USUI & SHUGENDO:
Meiji Restoration, State Shintoism, Buddhism, Mikao Usui, the
'Kantoku' traditions of Shugendo...
oh, and last but not necessarily least, Hase Yoshio!
© 2002-4 James Deacon
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'.
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.
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
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.
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
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)
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]
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
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….