Similarities between Shugendo and Stoicism


Stoic philosophy is something that I've been following for a while, but I really got into it after reading A Guide to the Good Life by William B. Irvine, graciously given to me by a good friend. Basically, this book is a digest of Stoic philosophy, and implications for the modern world including examples that give us a basis for how to apply the philosophy in our daily lives. If you haven't read it, I highly recommend it, because it definitely helped me when my father died, and I've noticed a number of similarities since becoming a Yamabushi too.

What is Shugendo?

For those who don't know, Yamabushi follow Shugendo, 修験道, the knowledge gained on the path (道 do) or through living ascetic practices (修shu) of divine natural powers (験 gen). Shugendo is an ancient belief (officially it's not a religion, and I don't regard myself as religious, I try to be open too all philosophies and ideas) that developed in Japan around the 7th century through a combination of native Japanese animism, Taoism, Pre-Buddhist mountain worship, Vajrayana or Esoteric Buddhism, and Shintoism. It has mostly been practiced at Esoteric-Buddhism temples, namely the Shingon or Tendai sects, but on the Dewa Sanzan a Shinto branch broke off during the Buddhist Purge in the late 1860s- early 1870s. I practice under Master Hoshino at Daishobo Pilgrim Lodge, and we pray to both Shinto and Buddhist Gods.

In Shingon Buddhism, it was believed that we could reach Buddhahood in the current world by training out in nature, and then undertaking some rituals in which basically you self-mummify. Many monks did this on Mt. Yudono, and became what are called Sokushinbutsu, literally translated to 'Buddha in the flesh' (there are a few Sokushinbutsu around this area, contact me if you want to learn more). So, Shugendo in a way was originally practiced to reach Buddhahood, but these days the reasons to practice it vary from religion to religion, and even Yamabushi to Yamabushi.

What is Shugendo to me?

For me, Shugendo a way to connect to nature and to keep grounded, literally and figuratively, and also to learn what I can from nature. I try to share those lessons on this blog and on Instagram and the like, because I think that these lessons are universal, and can really help people who are in a bit of a funk to get through and move on in their lives. I also like sharing training with other people, because everyone has their own unique viewpoint on their experience, and I love learning about the insights others come to.

The connection to Stoicism

Which leads me to some of the insights I've come across, and their relationship to Stoicism.

Firstly, like the Stoics, or at least Marcus Aurelius, during Yamabushi training we wear the scantiest of clad, our white Shiroshozoku. We spend the whole time training in our Shiroshozoku, as it is believed that we are the dead spirits of our selves, metaphorically speaking of course, and we are there to train our souls. Likewise, we only eat the most basic of meals that is solely for sustenance to help us get on with our training.

Another similarity with Stoicism is the philosophy of Uketamo, which we translate as 'I accept'. When we are out in nature, we are to accept everything that happens to us. The weather, the slippery terrain, becoming one with a waterfall, we have to accept it all.

From A Guide to the Good Life, there are three big ideas on the things that happen to us:

1) For things we cannot control, it is not worth spending energy worrying about them. This in essence is the exact same as Uketamo, but also

2) For the things we can control, we should give our best effort so that it turns out as well as it can. This is a bit different to Uketamo, as Uketamo is more focused on the results, but it could be argued that as Yamabushi training is all about being in the moment, being in the moment means you are better able to give your best effort.

3) Is for the things we can partially control. The example given was a tennis match. We can control the amount of practice we put in, but we cannot control the way the ball bounces. This is a combination of the above two ideas. Don't worry about the things you cannot control, for example if the ball bounces in a way that isn't favourable to you, don't worry about it, just focus on being in the now, and focus on giving your best effort, as really that is all you can and should do anyway. Focus on the moment, not on the past (the ball bouncing in an unfavourable way), nor the future (your failure or success as a tennis player).


In conclusion, some of the core elements of Stoicism also have Shugendo counterparts. In the future, I will try to find more examples of how Stoicism relates to Shugendo, as Shugendo can be a way of practicing Stoicism.



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Sakata City, Yamagata, Japan

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