A Japanese theologian's view of mountain religion in Japan
"Mountains have always held religious significance for people. Towering, mysterious, dangerous, overwhelming, some parts always appearing bright and visible, while others are shrouded in perpetual shadow, they are thought to be the abode of spirits, demons, and gods. Often the mountain itself is thought to be the connection between heaven and earth, the centre of the world, axis mundi.
Particular mountains have been endowed with the character of representing the entire universe, the cosmic mountain. ‘In China the capital of the perfect sovereign stood at the exact centre of the universe, that is, at the summit of the cosmic mountain.’ The religious significance the Himalayas played in Hindu religious thought is substantial.
The image of the mountain as axis mundi has inspired some of the most refined and impressive religious buildings of humankind, such as the hill temple of Borobodur in Java and the famous Angor Wat in Cambodia. They are cosmic mountains elaborated by religious symbolism.
In Japan since ancient times people have believed that the spirits of the departed reside on the mountains overlooking the villages, watching over their welfare. Eventually those spirits will become gods of the mountains, staying in the mountain during the winter months and coming out to the village from spring to autumn to help the villagers work in the rice paddy fields.
At a time of drought prayer is offered to the mountain. One name for a funeral procession is yamayuki, ‘going to the mountain’. A certain part of the mountain, always dark, is understood to be the location of ‘hell’ and another part, which appears brighter and happier, is the place of ‘heaven’. Thus the mountain itself suggests the totalities of light and darkness, life and death, salvation and damnation. The mountain must always be approached carefully and with awe…"
Excerpted from Kosuke Koyama, Mt Fuji and Mt Sinai: a pilgrimage in theology