Shugendo Documentary

I went to the International Buddhist Film Festival showcase in San Rafael last night. I didn’t even know that the festival was occurring and missed a number of good films. I heard about it because I was looking at information on Shugendo and found out that there were three recent documentaries and, lo and behold, one was being shown the next day 30 minutes away from me!

The film was “Shugendo Now” by Jean-Marc Abela and Mark Patrick McGuire. Their synopsis of it is as follows:

"How does one integrate lessons learned from nature in daily life? This feature documentary is an experiential journey into the mystical practices of Japanese mountain asceticism. In Shugendô (The Way of Acquiring Power), practitioners perform ritual actions from shamanism, 'Shintô,' Daoism, and Tantric Buddhism. They seek experiential truth of the teachings during arduous climbs in sacred mountains. Through the peace and beauty of the natural world, practitioners purify the six roots of perception, revitalize their energy and reconnect with their truest nature – all while grasping the fundamental interconnectedness with nature and all sentient beings. How does one return to the city after an enlightening experience in the mountains? More poetic than analytical, this film explores how a group of modern Japanese people integrate the myriad ways mountain learning interacts with urban life. With intimate camera work and a sensual sound design the viewer is taken from deep within the Kumano mountains to the floating worlds of Osaka and Tokyo and back again. Might the two be seen as one?"

You can see the trailer for it below or go to vimeo or Youtube to see it.


The film was quite well done and I was very moved by it. I’ve been to Japan, including the sacred mountains of Mt. Hiei and Mt. Koya of the Tendai and Shingon sects, respectively. I also have some exposure to Tendai practices. This combined with the beautiful scenery, very reminisicent of my home for much of my life in the Pacific Northwest, pulled on my heart strings quite a bit, stirring up a real longing to do the kinds of practices and pilgrimages depicted in the film. It isn’t a film that explains much of what is going on in detail, allowing the people, especially Tateishi Kôshô, speak for themselves, often through actions more than just words.

I spoke to one of the film’s makers, Mark, for a bit after the film, and I was quite taken with his thoughts on the people and the experiences. He and Marc did a question and answer period following the film as well. I picked up a DVD copy of the film from them after the screening as well. I encourage people to check out this film if they are interested at all in the ways that Buddhism has interacted with other forms of spirituality as well as a reverence of nature.

Here in Northern California, we are quite fortunate that my friend and sometimes teacher, Rev. Keisho, teaches Shugendo and Tendai practices and philosophy at his hermitage. While a formally trained and ordained Tendai priest who lived in a temple for six years in Japan, his primary teacher (a Tendai abbot) was mainly a Shugendo practitioner and well known as such. This makes Shugendo available here, which is an incredible opportunity given its rarity outside of Japan. There is so little in print in English (only two or three books total) that Shugendo is almost entirely unknown to the general public. Even in Japan, as the film relates, people think it is a facet of history and folklore and are often unaware that it still exists.

I will be receiving a copy of another Shugendo documentary, “Where Mountains Fly,” shortly from its creators and I plan to post on it as well.