Philosophy from the Mountain

— Please explain the meaning of the expression, "Uketamou" (The meaning is "I accept.") of the Haguro yamabushi, the Mt. Haguro warrior priests. "Uketamou" is a phrase unique to Shugendo practitioners of the Haguro sect. No matter what is said, no matter when one's name is called, and no matter what one is called upon to do, the practitioner replies, "Uketamou."

If you think about it, Shugendo is a highly syncretic religion. It was influenced by Shintoism and Buddhism, and also by Onmyoudou, Taoism, and animism. It is not a monotheistic religion but a polytheistic one, and therefore it needs to be capable of "accepting" a wide range of ideas and other religions. "Uketamou" is indeed an expression that well represents this aspect of Shugendo.

Sometimes within our daily lives, we might feel that something isn't right. This generates conflict within us. Conflict will not lead to good things, so the attitude represented by "Uketamou" should be fundamental to how human beings live in human society; whatever happens, we must start with acceptance. This expression of the Haguro yamabushi is truly outstanding.

Japan is a country in which nature was originally believed to be full of gods (kami). Kami were felt in mountains and in rivers; they were in the ocean and were imagined to live in large trees. The concept of the sacred rock or sacred boulder (iwakura) is characteristic of this worldview. Iwakura have been regarded as symbolic of these multiple kami, and we can still find iwakura shrines in Japan today. In such a worldview, people live in contact with kami even in their most ordinary daily lives and enjoy the blessings from the gods of nature. The world is really plain and clear. I think these gods of nature are a wonderful aspect of native Japanese thought.

It was in the medieval period when Buddhist deities came to be incorporated with kami in Shinto and became Shugendo. And I think this Kami-Buddha religious matrix is fundamental to the Japanese spirit. This worldview has continued all the way down to early modern Edo times.

In the Meiji period, however, the country in its effort to quickly transform itself into a modern nation saw its leaders positing God with the Emperor and Nation, rather than with nature. And it was at this point that the Buddhist deities became differentiated from the native gods, or kami. Actually, in the first year of the Meiji period (1868), there was a formal decree separating Buddhism from Shintoism. Then in 1872, Shugendo was banned because the Meiji government thought that the separation of Buddhism from Shintoism could not happen without destroying Shugendo, which consolidated the Japanese spirit. This would not just be the undoing of the religion, but would also undermine something inherent to Japanese culture and to the Japanese spirit itself.
One hundred and forty years have passed since then and we have seen a loss of purity and gentleness: while the Shinto gods were full of purity, the Buddhist deities were merciful and compassionate. Where once purity and compassion were taught as unified philosophy, now these notions have been separated, and I often think this explains the changes we see in the spirit of Japanese people today.

Now, especially after the earthquake on March 11, 2011, we must take up the challenge of the yamabushi. By re-connecting people with the gods and with nature, we will come face-to-face with nature, and in that way uncover how we really ought to be living. This is what the way of the yamabushi can teach us. For this reason, I think what the world really needs to see is more yamabushi, for they can help transform the world.

When I go out in Tokyo and speak at Omotesando, always twenty to thirty people will stop and listen to me intently. I think what I do there is like if the Haguro yamabushi went out in Edo (the old name for Tokyo) and preached in the street. This is something I think needs to be done more, particularly for people are not or who are seldom connected with nature.

Young people today are all so well-behaved. They are accustomed to providing answers and have become extremely skilled at doing this. But haven't they also become somewhat narrow and restricted as human beings? What I mean is that while they are good at answering questions, they are missing essential qualities; as they struggle to be able to give the right answer to questions, they are limiting themselves as human beings. These well-behaved young people also are prone to having meltdowns. They don't realize that there are times when there just aren't answers to things. This is because they have been conditioned from earliest childhood that if they don't get the right answer on a test, they won't get a star. They've been raised in this kind of environment, and so always feel they must be able to give just one correct answer, like 1 +1 = 2.

Recently, some graduates from the University of Tokyo came to listen to me preach. Everyone there was very smart, but they were also aware that being clever alone wasn't enough. It seems people are starting to get this. Having too much in their heads is not surprising because they have been intellectually trained to give right answers since they were children. But you may give answers not intellectually, but physically.

In acting on the things that concern us, the answers will become clear in the act of acting. Yet, this is something we are no longer trained or practiced in doing. We have the knowledge to answer questions, but are these answers understandable by the world? There are so many intelligent people in the world today, and yet despite a world full of clever people, our world is not becoming a better place. Why is this? I think this is the most crucial question facing us now.
Probably what everyone wants is to live comfortably and happily. No matter how intelligent a person is, when they use their knowledge to think about a matter, they will come up with just one answer—and in this process will become somehow limited or narrow. However, when we are concerned about something, we act from an embodied know-how. Intelligent people will keep increasing their knowledge, but this will not affect "wisdom."

Wisdom is something that occurs when the body thinks; for when we think with the body, the soul is brought into play. And it is at the intersection between this thinking and imagining soul and the knowledge contained in the mind where we can find the highest kinds of answers. People have similar approaches, but when care and concern are employed, people are quite different. And this leads to various shades of answers to things. When trying to decide which shade is the best answer, if a person feels care or concern for something, then that will be the right answer for that person. People don’t need to worry about what is right for someone else.

When we make a mistake, it is a mistake; then when we become concerned about something again, this mistake will be a significant treasure from which we can learn when facing a new concern. By learning from a mistake, our concern will be altered. In this way, we learn and gain wisdom and cultivation. So there's really not just one way of thinking about things, right? This all leads back and is connected to Shugendo's motto of "Uketamou."

People feel comfortable during the ascetic training of yamabushi because they have to think physically. Indeed, in doing so they will be living in their own way. Because I'm trained in this, wherever I go, whenever I meet someone new, I can roughly understand what he or she like, although I pretend not to notice it. In Haguro yamabushi ascetic training, this kind of "untrammeled state", or wild nature, is required.

When looking at the difference between men and women, men are weaker when it comes to their untrammeled state. More specifically, what I feel is that women are stronger, or more in tune, with this state. At Daishobo, I see many young women coming from the big cities to undergo our three day-long ascetic training. During the aki-no-mine ritual at Mt. Haguro, for example, many women come to undergo training as miko (shrine maidens). Practitioners are made to get up at 4 a.m. and undergo purification in a cold river before running up the mountain and plunging into the freezing waterfall at Fudoson. All of this is to put into action one’s wild, untrammeled, nature. These women who come for training can be seen going home in very lively spirits.

One other important aspect to consider is the calendar. For yamabushi, peripatetic holy men (hijiri, 聖) are saints who know the days, know the calendar, and know fire. Those people who perform this role are yamabushi. So, I am also concerned with the calendar, the luni-solar calendar of pre-modern times. This calendar was connected to the waxing and waning of the moon and saw the yearly cycle and our daily lives in terms of the cycles of the moon. Women are naturally connected to this lunar cycle, and because of this, they are able to harness more natural energy and have been able to retain more of an untrammeled state.
In the Meiji period, however, Japan adopted to Western solar-based calendar. From this point, people were cut off from the moon. For 140 years since the Meiji period, women have become unresponsive to their own physical cycles. Yamabushi training is thoroughly focused on one’s untrammeled state. For women undergoing this training, they naturally feel this in their body and the natural wild state is more easily revived in them. This is something that I have felt in watching how lively they become during the training.

It is said that up till now women were not allowed to undergo Shugendo training. But maybe a better way of saying this is that there was no real need for them to do so. Nowadays, though, because it is not just men but also women who have forgotten their own wild nature, more and more women are undergoing the training. I think this is in an effort to regain their original untrammeled state. Now, we are seeing many extremely strong women. I think it is crucial that women aim to get back this strength, which is not just a superficial strength, but rather a core inner strength.

For men, they are also lacking this untrammeled state. In times past, men would need to join the sect in order to attain this wild nature. This is in contrast to women who already had it and came to regain what was lost. This is how I see yamabushi training, and for a variety of reasons, we now live in a time when this is more necessary than ever.

And when I go out to speak like the old Haguro yamabushi preaching in the streets of Edo, more than half of those who come to listen are women. The women in Tokyo come out to do this naturally without reason: their untrammeled state, their primal instinct, is motivating them.

As for myself, I don't think in my head—not one bit. I think with my body. So many things can be felt and understood with the body. Therefore, when I am concerned or care about something, I know that is my spirit speaking. And while nowadays people don't talk this way, I think it's true. Actually, nowadays, people would be considered strange for talking about things connected to the spirit or soul because we no longer live in a world where these things are done. There are, in fact, people who make use of the spirit and soul in unsavory ways. But those issues aside, thinking with our body is important and needs to be done honestly and in an unaffected way. We feel apprehension in our chest when we’re concerned about something, don't we? This is important and is something we all experience.

This is why the yamabushi training takes place in the middle of nature. Simply, it is to connect ourselves back to nature. When people are undergoing training, they are not allowed to speak. Not even one word. If they say anything, the training would be in vain because they are required to understand what they can gain with their body.
- What training do you carry out in the four seasons of the year?

One year of training is basically divided into four training periods conducted on the mountain in spring, summer, fall, and winter. Haru-no-mine (spring training) is to pray for plentiful grain, while natsu-no-mine (summer training) is to provide water for the rice plants to flower. It is a time of Shinto rituals. Aki-no-mine (autumn training) is to burn insects before the harvesting of the rice. Fuyu-no-mine (winter training) is to pray for the grain spirit. Put simply, our yearly training is in line with the rhythms of agriculture and the four seasons. Japanese are fundamentally a people in search of food. In ancient times, food could be found in the mountains, in the rivers, or in the sea. Before they became a settled people, they wandered in search of food.

We practice rituals for increasing the "mother grain", the grain of rice with spirit. First, we give prayers to a grain of rice and make it the "mother grain" or spiritual rice. We then make the mother grain into a bigger bale. Then, this bale is handed to farmers in Shonai, Yamagata who say their own prayers for plentiful harvests and then tend their rice paddies. More specifically, in this ritual we place five types of grains in a box called Koyahijiri (which is also the name of the monks based at Mt. Koya) together with the rice spirit and a grain of rice, and we devoutly pray, purifying ourselves in cold water for a hundred days in the morning and the evening. For these hundred days we pray to the rice spirit during the morning and evening ablutions. This creates the mother grain, which then increases in haru-no-mine (spring training). The grains are then distributed, one grain to each farmer, in early spring. The farmers then return the blessing of the fruits of the fields to the temple at the time of the first harvest.

From this northern mountainous region this worldview unfolded. The ritual of Haguro yamabushi for the rice spirit are performed on the mountain in winter for one hundred days, and then passed down to the villages. In this way, we can say that the rice from Yamagata is infused with the flavor of the gods. And this is made possible by the Haguro yamabushi. It is a truly outstanding cycle.

- What do you think needs to be done in terms of a future philosophy for nature? "

Philosophy" implies an issue of how to live. So I need to think of philosophy in regard to children… In fact, till now my understanding of young children has been weak. When a teacher from a large school paid me a visit, he mentioned something that he called the "nine-year-old wall," saying that until the age of nine, children will play with anyone and after that age they begin to change. When I heard this, I thought how in schools veteran teachers are typically given 5th and 6th graders or 1st and 2nd graders, whereas new teachers are usually given 3rd and 4th graders—but it is in the 3rd and 4th grades that children hit this so-called nine-year-old wall. I think this is a significant thing to consider. This teacher was thinking of having nine-year-olds undergo yamabushi training. Before doing so, however, he wanted to try and have ten teachers and adults give it a try.

This is something that would be wonderful to do in the provinces as well. What would happen if we could do that here in Shonai—say for 3rd and 4th graders with their parents? Wouldn't it be a wonderful way to put oneself in nature? This is not a simple undertaking though. As human beings, we are animals on the move in search of food, and this is what makes the fountain of life possible. However, plants search for food simply by placing themselves in nature. Plants can get vital energy from the space around them as well as above and below them just by being situated in nature. That is what it means by being there. I think yamabushi practices are really close to this—placing oneself in nature.
The idea is to allow nine-year-olds to somehow get back in touch with this original way of being in the world. It is not just having them come and play in the mountains, but rather to help them get in touch with their fundamental natural state—to become one with nature and become grounded in nature. This is a program we will be starting for local children this August.

Act on those things you feel concern over. That is good. If you feel concern about something, then the spirit of language comes out of you. If you just stay rooted in your brain, only the words in your brain are spoken. That's why everyone keeps saying the same things. We are hindered by our thoughts and stifled by over-thinking. It is better to act directly from care and concern. Later you can contemplate or analyze things in your mind. This will allow for different ways of feeling concern and will generate greater results.

That said, we often hear the words, "Act first." But what if the root of the action is wrong? I am not saying "just do anything." For the voice in your heart that is telling you what to do is the crucial thing. To act purely and truly based on your own care and concern is what is at issue. During the course of our daily lives, there will be many things we will be concerned about. For example, if we are out running in the mountains, we might worry, "Is this a good place to run?" If we are feeling concern that we ought to take a break, then we should do so. But how are our heart’s concerns different from our mental thoughts?

When we are truly concerned about something, we will feel its weight on us. Our hearts will feel heavy. This will then become linked to our habit of thinking. So, it can make us dwell on things before we fall asleep at night. It is natural to not be able to sleep because we are so wrapped up in our thoughts. And then we start thinking again the moment we wake up. I am personally always sound-asleep within two or three minutes of getting into bed. My wife tells me how lucky I am, but I think this is our natural human state.

However, the habit of thinking won’t go away easily when even the smallest things are weighing on our hearts. I think it is best to act when you think it is best. If you think and decide to act later, you're making a mistake. Act when you feel concerned. It is best to act when your heart is heavy. Whatever pops into your head is the right answer. The moment you start worrying about outcomes, you will hesitate, which isn't good. Just making that commitment to act is putting yourself on the right path.

Our thoughts are rational. But they are only knowledge. Our thoughts are not influenced by our ways of living. Can our brains come up with solutions for solving real in-the-world problems? I guess the answer to that is "no". Better to open the lid and let the soul's voice out. Then we will be able to solve real problems.

I realize that it's impossible to truly be able to return to the ancient Japanese worldview. What I am aiming for instead is a "new return" to what is a natural way of being in the world. To make this possible is the task at hand for us now.
Fumihiro Hoshino
Mountain Priest
1946: Born in Yamagata prefecture, the third son of the owner of the Dewa Sanzan and Haguro-area Daishobo Inn.
1971: After graduating from the Department of Literature at Toyo University, he succeeds as head of Daishobo Inn. He is given the priestly name of Shobun after undergoing the Shinto ascetic practices known as aki-no-mine.
2007: He serves as one of the matsu no hijiri (or yamabushi mountain ascetics) for the fuyu-no-mine ascetic practices.
From 2008, he officiates at the Shorei Festival.
From 2000: Daishobo Inn organizes a three-day Daishobo Yamabushi Ascetic Training Course. In lectures on Shugendo practices held at various sites,
the talks stress the importance of heart, life, health, agriculture, and art.
Current posts: Dewa Sanzan Shrine Board of Directors, Dewa Sanzan Hafuri Representative, TamaArt University Special Research Fellow in Art and Anthropology,
NPO Public Interest Furusato Tsukuri Tsuruoka Board of Directors, Meiji University Wild Laboratory Researcher, etc.