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13.1: Healing and Exorcism in Japanese Shugendo

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    The excerpts chosen to represent shamanic mediation in Buddhism tell primarily of two Japanese women in the Shugendo tradition of Buddhist mountain asceticism. Traditionally there are more men than women in Shugendo, but the role of women in shamanic practice in Japan, particularly in traditions other than Shugendo, has been very strong. In any case, these are women who serve as healers, exorcists, and oracles in rural Japan. They have acquired these powers (or, rather, they have become a mediator for these powers) and renew and maintain them (or maintain their role as effective mediator for them) through rigorous ascetic practices. These practices involve seclusion, fasting, dietary abstentions, cold-water showers (preferably under a waterfall), repeated recitation of words of magical power, ritual pilgrimage to sacred mountains (involving shamanic rituals of rebirth and possession), and demonstrations of their miraculous powers by feats such as fire walking (not just walking over burning coals but allegedly absorbing the heat from them so that other nonshamans can walk safely over them) and plunging their hands in boiling water. The following excerpts are by an English scholar of Japanese culture, Carmen Blacker, who has spent several years studying shamanic practices in Japan.2

    They tell of Mrs. Hiroshima Ryuun, an ascetic renowned for her powers of healing and exorcism throughout the Kansai district of Japan in the first half of the twentieth century, and Mrs. Matsuyama, a healer and exorcist living near Kyoto in the mid-twentieth century. The context of the book from which the first excerpt is taken is a discussion by Professor Blacker of different types of ways in which ascetic shamans are initiated into their roles. Some are said to be forcibly chosen by a spiritual being, others voluntarily pursue the role. These two women illustrate both types.

    Mrs Hiroshima Ryuun was a celebrated ascetic belonging to the category of peripatetic wanderers. During the war and the years immediately preceding it she traveled on foot throughout virtually the length and breadth of Japan. The shrine to her spirit kept in an upstairs room of the temple contained a map of the journeys she had accomplished, which could be seen at a glance to include not only the accredited pilgrim routes of Shikoku and central Japan, but also long, apparently haphazard journeys throughout much of the rest of the main island. Her dramatic cures through exorcism were particularly celebrated in .the district of Nara and the Yamato plain.

    This powerful woman gyoja ["ascetic," i.e., one who carries out ascetic practices designed to build up sacred power] was first called to the religious life by a vision of the archetypal ascetic En-no-Gyoja [an eighth century mountain ascetic, celebrated in many legends, and the model for all subsequent mountain ascetics in Japan]. Ringed staff in hand, he stood by her bedside and adjured her to take it upon herself to save those suffering from sickness in the world. Thereafter for three years, always under the direction of En-no-Gyoja, Mrs Hiroshima undertook a regime of austerities in which the local waterfall figured prominently. Often, her daughter assured me, she would stand under the waterfall in the middle of winter for the length of time it took her to recite a hundred Heart Sutras [a famous, somewhat enigmatic summary of Prajana -paramita teaching, regarded as magically very powerful in Vajrayana Buddhism].

    At the end of three years these strenuous efforts culminated in a terrific divine seizure. For a whole week, without a single pause for rest, she was in a continuous state of divine possession. She neither ate nor slept, and only salt water passed her lips while deity after deity from all over Japan came into her body and spoke through her mouth.

    After this extraordinary experience she found herself in possession of powers of healing and of clairvoyant vision of the spiritual beings which caused sickness. She found also that En-no-Gyoja ceased to be her tutelary deity, his place being taken by a mysterious spirit called Magotaro lnari. When first possessed by this divinity, Mrs Hiroshima had no idea who he was. She had never heard his name in her life before. She found his shrine only after a long search, a small and unobtrusive place in the precincts of the Yakushiji temple near Nara. He was wont to appear in various forms, a fox or a small boy, but his real shape, only seldom manifested, was that of a snake. [Blacker explains how these archetypal forms recur throughout Japanese shamanism.] Thereafter, . . . it was entirely through the power of Magotaro lnari that Mrs Hiroshima was able to perform the dramatic cures which made her famous throughout the district...

    In ... interior initiation [such as the case of Mrs. Hiroshima] ... the ascetic is brought into contact with a superior guardian. It is he who forces him into his new life and confers on him the necessary powers.

    The presence of such a supernatural figure is likewise necessary for those ascetics to whom the gift of a dream or possession is not vouchsafed, and whose decision to enter the religious life is therefore made of their own free will.

    Such people usually begin from a state of despair or disgust with their ordinary human life. A succession of miseries and calamities reduce them to the condition known in Japanese as happo-fusagari, all eight directions blocked, or yukizumari, the feeling that you are up against a brick wall. The death of a husband or a child, a long and debilitating illness, hopeless alcoholism and its attendant financial ruin, miseries such as these are often cited as the doki or motive which convinced them that their lives as hitherto lived were inadequate and meaningless and drove them to seek another kind of life in religion.

    Mrs Matsuyama, a healer and exorcist living on the outskirts of Kyoto, told me in 1963 that at the age of twenty-two she had contracted what the doctors told her was an incurable sickness. Someone then told her that although medicine could not help her, the supernatural power of Fudo-Myoo [to be explained below] could. She must undertake under the tutelage of Fudo a regime of austerities on a mountain near Nara. To this place she accordingly repaired and threw herself, sick though she was, into a course of fasting and cold water exercises. At the end of the prescribed period she was not only cured, but had found an entirely new centre and direction to her life. She had accomplished a close bond with Fudo, who in the course of the austerities had conferred powers upon her, and who thereafter supervised her life down to the smallest detail.

    Mrs Matsuyama's history may be taken as typical of the voluntary ascetic. If the gift is not given to them they may, with sufficient drive and will power, set out to find it for themselves.

    Let us now examine more closely the kind of divinity who spontaneously appears as guardian to these people, and whose tutelage and overshadowing presence is so essential to their success.

    Two broad categories of divinity seem to appear in this capacity.

    First, there are Buddhist divinities of the classes known as Myoo, bright kings, and Gongen, figures which are theoretically supposed to be "temporary manifestations" of Buddhas or Bodhisattvas. The two characteristics which immediately strike the observer about both these classes of divinity are their ferocious raging visage and the halo of flames which surrounds them. Secondly, in the role of guardian there appears once more on the scene the figure of the supernatural snake.

    Of the Buddhist angry, fiery deities the most frequent to appear in the role of guardian is Fudo-Myoo. Fudo is the central and paramount figure in the group of divinities known as the Godai Myoo or Five Great Bright Kings, who in esoteric Buddhism stand as emanations or modes of activity of the Buddha. Where the Buddha exists static and immovable, withdrawn from activity, the five Myoo act as his agents and messengers. Each presides over one of the five directions, the centre being the domain of Fudo.

    Though never so horrendous in appearance as the Tibetan angry deities, the face of Fudo is nevertheless startling to those accustomed only to the gentle and compassionate iconography of the Buddha and Bodhisattva figures, and even more so to those such as the sixteenth-century jesuits [missionaries to japan] who associate fury with the diabolic order. He is usually found represented as blue, red or black. One eye glares downwards, the other squints divergently upwards. With one upper tooth grasping his lower lip and one lower tooth grasping his upper lip, his mouth is twisted into a peculiar snarl. His long hair hangs in a coil over his left shoulder. His right hand grasps a sword and his left a rope, and he stands not on a lotus or an animal mount as do many Buddhist divinities, but on an immovable rock, which rises sometimes from curling waves. Always he is ringed round with fire....

    This is the divinity whom the great majority of ascetics look upon as their guardian, who appears to them in dreams, who directs their austerities, who endues them with vitality and confers upon them their powers. In the doctrine of the Shugendo ... he is regarded as the image of the perfect nature residing latently in every man and waiting to be released by the proper religious exercises....

    The second category of guardians is already familiar. They are deities who are either snakes in their "real form" or who appear frequently in a snake transformation.

    The deity Ryujin, a dragon in his own right, is frequently cited, especially by women ascetics, as the guardian presiding over their welfare, their source of power and upholding guide. So likewise are an extraordinary number of deities who choose to appear to the ascetic in snake form.... Mrs Hiroshima's guardian Magotaro lnari . . . turned out to have a "real form" which was a snake. . . .

    Nor are these two classes of guardian, the furious fiery ones and the serpents, so dissociated from each other as might first appear. Fudo himself is frequently represented by his attribute, an erect sword, twined about by the dragon Kurikara. The sword stands upright on its thunderbolt hilt, its point inside the mouth of the dragon who has flung its coils round the shaft. Here is Fudo unmistakably linked with the serpent, and at the same time providing a bridge between the two categories of guardian deity.

    [Later in the book, Blacker returns to these two women shamans to describe their healing practice.3]

    Confronted by a sufferer complaining of aches, pains, hallucinations or compulsive actions which she suspects to be caused by some kind of possession, the exorcist's first task is to diagnose the trouble. He must discover first whether it is indeed caused by a spiritual agency rather than by indigestion or migraine or appendicitis, and second what kind of spiritual entity is responsible. For this task a good many ascetics rely on their power of gantsu or clairvoyant eyes. With this accomplishment the healer is able to see the inhabitants of the spiritual world, whether malignant or benign. Mrs Nakano, for example, a professional healer and ascetic from Skikoku who regularly appeared in full yamabushi costume4 in Kyoto on August 1st to joint in the ritual ascent of Mt Omine, told me that for her diagnoses she relied chiefly on her power of clairvoyant vision. Armed with this faculty, she was able to see at once the cause of her patient's malady. The image of a dog, a snake, a resentful ancestor, or an incident from the past which had preyed on the patient's mind, would appear vividly before her eyes. Equally clearly, however, would appear the image of an inflamed appendix, should that be the true cause of the malady. She could also see what had become of people who had disappeared without trace, and during the war had had to respond to many calls from relatives of soldiers at the front to discover if, when and how these men had met their death....

    Another power which proves useful in the process of exorcism is mimitsu, clairaudient hearing. Mrs Nakano told me that her practice of austerities had given her clairaudient ears as well as clairvoyant eyes. She would hear a voice clearly speaking in her ear and explaining the cause of the patient's malady. . . .

    Once diagnosed, the malignant possession must be overcome; either the cause of its misery and resentment must be removed or it must be brought to realise the error of its ways. Some living examples will best illustrate the methods customarily employed to this end.

    Mrs Matsuyama, the professional ascetic healer living in Sagano whose course of austerities was described in a previous chapter, told me in the autumn of 1963 that for the final banishment of the fox or ghost she relied on the power of FudoMyoo himself working through her in a state of trance. [A "fox" is a characteristically japanese, sub-human demonic form-said to be shaped more like a weasel than an actual fox-that causes mischief through possession, oppression, or poltergeist type manifestations. It was earlier described by Blacker.] She demonstrated her methods forthwith. Conducting me into the shrine room of her house, where in front of a large and glittering altar to Fudo was a gomadan or magic fire platform, she seated herself before it and began to recite in strong nasal tones the Middle Spell of Fudo:

    Nomaku samada basarada
    Senda makaroshana
    Sowataya untarata kamman.

    She then swung into the Heart Sutra, over and over again and constantly increasing in gabbling speed. Soon she began to make odd grunts and moans amidst the words of the sutra, followed by stertorous puffing sounds and one or two of the piercing magical yells called kiai, while her clasped hands shook violently up and down like a flail. Finally with frightful force she beat her stomach several times with her.fists while bass roars burst from her mouth.

    This violent seizure lasted about a minute. Then the chanting grew calmer and flatter, until suddenly, with a note on the gong, she was herself again, calm and businesslike.

    That was Fudo who had taken possession of her, she announced. For her healing she would always invoke him into her body so that his power behind the words of the sutra would cause the evil spirit molesting the patient to capitulate. The sufferer would often fling herself frantically about the room, the fox inside her screaming that it was not afraid, that it was stronger than Fudo, sometimes even climbing up on to the roof in the effort to escape. But eventually it would capitulate and the patient would return to herself, dazed and astonished, and remembering nothing of what had occurred.

    About a month after my first meeting with Mrs Matsuyama I was privileged to watch her methods in practice. Our mutual friend Miss Nakagawa sent me amessage to say that a neighbour of hers, a Mrs Fukumoto, was suffering from fox possession and would be visiting Mrs Matsuyama the next day for treatment. I was to go early to Mrs Matsuyama's house, and be there in a casual way as though I were a pupil when the patient appeared.

    Mrs Matsuyama was ready waiting when I arrived, in a white silk kimono. Shortly afterwards the patient herself appeared, a robust-looking woman in her fifties. At once she burst into a torrent of animated talk. She was greatly troubled by a voice constantly talking in her ear. Sometimes it gave her useful information, such as which road to take at an unfamiliar crossroads. But usually it was a tiresome nuisance, keeping her awake at night asking questions.

    Mrs Matsuyama arranged two cushions in front of the glittering altar, for herself and her patient, and rosary in hand slipped quickly into her violent trance. Her loud and stern Heart Sutras soon gave way to a succession of bass roars and barks and stertorous puffs, while she pummeled her patient on the back, rubbed the rosary over her body and traced with her finger some characters on her back. Finally she gave three or four piercing kiai yells, pointing her hands at the patient in the mudra [magical hand gesture used in Vajrayana] called ho-no-ken-in, with two fingers outstretched like a sword.

    Then with a shake she came to herself again and gravely addressed her patient.

    "It is not a fox who is troubling you. It is your dead father. He died in the house of his concubine and hence has been unable to achieve rest. To get rid of the nuisance you must undertake the cold water austerity night and morning for twentyone days." Mrs Fukumoto seemed appalled by this announcement and stammered that her husband would never allow it.

    "In that case," Mrs Matsuyama replied, "you must do the next best thing, which is to get up at half-past midnight every night for three weeks and recite the Heart Sutra a hundred and eight times. Have a rosary of a hundred and eight beads in your hand and count the beads as you recite." It was not so quick a cure as the cold water, she added, but just as efficacious in the end.

    Even this programme seemed daunting to Mrs Fukumoto, whose cheerful face looked dismayed as she asked whether it would really do her any good. Sternly Mrs Matsuyama assured her that it was the only way to get rid of the trouble. You must cast away all doubt, she said. Fudo has directed you to this course. Eat as little meat as possible and after three weeks come and see me again.

    By these grave words Mrs Fukumoto seemed convinced, and took her departure looking much relieved.

    Mrs Matsuyama's method of exorcism was thus to fall into a state of trance in which Fudo possessed her and used her voice to vanquish the fox or ghost. It is in fact rather an unusual one. The ascetic only rarely becomes entranced, even though in theory it is through the divine power of his guardian deity that he accomplishes his work. A more usual method is to overcome the foxes and ghosts by the power of the holy text which a previous course of austerities has activated....

    Finally let us look at a couple of the cases treated by Mrs Hiroshima Ryuun....Some of the cures which she performed in the course of her travels were recorded by a pupil of hers in a manuscript book which in the summer of 1972 her daughter Mrs Hiroshima Umeko kindly allowed me to read. The manuscript is not dated, but internal evidence suggests that it was written shortly before the end of the war.

    Among the many cures and exorcisms recorded in this interesting document, two examples will give some idea of Mrs Hiroshima's methods. Here is the story of the muenbotoke or wandering spirits.

    Mrs Hiroshima, respectfully referred to throughout the book as 'sensei', master, was summoned to the house of a Mr Morimoto near Nara, whose baby was suffering from an obstinate swelling on the shoulder which the doctors were powerless to cure.

    Sensei at once began to recite the Heart Sutra in front of the sick child. Soon there appeared to her clairvoyant eyes three spirits flashing like stars.

    "Who are you?" she enquired.

    "We are spirits belonging to this house," they replied. "We all died young and poor, with no descendants to care for us. We therefore made the Morimoto child sick in order to draw attention to our plight. Please tell the people here to recite requiem masses [presumably Buddhist requiem rites for the dead] for us, and then we will let the child get well and act as guardians to it into the bargain. We are buried in the ground to the south of this house."

    When Mr Morimoto was told the tale, he remembered that some years before an uncle of his had been buried near the house, together with his two wives, who one after the other had died without children. Thus the family had died out, and no one had performed any of the necessary requiems for the dead spirits. It was quite natural, he realised, that they should call attention to themselves by making his baby ill. But as soon as the correct masses were said and offerings made, needless to say the child recovered at once.

    A more unpleasant story is recorded under the title of "The New Ghost's Wish." Another family near Nara, also called Morimoto, was reduced to a desperate state of misery. The husband fell very ill with pneumonia, and despite the wife's devoted efforts to nurse him back to health and at the same time to earn enough to support the family, he was continually cursing her and upbraiding her for what he jealously imagined to be her unfaithfulness. At the end of 1942 he died. Soon afterwards his wife developed an appalling headache and had in her turn to take to her bed. Their kind go-between, realising that her sickness was outside the sphere of ordinary doctors, sent for Mrs Hiroshima.

    Sensei entered the room to find the poor widow prostrated near the altar to her dead husband's spirit. At once she began the hyakugan-shingyoor Hundred Heart Sutras, which takes two-and-a-half hours to recite. At the end of this powerful service she was able to address the spirit.

    "Who are you?" she demanded.

    "The new ghost," it replied. "I have been waiting and waiting for you to come. Indeed, it was to get you to come here that I caused my wife to have this fearful headache. Magotaro [the name of Mrs Hiroshima's guardian deity], I died with great resentment in my heart and because of this I am wandering with nowhere to go. I died hating and loathing my wife because she was continually making me doubt her. If she marries again I cannot bear it."

    When the poor woman was told of this speech, she admitted that her husband had been continually jealous, and that nothing she did ever pleased him.

    "Promise me now," sensei said, "that you do not intend to marry again and will continue to honour your husband's spirit."

    The woman promised. Sensei thereupon recited with ear-splitting force the nine magic syllables.


    And at that instant the headache which had been tormenting the woman for so long vanished.

    There are a good many more rather similar stories in this book, which describe how Mrs Hiroshima not only healed the sick of maladies which the doctors could not touch, but also brought to rest many spirits who for one reason or another were lost, resentful, wandering or miserable, unable to reach their proper salvation. Buried images of jizo who wished to be dug up, ghosts of those who had died with worries or grudges in their hearts, more ghosts who died without descendants to give them their required nourishment-all these inhabitants of the other world had called attention to their plight by causing pain or sickness to some human being. Mrs Hiroshima as she passed through the village on one of her long journeys was called in to help, and through her treatment she healed the sick person and at the same time comforted the unhappy spirit.

    Reprinted with permission of HarperCollins Publishers Limited from Carmen Blacker, The Catalpa Bow: A Study ofShamanistic Practices in japan (London: Allen and Unwin Ltd., 1975), pp. 171-179, 235-240, and 242-244.

    This page titled 13.1: Healing and Exorcism in Japanese Shugendo is shared under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Dale Cannon (Independent) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.