En no Gyoja (634-701), also known as En no Ozuna, was born into a family of traditional diviners and healers who served as priests to the kami
of one of Japan
's many sacred mountains.
The first historical reference to him appears in a 699 record which explains that he had been exiled to Izu on charges of misusing what were thought of as his mystical powers. At the time he had been practicing his religious activities mainly in the area of Mt. Kimpu and Mt. Katsuragi on the Kii Penninsula. The records indicate that the emperor pardoned him three years later but, remaining unrepentant and refusing to change his ways, he immediately recommenced his wanderings around western Japan and again began to preach the beliefs of Shugendo, a new mixture of Shintoism and Buddhism.
It wasn't only the fact that he practiced a new religion that kept him in trouble with the government, but the fact that he preached it to the common people, the masses. Aggravating this was the fact that he had, by now, gathered a huge following. The imperial court distrusted him because of his insistence in preaching to the common people when this was strictly forbidden as the court feared that it might cause dissension. Buddhism was still relatively new to Japan during this period and was not a religion or a religious belief, as such, but a tool of the ruling imperial clan. Buddhism was regarded as a tool or even a weapon to be used to protect the country, control the people, and for their personal benefit. Educating the common people, providing them with view points other than those sanctioned by the court, was regarded as a terrorist activity.
There is an altar to En no Gyoja on the summit of Marozan on Shikoku, the mountain on which Temple 12 of the famous “Pilgrimage to the 88 Sacred Places of Shikoku” is located today. The altar is there because En climbed this peak at sometime in his life in order to perform the religious austerities that gave him his mystical powers.
He is still considered to be an important figure because he represents the ideal of mountain asceticism. He represents the ideal of the wandering monk criss-crossing the countryside preaching his religion to the people, for the benefit of the people.
En's Buddhism was not the Buddhism of the priests overseeing ceremonies in temples to support the government’s policies, but the Buddhism of the hijiri, the wandering hermits whose altars were the peaks of the sacred mountains.