Yudonosan the mountain of rebirth, and mummies of ascetic monks, Dewa Sanzan, Japan


Over dinner yesterday evening, we told the host of our guesthouse in Haguro village, that we planed to climb Mount Yudonosan on the last day of our visit.

His eyes got wider, he whistled and tilted his head sideways in the Japanese expression meaning ‘no way,’ and said : “Mmmmm….Vely, Vely difficult…”

From further inquiries, we figured out that he did not mean that climbing Mount Yudonosan was impossible, but that to get there and back to Haguro village afterwards, was not an easy task.
The local bus runs only four times per day to and from Tsuruoka City, and we might not be able to come back.

Yudonosan mountain is usually climbed in one go with Mount Gassan.
From the summit of Mount Gassan, it takes only another two and a half hours to descend to the temple shrine of Yudonosan.

But we had already climbed Mount Gassan the day before, and instead of going down by way of Mount Yudonosan, we retraced our steps and went down Mount Gassan.
It took us less than three hours, but it was where we could catch the bus back to Haguro village, where our guesthouse is located.

The next day the owner had some good news for us.
His Shinto prayer group was going to meet for a ceremony in the main shrine of Mount Yudonosan, EXACTLY on the day we planned to visit Mount Yudonosan.

In some mysterious way, the Universe had arranged itself to help us visit the Mountain of Rebirth… And even though we will not be climbing it, we were happy for the easy opportunity to visit it and experience the ancient purification ritual that is still being performed there after more than a thousand years.

In a symbolic way, visiting the mountain of rebirth, turned out to be effortless….
We will be going there in an air conditioned car and ushered into the ceremony and ritual with ease…
No more do we need to face the struggles of many births and deaths… It was a smooth sailing visit….

Breakfast was a humble affair of mostly things you could buy ready made in the supermarket, and the owner kept looking at his watch, so we hurried up to eat some of it and not delay him.

The drive to Yudonosan gave us an idea how rural this area truly is.
In wintertime, all the mountain roads are covered in snow, and from what we could gather, the snow plowing is not so good, and access is totally blocked for much of the winter season.

At the entrance shrine to Yudonosan, stood a huge red tori gate.

While our host went inside the main office, we strolled around the shrines and climbed up a small hill, where we walked together hand in hand, through a succession of small red-orange gates.

It was a symbolic walk together into the next life, and it is said that a couple that walks through those gates together, will reincarnate together again.

Then we proceeded to the middle of the mountain, where the purification rituals occur, and our host’s prayer group was meeting.

We walked up a stone path and down into the valley.
We crossed a wooden bridge over a beautiful river.

At the entrance to the shrine, we were asked to take off our shoes.
We sat on the long wooden benches and removed our shoes and socks.

We then paid a suggested donation and bowed our heads in front of the Shinto priest who gave us a blessing and chanted a short prayer.

The priest gave us a piece of white paper cut in the shape of a small kimono with the name of the mountain and a blessing written on it.
In fairly good English, he told us to rub it lightly over our arms, legs, chest and face and to drop it into the little stone pond next to the entrance.

After the purification process, we walked through the gate and reached a very large volcanic rock.

We climbed barefoot on this ochre orange colored volcanic rock with mineral hot springs bubbling through it and pouring from it into a hot spring waterfall below.

We climbed up the slippery rock holding on to the bamboo railing.
We said a prayer on top of the hot rock, overlooking the vast valley and the surrounding mountains.

The rock had varying degrees of heat emanating from it, from VERY hot to mildly warm.
We climbed down and were ushered into a sunny area with hot volcanic waters to soak our feet.

We sat for a long meditation in a shaded area, while waiting for our host’s prayer group meeting and ceremony to be over.

We would have loved to witness it, but being foreigners, he had treated us with a mixture of respect and suspicion from the moment we checked into his guest house.

We were used by now to not being seen as regular people….as Jules and Tali, but as foreigners in Japan, with everything that this entails….

In our previous guesthouse, the attendant who made our futon beds at night, made for Jules a bed fit for a six meter tall giant.
He actually used a double length futon to double the length of Jules’ bed.

When I told him it was not necessary, he said that Jules was very tall, and needed the extra length.

Jules is not a very tall man, and in fact, he is only slightly taller than the young man who made our beds, but this was something that I already knew….people do not really see you…they see through the filters they have in their minds…
And in this young man’s mind, foreigners are ALL big and tall.

I actually was delighted at an opportunity to meditate in the open air.
I closed my eyes and heard the voices of other pilgrims coming and leaving….. Their voices were muffled by the strong sound of the creek behind me.

I let all the voices and all of my stream of thoughts, simply wash away with the running creek.
I held on to none of it…. I allowed my mind to settle into the quietness that comes from judging nothing that occurs…

After our meditation we sat and observed the pilgrims.

I thought about how people come to Yudonosan to ask to be reincarnated again into this world in more favorable circumstances…

I do not wish to continue to reincarnate here again and again…
To me, this is NOT a blessing at all, but a trap of our egos…

Common people consider all of the passing things of this world to be a blessing, and they want to hold on to them….
They consider success to be a blessing, a family to be a blessing, money to be a blessing, good health to be a matter of good luck and a blessing, and they cherish many other things in this transitory world.

Yet the Buddha, and Prince Hachiko, who built this place, both renounced extremely favorable conditions and did not wish for yet another favorable incarnation.

They renounced family ties, comfort, luxury, power, wealth and position, in order to realize the Eternal Truth of our Being and to step OUT of the cycle of reincarnation.

Both the Buddha and Hachiko were in line to become a king and an emperor, with most favorable circumstances and much power and money, yet they chose to become acetic hermits, wandering the forests in search of the Truth…

The pilgrims I saw today came asking for blessings and for favors from the gods.

They came asking for themselves or their loved ones… For the departed and the living.
Some could hardly walk and only made their way from the bus to the shrine, while others walked down a long way over the rocks from Mount Gassan….

They all wanted more of exactly what the Buddha, Prince Hachiko, and all the ascetics who had come to Mount Yudonosan, had intended to renounce.

Over many hundreds of years, Spiritual seekers came to Yudonosan to attain Enlightenment.

They used to build simple wooden huts all over this mountain, in which they lived, and they practiced asceticism and control over the body.

They fasted for thirty, fifty and a THOUSAND days, subsisting on nothing but water and meditation.

Along the mountain, small stones are still inscribed with their markings, stating “Thirty,” “Fifty” or a “Thousand” days that they went without food.

Some of those ascetics had mummified themselves by “Committing themselves alive to the earth.”

In fact, the area has more than a few dozen perfect remains of ascetic mummies, that are still in perfect shape, five hundred years after their bodies were discovered.

In fact, we were on our way to visit a temple named Dainichibo Temple, which houses one of these mummified bodies of an ascetic monk.

His name was Daijuku Bosatsu Shinnyokai Shonin.
He was born in the year 1687.

From a young age he was attracted to the teaching of Buddhism.
At the age of twenty, he joined the Buddhist priesthood, vowing to help all mankind and to try and transform the world of inadequacies into an earthly paradise.

He strove for enlightenment in ALL areas, and aspired to become a living Buddha.

He chose the path of asceticism and austerity and practiced it for seventy years.

At the age of 96 he committed himself alive to the earth, which means that he sat in an enclosed grave in a meditation position without food, air or movement, until he left the shell and it became a mummy.

The mummy is NOT preserved by any means other than by the spiritual vibration of the holy man who once embodied it, and achieved control and mastery over the whims of the body.

We were rushed in our visit to pay our respect to Daijuku Bosatsu, because our host was hosting that very night over a hundred people in his inn, who came to perform a sunrise ceremony in Gassan Mountain.

Since sunrise in this northern region is at three thirty in the morning, this means that they will be leaving at two o’clock at night.
He continually apologized to us for the noise they will be making upon their departure.

We did not mind it… We were gladdened by the opportunity to see one of these holy ascetic monks.

Our stay in a small room on this pilgrimage to these symbolic mountains, the simple and uninspired food, and now the noise of a hundred elderly loud pilgrims, was nothing compared to the ascetic practices that some of the people living on these Mountains have gone through….

But to fortify ourselves before they came and to seek respite form the extreme heat and humidity, we made our way to Haguro village and had TWO… Count them TWO blueberry ice creams EACH….

Not exactly asceticism…. but sometimes you can only take one step at a time…

(If you wish to get some background on our experience in climbing the mountains in this region of Japan, please refer to my previous posts about climbing Mount Hagurosan and Mount Gassan.)

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