The philosophical practice of Shugendo finds its roots in many of the proto-religious paradigms that made up Japan prior to the Meiji Period (1868-1912), including elements of Shinto, Daoism, and Buddhism. During the Meiji Period the government banned Shugendo, however it didn’t prevent devoted followers from keeping the tradition alive.
In essence, Shugendo is a form of shamanistic asceticism. Practitioners strive to connect to the natural world by walking through it and living in it, and it attracts everyone from nightclub owners to priests who subsist off the land. The movie itself attempts to explore this practice, but it doesn’t feel like a documentary because it’s not conveyed as one – we flash through an imagistic montage of different people and events, including the main character Tateishi Kôshô, a Shugendo priest – but there isn’t a particular narrative being told, or anything being explicitly explained.
The almost hallucinatory movement between these images unfolds in a way that feels very, culturally, Japanese. Rather than being told what Shugendo is, we’re led through facets of his everyday life that in themselves reflect his spiritual teachings – praying and giving gratitude to a waterfall, gathering vegetables from his garden, and performing rites of cleanliness. The whole of the film is tied together however by a single event, a 26 kilometer long pilgrimage up Omine mountain, which we often flash back too.
Some people might find the lack of exposition frustrating, but I thought it was a very ideal approach to the topic that director Jean-Marc Abela was trying to target. It never tries to localize the “gist” of Shugendo, just as a Daoist never tries to localize the meaning of “Dao” – the non-conceptual nature of reality is reflected in both the film and the message as a reminder of Shugendo’s Buddhist origins. That said, I think there was room for Abela to expand on some of the ideas presented or things that could have been developed to give us a clearer picture and understanding of how this philosophy fits into the Japanese mindset.
The premiere of Shugendo Now comes at an appropriate time, especially for us Canadians, when questions of ecological sustainability and conservation are becoming critical. The multiple oil spills in Alberta and BC against the shadow of the Enbridge Pipeline echoed in my mind as I watched the film, particularly when one of the practitioners referred to Shugendo as a form of “eco-ethics”. In Canada we have a similarly developed ‘ecological consciousness’, especially for those people living in rural areas that they call home, and there is an understanding and symbiotic relationship that occurs between humans and the natural world. And yet, this divide seems to be growing larger every year, especially as more and more people end up in an urban setting.
This is a question that many of the people in the film end up facing after their pilgrimage up the mountain: how do you return to the city? For many, it meant taking this idea of ‘gratitude’ to heart and exercising it in their surroundings – for others it meant looking at the way they lived, and then trying to find more ecologically ethical alternatives. One member was the CEO of a cement-mixing company, and is now attempting to clean up his industry and find better methods that aren’t as harmful.
I don’t know if Shugendo is specifically what we as Canadians need, but it strikes me that we do need some sort of similar practice, one which endeavours to bridge that gap between human concerns and environmental well-being. We don’t have the same history of shamanism and spirituality to draw on, but we can learn a lot from the Japanese philosophy about regarding nature not as something separate from us, but rather something that is an extension of us. In the words of Kôshô, we have to learn to ‘reconnect with the Mother’.