— ubasoku | living in the practice: an interview with 'marathon-monk' mitsunaga kakudo.              

                Living in the Practice

An Interview with kaihogyo ascetic practitioner and Dai-Ajari (Great Teacher) of the Tendai lineage, Mitsunaga Kakudo.  

      Edited and translated for ubasoku.net



Kaihōgyō (回峰行; circumambulation asceticism) is a practice found across the Buddhist world, including Shugendo.

The following article will look at the 'sennichi-kaihōgyō' (千日回峰行) or '1000 day circumambulation asceticism' of the Tendai sect through the 'marathon monk', Dai-Ajari Mitsunaga Kakudo (光永覚道), who also acts as serves as the honorary advisor to Koshikidake-Kannon-ji temple.

What is the sennichi-kaihōgyō?

Mitsunaga Dai-Ajari introduces the kaihōgyō as follows:

"The kaihōgyō is a method of practice founded by Sōō (相応) (831-918), known posthumously as konryū-daishi (建立大師), which forms part of the Dharma-transmission practices of Mt. Hiei. In essence, it is a practice of constant walking and circumambulation, taking place 100-200 days of the year. With this length of time in mind, it can take between 7-10 years to complete.

After completing the 700th day of practice, a ceremony known as 'entering the hall' (堂入り; dō-iri) is undertaken. Following this practice, the practitioner is given the title of 'teacher who truly fulfils practice' (当行満阿闇梨; tōgyōman-dai-ajari). After 1000 days, the practitioner receives the title of 'great teacher who completely fulfils the practice of the Northern Peak [Hiei]' (北嶺大行満大阿閣梨; hōkurei-dai-gyō-man-dai-ajari). Mt. Hiei is the first peak of the 'Thirty-Six Eastern Mountains'. It is a large mountain rising to an elevation of 848 metres...

The kaihōgyō that Reverend Sakai Yusai performed before me was a practice which had been discontinued for a long time, but which was revived in 1975 by Reverend Sakai and his teachers. There are other kinds of kaihōgyō which start from the west pagoda (Enryakuji is comprised of 3 pagodas and 16 valleys). The kaihōgyō that I performed is referred to as the 'Mudō-ji Valley kaihōgyō' (無動寺谷回峰行). In the East Pagoda area of Mt. Hiei, there is a hall called the 'Vidyaraja-hall' (myōō-dō) where Acalanatha Vidyaraja is enshrined as the principal image. The kaihōgyō practices of Hiei all hold Acalanatha as the principal image of worship.

Mudō-ji's kaihōgyō visits not only shrines and temples, but also the sites of various kami and buddhas, including sacred stones, sacred water, and sacred trees. Some people today wonder why people visit shrines even though they are practicing Buddhism. However, there is a way of thinking that each plays a role, and until the Meiji era, it was thought that kami and buddha were inseparable."

— Mitsunaga Kakudō, Excerpt from Shugen and Mountain-Circumambulation  (my translation)

In the past, Sōō's kaihōgyō was referred to as "hokurei no shugen" (北嶺修験), the 'Shugen of the Northern Peaks' (of Mt. Hiei and Hira) contrasting it to the "nanzan shugen" (南山修験), the 'Shugen of the Southern Peaks' (of Yoshino, Omine and Kumano) centered on the traditions of En'no Gyoja.

"Sōō Oshō (831-918), the founder of the kaihōgyō of Mt. Hiei, also undertook practice at Omine in his youth. Sōō is also responsible for propagating faith in Acalanatha-Vidyaraja, which came to strongly colour the Tendai sect. From the standpoint of Shugen, Sōō was a Yamabushi who was active in a time where Yamabushi training flourished."
— Rev. Riten Tanaka (my translation)

"During the kaihōgyō practitioners wear a unique hat on their head, as well as carrying a sword at their waist, a bag and a lantern. The walking stick is reserved for those undertaking the 1000 day practice (not the 100 day form). Further, the 100 day practitioners undertake the practice barefoot (without tabi). Moreover, in the 100 day practice practitioners are required to carry the special hat rather than wearing it on their head. This is because the hat ultimately represents Acalanatha. When asked, an ascetic told me that the hat is 'for crossing the sanzu river (river styx)'. Although the hat is large, it is very light and has the shape of an unopened lotus flower. When the lotus flower opens, it becomes the lotus base upon which the Buddha sits. Acalanatha has the lotus base on the crown of his head. From this you may understand that the kaihōgyō is a practice to become one with Acalanatha and the Buddha.."

— Rev. Masahiro Asada, Professor Emeritus Ryukoku University (my translation).

About Mitsunaga Kakudo Dai-Ajari:

Reverend Mitsunaga Kakudō was born in Yamagata in 1954. After ordaining at Enryaku-ji temple he began the kaihōgyō practice in 1990. He is currently the head priest of Nanzenbō (比叡山麓南善坊), a temple located at the foot of Mt. Hiei.

The interview with Mitsunaga Dai-Ajari was edited and translated to mark his participation in Mt. Koshikidake's 2021 (and 2023) mountain-entry asceticism in Yamagata, Japan. For more background on the kaihōgyō see here.

The original interview aired on NHK in the year 2000. It will give readers some rare insight into Mitsunaga Dai-Ajari and the practice itself. For more on Mitsunaga I recommend the resources found here and the documentary, 'Marathon Monks of Mount Hiei'. See also my translation of 'The Wisdom of Practice', an interview with Omine-kaihōgyō practitioner, Yanagisawa Shingo. We are currently accepting donations for 2023 activities with Mitsunaga Dai-Ajari. If you feel inclined, please consider donating. Please contact me for further details.

Any mistakes or oddities are my responsibility alone as editor/translator. Please contact me for any feedback, reprinting or comments.

Practice (shugyō) is fundamentally, “a matter of slowly building up an awareness that life is given by all that is around us, that one lives interdependently...this is both the simplest and most difficult teaching to grasp…It is living with the awareness that life is a gift. There are too many people living [as though] on their own. There are few who [live with the awareness that they] are given life. When one realizes that life is a gift, one expresses gratitude to all. In particular, gratitude toward the past and towards ancestors is important..”
                                           — Mitsunaga Kakudō


                   LIVING IN THE PRACTICE:


Narrator: Mt. Hiei lies in the border between Kyoto and Shiga prefectures. Mt Hiei is the head mountain of the Tendai sect. Enryaku-ji temple, which Saicho (Tendai patriarch) opened during the Heian Period. Mitsunaga Kakudo trained in a peculiar path at Hieizan, the sennichi-kaihōgyō (thousand day practice) over a period of seven years, and became a Dai-Ajari (Great Teacher) at age 35. The sennichi-kaihōgyō is a rough practice which takes a human being to the edge of their limits.

Interviewer: From the middle of Mt. Hiei you can see all the way to Lake Biwa right?

Mitsunaga: Yes, that's right.

Interviewer: It must be a great view!

Mitsunaga: Although the altitude isn't that high, it's a very scenic spot where you can see most of Lake Biwa.

Interviewer: Back in 1990 the lake would have been full!

Mitsunaga: That's right.

Interviewer: You would have been so young!

Mitsunaga: Yusai Sakai, who performed the practice before me, was quite old when he started it. It's common for people to begin it around my age.

Interviewer: Is that so? Since the war I think you are the tenth person to do so.

Mitsunaga: That's right. The original material established by the founder of this practice, Sōō, is said to have been mostly lost after Mt. Hiei was burned down by Oda Nobunaga. Since the Edo period there has been roughly one person every 10 years.

Interviewer: When did the practice begin?

Mitsunaga: Roughly speaking, a millennium ago.

Interviewer: Could you tell us abit about Mt. Hiei?

Mitsunaga: There is a four-character idiom which sums up the image of Mt. Hiei. It is 'ron-shitsu-kan-pin' (論湿寒貧). 'Ron' (論; 'logic/debate') refers to Enryaku-ji (the head temple at Hieizan) being the root of the Lotus Sutra, the main scripture of the Tendai school. It refers to the difficulty of studying the various doctrines of the Lotus Sutra. 'Shitsu' (湿; 'wet') refers to moisture. It is often raining at Mt. Hiei and the mountain is always very humid and covered in fog. 'Kan' (寒; 'cold') refers to the cold of the mountain, as in some cases snow may fall as late as May. Finally 'Pin' 貧' refers to poverty. For example, in the past the middle hall of Enryakuji lacked a donation box. As a mountain for ascetic training and learning, it did not originally have any funding and relied on donations alone. Thus 'ron-shitsu-kan-pin' is good slogan for expressing Mt. Hiei's character.

Interviewer: So, it's humid and cold, and you're surrounded by poverty! (laughs)

Mitsunaga: Yes, that's right. To further this, the kaihōgyō practice is often referred to as "fugyō-bōsatsu-bon' (常不軽菩薩品), a practice which takes the Bodhisattva Sadaparibhuta as its inspiration.

[Ed: The bodhisattva Sadāparibhūta ('Never Disparaging') makes an appearance in the Lotus Sutra. He is always persecuted, slandered and abused but nonetheless displays the utmost reverence for all beings as future Buddhas].

It is also referred to as 'walking zen' (歩行禅). The main practice of the kaihōgyō is called 'reverence asceticism' (但行礼拝; tangyō-raihai). That is, while walking with the openness and attitude of a child, one feels the inherit buddha-nature within each tree and each blade of grass, within stones, trees, temples and all things in the mountain. "Hōhō-seisei-nennen" (歩々声々念々) is another common phrase. This means to walk step by step, singing the sutras, adjusting your breathing and calming the mind. The worship of the buddhas is performed in this adjusted state.

Interviewer: I'd like to take a step back and look at how you ended up here. You were first born in Yamagata?

Mitsunaga: Yes, in Yamagata Prefecture.

Interviewer: I heard that as a child you spent a lot of your time fishing?

Mitsunaga: Yes, when I had spare time I would fish, and I fished all through elementary and high school. I guess I killed too much so I had to become a monk (laughs).

Interviewer: Did you travel to Mt. Hiei while you were still a student at the Tsuruoka College of Technology?

Mitsunaga: Yes, I travelled there while I was a student! While I enjoyed fishing, I also enjoyed being in nature and viewing temple gardens. While visiting temple gardens in Kyoto I was introduced to a priest from Enryaku-ji [Head Temple of Mt. Hiei]. I had no money and so requested to be introduced formally to Enryakuji while living in Yamagata. The priest responded positively and requested that I come to Mt. Hiei. This is the first time I went to the mysterious Myōō-dō (明王堂) Training Hall, the home of the kaihōgyō practice and met with Reverend Mitsunaga Chodou. At the time, I thought he was a scary figure, but he took care of me for the day. By the end I thought "This is not for me, I can't go ahead with this!" When I came back to Yamagata my home temple was contacted with a short "Come be a disciple". Even though I thought to myself, "this isn't good fate.." I packed two bags, ignoring my own better judgement.

In the countryside where I am from we have a folk saying, "if someone in the family becomes a monk, seven generations can benefit from that one person's merit." Well, I was once told that my grandfather nearly entered the priesthood but he backed out in the last minute. When the teacher asked if I wanted to become a disciple, I thought, "Am I to step in for my grandpa?" So for a while I grappled with the thought, "can I really become a monk?" but in the end I left to go to Mt. Hiei at age 20.

Interviewer: What in the end was it that made you decide to enter the temple?

Mitsunaga: When I was in Junior High School we had to draft up a life pathway plan. At the time I generally enjoyed the tech-sciences so I drew a plan to become a technician or an engineer. I wasn't a big fan of the cram-study lifestyle, so after high-school instead of taking a big university exam I decided to go to a College of Technology where I thought I'd graduate within 5 years and be guaranteed a job at a company. Everything seemed all planned out! I'd enter college at 20, marry at 25, have a third child at 30, and become a manager at 50 (laughs). So when my teacher told me to ordain as a monk the image of my carefully crafted future was shattered. Who would I be as a monk? The possibilities I had laid out before me disappeared and the road instead went pitch black and wide open.

Compared to life in the priesthood, life as a technician or engineer, working in a company, is 100% predictable and everything is planned out in safe, minute detail. The salary-worker lifestyle was popular and within the range of expectations of me from those around me, but all these assumptions disappear as a monk. This new 'assumption-less' freedom appealed to me and bit by bit sparked my curiosity. Just as I heard my grandfather had almost ordained, my father had also entered a temple but decided not to go ahead with the religious path. So I thought being the third in line had some significance. If my grandfather had become a monk, perhaps I'd just inherit a regular hereditary position in a temple. Bit by bit, little by little, the religious path seemed to 'build up' and pass on down to me. Perhaps that's why I was drawn to such severe practice.

Interviewer: So at the age of 20 you said to yourself, 'lets bet on the path of becoming an unknown monk!' 

Mitsunaga: Although it sounds cool to say I bet on it, in reality I thought, ok, I'll dip my toes in, give this a little try for the time being and see how I go.
Interviewer: Then you graduated from college and eight days later you were ordained at Mt Hiei weren't you?
Mitsunaga: Yes, I was ordained in the Myoo-do on March 27 and on the evening of that day I was introduced to a sendatsu (guide) who had completed the '100 day walking ascetic practice' (百日の行; the prelude to the 1000 day practice). And with that my life in the mountains had begun! I thought to myself, I've come to an absolutely ridiculous place! I remember being told by my teacher to strive hard to embody the monk's life, and to "practice the Buddha's path through every day activity" (仏作仏行). By adopting the form [of Buddhist activity in everyday life] the heart soon follows to fill that form. Since I was born in a lay household I was not used to the daily work of a monk. In that sense, I thought, "I'll adopt the form of a monk as quick as I can, then my heart will naturally follow." Very quickly I was thrown into this rhythm; I put my clothes on and began work at 5:30 in the morning, studying the formal practices and tending to various things like chopping wood and maintaining trail paths.

Interviewer: You were just a kid! Were you ready to jump straight into that kind of strict training?

Mitsunaga: I don't think the ascetic path is something you can jump into. It's not something you can do just because you feel like it or have a desire to do it. Unless the ancestors of the practice and the other previous sendatsu (guides) think "this person's alright" you won't get permission; there has to be some kind of 'en' (縁; a karmic connection or bond). For myself, I had to do things one step at a time. It's true that I wanted to receive this connection and that I continued to develop an attraction towards it.

Interviewer: You started with the 'rōzan-gyō' (三年籠山行) ascetic practice isn't that right?

Mitsunaga: In our system you have to spend 3 years atop Hieizan in order to qualify as a priest at Enryaku-ji [rozan-gyo]. Over these three years you do the 'geza-gyō'' (下座行) practice where you help others, clean the temple grounds and learn many things. This is how I began my first three years at Enryakuji.

[Ed: Gezagyō' means to sincerely work and humble yourself, cleaning the temple grounds and assisting others, challenging all particularities, comforts and preferences, cleaning the mind as you go.]

Interviewer: Already as part of the 'rōzan-gyō' you begin doing 'jōugyōu-zanmai' (常行三昧) don't you?

[Ed: Jōugyōu-zanmai means active or walking meditation (samadhi) practice]

Mitsunaga: Yes that's true. In the Tendai sect we study the 'maka-shikan' [Ed: Great Concentration and Insight [摩訶止観]; Instruction texts on shamatha-vipashyana, abiding in meditative absorption]. From these texts we derive four kinds of training called 'shishu-zanmai' (四種三昧; The Four Forms of Samadhi). These are:

「常行三昧」 jōgyō-zanmai; walking/active meditation
「常坐三昧」 jōza-zanmai; sitting meditation
「半行半坐三昧」 hangyohanza-zanmai; walking and sitting meditation, and;
「非行非坐三昧」 hikō-hiza-zanmai; neither walking nor sitting meditation (samadhi in every moment).

Jōgyō-zanmai at Enryakuji is performed at the Gyō-dō (行道; Ascetic Hall) and involves continual walking and chanting around an image of Amida-Nyorai. When I said I'd take things step by step, I meant so literally! This practice is done for 90 days and the Thousand Day Kaihogyo Practice is simply an extension of these foundational practices in samadhi.

Interviewer: 90 Days!

Mitsunaga: Yes! And our sleep is drastically reduced.
Interviewer: I see! And your first 'One Hundred Day Mountain-Circumnavigation Practice' was also completed as part of this three year practice wasn't it?

Mitsunaga: Yes
Interviewer: And then after that, on March 28th, 1984, you began the 'One Thousand Day Circumnavigation Practice' (sennichi-kaihogyo) which you completed after seven years.

Mitsunaga: Yes. After completing the 'One Hundred Day Mountain Circumnavigation Practice' you can begin the sennichi-kaihōgyō practice.

Interviewer: I hear that you have to do the 100 days straight no matter what.. you can't think anything like, "hmm it's raining today I think I'll take the day off and continue tomorrow.." right?
Mitsunaga: Yes, that's right. The spirit of the practice is 'gyō-fu-tai' (行不退; Immovable Practice/Never Retreating). That is, to accept wholeheartedly whatever happens for one hundred days, and to accept death as the alternative if you flounder. To emphasise this, the practitioner carries a rope with four ends (四手紐; shidehimō) at his waist to hang himself and a shroud used to cover the dead (手巾; shukin). In addition to this the kaihōgyō practitioner carries a dagger to commit ritual suicide, but for the 100 Day Practice one usually symbolically substitutes this with a cypress fan (檜扇; hisen). Master Sakai Yūsai (酒井雄哉) who performed the practice before me actually did his with a dagger at his waist.

Narrator: Fudō (Acalanatha Vidyaraja) serves as the Dharmic focal-point of the kaihōgyō. Monks participating in the kaihōgyō are consider a living form of Fudo. The unusually shaped hat, or higasa, is considered to be Fudō Myō-ō himself and is treated with the highest respect. The monk carries with him a rope and dagger much like the deity, though they receive emphasis because of their other purpose: tools for the monk to end his life if he fails at any point to complete the kaihōgyō.

Interviewer: Then, you have to push onward even when you feel terrible, for example if you catch a cold or get injured?
Mitsunaga: I myself suffer from whiplash, a herniated disc and chronic pain so I never walked without any pain. The person who followed the practice after me was told, "pain won't kill you. It's difficult to continue on with pain. I've heard the story, and I appreciate your efforts. Nonetheless, please come back and continue on tomorrow.." You won't die from pain.
Interviewer: The whiplash, backache, and knee pain all stem from gymnastics and activities from back in Junior High School right?

Mitsunaga: I think some of it had to do from playing up in school..I injured my back in high jump and fell on my head twice during gymnastics.

Interviewer: Even with chronic pain you decided to go ahead and do the Thousand Day practice?
Mitsunaga: It's the same way that those who climb mountains are often asked, "why do you climb?" Well my master had completed the sennichi-kaihōgyō practice and I wanted to deepen my connection with him, that is, I couldn't get close to his depth of understanding without first doing the same thing. I learned later that my teacher had badly damaged ligaments during the practice. Of course there's a limit to this, but the kaihōgyō practice is a public commitment and austerity, and I was willing to take the risk. I knew about my pre-existing condition from the start, I only had to incorporate it into my practice.

Narrator: In the sennichi kaihōgyō 1000-Day Ascetic Practice you stop to worship at about 260 places, including temples, tombs, and stone Buddhas scattered around Mount Hiei. The practitioner dons the white gown of the dead; it is the costume of one who has died. With a rosary and lantern in hand, sandals are worn inside rooms [not taken off like the living]. Mr. Mitsunaga departs the Myo-o-Do Main Hall at midnight and crosses the valleys and peaks of Mt. Hiei. As he traverses the peaks he chants sutras constantly to stone buddhas on the roadside, all living plants, rocks and trees.

Nearby the Kyoto Imperial Palace Mitsunaga stands under a giant ancient cedar tree called the 'Gyōkutai Cedar' (玉体杉) and prays for peace. After reaching the highest peak of Mt. Hiei, he goes down the mountain and worships at Hiyoshi-Taisha Shrine (日吉大社) at the foot of the mountain. Returning to the starting point of the Myō-ō-dō at around 8am, he walks a distance of about 30km. 

Interviewer: The first hundred days lasted from March 28th to July 5th is that right?

Mitsunaga: Yes.

Interviewer: Is there anybody around to assist you in navigating your way through the mountain?
Mitsunaga: During the sennichi kaihōgyō you wander through three peaks and 16 valleys, and then all the way to Sakamoto. Initially, it's difficult to recall all the places while you're trekking. The sendatsu (guide) makes sure to tell you when, where and how to recite the sutras, to visit various Buddha and recite the appropriate shingon (mantra). There are always others helping you. The sendatsu makes sure to transfer the full denpō [伝法; dharma-transmission] of the practice. At the beginning I would write down all the places to visit by hand, including the appropriate way to read the special Sanskrit and recite the mantras.
Interviewer: That sounds impossible! 260 places!

Mitsunaga: I couldn't remember them! So I'd constantly reference my handwriting and there were oral instructions on how to do this, but it was also emphasised not to write things down frivolously. I lived in the mountains as a novice monk for some time so I knew my way around to some extent, but I think it would be hard to come to Mt. Hiei for the first time and figure out left from right!

Interviewer: And you walk the distance of 'seven and a half ri' right? (七里半)

Mitsunaga: Yes, in modern terms seven and a half ri is translated to about 30km, but in actual fact it's about 25km. I measured the distance and thought to myself hmm this isn't 30km! So I always stick to saying 'seven and a half ri'. There is a reason why it's 'seven and a half ri' and not eight. There is a Buddhist teaching called 'araya-shiki '(阿頼耶識; ālaya-vijñāna/storehouse consciousness). The eighth consciousness is the key to awakening as a Buddha. Hieizan is a Bodhisattva path; so it stops short just before reaching Buddhahood. The Bodhisattva path is a path of ascent and descent. It means to return to the world, seeking relationships with the world, assisting others in order to enter an enlightened world together. This continual training to approach awakening is ren-gyō (練行); continual practice.

Interviewer: After completing the 100-day-practice did you feel confident to immediately continue on to the Thousand day practice?
Mitsunaga: I don't think I gained confidence at all. When I was given permission to do the first one hundred days I had bad lower back pain, and on the third day it took me about an hour to get to the Enryaku-ji Main Hall when it usually only took about 15 minutes. I had severe pain all the way up to my waist, surging through me with each step up the stairs, and when I finally arrived I was sweating terribly. That night, the monk from Yamagata who recommended me for priesthood was upset as he had waited for me with some followers from midnight in the cold. I didn't arrive until 2am. This pain is a personal problem in the end. My lower back, foot and knee hurt naturally as they were already bad to begin with. In this sense, all I could do was repeat the steps one by one and I managed to make it through one hundred days. For sure, over a period of one hundred days the pain compounds, so I didn't have any confidence that I'd be able to do it for one thousand.. Because the practice lasts for so long there's no room to think about being at the other end of it.

Interviewer: In 1984 you entered the '12 year rozan-gyō' (十二年籠山行), a period of 12 years of intense study atop Mt. Hiei culminating in 'wondrous experience', didn't you?
Mitsunaga: Yes, the sennichi-kaihōgyō and the 12 year ascetic period as put forward by Dengyo-Daishi are supposed to go together, so I started both.

Interviewer: It's a very systematic process!

Mitsunaga: The system put forward is based on the cumulative experience and wisdom of practitioners since ancient times; if you understand the purpose of the ascetic-line well and train diligently, you're sure to proceed accordingly. So even though I had chronic pain, I thought with the blessing of past masters and the Buddhas I'll be protected, and I believed wholeheartedly in the well worn path and the strength of the ascetic-line I was walking.
Interviewer: And on passing the 100th day you receive white clothes and become a byakutai-gyōja (白帯行者) right?
Mitsunaga: There are three levels to the sennichi-kaihōgyō; upper, middle and lower (上・中・下). From the beginning until the 500th day the practice is said to be one that is limited to self-interest; you walk as a person who is satisfied with their own practice. After 500 days the practice shifts to one of kaji (加持; adhiṣṭhāna) and you are permitted to chant sutras for others. Previous to this the seven and a half ri path is one of jirigyō (自利行); practice for the benefit of oneself. When speaking as an ascetic, the trainee is practicing to get closer to the Buddha's awakening; so it is for ones own liberation. As long as I'm a practitioner however I have to carry out practice for the sake of others (化他行; ketagyō).
Interviewer: In between these states of 'service-to-self' and 'service-to-others' is the practice of 'dō-iri' (堂入り; Entering-the-Hall), right?

Mitsunaga: Yes, that's true.

Interviewer: This is a very severe practice, bringing you to the brink of death. In the fall of the fifth year, after 700 circumnavigations, you were secluded in the Myō-ō-dō (明王堂; hall of vidyaraja) for nine days weren't you?

Mitsunaga: Yes, I began the dō-iri.

Narrator: The monk is secluded in the Myō-ō-dō for nine days and undertakes the four deprivations; no eating, drinking, sleeping, or lying down, as he performs mantra and sutra recitations for nine days. He emerges from the hall at 2:00 am every night, to gather water for his ritual practices from the nearby Akai (閼伽井) well. Apart from this the practitioner will continue to recite the mantra of the Immovable One, Fudo Myoo (Acalanatha Vidyaraja). This seclusion, known as dōiri 堂入り (hall-entering) divides the prior period of practice dedicated to the benefit of the monk (jirigyō 自利行), from the latter period of “practice for others” (ketagyō 化他 行). That is also why the seventh year includes one hundred days of walking around the populated city of Kyoto, providing blessings for those lined up along the roadside. Before entering the hall, the ascetic has one last funerary meal with the priests close to him, although it is customary to only eat a bite and to leave the rest. The dō-iri relives the Buddha's meditating under the Bodhi tree prior to his awakening. The practice has the practitioner reborn as an Ajari (teacher).

On the 700th day of the kaihōgyō, the gyoja
starts the dōiri, a nine day fasting retreat where no
food, no water, no rest or sleep are allowed. While
in the temple, the monk sits behind a folding screen
which is arranged upside down, a tradition used during funerals. The practitioner again invokes Fudo throughout chanting the same mantra from his walks 100,000 times.

Mitsunaga: Our minds are said to be guided by the 'three desires' (三欲; sanyōku) of appetite, sleep and lust. Lust is written as greed but it can mean anything such as money, sex, comfort, fame and so on. Before that there is appetite and sleep. The kaihōgyō ascetic, despite being restricted to a vegetarian diet, still eats to nourish the body. Similarly, even though the kaihōgyō ascetic is sleep deprived, they still manage to get a little sleep each night to rejuvenate themselves. These desires are not something to be denied, but controlled and transformed into the desire for great awakening for self and others. The practice of Entering the Hall (dō-iri) transforms these completely.

Interviewer: For 9 days!?

Mitsunaga: Yes, 9 days. By emptying the human body, denying these basics and going to the brink of death, something else fills you. One goes beyond body and mind.

Interviewer: You approach the mind of Fudō-Myō-ō? (不動明王; Acalanatha Vidyaraja; the immoveable one).

Mitsunaga: That's right, you become immovable. One recites sutras with all of ones heart and mind, serves and unites with Fudō-Myō-ō. Worshipers will often say things like 'Mr. living-Buddha!'(生き仏さん) or 'Mr. living-Fudō-Myōō!' (生き不動さん). Although it's only nine days, the three markers of human existence are denied and you return embodying Fudo. Any longer and you will die. People often imagine that someone who does this would look like a grey-haired old hermit. There's someone who looked at me and remarked "oh? but you look so young!" (laughs). You perform this practice and become immovable, but after that you return to the world again. Having completed the practice as a 'true completer of practice' (当行満; tōugyōman), from here you continue onwards.

Interviewer: So you're saying you don't eat, you don't drink, you don't sleep and you don't lay down for 9 days? That really is the limit!

Mitsunaga: Of course, if you were to suddenly decide to carry out such a practice it would be difficult, but up until that point I had been in training for 700 days. There is a blessing to continue and it's not a sudden decision. The medical reason as to why it's considered impossible is the extent of dehydration that occurs by the third or fourth day. The deprivation of water is the strictest and most difficult part; the other three come with it.

Everyone might be able to relate to the feeling of being hungry or dehydrated and then not being able to sleep properly at night. Extending on that, I didn't eat, so I didn't sleep. I didn't sleep, so I didn't lay down. Anyone can fast for a month, but it's the lack of water which makes it such a strict practice. Nine days really is the limit before death. The practice of dō-iri is to re-live the experience of the Buddha's extreme practices during his time in the forest of ascetics (苦行林) prior to receiving sustenance from the milk-maid, Sujata. Once the Buddha's body was nourished, he was able to enter into awakening. In a sense, this is an austerity, a looking back at the past 700 days, so it's impossible to understand it from the outside. My mindset was, "let me enter the temple, and enter the realm of awakening, facing the buddhas with a gentle heart."
Interviewer: Do you read sutras during that time?

Mitsunaga: Yes, sutras area read three times a day and the hall is only left to draw water offerings. In addition to this the mantra of Fudō-Myōō is recited 100,000 times, that is one rakusha (lakh; 100,000).

Interviewer: 100,000? Fudō's shingon (mantra), is it a short one?

Mitsunaga: Fudō's mantra [Mantra of Compassionate Assistance] is quite long! (ナーマク・サマンダ・バザラナセンダ・マカロシャナ・ソワタヤ・ウンタラタ・カンマン).

Translator: 100,000 times!
Mitsunaga: That's right, when I wasn't at the altar I'd take a seat at the side and recite in front of the image of Fudō.

Narrator: During the dō-iri, Mitsunaga is accompanied at midnight to leave the hall to collect water to offer to the Buddhas. The distance between the hall and the well is 200m, but with building fatigue his gait becomes heavier each day.

Mitsunaga: Actually, on the first day it takes no time at all. But by the ninth day it takes more than an hour.

Interviewer: Is anyone there to help you?
Mitsunaga: It's my practice, so I can't be directly assisted or touched. Instead others assist indirectly by helping balance the rod (across his back holding the pales of water). Although I was unable to drink any water, I was also supported by breathing the cold foggy mist in the air. You really feel every pore in your body desperately gasping to breathe in this cold mist.

Narrator: After finishing the Nine days and Four Deprivations, Mitsunaga takes his first ritual 3 sips of hot water. Outside the hall there are about 300 pilgrims and supporters.

Mitsunaga: On the final day, many people were lining the route at midnight. I was pleased to hear my mother's familiar voice in the crowd among everyone else chanting the mantra of Fudō-Myō-ō.

Interviewer: What did you hear her say?

Mitsunaga: I heard the words "gokurōsan!" [ご苦労さん; similar to 'otsukaresama' or, "Your efforts have paid off! / Your hard work is done!"]

Interviewer: Wow! and what kind of state were you in at the end of the nine days?

Mitsunaga: There is an image of the Buddha often seen in India which depicts him during his period of asceticism, emaciated and bone-thin, with his ribs protruding out of his skin. I looked like those pictures. I don't have any photos, but this memory stays in my mind.
Interviewer: Is that so? and what was your state of mind like?

Mitsunaga: My mind was firm and steady. My teacher said "gōkurōsanyatta!" (Your hard efforts are done!). That night, I could only sleep for an hour or so. Everything took time [to get back to normal]. I gradually adapted, eating small amounts of porridge, but over the days as I slowly increased my food and water intake, the time I slept also slowly returned back to normal.
Interviewer: In your book you reflected on this time, saying, "I want this special point to stay close to my heart." It seems the dō-iri was a very special kind of austerity.

Mitsunaga: Yes, that's right. When I entered the hall, my predecessor asked me, "why do you look so happy?" I had been permitted to start the 100-day-trekking and then it came to the 700-day point. Being given permission to begin the dō-iri practice was a confirmation that I had made it so far.

In this sense I thought bluntly that if Fudō says "you can do it" I'll arrive safely, and if Fudo says, "you can't!" then I would die somewhere. I was happy because I was allowed to Enter the Hall with the feeling that I could do it, even if I were to die. I knew that without the right connection to the Buddha and the teachings I could not have accepted it.

Interviewer: And once you completed the dō-iri the practice shifts to 'service for others/'other'-orientated practice' (化他行; ketagyō), right?.
Mitsunaga: Ketagyō is not so much a shift as an addition. In addition to the seven-and-a-half ri I was walking, the ketagyō adds the 'Asceticism of Mount Seki ' (赤山苦行; sekizan-kugyōu) which adds another seven-and-a-half ri distance, increasing the journey to total of 15-ri.

The first half of the sennichi-kaihōgyō is 'service to self', the second half is 'service-to-others'. There is a temple called Sekizan-zen-in (赤山禅院) on the Kyoto side of Mt Hiei [Ed: This temple acted as a demon's gate since it lies in the 'kimōn' (表鬼門) direction from the Kyoto Imperial Palace; it is seen as a site of refuge and salvation]. With the added heaviness of the extra seven-and-a-half ri journey [roughly 60km] to this temple one dedicates sutras and mantras for others.

Interviewer: And the sekizan-kugyō starts from the 701st day to the 800th right?
Mitsunaga: That's right. The kaihogyō is "kugyō, kugyō" [tāpas; 苦行 - austerities of self-discipline, penance and purification]. The sekizan-kugyō is a manifestation of the gravity of dedicating oneself to others; the sekizan-kugyō adds extra 'distress' to the journey due to the weight in the meaning of the practice.

Interviewer: and with that and the Kyoto dai-mawari (京都大廻り; 100 days travelling through Kyoto town), you enter the final year right?
Mitsunaga: Yes, that's right, an extension of the practice is the 21-ri 'grand circulation' of the hustle and bustle that is Kyoto city. It may seem odd for a Buddhist monk to worship at a Shrine [of Kami] but I walk from temple to temple, shrine to shrine, all around Kyoto, among the people of Kyoto, for 100 days. [providing blessings to all who request it along the roadsides]. Finally, you return to the mountain for the final stint of your own training, making  for a total of 1000 days.

Interviewer: You once said that an important principle of the the sennichi-kaihōgyō is that it's 'stacked' day by day, right? 

Mitsunaga: Yes. At the end of the practice an interviewer asked me "what do you think now that it's all over?" I didn't give an interesting answer. After all, I walked fully day by day; I just did what I needed to do for the day. And by the end it stacked up to be the totality of the kaihōgyō. I only had each day in front of me. When you walk, you think of the line of ancestors of the practice. It wasn't until later that I thought, oh, I had joined that line.

When Master Sakai Yusai Dai-Ajari (酒井雄哉; previous kaihogyō monk) completed the dō-iri practice, NHK cameras reported on the situation with sensational footage, making the term 'sennichi-kaihogyō' go nation-wide. In reality the traditional custom is for the practice to go for 975 days. It means that you practice to get closer to buddhahood, not to realise it. There are 25 days left, so I'd always describe the practice in terms like, "walking seven-and-a-half ri" and didn't call myself a 'sennichidaigyōman' (千日大行満). So while I did walk with followers as a guide for over 1000 days, my own practice finished at 975. You then spend the missing 25 days as the rest of your life.
Interviewer: Is there anything that changed within yourself as a result of completing the kaihogyō practice.

Mitsunaga: That's a popular question, but I don't think much changed at all. The answer to that question though isn't answered by oneself, but by those around you. There's a strange metaphor that says "Doctor, Monk, Pumpkin." It's a funny saying but it means that "the more of a 'taste' you get for each one, the better they become." I'm still in my fifties, and I'll continue to study things. It's said that a monk's life is in it's prime at age 60. The life of a monk, like all, is to continue to grow and accumulate. With this accumulation it is said that the weight of ones words increase. I'd like to continue to live in this way.  

Narrator: After 26 years Mitsunaga has said goodbye to the mountain he has called home since age 20. Now he lives as a priest, providing prayers and assisting the common people. He also regularly participates in public events and speaks about his experiences as a kaihogyō monk.

Interviewer: Have you just come back from Okinawa?

Mitsunaga: Yes, that's right. This was my seventh year doing the pilgrimage to the Okinawa battle grounds to attend the memorial service. These are places where many people have died. I call it a pilgrimage because being around these kinds of places gives rise to 'hotsugan (発願)' [arousing the vow to assist all beings].

Interviewer: The Okinawan war right..
Mitsunaga: That's right. It's not only a memorial site, but the crossroads of immense suffering. My feeling was that as long as there's a connection with these places, lets make a pilgrimage to them and hold a memorial service one by one. I started with these feelings and now it's my seventh year with the intent of pilgrimage.

Interviewer: You chose an unknown life and entered the monk's path, but you're still only fifty three years old. What are your thoughts on what you want to do in the future?
Mitsunaga: It may be a strange way to put it, but I've planted a lot of trees, and after eight years I'm comfortable with the trees I planted. Similarly, I'd like to see how things are 20 years down the track. There are things in life that succeed and fail, things that don't fit disappear and not everything grows the way we want it to. I often counsel people and their worries. In these situations you can lend a hand, but you can't become a substitute for others. Similarly I see flowers all around me and I would like to watch them grow and hope that I can continue to support myself, and be of support and assistance to others.
Interviewer: You really like gardens, flowers and trees!
Mitsunaga: I don't dislike them!
Interviewer: You became a monk at twenty and now you're fifty three. How do you feel looking back on your life as a monk?
Mitsunaga: Well, I wonder if I've done everything I could do during that time. I've tried. But there are a lot of things that aren't understood without hindsight. I'll do what I can for now. In terms of the practitioner's life, there are always still many sutras and things to learn, there's always more to do. Of course, from here I'd like to not be ashamed of my life as a practitioner and continue with a strong effort.
Interviewer: Thankyou very much for your time.


We are currently accepting donations for 2023 activities with Mitsunaga Dai-Ajari. If you feel inclined, please consider donating. Please contact me for further details.🙏

Documentary on Sakai Yusai's sennichi kaihogyo