En no Gyōja
En no Gyōja
Name In Japanese : 役行者
Pronunciation : en no gyōja
Period : 634 to 701
En no Gyōja was an ascetic and mystic. He’s traditionally held to be the founder of Shugendō, a religion combining traditional Shinto with imported Buddhism, practiced with ascetic training in mountain and coastal areas. Practitioners of Shugendō were known for their magical powers, and they were the inspiration for the mercurial mythical creatures called Tengu. The Shikoku Pilgrimage is thought to have started with En’s ascetic practice on Mt. Ishizuchi and the coasts of Shikoku. Many of the 88 temples were originally bases established by En’s followers.
En was born in 634, in Katsuragi, Nara. Accused of sorcery, En was banished to Izu in 699, but was pardoned three years later. Despite official disapproval, he continued his wanderings around western Japan, and preached his message to the common people. This was prohibited by the government as a means of ensuring control over religion, which represented an important form of power. Buddhists were required to limit their activities to scholarship in monasteries, and leading services and rituals for aristocrats and the imperial family. Instead, En visited the highest mountains and may have made circuits of the rough coastline of Shikoku, performing feats of what today is called ‘bouldering’.
Through his preaching, asceticism, and the efficacy of his healing powers, En developed a significant following. He’s said to have entered Nirvana from the top of a mountain north of Ōsaka in 701.
The influence of En no Gyōja is little felt on the pilgrimage today, but it was the tradition of ascetic practice on Shikoku which En pioneered that made the way for Gyōki and then Kūkai. Statues of En can be seen all over Shikoku, notably at Ishizuchi Shrine at the bottom and the top of the mountain, and at Negoro-ji Temple in Kagawa. En is typically depicted as a hooded figure with a pointed beard, a staff, and raised geta sandals. Often he’s accompanied by several of the demons he was said to control. His eyes are characterised by a fierce, penetrating gaze.