Ascetic of Hearth, Wind & Vacuity

extract published in “Géo magazine”  October 2000 Issue : “A French monk in Japan”.

Shô-no-Iwaya Yakunichi-gyô
Asceticism from the grotto of the Celestial Flute

Priest Kuban on right side, 10 hours sitting meditation inside Sho grotto in front of Fudo Myo's altar


It’s complete name is: Shô-no-iwaya-Yakkunichi-Ichimankai-Himitsu-Dokuju-Kaihôgyô-Dokurô-Mugon-no-gyô which means "Asceticism of the cave of the Celestial Flute during a hundred days of retreat, while carrying out daily wandering in the mountains, all while reciting the mantra of Fudo Myo a million times and while speaking with no one".

For the 1300th birthday of the school founded by the Ascetic En-no-Gyoja, I wanted to renew my association with one of the roughest asceticisms of Shugendô: "The 100 days of asceticism in the cave of Sho". It is also called Ôminé Kaihogyo Dokurô. For more than a century, only three religious people accomplished it, my asceticism master the Reverend Nakai in 1979, the monk Kando of the temple Kimpusen in 1997 (who passed away from cancer in 1999) and myself in 1996. Knowing himself sick for years, Kando became a monk in 1995, did the 100 days of walking near the town of Yoshino during the year I did my retreat, then the following year, in 1997 completed the one in the cave of Shô (but while doing the ritual of the fire of a million sticks and not the recitation of a million mantras), then in thirty three times 197 kms ascetic walking (as the founder of the Shugendo), he did go & back from Yoshino to Nachi … He planned to do an asceticism walking of hundred days in the mounts Ontaké (which is harder than Mt Fuji) when the disease took him…

"At an altitude of 1,400 meters, at the foot of a cliff, lies the cave. Three meters high and ten to twelve meters in width and depth, the cave is exposed to the storms and rain, but receives little sunlight. The night there gets very cold. There is a partition that hides some of the arch and has for more than 1000 years, the poems of hermit testify to this. After several visits, the Reverend Nakai Kyozen, the superior of the temple Kizoin, in the town of Yoshino, agreed to guide me there. In 1978, he also accomplished this painful asceticism. I put two years aside to prepare myself. People smiled at me, treated me as a "crazy monk". For following the tradition to the end, I cut and sewed myself clothing, then braided for a whole winter the 121 pairs of straw sandals that would be necessary for the daily migrations in the mountains. In bad weather, I would wear two a day. After cutting my "Hyakkimaru", a retreat stick of solid oak, I forged the sword that all yamabushi ascetics must carry on their belt, to cut their jugular with, if one cannot keep his vow. At last, I prepared and trained my body. In the era of this asceticism (1996) I did not know that since 1988, I suffered from a hereditary evil that calcified my vertebral column and my joints: pelvis spondylosis/spondylarthrite ankylosante. To stop it these days, I now move as much as possible. In 1996, this disease had not been diagnosed… I had dazzling pains in my whole back and did not know how the body mechanics would withstand the humid climate of the cave.


"The asceticism of the cave of Shô is a descent into the tomb, say the Initiated", for in this solitude, an incident can cost you life. A fall, a simple infection, the encounter of a bear or the bite of a snake, can be fatal… For to relive the experience of the former Yamabushi, I have resolved to combine several asceticism: The meditation, the retreat, live in hermitage having done vows of silence and of abandonment of the cares of the body... Every day, I will recite ten thousand times the invocation of Fudo Myo, the Unshakeable Angry Buddha. After a hundred days and a million mantra, I will attain the "vision of the Revered One" that is indicated in the canonical texts. Every day, from eight till ten o'clock is meditation, sitting on a cold flagstone. And every morning, I climb to the summit of the mount Sanjo to the monastery. Five to six hours of daily hiking, a round-trip while speaking mantras. Without washing or changing clothes, I will eat only a rice end a day (okayu). Up to the end of April, over several trips with a 60lt backpack, I brought everything to the cave: Rice, offerings, candles, prayer books, sandals and all other materials. Then once more in the snowy mountains, I began the asceticism on the night of the 2nd of May, the annual day of opening of the monastery of the mount Sanjo, to finish the retreat on August 11. My daily program is unchanging. Get up a little before midnight, I recite mantras until 4 o'clock, sitting on a flat rock. From 4 to 5am, prayers and morning offerings. Around 6 o'clock, I sound my conch and leave for the top of mount Sanjo. At the summit, I pray from 8 :15 to 8:30. Return to the cave around 10:45. Prayers until noon. Boiled rice, then rest until 3pm. Often I use this rest to clean and repair my clothing. At 3pm, I compose my journal (which will be published one day, my "Stay in Hells") while preparing the rice. Only one hot meal of the day, followed by the evening service 4pm. Next, mantra recitation until 9pm, then off to bed…

Shogoin temple monthly magazine where was related Kuban's retreat inside Sho grotto

Day after day, the program makes me into a robot. In Japan, of other monks practice "walking asceticism", but usually from a temple, such as the monk ascetics that wander in the mount Hiei. All dread the test of the cave of Shô, classified among the hardest ones, because of the life conditions, amount of walking to do, the cold and dangerous terrain. At the beginning of May, I walk in straw sandals in snow up to the knees. My feet turn blue but withstand the freezing effect. The snow remains only until mid-May and then reveals a path slippery and muddy. In the showers of June, one cannot see further than three meters. The rain is cold and the cave is not a comfortable refuge after the exercises outside. One there prepares alone his food. I had to renounce my sleeping bag as it had literally rotted on me! I slept dressed, in a swarm of ticks and fleas. I cannot let them undo me and especially not kill them. Asceticism here consists also of giving his blood, to nourish living beings… The body and the spirit pass through a rolling mill. Fatigue, raging hunger and dazzling pains in the back and all the joints. To fall down! To no more be able to oneself back up! But it is necessary to hold, to rectify oneself, this is the Law of the Yamabushi. Only the program of my asceticism holds me upright.

In the kaihogyo, to walk, is to put the spirit to the hub center. This is no longer the body that moves itself, but the universe that turns in him.

In the morning, after the hours of meditation in the black and icy night, I remove the dangers that could arise on the way, while tracing in the air the magic signs of the ritual "kuji-goshinpô". To the mount Fugen, the climb is very steep. The path is narrow, lined with cliffs. It crosses heaps of broken rock, uses iron ladders, plunges into small valleys. The days of rain, the path converts itself into true waterfalls of cold water running down alongside the iron ladders attached to the cliff faces. There is no question of suspending the ascetism, not even for a single day, this is the rule! Knees, ankles and hips suffer. Sudden, up there, the sun arises out of a sea of clouds. The peaks seam to detach themselves, similar to the spine of a dragon. There again, the Ascetic & Dragon are nothing other than one and the same. Then the path forks. A Park with wild boars. Their potentially fatal charge. The forest of Ominé is to the Japanese, what the forest of “Brocéliande” is to the French Breton culture: A bewitched domain where the roots of the trees impede your feet, where the brackens block your way. The earth is hidden and ravines open beneath your feet! Vipers await. Shrubs of thorns whip you, tear your clothing and claw the face. To the south, a big arch of wood forbids women access to the mount Sanjo. This is the territory of the brown bears, particularly short tempered. Adorned with a white V at the neckline, their appearance resembles a sweater. Sometimes, in the spring, the mother bears attack isolated hikers to defend their cubs. In mid-July, a mother bear surprises me and regards me on the way. I stop myself and crouch with respect. My white dress became brown dirtiness. Does my body retain a human smell? The bear, in any case, leaves me my life. No longer having more than the skin on my bones, I have nothing worth a blow of fangs or a claw swipe. Man is not in his own world on this sacred mountain populated by wild animals: Bear, deer, badgers, macaques, raptors, hornets and snakes. In the forest of the "Buddha Amida of Infinite Light, a pond formed that swarms with huge frogs. Then come summer, the mountain resounds of their choral calls. With every step, you risk crushing one. The Yamabushi revere them for their aptitude to revive each year, after the long sleep of winter. They are the same symbol of the eternal return. July 7, at the temple of Yoshino, the archbishop of the Kinpusen temple welcomes and blesses a huge frog, in fact a dressed one up like a man that one carries on a palanquin. The frog leaves then his skin to re-emerge under the appearance of a young warrior… Within one or two minutes, I always arrive at the same time at the monastery of the mount Sanjo. Every time, I cross the monk ascetic Ryojun of the chapel Zao-Do. He comes from the village of Yoshino, 6 hours walk towards the North. He does daily traverses between Yoshino and Sanjo. (Notes : In August 2000, he accomplished the asceticism of 1000 days of walking sennichi-kaihogyo). Sleeping in a temple, Ryojun is always clean and impeccable!

on left side Priest Kuban crossing Kizoin temple pilgrimage with Master Nakai on right side...

Without a word said, for we took vows of silence during our respective asceticism, a friendship, of an easy sort, secured itself between us. One day, he traced with his index finger a spiral in the sky. He was announcing the arrival of a huge typhoon. I have only the time to return to protect and tuck all my equipment in the cave! In the night, it was invaded by a torrential flood. On Saturday and Sundays, the pilgrims are more numerous to the mount Sanjo. They come to pray to Zao Gongen, the incensed divinity that appeared to En no Gyoja, founder of Shugendo, one thousand three hundred years ago. Nevertheless, from May to mid-July, due to the rainy season, pilgrims willing to risk the climb were rare. The average age of the pilgrims varies between 50 and 75 years... Finally in July, the rains stopped and the faithful flowed in from the provinces and the cities of Osaka, Kyoto and Nagoya. By the short way, they arrive from the town of Dorogawa in three hours of walking and pass the night in the one of the five refuges, after a test series to the summit: Climbing "the bell boulder", undergo hanging by the feet above a cliff, cross rock-climbs "the equality Boulder" … After this initiatory labyrinth, the pilgrims pile up on the square of the temple and in the lobby of the monastery, forbidding me all access to the enclosed Buddha. But in the small world of the Shugendo, the news spread quickly that a "foreign monk" (gaijin-bôzu) was carrying out the asceticism of Sho. With my approach, the group separates itself! I advanced, impressed, and a little uncomfortable, considering the sorry state of my clothes and vestments, and say my prayers. The laymen and two religious men of the monastery watch my entry. Everyday, in silence, we speak with the eyes… For them also, the life on the Sanjo is tough. In the cold, the snow and rains, their discreet compassion was a precious consolation. August 3, I cross the annual pilgrimage of the Yamabushi of my congregation of the temple Shogoin, taken along, first of the roped party, by my master the Reverend Nakai Kyozen and the pilgrimage Director, the archbishop Okamoto. Under a stone Buddha beside the path, the prelate slipped a short note, (writhed in French) by hand that said: “For the Kuban ascetic! Courage, Courage! ”, Signed Okamoto. On the return path, I thank him while inclining the head and while joining the palms, in the prayer gesture. I always return to the cave at the same pace that I left it at, over the same places as the rain. The last section remains most dangerous. Twice, I slipped! By being wedged in the bars of the iron ladder, my oak stick prevented me from falling and being crushed a few hundred meters below. I have the impression that miracles accompany me.

(Mariusz Szmerdt's painting)


One day, at the end of July, I had a very strange experience. My legs were light. The ground seemed to me cottony as if walking on a mattress, as if the I was no longer walking on the earth. I did not think to increase my pace, but I did the trip in half of the ordinary time! I did not believe the watch in my pocket. Some months later, Yamabushi friends told me that, at the time of an extreme asceticism (haragyo), the ascetic very rarely practice without being aware of it, a quick walk called in the canonical texts: "Walks on the clouds". These cases are not rare with the renunciants of India or the Himalayas, notably around the Mt Kailash where certain ascetics are able to do the "Khora" in less than twelve hours, while of others will take a day, three days, five days…. Nevertheless without a meticulous preparation, without a perfect knowledge of the places and rituals to carry out, the meditating individual runs to failure, ending only in mishap! When the spirit is involved on the "way of the Hells", the program execution becomes the unique string of Ariane. The least mental relapse causes it to sink into madness. Only focus on the present. Forget the past that keeps you. Do not fail while projecting yourself in the future. To think about a good meal causes you to salivate and suffer. One day in the cave, at first rest a hiker prepared coffee of which the smell tortured me. It was important not to have it. To beat oneself, as one hammers the steel to forge the sword. Although a practitioner of martial arts, Shugendo brought me more than the thirty years of martial arts: The ultimate fight for the mastery of oneself. It is not simply a matter of confronting some unruly humans, but hordes of demons and of hidden titans in oneself. They name themselves: Intolerance, hate, racism, distress, misery, shame, pain, diseases…

The imposed discipline everyday used me up during the asceticism, and I started to sink; the body and the spirit cracking in all parts. I reread my newspaper: "Stay in hells". I did the vow "of abandonment of caring about the body". My clothing grew mould on me, because of the humidity, until I caught a fungus in my lungs. I was made very thin, weighing no more than fifty kilos. I resembled the "mountain Demons" of Asian mythologies. Hikers fled from my sight. According to the legend, it happens that the ascetics of Sho metamorphose themselves into demons… But in my hell, I live also happinesses of a rare intensity, for example during the hundredth and ultimate night of meditation in the cave, when I saw cloud of tinsel garland! Was this the nuptial flight of the fireflies which was delayed (normally it is at the end of June) at this altitude? During a few magic moments, the cave was transformed into a palace of lights.

August 11 1996 to 11h30, I arrive to the town of Yoshino under a beautiful sun. I encountered some snakes that lounged themselves on the path. Down below, the path changes into a new asphalt road that now (2008) joins the towns of Yoshino and Dorogawa, to the mount Sanjo. Will the civilization end up arriving at the gates of the Sanjo, last haven of peace where the beasts and the plants have again a soul? Where the men and the gods rediscover how to communicate! I found what I had come to look for at Sho: I tested my faith while tearing off the "Veil and Shades"! The Yamabushi are not fanatics, nor masochists. They do not take pleasure when they mortify themself. But they know that "to have juice, it is necessary to press the fruit". Go to the end of oneself. With the followers of Shugendo, but also with the mystical Christians and Soufi, fasts, the mantra recitation (prayers) and the sleep deprivation, seem to modify the conscious states. Then the Waked Man sees and acts as if in a Dream. These days, the young Japanese more are attracted by new spiritualities that offer all and continuation, or by the consoles of video games! In fifty or hundred years, who will climb again to the mount Sanjo? Yamabushi or only the tourists? This thousand-year-old school of wisdom must not extinguish itself! The current generation of Yamabushi priest questions itself and wonders what changes will happen to Shugendo, to adapt it to the third millennium? …."


Mariusz Smedzt's painting, Isshin Kanjo experience last night retreat with golden coud of Firefly inside the cave

Mariusz Smedzt's painting, Kûban walking fast experience on Dragon backbones breathing

The three notebooks written during this asceticism are now in a manuscript. It took me twelve years to open them again and be able to finally read them again… I digested this period of my life and hope my experience could be used by other people in a helpful way, for which they have strongly prepared themselves. Copyright Géo Magazine France SKG

(The photograph slideshow hereafter begins with recent photos taken in the cave of Sho and some old photos from 1996 taken by my Japanese friend Shiro Kanzaki, professional photographer), then redraw the journey to the monastery of the summit of the mount Sanjo, going through the monastery then the refuge of the Kizoin, before coming back to the cave of Shô. 6 hours 30 minutes of walking round-trip but more photos were taken on the return trip because the descending slope offers more open viewpoints. In truth to do the photos in 2008, I left early in the morning from Mt Sanjo, returned to the cave, then came back to the monastery of Mt Sanjo towards the last three hours of the afternoon to have better light.


"Christ in Wilderness" by Ivan Kramskoy, Russian painter 200 years ago showing Jesus during his 40 days retreat inside desert.

To Re-birth, To Liberate is always in pain not in Joy... but a choosen pain!

All the Ones who did hard retreat had this face...

mudra gebakuin, Fudo's heart...