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The Meiji Restoration, State Shintoism, Buddhism, Mikao Usui, the 'Kantoku' traditions of Shugendo...
oh, and last but not necessarily least, Hase Yoshio!
Copyright © 2002-4 James Deacon

In 1868, Prince Mutsuhito (1852-1912) became the 122nd Emperor of Japan, taking the name Meiji (meaning: "enlightened government"). The accession of this Emperor to the throne marked the beginning of a national modernising process referred to as 'The Meiji Restoration'.

Meiji was the first emperor to live in Tokyo - as opposed to the old, traditional imperial capital - Kyoto. And, while he would eventually come to exert considerable influence in the governing of Japan, Meiji's primary role was as a symbol of national unity - as a 'figure head'. It was actually his ministers who dealt with the business of governing the country. However, it has been said that his 'figure head' presence was essential - that it gave the new government an aura of legitimacy - something it desperately needed in order to undertake its planned modernising transformation of Japan - which, amongst other things, included the implementation of a new authoritarian form of state religion to be known as State Shinto - a state religion which had Meiji, as Emperor, at its centre.

Historically, the indigenous religion of Shinto, also known as 'Kami No Michi' (The Way of the 'Kami' or Numinous Beings), had been of central importance in Japanese culture since the earliest times, its pervasiveness being due in part to its ability to coexist happily with other faiths, Buddhism in particular. In fact, from the 8th century onwards, the Japanese people had reconciled Shinto and Buddhism to such a degree that Buddhist temples were built within Shinto shrine precincts and Buddhist priests were entrusted with the running of Shinto shrines. This conciliation had been made possible thanks to the emergence of a syncretic doctrine known as: 'Ryobu Shinto' [or:'Honji Suijaku'], which - essentially by initially equating the Kami Spirit-Beings with Buddhist Deities (i.e. Buddhas & Boddhisatvas, etc), enabled the followers of one faith to legitimately venerate the other faith's Divine Beings as alternative manifestations of their own. This popular synthesis prospered, and was typified by wandering 'Yamabushi' (mountain priests), itinerant practitioners of 'Shugendo', who ministered to the people with a mixture of Buddhist and Shinto rites.

The new cult of State Shinto, however, was of a more regimented variety. Under its auspices, priests became state employees, and detailed instructions concerning the rituals and doctrine of State Shinto were set out by the Ministry of Religion.

To say that Buddhism did not fare well in the early years of the Meiji Era, is perhaps an understatement.
Amongst other things, Shinto and Buddhism were officially separated by decree. Buddhism was, severely 'downgraded' with Buddhist statuary ordered to be removed from Shinto shrines, Buddhist rituals which had previously been performed by the imperial household were abolished - infact, all traces of Buddhism were purged from the imperial household.
Curbs on Buddhism gave rise to iconoclastic outbreaks; the government revoked all ranks and privileges enjoyed by the Buddhist hierarchy, the state confiscated all lands belonging to Buddhist temple; and across japan, a great many temples were simply destroyed. The Buddhist priesthood was regarded as a deterrent to the National modernising process, and while many priests were forced out, some voluntarily converted to become state employed officials at Shinto Shrines. The doctrine of Suijaku was annulled, and the Shugendo tradition of the Yamabushi was proscribed by the new regime as being an unacceptable hybrid.

Shugendo has two main branches: Honzan-ha and Tozan-ha, these being affiliated with the Tendai and the Shingon schools of Mikkyo Buddhism, respectively. Translating as 'the way of cultivating psychic and spiritual powers', Shugendo is a tradition involving the practice of strict ascetic mystical disciplines including fasting, isolation, meditation (often under waterfalls), and the use of incantation and mudra-like techniques to achieve 'Kantoku'
(- illuminating visionary mystical states) and to gain spiritual empowerment.
These severe austerities, coupled with various rites of initiation, imbue the Yamabushi with shamanic-like powers of healing, exorcism, clairsentience, and mastery over both intense heat and extreme cold (fire and ice).
Pilgrimage round various holy mountains & their temple shrines is also an important feature of Shugendo, with the Yamabushi priests commonly having links with a specific mountain and its deity. Such mountains are held to be places of great supernatural power - 'power spots' - described by many Japanese shamanic practitioners as being 'usui' -places where the veil between this world and the world of the spirit is thin (usui = thin)

It has been remarked on several occasions that the account of Reiki's founder Mikao Usui - a follower of Tendai (- though some suggest he was Shingon) - journeying around Japan from temple to temple in his quest to find healing knowledge, and undertaking a 21 day fast on Mount Kurama (itself an ancient Yamabushi stronghold), culminating in a visionary experience or Kantoku, may in fact be an account of a man undergoing a Shugendo discipline. [It is also quite possible that whilst undertaking various Shugendo disciplines, Mikao Usui had received empowerments / attunements (- possibly not that dissimilar to Reiki Reiju) in the form of blessings from Mikkyo Buddhist Priests]

Mikao Usui's story is certainly not unique - even amongst the founders of other modern-day healing traditions and 'new religions' in Japan, similar themes can be found. For example, the experience of Hase Yoshio, founder of the healing sect 'Reiha no Hikari Kyōkai':
Having been sickly since childhood, Hase Yoshio was suffering from tuberculosis, pleurisy, and after surgery for an intestinal condition, his doctor had told him he was unlikely to survive more than a month.
In the time he had left, he decided go on a religious quest.
Hase said goodbye to his family, and, dressed in white (signifying that he had become an ascetic), left the city of Takamatsu and climbed to the summit of Gokenzan Yama, where, he sequestered himself in a small hut. Lining up twenty-one stones to count the days, he sat in perpetual meditation, discarding one of the stones each day.
The day came when there was only a single stone remaining, and on this day, Hase experienced a spiritual phenomenon. He became aware of the voice of god, and the voice said, "Be the messenger of god and walk the path of god." As the voice spoke to him, Hase was transfixed - unable to move - as if he were tied down; and suddenly, all the terrible pain that had crippled him for so long mysteriously dissipated. And in time his health recovered fully….


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