Among the Yamabushi (Narrow Road Part 4)

 

Back on the road with Bashō and his straw sandals…

One of the high points of his journey, figuratively as well as literally, was his pilgrimage to the 出羽三山(でわさんざん) Dewa Sanzan, three mountains of Dewa Province, which is a very sacred place in Shintō and Buddhism and in the 修験道(しゅげんどう) Shugendō mountain ascetic sect. This is a syncretic religion combining elements of Shintō and Buddhism, Taoism and other beliefs. Practitioners are known as 修験者(しゅげんじゃ) Shugenja or 山伏(やまぶし) Yamabushi (someone who prostrates himself in the mountains – the ‘bushi’ here is not the same as the word ‘bushi’ 武士(ぶし) meaning ‘warrior’). They go on foot through the mountains practising austerities, for example meditating while standing under ice-cold waterfalls – perhaps familiar to anyone who has read Mishima’s Sea of Fertility tetralogy? (Here is an interview with a Shugendō practitioner explaining some of the practices and the philosophy behind them.)

The three mountains of Dewa are 羽黒山(はぐろさん) Haguro-san, Black Wing Mountain, 月山(がっさん) Gassan, Moon Mountain and 湯殿山(ゆどのさん) Yudono-san, ‘hot-spring mountain’. As is customary, Bashō visited them in this order. On Haguro-san he and Sora stayed at a temple and took part in a haiku gathering in the abbot’s quarters. He includes the following poem

有難や雪をかほらす南谷(ありがたやゆきがかおらすみなみだに)

arigata ya
yuki wo kaorasu
minamidani

Among the translations and explanations of this poem, the most beautiful I could find was the following from this Japanese-language site on Oku no Hosomichi

ああ、尊くも有り難いことであるよ。ここ南谷では、下界をよそに、南風が霊山の残雪の香をかおらせて、清浄な空気がみなぎっている。

My approximate translation: “Ah, how precious and gratitude-inducing! In this southern valley, in this lower world, the south wind has made the lingering snow on this holy mountain give off a fragrance. The atmosphere is full to the brim with purity”.

For those who are unfamiliar with Japanese: such a translation, even of an explanation that is seeking to unpack and explain a haiku, can only be approximate because the structure of English forces one to give sentences a structure of ‘who did what to whom’ that is not necessary there in the original. For example, the expression 有り難い arigatai can, according to the dictionary, be translated ‘grateful’ or ‘evoking gratitude’ which implies that it can describe the subject or object of the gratitude, or both simultaneously, or perhaps the relationship between them at that moment. (I also love the fact that Japanese has a word for ‘lingering snow’ – bear in mind that it was July by the modern calendar when Bashō was visiting so snow lingering on the ground was something worth remarking on!)

On the way to Gassan, Bashō and Sora put on paper cords around their bodies and “sacred crowns” on their heads – pilgrim clothes, perhaps similar to what these two yamabushi are wearing. The man on the right is holding (and perhaps blowing into) a conch shell.

You can see more modern yamabushi photos in this gallery by Tony McNicol.

The way to Gassan went “through the clouds, mists, and mountain air, over snows that never melt” (Keene). Although he used the services of a porter, Bashō nonetheless clearly found the climb exhausting. On the following day, on the way to Yudono-san, he noticed a cherry tree – again, unusual for July – and was deeply moved by it. Visitors to Yudono-san were forbidden to describe what is within the shrine area, and Bashō therefore “lays down his pen”

語られぬ湯殿にぬらす袂かな(かたられぬゆどのにぬらすたもとかな)

katararenu
Yudono ni nurasu
tamoto kana

I cannot speak of
Yudono, but see how wet
My sleeves are with tears (trans: Keene)

The ‘wet sleeves’ expression is an often-used metaphor in Japanese poetry and indicates ‘tears’ (see here on the University of Virginia’s Ogura Hyakunin Isshu page for examples of sleeve-wetting) but there appears to be an extra wordplay here because the word ‘Yudono’ has to do with bathing. The ban on describing the object of worship at the shrine has now been extended to a photography. Having never visited, I was of course intrigued as to what might be there… For anyone who wants to avoid ‘spoilers’ please note that the “Oku Annotated” site, which gives lots of detail on Bashō and Sora’s pilgrimage to the three mountains, does contain one!.

Lesley Downer, in “On the Narrow Road to the Deep North”, tells of her interest in finding out whether there are still yamabushi in the Three Mountains – some of her colleagues in Tokyo pooh-poohed the idea that there were any such thing – and her experiences when she finds them. Most of the people she meets in the mountains are from farms and villages and have been deputised to undertake the pilgrimage to pray for success, good harvests, the safety of their families, etc., together with a few people who have undertaken the rigorous ascetic training and act as guides for the pilgrims. As this Tofugu article also explains, many yamabushi these days are former salarymen who have turned to religion after retirement.

I tried my hand at a couple of yamabushi paintings to accompany this post – the first is after one of the photos in Tony McNicol’s gallery.

yamabushi2 yamabushi1

 

 

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