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En no Gyoja

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  • Born: 634
  • Japanese: 役行者 (En no Gyouja)

En no Gyôja is perhaps the most famous of the shugenja, practitioners of shugendô, a path of mountain asceticism by which one is believed to acquire magical powers. He is similarly considered to be the first of the yamabushi ("mountain priests"). Much of what is known of him derives from legends.

En no Gyôja is said to have been born as Kamo no Kozumi, in a village called Uhara, at the foot of Mt. Katsuragi in Yamato province. Retreating to the mountains to pursue a path of asceticism, he practiced for thirty years, until he had mastered the same degree of magical abilities as the mythical Buddhist figure Kujaku-myôô, the Peacock King. He is said to have then flown to the palace of the immortals, riding atop five-colored clouds and accompanied by two demonic spirits.

Some time later, he visited Mt. Kinpusen, in Yoshino, where, after seven days of meditation, he experienced a vision of the bodhisattva Jizô holding a jewel of enlightenment. Gyôja flew atop his clouds to Mt. Daisen, in the west, and prayed for seven days that the deity Zaô Gongen, he who is credited with granting all shugenja their powers, might attend to him. Eventually, the blue-faced angry deity, wielding a six-ringed pilgrim's staff, appeared.

In another episode of his legends, En no Gyôja journeyed to the Mino'o Waterfall in Osaka, where he met the bodhisattva Ryûju. He erected a temple to Ryûju called Mino'o Temple, and tried to convince a local Shinto deity, Hitokotonushi, to help him build a bridge extending from Mt. Katsuragi to Mt. Yoshino. However, he became angry at the slow pace of the god's work, and threw him into a valley. The angry god then petitioned the emperor to send armies after En no Gyôja, to arrest him, claiming that the monk sought to rebel against the throne. Gyôja escaped the armies easily, flying away on his clouds, but, after they captured his mother instead, he was forced to surrender himself. He was exiled to Izu Ôshima, but escaped his exile, flying to Mt. Fuji. Hitokotonushi noticed him escaping, however, and reported to the emperor, who sent his armies out once again, this time with the aim to kill the monk. They were unable to do so, however, due to his great magical powers; great storms plagued the capital, and, according to the legend, a booming voice announced that En no Gyôja had done nothing wrong, and was not to be persecuted. En no Gyôja was thus offered a pardon, and returned to living in Yamato for a time, eventually retiring to China, flying there atop a grass mat along with his mother; many shugenja or yamabushi who later traveled to China to learn to practice magic are said to have studied under him.

References

  • Masako Watanabe, Storytelling in Japanese Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art (2011), 58-59.
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