Caleb Carter

“Imagining Shugendō in the Eighteenth Century”


Among scholars and the broader public alike, Shugendō has often been situated in romanticized terms that fall short of delineating its historical formation. Questions over where, when, and under what conditions the school took shape remain unresolved in the field of Japanese religions. Yet this rendering is not simply the product of modern ways of conceptualizing the past. Offering an earlier precedent, this paper examines the thought of the Tendai Buddhist cleric Jōin 乘因 (1682–1739), who served as the chief administrator of Mount Togakushi (in present-day Nagano ken) from 1727 to 1738. While Shugendō may have only reached the mountain in the sixteenth century, Jōin cast it in ancient, idealized terms, replete with legendary events, lineages, and figures at the mountain. This projection of Shugendō into the distant past effectively grounded the school in the present: situating it among the older, established traditions of East Asia and raising its prestige and allure in the eyes of its patrons. The mythologies conceived by Jōin can be understood, in effect, as a vital component in the cultural development of Togakushi Shugendō and the economic viability of the mountain community. Compared alongside that of his modern intellectual counterparts, his thought, moreover, reveals some of the ways in which romanticizing the past has helped to historically ground cultural traditions, not only in the modern era, but early modern as well.