Yamabushi (山伏) (one who prostrates himself on the mountain) are Japanese mountain ascetic hermits. According to a traditional Japanese mysticism, Yamabushi are believed to be endowed with supernatural powers. They follow the Shugendō doctrine, an integration of mainly esoteric Buddhism of the Shingon sect, with Tendai Buddhist, Taoism, and elements of Shinto. For the most part solitary, they did form loose confederations, and associations with certain temples, and also participated in battles and skirmishes alongside samurai and sōhei warrior monks on certain occasions. Their origins can be traced back to the solitary Yama-bito and some hijiri (聖) of the eighth and ninth centuries. There has also been cross-teaching with samurai weaponry and Yamabushi's spiritual approach to life and fighting.
In modern use, the term ubasoku-yamabushi refers to laymen practitioners of shugendō. The religion places a heavy emphasis on asceticism and feats of endurance, and white and saffron-robed yamabushi toting a horagai conch-shell trumpet are still a common sight near the shugendō holy site of Dewa Sanzan and in the sacred mountains of Kumano and Omine.
Yamabushi began as yamahoshi (山法師), isolated clusters (or individuals) of mountain hermits, ascetics, and "holy men", who followed the path of shugendō, a search for spiritual, mystical, or supernatural powers gained through asceticism. This path may or may not have had a founder, as the myths surrounding En no Gyōja are numerous and complex; he is quite similar to a Japanese Merlin in this way. Men who followed this path came to be known by a variety of names, including kenja, kenza, and shugenja. These mountain mystics came to be renowned for their magical abilities and occult knowledge, and were sought out as healers or mediums, although Shinto shrines had traditionally reserved this role exclusively for maidens known as Miko.
Most of these ascetics, in addition to their devotion to shugendō, studied the teachings of the Tendai sect of Buddhism, or the Shingon sect, established by Kōbō Daishi in the 8th century. Shingon Buddhism was one of the primary sects of mikkyō (密教) or Esoteric Buddhism, according to which enlightenment is found through isolation and contemplation of oneself, nature, and esoteric images (mandala). Both the Shingon and Tendai sects viewed mountains as the ideal place for this isolation and contemplation.
In their mountain retreats, these monks studied not only nature and religious/spiritual texts and images, but also a variety of martial arts. Whether they believed that they had to defend themselves from bandits, other monks, or samurai armies is questionable; but the study of martial arts as a means to improving oneself mentally, spiritually, and physically has always been central to Japanese culture, irrespective of the specific tenets of any one religious sect.
The Yamabushi also developed their own forms of cooking, utilizing plants on the mountains where they trained and thereby enabling themselves to spend weeks or even months without need to venture down into towns or cities for supplies. Thus, like the sōhei, the yamabushi became warriors as well as monks.
As their reputation for mystical insight and knowledge grew and the degree of their organization tightened, many masters of the ascetic disciplines began to be appointed to high spiritual positions in the court. Monks and temples began to gain political influence. By the Nanboku-chō Period, in the 13th and 14th centuries, the yamabushi had organized cohorts called konsha, which, along with sōhei and other monks, began to take direction from the central temples of their sects. They assisted Emperor Go-Daigo in his attempts to overthrow the Kamakura shogunate, proving that their skills as warriors were commensurate with those of the professional samurai armies against whom they fought.
Several centuries later, in the Sengoku Period, yamabushi were among the advisers and armies of nearly every major contender for dominion over Japan. Some, led by Takeda Shingen, aided Oda Nobunaga against Uesugi Kenshin in 1568. Others, including the abbot Sessai Choro, advised Tokugawa Ieyasu. Many fought alongside their fellow monks, the Ikkō-ikki, against Nobunaga, who eventually crushed them and put an end to the time of the warrior monks.
Yamabushi also served as sendatsu, or spiritual mountain guides, since medieval times for pilgrims along the Kumano Kodo to the Kumano Sanzan, including retired emperors and aristocrats.
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