Mountain As Mandala:

An interview with the filmmakers

of Shungendo Now


I conducted this interview for the Winter 2011 issue of Written River: A Journal of Eco-Poetics. It is about the still-living traditions of the shugenja or yamabushi (Japanese practitioners of Shugendo), the ecological message of this ancient-yet-contemporary spiritual tradition, and a very special film that documents modern-day shugenja called Shugendo Now. The film was featured by the Buddhist Film Foundation in the 2010 International Buddhist Film Festival.


The filmmakers, both from Montréal, are Mark Patrick McGuire, a humanities professor at John Abbott College, and Jean-Marc Abela, a talented self-taught filmmaker. Driven by my own “haunted familiarity” with elements of Japanese Shinto, and a natural interest in the subject from my decade of training in Japanese Buddhism and martial arts, I watched the film in early 2011 and reached out to Mark and Jean-Marc to connect with them about their beautiful film.


Believed to have first been organized by a 7th-century mystic named En no Ozunu (a.k.a. En no Gyoja), Shugendo is not one isolated tradition but various expressions of spiritual practice that share similar aims. Ozunu — who is venerated as a bodhisattva (saint) — authored the Sutra on the Unlimited Life of the Threefold Body, a central text used by the shugenja even today. Modern-day practitioners of Shugendo, most of whom are city-dwellers, intentionally leave the world of man behind to head into nature on retreat, to commune and connect with mountains, forests, rivers, and waterfalls, in a truly unique spiritual training path that weaves elements of Shinto, Buddhism, Daoism, Shamanism, martial arts, and - now in the 21st-century - environmental activism.


From the very first sounds we encounter in the film Shugendo Now, we realize we are in for a highly textural, sensual film-viewing experience. Water droplets, wind, and subtle vibrations radiating out from metal chimes all coalesce with imagery, ranging from pristine natural places to bustling cityscapes in modern Japan.

We then see words on the screen that indicate we are entering spiritual geography:

The yamabushi are those who enter the mountain to seek experiential truth.

They perform austerities and ritual actions adopted from shamanism,

the kami tradition (Shinto), Esoteric Buddhism, and Daoism.

This syncretic tradition is called Shugendo.

A map appears, stylistically produced as a landscape painting of the Kumano mountain range in Japan, including Mt. Omine (one of the pilgrimage sites and holy mountains of this ancient tradition). As we hear reverberations from a temple bell, the “geographic map” fades backward and an image rushes forth to meet us, namely ancient Japanese iconography depicting the buddhas and bodhisattvas that occupy the Womb-Realm and Vajra-Realm mandaras (Skt: mandala, Japanese: mandara, a circular design depicting images of religious significance).

Without overtly interpreting or over-intellectualizing, the intuitive filmmaking and editing style of Shugendo Now softly guides viewers into understanding: the mandalas are the mountains, the mountains are the mandalas, and practitioners of Shugendo journey through the mountains-as-mandalas to the dwelling place of the kami and buddhas.

Frank LaRue Owen

H: Frank Ikken Owen for Hawk of the Pines

M: Mark McGuire, J: Jean-Marc Abela

H: First of all, Mark and Jean-Marc, thank you for taking the time for this dialogue. You’re both men-on-the-move, with lots of creative endeavors and projects, so I’m grateful for your willingness to discuss your film – Shugendo Now.

M / J: We thank you for the opportunity to share our reflections on the film!

H: You have created a compelling documentary that I believe will appeal to many different types of people. What was your initial inspiration for the film and how long were you in Japan shooting?

M: I was initially attracted to these places and practices as a first-year graduate student looking for a field site to do my Ph.D. research. It was about to be designated a UNESCO World Heritage site and become a global hot spot for tourists and curiosity seekers, so I wanted to learn as much as I could about its past and present and chart the changes that would occur in the future.

After having the chance to participate in some of the mountain ascetic practices, and spend time with some of the priests and lay practitioners, my attention shifted to the motivations each had for participating in these traditional practices. They come from a fast-paced, modern age, so my interest was in the ways diverse urban pilgrims apply what they learn in their daily lives, in urban centers like Tokyo and Osaka. The stories they told me about what took them to the mountain—and what they came home with—inspired me to collaborate with Jean-Marc in trying to represent the practices and places through an accessible documentary film.

H: Briefly describe the tradition of Shugendo.

M: Shugendo is a Tantric vehicle, which means that its practices are only for the initiated and features some hidden or secret practices only transmitted from teacher to student. It brings together ritual practices from the kami tradition (Shinto), Shamanism, Tantric Buddhism, and Daoism with a premium placed upon a physical experience of the teachings' truth. So, practitioners enter mountains, forests, waterfalls, caves, and streams in order to have visceral contact with the sacred. As Tanaka Riten of the temple Kimpusen-ji explains at the beginning of the film, “For us, these mountains are the dwellings of the kami and buddhas. If you want to simply enjoy trekking, you can go hiking on your own time.”

H: I have known about the traditions of the shugenja, or yamabushi, since the late-1980s when I began practicing Zen and Aikido, and learning about the life and many influences of O-Sensei, Morihei Ueshiba, its founder. Like Shugendo, Ueshiba was influenced by many forces including the kami tradition, Japanese Vajrayana Buddhism, Zen, Daoism, even contemplative-esoteric Christianity, but also Shugendo. While it is not immediately obvious, the worldview of Aikido is shaped by Shugendo. Later, I encountered Shugendo as a topic in my undergraduate studies in Japanese religions.

It is fascinating to see these ancient traditions depicted on film, and a truly soul-stirring component is seeing modern people (many of them from highly-congested urban settings) taking part in pilgrimages, honoring nature, participating in a nature-based spirituality. What were your own personal impressions about these juxtapositions – ancient-modern, nature-technological, etc.?

J: I think we all have a deep connection with nature. That may sound like an obvious statement but in our modern and urban lifestyle, it needs to be stated. Of course, cities offer great cultural experiences and places of refuge, but nothing seems to compare to standing in a forest. The sounds, the vibrations, the smells, and the sight of it all, I think, bring great peace within all of us. Therefore, the people who live in highly congested urban settings have an even greater need to get out there and breathe the forest into their lives. Many viewers tell us after watching the film that they want to go for a walk outside the city and this is how we hoped people would react.

H: Like Shugendo’s own characteristic weaving of different facets together, your film does a magnificent job of weaving different elements: stunning footage of the natural world, documentation of a unique spiritual tradition, and investigating certain key questions. Was the theme of the film already in place at the outset, or did it organically evolve as you were documenting these traditions?

J: From the start of the project we wanted to weave together urban and natural spaces. The question that remained was how we would achieve this without hitting any of the clichés normally associated with Japan. The opening sequence was the scene used to explore this. I started editing it while shooting in Kumano.

Before I left Japan, I had several different versions of the opening. Returning home, I continued this exploration, from very drastic juxtapositions of images and sounds, but it never felt quite right until I decided to keep the sounds of nature throughout the opening sequence, which included scenes of cityscapes. When we watched it together, Mark instantly approved and observed that this was more in-line with our views on the subject: that nature is everywhere around us.

M: There were two important juxtapositions that we wished to highlight: that of the productive tension between the mountains and the city, and the different personalities, efforts, and intended audiences of our two main characters (Tateishi Kôshô and Tanaka Riten) as they sought to creatively re-invent the traditional practices for busy, urban people.

On the surface, these men are very different personalities, with different approaches, who, in turn, attract different individuals. However, at their core, what they are doing is very similar. As for how we illustrated these juxtapositions with our footage; that came together organically both during initial shooting and post-production. Jean-Marc is a highly intuitive, self-taught filmmaker with an excellent eye for detail and pattern, so I was comfortable giving him full creative decision-making power over the direction the film would take.

H: In the film, you offer viewers an inside-view of the preparations that some of the practitioners of Shugendo undertake. How did you make these connections, meet these practitioners, and secure permission to be part of their sacred ceremonies?

J: Each connection is a little bit different. Mark had a previous relationship with Tateishi Kôshô and Tanaka Riten. These were important people to know as they each gave us access to their respective temple and the participants who visit them. I think this says a lot about the relationship that Mark cultivated with the head priests over the years. He has a very respectful and sensitive approach as an academic and filmmaker.

A good example of this is the story around the release forms that we got each person in the film to sign. I had brought examples from previous projects, but, of course, they were in English and they needed to be translated into Japanese, which Mark did. When he presented to me his translation, the new version of the release form was no longer written in cold, direct legal language, but was much softer. It also shared the goals of our film and what we intended to do with it, offering our responsibility with the material we were filming instead of just asking people to sign away their rights. From there, I knew I wanted to proceed carefully as a camera operator and I found that I was much more welcomed by the people as they now understood our intentions and wanted to help create this film.

H: In one part of the film, we see a large gathering of people (men, women, children, families). Sacred arrows are shot into the air and offerings are made to a ceremonial fire (goma). Describe for us your experience of this gathering as both filmmaker but also as an individual awake-and-aware spiritually.

J: All of the Goma ceremonies we filmed were special in their own way. It’s a very powerful shamanic experience and I personally feel a deep connection to the transformative powers of fire. I didn’t feel the need to know exactly what they were saying and Mark informed me that even most Japanese people didn’t know as they were talking in an older dialect. The significance of fire ritual is universal.

As a cameraman, I try to fuse with the subjects I am shooting, and so I got taken into a trance with the drumming, chanting, and fire. Of course, while I try to fuse as much as possible, I also need to step out of the moment, look around, and see how I can best capture it. It is the job of a documentary cameraman: sometimes it’s a sacrifice not to be able to totally participate in an event so that you can capture it and share it. But, sometimes that journey brings its own benefits and discoveries.

H: One of my favorite parts of the film is your documenting the life of Tateishi Kôshô. What a compelling figure! Just to make readers aware, Kôshô lives in a Shugendo compound (complete with temple) beneath the Kumano Mountains and performs the role of a priest but also of guardian of the land.

In the film, we see that some expressions of the Shugendo traditions restrict women from access to certain sites and holy mountains; yet Kôshô-san has broken off on his own, practices more of a householder (family, village-centric) expression of the traditions. He seems to have a remarkable ability to balance things in life. He practices a minimum-impact lifestyle, raises his own rice, and sees cooking as an extension of Shugendo practice. On the one hand, he has an apprentice and performs the duties of a yamabushi, yet he also has a family and plays the role of an environmental activist for a specific patch of ground. Tell us more about this man.

H: I first learned of Tateishi Kôshô in Montréal when Mark told me about his idea for this film. My first response was, “This man would make a perfect subject for a film!” Mark replied,“I know. It’s why I’m telling you so much about him!”

Tateishi Kôshô has many facets to his personality. His activities range from cooking, playing music at sacred ceremonies, tending to the forest and his experiences as a priest and traveler. Discussions with him always make for fascinating stories.

When I first met him in Kumano, we were in the middle of a typhoon, and we spent the night cooking, drinking sake, playing music, sharing stories and ideas. I was instantly enamored with this man. Later on, I realized that spending 21 days with him would only give us a glimpse into this amazing person. I learned that he had lived in New York working in business, traveled in India for a few years as a musician, and had been part of a butoh dance group as well.

I think this is what cinema does so well. Without ever sharing some of his stories or telling the audience more details about him, people tell me that they get a good sense of his personality just from watching the film. You can sense his rich lifestyle in everything he does. This is how I see this man: a rich person because he fully enjoys each little thing that life offers him as a precious gift; and this gratefulness he experiences is in full expression each time one of his devotees sends him a gift, which he quickly takes to his altar.

H: The account he gives of combating unchecked dumping and pollution is inspiring. It is, in effect, an expression of “engaged Shugendo” (spirituality meets environmental and social activism). You were afforded a very intimate view of this particular expression of contemporary Japanese environmental activism. What were your impressions?

J: Kôshô-san expresses himself quite clearly on this issue throughout the film. For him, there is no separation between his devotions to the Buddhas and kami, and his work as an environmental activist. They are one and the same. I fully agree with him. I think this is true for everything we do, and one of the great challenges of our modern lives is to find a way to live in our actions the values that we hold dear in our hearts and minds. We are constantly swayed towards a lifestyle of consumption that contradicts what we know to be more important issues, such as social welfare for workers around the world and environmental protection. Finding that balance is difficult.

As Kôsô-san shares with us: “We must not become ‘eco-fanatics’ because we might not enjoy the process or we might become too rigid and lose sight of our purpose.”

All images belong to the filmmakers of Shugendo Now

To purchase the film Shugendo Now, visit: Shugendo Now