his excellence also led to his fall down. According some hearsays, he could curse someone with his only words or summon demons to fulfill revenge on people who did not follow him, which wasn't at Emperor Monmu's tastes at all. He got exiled two years before his death. He is said to be the founder of shugendo and the inventor of mountain training. He made Dewa Sanzan a holy site of shugendo after it was discovered by Prince Hachiko (see Dewa Sanzan to read more).

Photo credits go to : Sailko (link)

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