My Mountain Hermit Training in Japan

Read part 1 On My Way For Yamabushi Training

I survived! I am officially one of the first few non Japanese speakers in the world to have received Yamabushi mountain hermit training. It was a wonderful experience and I feel stronger, accomplished and that I have spiritually grown to another level.

The 5-day program designed by Megurun Inc. is the first of its kind. Yamabushi training has been offered to the Japanese people for hundreds of years. In fact, many people take solitary retreats in the mountains and its popular among older Japanese men to embark on Yamabushi getaways every now and then. But these are generally 3-day programs where large groups of people undergo the training with minimal interaction with the master. They are expected to ‘just experience’ as they push their physical and emotional boundaries.

In my case, there were only 2 people in the program, which was led by Master Tak who is fluent in English and Japanese. He described the process in great detail and guided us through the journey. Tak-San was a business professional who moved to the area to seek solace. After years of practice, he is now a Master Yamabushi and trains others.

On the first day, we stayed at a modest hotel in the city of Shonai, which was crowded with local tourists who had come to worship at the three sacred mountains of Deva. Located in the Yamagata prefecture of northern Japan, the area is known as “hidden Japan” as it is relatively cut off from other cities and not many foreign visitors go there.

This day was intended to disconnect from daily life, prepare for shugo (the training) and embrace Japanese culture.

We spent most of the day at a Zen temple with a Buddhist monk. He showed us their way of life, which included proper posture for sitting on the floor in lotus position, focusing one’s attention to meditate, and sharing their humble lunch. We got to see where the resident monks eat, pray and sleep on tatami mats. We also witnessed a prayer ceremony where the monks played drums, chanted the sutras and blessed us for our journey.

Then we had a calligraphy master, Mayumi Honma, teach us how to write ‘Uketamō’ in Japanese. This phrase is very important as it is the only word we are allowed to speak during Yamabushidō. It means, “I humbly accept with an open heart” and is a readily used response to everything the master instructs us to do (as we would say OK in English).

Calligraphy is an ancient Japanese art of writing, but it is much more than that in the spiritual sense. To do it well, you have to have a lot of focus and a steady hand. You have to be silent and be in the moment. Using a brush and ink, there is no way to go back and erase mistakes. You have to start all over.

For dinner, we went to a farm-to-table family-run restaurant where we tasted local specialities, including dadachamame (indigenous edamame) grown only in this area.

The next morning we transferred our bags to Daishobo, a pilgrimage lodge at the base of Mount Gassan. At one time, there were almost 300 pilgrimage lodges in the area, but now the number is reduce to less than 30. The lodges were family-run not-for-profit businesses, but the new generations don’t want the upkeep.

Daishobo is also home to Master Hashino, a 13th generation Yamabushi, who designed my program. He is in his 70’s now and worked in civil services professionally, and has been a Yamabushi for over 40 years. He still climbs mountains on a regular basis!

The lodge was basic – 2 floors with open rooms that can accommodate up to 35 people. The women stayed upstairs and the men downstairs. Meals, chanting, meditation and orientation were also held downstairs. Basically, not much privacy which is how Japanese people traditionally travel. You just find a spot on the floor to put your bedding down and sleep there.

There were male and female toilets outside the main house. We weren’t allowed to take showers during the program.

During this time, we had an impeding typhoon headed towards Shonai. Typhoons can bring a lot of rain and strong winds (similar to tornadoes). Being an unseasoned hiker, I was already nervous about the steep hikes we were going to do and started feeling more anxious. Tak-San remained calm and said he was closely monitoring the weather. We would still hike in the rain, but will change our route if we were in the eye of the typhoon. At that time, I reconsidered what I had signed up for.

Click here to read what happened next…

On My Way For Yamabushi Training

Here I am, headed to Japan for a 5-day Yamabushi Training program! Until a few weeks ago, I did not even know what Yamabushi was about. But an email that landed in my inbox convinced me to go check it out.

Yamabushi are Japanese mountain ascetic hermits who, according to a traditional Japanese mysticism, are believed to be endowed with supernatural powers. They have also served as sendatsu, or spiritual mountain guides, since medieval times for pilgrims. In other words, they are like Native Americans. They often live in the forest, hike for days, eat what they can find, all to connect with nature. Their practice, known as Shugendō, evolved during the 7th century from an amalgamation of beliefs, philosophies, doctrines and ritual systems drawn from local folk-religious practices, pre-Buddhist mountain worship, Shinto, Taoism and esoteric Buddhism.

The practice is no longer limited to hermits. Many Japanese people are taking a break from their busy city lives to go to the countryside and connect with nature. Therefore, Yamabushi training programs for Japanese people has become quite popular. But very few, if any, training programs are offered to non-Japanese visitors. I will be one of the first foreign visitors to experience a 5-day program under the guidance of a 13th generation Yamabushi master. Yamabushido is based in the sacred mountains of Dewa Senzan in Yamagata prefecture, an hour flight north of Tokyo.

I Skyped with Tak (Takeharu Kato) and Kanae Soma (owner of Megurun Inc.) in Japan, to better understand what I was signing up for. “We realized that many people have tried meditation and other mindfulness practices in their lives, but also realized that Yamabushi practices offer something different, something more powerful, and something which – although it has been practiced for 1,300 years has never been more relevant. Yamabushi training is the simple philosophy of placing yourself in nature and feeling, not thinking, to rejuvenate back to your true self. Yamabushi training is quick, practical, and effective, and provides a powerful context in which to resolve any challenges, questions, or decisions that need to be made. It has been used for centuries to provide space for consideration of the challenges of the modern-day person, an important role in the current age where people are becoming busier and busier and are looking for the chance to revitalize.”

Sounds great doesn’t it? I am totally in for a spiritual retreat that involves connecting with my true self, but wait, there’s more…

Soon after, I received a list of guidelines and checklist to prepare for arrival. In it was a fair warning. “Yamabushi undertake training in harsh alpine conditions including hiking through bush, over streams and waterfalls, up rocks, ladders and stone steps, which can include walking more than 10km for the basic course, or 15km for the extended course per day. In addition, your Yamabushidō experience will likely include hiking during the nighttime, meditating under ice cold waterfalls, jumping over fire, and being enclosed in a smoky room.”

Ok now I am not so sure!  I am fine with meditation, but am I ready to hike all day and night, and jump into an icy waterfall? Well, physically I am not so sure if my body that hasn’t stepped into a gym in years, could possibly handle it.

Other guidelines include not washing your face, brushing your teeth, or shaving, not drinking excessive amounts of alcohol, and making sure to get as much sleep as possible before arriving. The last one may be tough as I make my 24-hour journey from Atlanta to Tsuruoka, and catch up with the 13 hour time difference.

The release form also came with bunch of warnings, most sentences ending in the word “death.” Yikes!

Well, I am on my way, packed with a suitcase full of white clothes (required), hiking boots and my backpack. It will be interesting to see how my mind and body are able to handle the demands of the program and what wisdom I gain from it.

For the next few days, I will be following the three basic rules of Yamabushidō:

Number one: no talking.

Number two: no questions.

Number three: uketamō! Meaning ‘I humbly accept with an open heart.’

On that note, I am keeping an open mind about what’s to come. To be continued…

All You Need to Know About John of God in Brazil

I first heard about John of God about 10 years ago while watching the Oprah Winfrey Show. Oprah magazine editor, Susan Casey had recently travelers to Brazil and found personal healing after the passing of her father. Oprah herself traveled to the tiny village of Abadiania to interview this Miracle Man who had cured over 8 million people of life threatening illnesses, birth defects, as well as emotional and spiritual blockages.

As a journalist and spiritual person, I was eager to find out more about what was happening at the Casa Dom Inacio De Loyola.

WHO IS JOHN OF GOD?

John of God or Medium John is an ordinary Brazilian man, now in his late 70’s. He grew up very poor in rural Brazil and found out at an early age, that powerful spirits could enter his body and use it as a medium to heal people. Initially, he performed healings while he was working in the army as a tailor. Later, he opened a center where people could come for free and receiving the blessings from several spirits and other mediums.

Even though Medium John is a Christian, and believes in God, he doesn’t focus on religion. Everyone, regardless belief or religion, is welcome to the Casa. His work can be explained through a popular theory in Brazil called Spiritism, which is focusing on mediumship, where one can channel high energy beings and master spirits to guide humans and give healings through the metaphysical. Spiritism is very common belief in Brazil, as well as in India and among Native American cultures.

Though I have not had any personal experience with spirits per se, I do believe in guardian angels and the energy of the universe.

GETTING THERE

Less than two hours’ driver from Brazil’s capital, Brasilia, through rolling hills, cattle farms and country resorts, leads to Abadiania. There is a small rural town on one side of the highway where John of God resides, and a more touristy area on the other side. The “Casa area” as it’s nicknamed has one main street with a few pousadas (guesthouses), handful of restaurants, shops selling all kinds of crystals and white clothing, and a couple of massage parlors.

When I arrived in Abadiania, my guides Cecilia and Debbie were waiting for me outside Pousada Irmão Sol Irmã Lua. This was perhaps the largest and most posh pousada in town, with a garden, yoga room and lounging areas. The rooms were basic, with two small beds, a fan, and a bathroom that rarely had hot water. There was no television, air conditioner, or phone, only WiFi that functioned when it wasn’t overcast. As in the case of most businesses in Abadiania, the owners of Pousada Irmão Sol Irmã Lua had come to see John of God many decades ago, received personal healing and decided to stay and help continue his mission.

It is highly recommended that first timers and non-Portuguese speakers hire a local guide to visit the Casa, as there are rules that one must follow, and sometimes things happen too fast so important information can be missed. Also, it is very difficult to make hotel bookings on your own, as many of the pousad don’t have websites.

PREPARING FOR THE VISIT

Cecilia Zigher and Debbie Akamine had opposite personalities but worked as a team. Debbie had quit her job in top international tax firm in Sao Paulo and found love and harmony in Abadiania. She was animated, energetic and informative.

Cecilia, a native of Sweden, had traveled around the world searching for self-love and happiness, which she found when she met John of God. Cecilia was composed, thoughtful and open to sharing her own philosophies. The girls gave me a brief orientation for visiting the Casa, over a buffet dinner of Brazilian and western delicacies.

The instructions were:

  • Wear only white clothing (including underwear) so that the spirits can see your aura.
  • Write down 3 asks you want to present to John of God. These could be about your health, work, relationships, finances, or anything else that you need help with in your life.
  • Carry a small purse with some money and tissues (in case you cry). Don’t wear the purse cross body.
  • It is not allowed to take pictures of John of God.
  • Never cross your arms and legs when in the Casa grounds, as it blocks the energies from reaching you.
  • When meeting John of God, speak fast (if in Portuguese), make direct eye contact with him and hold his hand.
  • When sitting in the current room (meditation room), sit with eyes closed, arms and legs uncrossed and stay until they ask you to leave (it may be 2-3 hours).
  • Eat a big breakfast and meet at the Casa entrance at 7:30am.

Later I read Heather Cumming’s book John of God and highly recommend reading it prior to coming to the Casa. It gives you a much deeper understanding of what is exactly happening here, and how to prepare yourself to be receptive to the energies.

ARRIVING AT THE CASA

John of God sees visitors only on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday from 8am until every person is seen.

On Wednesday morning, I walked over to the Casa, only a 10-minute walk from my hotel. There were already hundreds of people arriving by the bus loads, being dropped off in taxis, and walking over to the entrance. Everyone was wearing white and appeared calm and hopeful. I later found out that approximately 2,000 people had come to the Casa that day.

The Casa grounds were modest white ranch style building with blue accents. There was a semi-open hall where people waited, announcements and prayers were recited, and John of God would first appear. Inside were a series of basic rooms for spiritual surgeries, meditation and an infirmary. There was a beautiful garden with lots of flowers, avocado trees and benches for meditating outdoor that overlooked a beautiful valley. Besides the garden were crystal baths – individual rooms booked for 20 minute sessions that involved crystal light healing. There was also a cafeteria selling fresh juices and homemade Brazilian snacks, a soup kitchen, and a pharmacy where one could buy blessed water and passion flower herbs (if prescribed).

John of God picked this location to be the center of his spiritual practice because of its high energy. It is said that there are crystals underneath the land the valley sits on.

People often leave prayer notes at the 3 triangles at the Casa that supposedly transmitted energy. These notes are collected and taken to John of God for further blessing.

It was 8am and time to meet John of God. “Are you nervous, like you are about to see Santa Claus?” Debbie exclaimed.

To be continued…