Whilst walking the Kumano Kodo Pilgrimage Trail in Japan I had a rare opportunity to interview a Shugendo monk. The entire Kumano region is sacred to the followers of Shugendo who have lived and walked these arduous mountain slopes for thousands of years.
Ryoei Takagi met me in a small red 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 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 15mins I spent with him were the most inspiring of my whole trip. And the ideals of Shugendo – which he explained to me that day – now form a big part of how I try and live my life.
What is Shugendo?
Shugendo is with nature and nature is the place where the God is living. Shugendo is nature worship.
Why is the Kumano Region sacred to Shugendo?
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 Shugendo is based in the mountains, because it’s hard.
When I walked the Kumano Kodo I felt that difficulty – it made me feel small and humble … is that the point of Shugendo’s mountain training?
Shugendo makes you feel small and insignificant, being in nature makes you feel this. It’s one of the purposes of Shugendo. But the teaching of Shugendo 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 some enough space to feel that. You should remember that feeling when you are packed with people in the London tube!
Actually it’s very interesting because 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 Shugendo practioners experience?
Shugendo 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 Shugendo, or any other of the world’s religions, the final purpose is always the same: to pray for people, their happiness, to disappear peoples suffering.
The law of Shugendo is that people tend to be selfish and always have desire but it causes hardness, like disaster, like death, like a sadness. Shugendo monks are trying to disappear those suffererings from people. The law of Shugendo 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 Shugendo?
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 new schools of thought (such as eco-psychology) that argue that connection to nature is a vital part of human well-being and happiness – can you relate these ideas to Shugendo beliefs?
Yes it can be connected. The legendary founder engyo – he had the thoughts that co-exiostence with nature.
Do you think the beliefs of Shugendo have a role to play in the world – in ecology, in the way we should care and take care of the planet?
The only one is to 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 Shugendo 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 45minutes 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 for 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 Kodo, this is what we believe.
If you want to see some of my favourite images from the trip – then please take a look at my Kumano Kodo Photostory
I’ve also written a short post relating some of the ideas of Shugendo to western psychology – you can check that out here Enlightenment in Nature
I did this trip with Oku Japan - a leader in sustainable tourism in the region. They’re all excellent people and helped me to book small authentic mountain B&B’s where english wasn’t spoken. If you want to get off the beaten track, without the hassle, this is a great way to do it – and you can be confident that they’re helping to provide good income and a sustainable level of promotion for some fantastic family run guesthouses along the trail.
It’s also possible to do the trip independently. Contact Wakayama Tourist Board: they have english speaking representatives who can help provide information. I hear nothing but good things about them and they helped set up my interview with Ryoei Takagi so am eternally grateful.