Ice Water and Tear Gas

Like a virtual pet or a powdered geisha, the stoical mystic who meditates beneath icy waterfalls is one of the stereotypical faces of Japan. Stereotype or not, such stoics do exist. One group of them is called Yamabushi, and freezing water is just one item from their creative menu of physical agonies. Last fall got a taste of the rest when joined them for several days in the holy Dewa Sanzan mountains in northern Honshu.

Sacred mountains in Japan are usually associated with Shinto gods, but a religion called Shugendo, founded 1200 years ago, associates the mountains with aspects of Buddha. The Shugendo faith is a mixture of Shinto and Buddhism. In modern times it has been overshadowed by purer forms of the two religions, but it is still popular in some areas. This is especially true in coastal Yamagata, where three holy mountains named Gassan, Yudono-san, and Haguro-san tower impressively over the rice-growing Shonai plain.

The Yamabushi are Shugendo priests who escort the mountain gods down from the mountains and into the rice fields each spring. In the fall, the Yamabushi show the gods the way home again. They live outdoors in the mountains for long periods of time, and their elaborate costume is designed for that purpose. For example, their thickly quilted blue-and-white checkerboard coats can also be used as futons, and the small black hats they wear strapped to their heads can be used to filter drinking water.

I went to Yamagata to learn more about the religion by joining a Shugendo pilgrimage. The pilgrims・outfit is much simpler than the priests・ Everything we wore was white: white tabi shoes, white socks, white leggings, white hakama pants, white jacket, white head-cloth, and a braided white string called a shime which we wore around our necks and down our backs. The explanation was simple. The purpose of a Shugendo pilgrimage, we were told, is not to communicate with the gods but rather to “better know your true self”.・To that end, we were supposed to withdraw from all worldly distractions — as if we were dead. White is the color of death.

Clad in the color of death, we spent the next three days feeling vigorously alive. Awakened before dawn by a blast on a conch shell, we would start each day with a sunrise hike through a cold and misty forest. We ate very little, but we walked for many miles, climbing Yudono-san once and Haguro-san twice. We drank hot metallic water from a sacred mountain spring. We walked barefoot through the snow. We took a night hike through the forest to visit an ancient pagoda. I lost weight.

We even did a little sumo wrestling. To the Yamabushi, the struggle against another wrestler represents the struggle against evil — and it is also good physical exercise for rugged outdoor life. There is an outdoor sumo dohyo in the temple complex atop Haguro-san.

Unfortunately, we were not able to do the waterfall meditation because the snow near the fall was waist-deep and the temperature was below freezing. The Yamabushi were afraid that if we pilgrims went into the water in those conditions our hearts might stop. Most of us felt a mixture of honest disappointment and secret relief.

However, we did do another ascetic exercise in which we spent ten minutes in a smoky room. Surprisingly, the smoke did not come from incense. The Yamabushi were burning hot chili peppers — strong ones, and lots of them. Breathing this smoke was extremely painful, and it was so thick that the single candle lighting the room became nearly invisible. After a few minutes, the initial silence gave way to a cacophony of coughing, gasping, and choking. I still smelled of chili peppers a day after I staggered out of the chamber.

This ice-water-and-tear-gas lifestyle may strike some readers as masochistic, but it is really the exact opposite. Masochism indulges the minds fascination with bodily sensations, while asceticism trains the mind to disregard the physical world. A masochist seeks pleasure in pain, while an ascetic uses pain to negate pleasure — and then ignores the pain itself. I suppose that the main reason that ascetics engage in austerities rather than luxuries is that pleasure is more difficult to ignore than pain is. (Besides, pain is cheaper.)

Ideally, then, ascetic pain should be kept within tolerable limits or it becomes a distraction. The pain of the smoky room was quite impossible to ignore, but it served an additional purpose: to build compassion for the suffering of others by giving us a short dose of intense suffering ourselves. On another level, this exercise continued the theme of death — and therefore a reconsideration of our lives — because the room was a deliberate and very convincing simulation of hell.

On the last day, we concluded our pilgrimage by jumping over a large fire. If we had been symbolically dead for several days, this fiery leap was supposed to represent being born back into the world. That done, we could resume our normal lives, hopefully with a fresh perspective. While jumping through the fire, we were supposed reconnect with the world by shouting the name of a loved one. We were told the night before to consider very carefully and choose the name of a person whose love we can count on and whom we rely upon unconditionally for understanding, acceptance, and support. A newborn baby cries out for its mother, we were told, and during our symbolic rebirth we should cry out for someone to be our anchor in the world as well.

One gentleman from Washington, DC shouted, Hail to the Redskins!
Yep, we were definitely back in the real world.
Copyright @ Tom Baker. All rights reserved.

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