5 Japanese mountain practices to change your life

Tim Bunting AKA Kiwi Yamabushi on Zao-san
Watch this article on my YouTube channel here.

I’ve been a yamabushi (mountain ascetic) since 2017. In Shugyo, yamabushi training, we do a number of rituals and different practices that have huge impacts on our lives. The thing is, we are sworn to secrecy. We aren’t allowed to share the details of what goes on.

However, there are quite a few aspects of yamabushi training I incorporate into my daily life that aren’t strictly yamabushi training.

Today I’m going to share with you five concepts have drastically changed my life for the better.

My hope is that you’ll be equipped with some of the tools we yamabushi use in our everyday life. Tools to help us basically deal with whatever life throws at us.

Now on to the concepts.

Tosogyo: Walking Meditation

The red gates of Yudono-san, a popular location for Yamabushi rituals.
The Torii (shrine gates) of Yudono-san, one of the Dewa Sanzan mountains in Yamagata Prefecture. Photo by Kiwi Yamabushi.

First up is what’s called Tosogyo (抖藪行).

Tosogyo translates to walking meditation or walking ascetic practice, but it’s not as simple as just walking.

Many people would have heard of Shinrinyoku (森林浴), forest bathing. The practice of Tosogyo does indeed incorporate some of the concepts of Shinrinyoku, as you basically go outside and walk in nature.

However, if you’re familiar with the polytheistic nature of Japan, you will know that there are presences felt in all facets of nature. From the rivers, to the trees, to the rocks, to the mountains, to the waterfalls, to the oceans, everything in nature is felt to have a presence, understood as kami in the Shinto belief.

These facets of nature all combine to give us what we know as life. That’s why it’s very important for us to stop and say thank you.

When you’re out in nature, be sure to stop and smell the roses so to speak.

But make sure you thank them as well.

When you’re doing Tosogyo, and this is one of the most important parts of being a yamabushi, stop and pray to these facets of nature. To do this, just do what the Japanese do: bow twice, clap twice, and bow once.

The reason why Japanese people do it this way is Kami are a level above us, so we bow twice. The two claps are like the send button on your cellphone when you’re sending your prayer as a text message or email. When you bow, say a prayer to the Kami, then send it by clapping twice. This last bow is to show your appreciation.

There are a few pointers for doing Tosogyo effectively. One is to keep quiet. Keep your mouth shut as you do it. This is to better be able to absorb what nature is trying to tell us, and could give us a realisation we hadn’t had before.

Second, be sure to give it time. Either spend a whole lot of time out in nature, or give yourself a lot of time to be able to absorb what these lessons are trying to tell you.

Don’t come back expecting to reach Buddhahood straightaway, but know that there will be positive effects for you if you do it this way.

Bonus: Night Hiking

One bonus is hiking at night. If you hike at night, you have to rely more on your senses of touch, smell, and hearing. Hiking at night is a slightly more unique way to get in touch with different facets of nature.

Tokogatame: Yamabushi-style meditation

Tim Bunting Kiwi Yamabushi staring out over the blue sky and mountains of Gassan during Tokogatame, Yamabushi-style meditation.
Me during Tokogatame (yamabushi-style meditation) on Gassan. Photo owned by Kiwi Yamabushi.

Next is called Tokogatame (床固め), yamabushi-style meditation. If you’ve tried Zazen, seated meditation, Ajikan which is a form of meditation done by Shingon priests, or even things like Transcendental Meditation, you may be familiar with a few of these concepts.

However with Tokogatame there aren’t really that many rules.

Toko means the ground, and gatame literally means to harden or to solidify. Tokogatame is about solidifying your place in the world.

The idea with Tokogatame is that you just have to be in the moment. It’s a reminder that you are part of the the big world.

You can do Tokogatame seated or standing, with eyes closed or open. It’s also good to keep your hands together in some way so you’re not manipulating the world around you.

With Tokogatame, all you’ve got to do is try and keep still, and focus on being in the moment.

Simple in theory, hard in practice, transformational if done right.

Hansei Hanzoku: Half Sacred, Half Secular

Jijisugi, the grandfather cedar, and Five Story Pagoda in the middle of the dense forests of Haguro-san.
Jijisugi, The Grandfather Cedar, and the Five Story Pagoda of Haguro-san. Photo by Kiwi Yamabushi.

The next concept is Hansei Hanzoku (半聖半俗) , which translates into English as half sacred, half secular.

These days there aren’t really any full-time yamabushi. You could say Master Hoshino is because he spends his whole life doing yamabushi style things, but he’s retired and he did have a full-time job in the past.

If you’re a priest, normally that’s what you do, that’s your occupation. If you’re a nun, that’s your occupation as well. If you’re a monk, it’s the same. There isn’t really any halfway point.

For yamabushi, we use the concept of Hansei Hanzoku to mean that we can be involved in both worlds; both the world of the yamabushi, and the secular world that you and I inhabit. We think of one world as an extension of the other.

It’s not an us versus them thing, it’s an us and us thing.

Yamabushi use the concept of Hansei Hanzoku to better serve the people we wish to serve. To be able to serve you, we try to get an understanding of what life is like for you, so that we can better understand you and better apply yamabushi concepts to your life.

Another important point is that with Hansei Hanzoku, we understand that yamabushi life is not the be-all and end-all.

Once you become a yamabushi you are yamabushi, nothing else really changes, although you will be able to better utilize these concepts into your life.

Recite Hannya Shingyo: The Heart Sutra

Monks at Zenpoji Temple, Tsuruoka City, in front of very thick books that contain the full version of The Heart Sutra.
Monks at Zenpoji Temple, Tsuruoka City, with the original version of The Heart Sutra. The monks don’t read through the whole thing, thankfully, as that would take years. Photo by Kiwi Yamabushi.

Next up is to recite The Heart Sutra, Hanya Shingyo (般若心経) in Japanese. The Heart Sutra is the realisations that Gautama Buddha had at Enlightenment, and the main message is form is nothingness and nothingness is form.

The original Heart Sutra is huge, it’s a couple thousand pages long. Fortunately, there is an abridged version, which takes about two or three minutes to read through.

If you visit any any Buddhist temple in Japan you will hear The Heart Sutra. Plus, it’s extremely useful if you’re doing the Ohenro, the 88 Temple pilgrimage in Shikoku.

Yamabushi use The Heart Sutra a lot. One important time in which we pray The Heart Sutra is during waterfall meditation. During waterfall meditation we aren’t just standing underneath the waterfall, often we are reciting some sort of mantra.

The Heart Sutra is perfect as it takes about two or three minutes to read through. This is about the amount of time the average yamabushi can withstand a waterfall (I guess, I really don’t know). It’s important to note, waterfall meditation is not a competition at all.

If you’re able to recite The Heart Sutra under the waterfall, it helps you stay there longer. This proves how resilient you can be when under huge amounts of pressure.

With this experience to withstand the harrowing times, you can directly apply this to your life.

Often when things start to get tough, or I need to try and put in a bit more effort to be able to try and get through something, I recite The Heart Sutra. This simple exercise can be a really good way to just keep pushing forward and forward, just as we do under the waterfall.

Uketamo: I accept

Tim Bunting Kiwi Yamabushi during waterfall meditation.
During waterfall meditation. This practice is designed to build your resilience during harrowing times. Photo owned by Kiwi Yamabushi.

Lastly is Uketamo (うけたもう). Uketamo literally means I accept. The thing is, to really understand Uketamo, you really do have to come and do yamabushi training.

However, there are some some things I will be able to explain.

During yamabushi training we constantly say Uketamo. The Sendatsu (master) will say ‘we will now climb Haguro-san’.

‘Uketamo’. And you climb Haguro-san.

Or, ‘we will now do waterfall meditation’.

‘Uketamo’. And you do waterfall meditation.

However, Uketamo is not just about following the orders of your master.

For example, one time a few years back I was coming back from doing waterfall meditation. Suddenly, a gnat came and bit my leg. My leg swelled up really badly. I had to Uketamo and just had to get through it.

The whole yamabushi experience is an experience of metaphorical ‘rebirth’. It’s about becoming a new you, moving up to the next stage in your life, or getting up to the next level. To be able to do that, you have to be able to accept your current self.

So throughout yamabushi training many times over we are accepting our current selves.

Then, and only then, can we move on.

The next time that you are feeling a little bit under the pump, or you are feeling a bit overwhelmed, try Uketamo. It won’t let you down.

In conclusion

Tim Bunting Kiwi Yamabushi blowing the Horagai conch.
Tim Bunting, Kiwi Yamabushi playing the Horagai Conch. Photo owned by Kiwi Yamabushi.

Yamabushi training is certainly intense, but it’s not impossible. That for me is is a reminder that if you have the right tools and the right mindset, you can get through anything.

Tosogyo walking meditation, Tokogatame, yamabushi-style meditation, Hansei Hanzoku, half sacred, half secular, The Heart Sutra, and Uketamo.

These concepts have drastically changed my life for the better, and now I hope they change yours, too.



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