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Are you in a cult? The worst question to get as a yamabushi

Discussing the yamabushi ‘cult’ of Mt. Haguro and the Dewa Sanzan

Unwavering support and obedience to our master, incessant chanting to celestial beings for hours on end, and a philosophy that is all about accepting everything that comes to you, on the surface I could see why being a yamabushi could be seen as cult-ish.

Since becoming a yamabushi, every once in a blue moon the question ‘are the yamabushi a cult?’ comes up. In fact, one of the videos that leads to the most traffic on my YouTube channel is entitled The Yamabushi: A Japanese Mountain Cult. So, I asked my good friend Merriam Webster for a definition, and here’s what she told me: 

Essential Meaning of cult

1: a small religious group that is not part of a larger and more accepted religion and that has beliefs regarded by many people as extreme or dangerous; e.g.

“a satanic cult”

“cult members”

2: a situation in which people admire and care about something or someone very much or too much;

“He criticizes the way journalists promote the cult of celebrity in modern America.” [=the tendency of people to care too much about famous people]

“a cult of personality = a personality cult”

3: a small group of very devoted supporters or fans 

“a cult of admirers”

“She has developed a cult following.”

So, let’s see whether the yamabushi of the Dewa Sanzan fall into any of these categories one by one. 

1: a small religious group that is not part of a larger and more accepted religion and that has beliefs regarded by many people as extreme or dangerous

‘not part of a larger and more accepted religion’

Yamabushi follow Shugendo, the knowledge gained on the path (do) of divine natural powers (gen) through ascetic practice (shu), an ancient belief combining the doctrines of Shintoism, esoteric Buddhism, Taoism, and ancient Japanese nature worship. Officially since Shugendo is a combination of religions, and as such does not have any unique doctrines, it is not considered a religion in and of itself. However, Shugendo is indeed part of a larger and much more accepted religion, multiple religions at that. So there’s that.

Strictly speaking, practitioners of Shugendo follow Buddhism or Shintoism, while also practicing Shugendo. Or, have no set belief system and are using the practice to better themselves. In fact the Dewa Sanzan is home to groups from both religions who even practice side by side. I’m not sure you are allowed to choose allegiances like this in a cult. 

In addition, Shugendo itself is a do, a way, a lifestyle, or a set of beliefs, the same as Kendo, the way of the sword, or Judo the way of the passive, not a religion in and of itself. As a do there is no end, and it’s about bettering yourself day after day. 

‘beliefs regarded by many people as extreme or dangerous’

I cannot deny this part, Yamabushi often do indeed partake in extreme and dangerous activities; we go out into the nature even during the severe thunderstorms on Mt. Gassan, climb up precarious cliffs on rusted ladders, wade through gushing rivers, and meditate under ice-cold waterfalls. 

Beliefs though? We go out into nature to perform all manner of rites such as waterfall meditation, night time walking meditation, and praying to the Kami and Buddha of the Dewa Sanzan. This is all in an effort to learn from nature, so that we can become better people, and better serve those around us. 

Master Hoshino always says we do yamabushi training to do yamabushi training. The aim, if there were to be one, is peace, no extreme or dangerous beliefs here. 

2: a situation in which people admire and care about something or someone very much or too much

‘something’

There is ‘something’ of the Dewa Sanzan that everyone would ‘admire and care about very much or too much’, something that everyone would agree is the master. Master Hoshino is the first to say this, but a yamabushi’s job is not to preach. A yamabushi’s job is to lead others into nature, and let them learn for themselves, simply because nature is the teacher, nature is what we admire and care about.

‘We will now climb Mt. Haguro’, ‘we will now perform waterfall meditation’; the yamabushi of the Dewa Sanzan follow Uketamo, the philosophy of acceptance, whereby whenever your master tells you to do something, you do it. However, this is based on the premise that the master is showing you the best way to learn from nature. They are not trying to control you. Yamabushi don’t learn from books, and they don’t learn from word of mouth. Yamabushi learn from being placed in nature, and reflecting on what we feel. It’s that simple.

‘someone’

Master Hoshino is one of less than 40 men in the Toge region of Mt. Haguro to have completed the 100-day Akinomine Autumn’s Peak ritual, how else would he get that awesome beard of his. Moreover, Master Hoshino is on the board of directors at Dewa Sanzan Shrine and runs Daishobo pilgrim lodge, having done so for over 50 years now. Over the years, Master Hoshino has come to be seen as somewhat of a central figure for the Yamabushi of the Dewa Sanzan. From the outside at least.

For those who have actually spent any time on the Dewa Sanzan, however, they would know that Master Hoshino is anything but the central figure of the Dewa Sanzan. If we were forced to designate a central figure that is still alive, that honour should belong to the Guji, the chief priest of Dewa Sanzan Shrine, or the chief priest of the much longer-serving and much more historically significant yamabushi of the Dewa Sanzan, the Buddhist Haguro Shugen sect based at Shozen’in Koganedo and Kotakuji Temples. 

In addition, in terms of stature, Daishobo is hardly the biggest pilgrim lodge on the Dewa Sanzan, not even close. The 30 person capacity of Daishobo pails in comparison to say Daishinbo that can host upwards of 100 people, let alone Saikan, Dewa Sanzan Shrine’s official lodging, not to mention any of the Buddhist temples around. 

3: a small group of very devoted supporters or fans

It is true that we very much admire and care about Master Hoshino, he has been an instigator of so much that has irrevocably affected our lives. Although when compared to major religions Shugendo and the numbers of yamabushi are very small, the group isn’t miniscule.

Master Hoshino has been hosting yamabushi trainings from Daishobo pilgrim lodge for over 30 years now. At an average of 10 trainings per year, with about 20 participants in each training, the number is well and truly upwards of 2 or 3 thousand people just with Master Hoshino’s training alone.

Each year Dewa Sanzan Shrine hosts more than 200 participants in the Akinomine Autumn’s Peak Ritual that has run for over 150 years, and the Miko Shugyo training run for women. Not to mention the more than 1,000 years of training the Buddhist Haguro Shugen sect has been running. Yamabushi the world over could even number in the tens of thousands. 

The yamabushi are definitely devoted, though. Myself especially.

Getting into nature, learning from nature, appreciating nature. Yamabushi training takes you away from ‘normal’ everyday life, and this forces you to reflect on what you have, and allows you to appreciate the mundane. For myself, from this appreciation comes Ikigai, the desire to live well. 

I am a Yamabushi who follows Shugendo because it has given me peace in times of strife. I was first invited to join the Yamabushi in the weeks after my father’s funeral, and practicing in nature in the way of Shugendo has helped immensely during the grieving process. 

Not only that, my mother has been suffering for years now at the hands of a disease worse than cancer. This has been a real spanner in the works for my whole family, and being able to fall back on training in nature as a Yamabushi has really given me great perspective in life. Being a Yamabushi has definitely helped me through some of the toughest times I would never wish upon even my worst enemies. 

Indebted to nature

If we were to be a cult, it would definitely be of the third kind that Merriam kindly mentions:

“a cult of admirers”

“She has developed a cult following.”

I feel as if I owe everything to nature, but I would never have felt that way had I not become a yamabushi. I feel indebted to nature and the way of the Yamabushi, and I would love to see others join in the training as a way of productively dealing with life’s struggles. I am indeed doing yamabushi training of my own accord, but if I really wanted to, I could quit tomorrow. It’s just, then I would be out of a productive and harmless way of dealing with everything that life keeps throwing at me. 

Shugendo and Yamabushi is an excellent and productive way to deal with everything life throws at you. Frankly speaking, calling it a cult puts off people who would otherwise be able to benefit from what has been such an amazing tool in the toolbox for me in making it through this thing we call life. I know the creator of the video means well, but calling yamabushi a cult is doing what is one of the most unique and potentially beneficial parts of Japanese culture a huge disservice, completely the opposite of what they intended to do, I’m sure.

Tim Bunting Kiwi Yamabushi

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Hi, I’m Tim Bunting AKA the Kiwi Yamabushi, a New Zealander who became a Yamabushi Ascetic in the Dewa Sanzan mountains of north Japan. I’m part of the Yamabushido team, and we host life-altering Yamabushi training on the Dewa Sanzan (website link). People come to us for the ultimate mindfulness experience, to reach the next level, or simply connect with nature and themselves.


I’m on a mission to summit all 100 Famous Mountains of Yamagata Prefecture to spread the splendour of this fabulous location, and in dedication to all those who lost their lives out in nature, including my father.


On my daily blog I post thoughts of a practicing Yamabushi that I hope people can use to better themselves and live as fulfilling a life as possible.


Sign up to the weekly Mountains of Wisdom newsletter, follow me on social (Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, TikTok, Clubhouse, all @kiwiyamabushi), or send me an email via the link below to stay in touch.


Tim.

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