Religion: Women on the Mountain

"It is better to encounter a deadly poisonous snake than a woman," say the Buddhist priests of the Shugen sect, who worship the Eight Dragon God, Hachidai Ryuo, at the temple of Japan's Mount Sanjogatake. For 1,300 years the Shugen monks have seen to it that no female climbed their mountain or entered their Ryusenji Temple. Undisturbed, they practiced their ascetic disciplines—walking barefoot through fires of logs and leaves while reciting sutras, plunging into freezing pools, hanging by their ankles over vertiginous cliffs while confessing their sins. (A favorite fillip of the monks is to dangle novices carelessly over a cliff,...

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