En no Ozunu

Hear about En no Ozunu on Episode 22 and Bonus Episodes 3 and 5 of our Podcast, the Japan Archives.

Zenki and GokiPeacock Power
En no Ozunu
En no Ozunu with Zenki and Goki.
  • Period: Asuka Period
  • Occupation: Religious Founder
  • Family:
  • Birth: 634?
  • Death: 701?

En no Ozunu

En no Ozunu (役小角) lived during the Asuka Period, perhaps from 634-701AD.

He was born with the name Kamo-no-e-no-kimi, but over his life he gathered many others such as En no Gyōja (役行者 En the pilgrim), Jinben Daibosatsu (Great Bodhisatva of Heavenly Change) En no Ozunu (En the Pilgrim)1 and En no Shōkaku.2

He is the founder of the religion known as Shugendō, a religion whose practitioners would later train the Ninja in their skills. Due to this he is considered an honored ancestor of the Ninja.1 He also is said to have practised a mountain worshipping faith known as Sangaku Shinkō.2

Birth

Ozunu has many fantastical stories attributed to him. His birth being just the same. It is said from the moment he was born he could hold conversations with people, that he was born with a horn protruding from his skull and that he was born holding a flower in one hand.1

Other accounts related in nara ehon state he lost his father at the age of two and was then brought up soley by his mother.3

Shugendō and Exile

Long years of meditation in the mountain got him the name En no Gyoja, and he eventually founded the religion of Shugendō on Mount Katsuragi in Nara Prefecture.

The new religions quickly gained a lot of growth. This growth worried the current Emperor Monmu, who feared the new religion could pose a threat to his power, and so he has Ozunu exiled for three years to the island of Izu Ōshima.

Despite his exile it is said that he very often climb to the summit of Mount Fuji to meditate. In total, he is said to have scaled the mountain over 1000 times, and even learned a magical mantra known as the ‘Peacock King’ on the slopes of Mount Fuji.

This new mantra gives him the ability to fly along the clouds so he could start to spend time between Heaven and Earth.1

Associations with numerous kami.

A tale from a Nara ehon gives a tale fantastical tale relating to En no Ozuno, several different kami and his exile by Emperor Monmu.

When he became 34 he turned his house into a temple erecting an 8 foot statue to Miroku, and after gifting his home to the court went to live in a cave in Mount Katsuragi. One day wandering the mountains he saw Shaka Peak and, feeling the power radiating from it went to visit.

At the summit was a 9 foot skeleton holding a bell in his left hand, and vajra in his right. Praying after this find, Miroku tells him the body is his, En no Ozunu in seven of his past lives being an ascetic of the mountain. If he wanted the bell and vajra he would need to chant the ‘Mantra of the Peacock King’. Once learning the mantra he could now fly, and returned to Shak Peak to take the bell and vajra.

Ozunu then sees Golden Peak, a mountain which came to Japan from India during the reign of Emperor Kinmei. Inside was lots of gold which would one day cover the world. Ozunu fearing the sinfulness it would cause, prayed for 1000 days for someone to act as a guide to salvation. Eventually Zao Gongen appears, but as he took on a kindly appearance Ozunu looked down upon him and so he left. Zao Gongen later returns with a ferocious form.

Years passed and Ozuno decided a bridge needed to be built from Mount Katsuragi to the Golden Peak to allow his followers to visit both. Looking for someone who could do this he found the kami Hitokotonushi. The bridge was never completed, Hitokotonushi would only work at night as he was ashamed of his appearance and so Ozunu threw him to the bottom of a ravine.

Hitokotonushi then possesses a man at court telling Emperor Monmu that Ozunu was raising a rebellion. Ozunu refuses a letter sent by the Emperor demanding his presence, and only after taking his mother prisoner does Ozunu go to court. After this he is then exiled to Izu Ōshima.

At night however he flies to Mount Fuji. Hitokotonushi informs the Emperor saying Ozunu be put to death, but all attempts to kill the man fail as their weapons break when they attack him.

He asked one soldiers for his sword, and after licking it three times the engraving on Miroku appears upon it, and so they informed the Emperor. Monmu seeing Ozunu was not a normal man ended his exile.

Having now grown tired of Japan he climbed into a giant bowl with his mother and left for China.

We see Ozunu briefly one more time when a man known as Taicho sleeps upon Mount Katsuragi. In his sleep Hitokotonushi begs the man to free him as he was bound in a boulder. Taicho then proceeds to free him until Ozunu appears before him full of fury. Taicho then runs away.3

Other Powers

Ozunu is said to have had several other supernatural powers. These powers included, being able to walk on water, the ability ot subsist on nothing but air and mist; and also the ability to shapeshift into a tiger.

Legends say numerous attempts on his life were made throughout his life, but the axes used to try and kill him always smashed and broke upon coming into contact with his head.

Connections with Oni

Ozunu is known to have had ties to two Oni known as Zenki and Goki. The tale surrounding them says that these creatures lived in a mountain range close to Nara, and here they terrorized the residents by taking their children. Ozunu learning of this decides to intervene and finds the two Oni. Stunning them using the powers of a Buddhist deity he steals the five children of the Oni and hides them away in a large couldron to make Zenki and Goki believe their children have been killed.

Having witnessed what they believed to have been the death of their children, they come to realise the hurt and terror they had been subjecting the people of Nara to and so they renounce their evil ways and says they will live better lives and assist Ozunu from now on. Ozunu happy with this, returns their children to them.

Death

Some sources say that in the year 701 he reached enlightenment and walked across the ocean to China. Some others say he ascended to Heaven in a Buddhist alms bowl with his mother.

Other accounts say he still walks in the mountains as a Sennin ‘Great Immortal,’ who watches over the Yamabushi to this day.

Centuries after his death, the Yamabushi built a dojo on a Koga Mountain called Honda-san in his honor as they believed this was where he once had lived.1

Footnotes

1. Yoda, H & Alt, M. (2012) “Ninja Attack: True Tales of Assassins, Samurai and Outlaws” Tokyo: Tuttle Publishing.
2. Louis Frederic, translated by Kathe Roth (2002) “Japan Encyclopedia”. London: Harvard University Press.
3. Tyler, R. (1987) “Japanese Tales.” New York: Pantheon Books.

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