Ascetic Practice of Fire

Yamabushi Priest Kuban-Jakkoin crossing flames during "Kassyo-Zanmai" in Val d'Isere village of France, Alps Savoy

Fire ceremonies in Shugendo

In Shugendo, there exist numerous rituals of all kinds: offerings, requests or blessings. They are intended for the Buddhas and divinities, to ward off trouble, to make a request, to constrain certain forces, exorcize, bless a union, votive offerings to charge amulets. The many secrets and many difficulties each of these, make up the fire rituals.

The origin of the fire ceremony, homa in sanskrit, goma in Japanese, is a Brahmanic ritual of offerings devoted to the element of fire and to the god Shiva. Afterward, it was adopted by esoteric Buddhism (mikkyo in Japanese). The esoteric blending, the "zomitsu" shugendo, gave it a different direction/focus than the one that it originally had in India.

Only practiced by priests or layman who have received the transmission and the initiation, the yamabushi of Shugendô sometimes have an active role to play during this ceremony. They can place part of the wooden sticks to burn in the fire itself, which is a smaller form of the big inferno, similar to the one used outside! There exists several categories of fire rituals. Every piece of the ritual is the object of very meticulous teaching. This is not simply lighting a fire. The secret goal of this ceremony is the spiritual combustion, the sublimation of passions/illusions by the firey Knowledge of the Buddha, through a very precise meditation!

Hôkkai-goma: The principal elements of reverence are the sky and the earth and to burn a fire in this world visualizing that every mans story is only a "dharani" offered to the Buddha to obtain satori for all beings.

Ri-goma: The thirty-seven Buddhas are in the heart of the ascetic, where a fire continues to burn night and day, fuelled by the thoughts, especially during pilgrimages for the yamabushi. During practice the mouth is the brazier (Gama), the breathing is the smoke venting. The fire inside the body is the offering that burns the passions for the acheivement of enlightenment.

Ji-goma: The lungs are fir (wood) to burn, the bladder is the place where the fire is located, the spleen is the place to burn the passions (bonnir) in order to rediscover the original and adamantine satori of the letter A. This is Taoist alchemy.

These three forms of offerings of fire are always employed jointly with the practices that realize "walking asceticism" (kaihogyo).

SOKUSAI GOMA (The banquet offering to Fudo-myô or Fudo-goma)

Bonfire at Gayain temple, Rev Okamoto's shugen temple; with Rev Nakai as Officiant

This is the rite that is most often employed in esoteric Buddhism, the offering rite directed to Fudo Myô. The sticks to burn, of fifty four centimeters in length, put in six bundles of sticks, represent the six organs of perception of the world (rokkon). The three turns of the rope that attach every bundle of sticks, symbolize the three poisons coming from the passions (the attraction, the repulsion and the error). The ash is the body returned to the original nature (Hongaku). The fire is the demonstration of the "incensed Buddha Fudo Myô" and flames of wisdom that envelopes him. The incense, the oils, perfumed water, the flowers and the various food thrown in the fire are the offerings offered to Fudo and to all those invited to the banquet. The brazier becomes then a portal to an "other world" that is crossed by the official via meditation during the ritual.

There exists another fire ritual form by the name of sankaku-goma, a fire ritual wherein the brazier is triangular in form. This is a very secret ritual to destroy obstacles by killing them with magic. The Shogoin temple, for this special ritual, follows the version brought back from China by the monk Enchin!

In Shugendo two rites of fire are often employed: the Saito Dai goma (greatceremony of the bounfire), a ceremony that takes place outside in which the ceremony rites carefully follow one another and are carried out by different yamabushi and then, the rite of the Hashiramoto Goma (or Hashiramoto goma Jinpihô), secret fire ritual and offering to the pillars of the universe.

Most of the time the rites of the fire, coming from esoteric Buddhism, are dedicated to the "Incensed Buddha" Fûdo Myo that symbolizes strength of will and determination. This is symbolically, a meal where the monk offers to drink and to eat to the forces that come from the fire. Different types of food are offered for this banquet: Cream, flowers, the five grains, incense, water and especially sesame oils. There are only two forms of fire rituals that are not dedicated to Fudo: This is the goma performed outside in the school haguro-shugen, dedicated to the "Buddha of Infinite Light that reigns on the earth of the West" Amida Nyorai and, the rite of the Hashiramoto Goma (the distinctive fire ritual of shugendo) dedicated to Dainichi Nyorai. The ritual of the Hashiramoto Goma divides itself into five parts, some of which are the rite of the "layer hardening" (Tokogatamé), the offering to the "pillars sources of the universe" (Hashiramoto sahô) and the proper fire ritual. This fire is in fact a meditation where one consumes oneself in focused thought, similar to how one burns the body in a funerary ceremony by constructing a big tower with logs on which the body is placed. Without oils, this is therefore "a dry goma"! This is a secret rite that necessitates a transmission of Master to Disciple (denju). We will give only the meaning and the sequence of the principal lines.

Hashiramoto Jinpi hô shugen fire ceremony hold by General Superior of Shogoin temple: Gomonshu Miyagi Tainen

Acting towards all the creatures, this rite shows the celestial and earthly principles that govern the universe. It demonstrates the beginning of comprehension of the union of all the principles in the universe. These pillars (hashira) are the "roots" that support the universe; the source (moto) union of the sky and earth, yin and yang. This is a meditation on the universe in order to understand the secret mechanisms in an intelligent manner. It shows that water is the vital and basic principle of all life: sky and earth, male and female, are born of water then separate themselves and return to water. The beings, gyojas (practicing Shugen) are born of water. The two sticks (nyumoku) covered with black fabrics that surround the central stick (covered in brocade) on the central altar, are these pillars showing the breath of life (helium and hydrogen), the father & the mother, the Yin and the Yang. This breathing is the feminine and the masculine sign is linked to water. My body (the central pillar clothed in brocade) constituted of the five elements, is similar to the one of the universal Buddha Dainichi. The ritual is a certificate of this truth! The spatial universe inside the practitioners body is similar to the one outside of it. The square altar (Goma) where the ceremony takes place is comparable to the letter A, the origin from which all things originate and where all returns. The SUIRIN, the receptacle where one places water, is where one will insert the three embedded pillars (the two black nyumoku and the Akka fuda of brocade), is the root of all the beings; the union of the two waters, sky and earth; father and mother, white water and red water. The two sticks Nyumoku are clothed of a fine fabric of black silk. If one removes this fabric, one discovers that the stick on the right carries the sanskrit letter BAN (Kongokai mandala, the thought mandala) meaning that the faithful ones advance towards the Buddha Dainichi and that the left one carries the letter A (Taizokai mandala, the mandala of the phenomenal world) meaning that the Buddha Dainichi himself cirlces about all beings.

The left stick is made out of willow. It represents the entry into the mountain which is held in the autumn and summer (Akki-No-mined), the direction of East, the goddess Izanami, the yin with its female aspect , red water, the interior of the temple, the ground (chi), the left side of the body. The right stick is made out of chestnut wood and represents the asceticisms which proceed in spring (Aru-No-Mined), the Western direction, the father and the yang aspect, the shinto god Izanagi, the white, the dharma, the outside of the temple, the sky (ten) and the right-side of the human body.

This ritual retraces the creation of the universe creation with the big bang and follows to the essence of Dainichi! The universal being, the big bang, the expansion corresponding to an expiration (breathing out)… the person that practices this can go back to the source of the universe, that is Dainichi Nyorai himself. He can commune with the entire universe ! All the objects used in the ritual are metal, covered in gold. But one rediscovered in the province of Nigata had the objects made from enamelled wood. At the center, is located the SUIRIN of these three pillars. To the middle is the akka-fuda (brocade pillar) surrounded by the two Nyumoku (pillars of black silk). The Suirin is a cylinder with an opening in the lid, so that the official can also pour water which will be taken using a long kind of spoon, which are held in two cylindrical containers, being in front of the suirin, and forms a triangle, the Akka-ki. Between the akka-ki is located a small cup containing whole rice, symbolizing ones own funerary ashes (the shari-ki). In front of the Shari is placed the scepter (vajra) with a single point (tokko-sho). Behind the akka-ki are located the two cuttings, containing the eight leaves of a tree, the Sakaki, intended to be used as lotus seats to call and gather the invited divinities who will come and appear through fire. All these receptacles and cups rest on a removable rectangular lid(the danban). To the left seat of the officiant is located a table where are set : The hand censer (égoro), the ko-katana (or Shibauchi / shibanagi) that serves to cut the strings securing the sticks to burn, the pairs of pliers to use in the fire (hibachi), the thirty-six big sticks of wood (danboku) that will be piled up on four levels above the brazier. While starting with the left, one will align four sticks vertically, then horizontally five others while beginning by the bottom. Two leaves of Sakkaki will be used to invite the divinities to the banquet; and two small torches (taimatsu) to light the wood. Six packages of sticks (Suiboku) are to burn during the ceremony at precise moments, for a total of hundred eight sticks, representing the passions to sublimate. To right of the officiant are located the two Udégoro (or Hijigoro), sort of cylindrical staves of thirty-six cm of long and three centimeters of diameter (representing the Buddha himself); the ko-uchigi (two other much smaller staves in front of the Udégoro) of fifteen centimeters of long and 2.7 of diameter (representing the yamabushi that is officiating); a stick to hit the kettledrum; the Kasen (Hisen or Ogi) the cypress fan to stoke the fire and carry the words of the official to the Buddha. The text in Japanese (Gamon and Hyobyaku) explains the goals of this ceremony. The conch (Horagai) is blown at the beginning and at the end of the ritual. Bewarned that this ceremony lasts for about 45 minutes and no second is idle!

The fire ceremony is one of the rituals of "employed magic" among the many secrets of Shugendo and it requires sometimes that the yamabushi walk across a fire bed (Kassyo Zanmai).

But beware : Cross a bed of coal will not make you a yamabushi and you will have, if you are not yourself burnt, at most you will have only overcome some fear and apprehension.


Sanjuin temple, Guma prefecture Japan; Rev MUARAKAMI's  Kassyo Zanmai/ Hiwatari



Nachi shrine, Fire ceremony for sacred waterfall