— Truth through Repetition 

Originally published in Dharma World 2002

Some people ask me, "Exactly what made you want to do the sennichi kaihogyo [thousand-day mountain circumambulation practice]?" I'm not sure myself.

Around the time I was in elementary school, I saw the practice of the ajari (high-priest) Yusai Sakai on Mount Hiei on television, and from that moment on I had a pure longing to perform that ascetic practice. That must have been the start of it.

I didn't grow up in privileged circumstances, but my mother and grandmother were always praying at the Shinto and Buddhist altars in our house. There was a feeling of gratitude for things that the eye could not see. I grew up sensing this wordlessly. This may be the reason that, even though we lived in poverty, in my child's mind I had a strong desire to work for the benefit of the world and other people.

After graduating from high school, I spent my novice period at Kinpusenji, a head temple of Shugendo, on Mount Yoshino in Nara Prefecture. I remember my master once said to me, "Monks should try to avoid frivolous talk about working for the world and other people." After I finished the Omine Thousand-Day Circumambulation Practice, it dawned on me what he meant. Naturally, you should throw yourself wholeheartedly into each task at hand, carrying it out consistently and dispassionately.

I came to realize that this was the essential way to live.

Kinpusenji was founded thirteen hundred years ago in the first year of the reign of Emperor Temmu (672 CE) by En-no-Gyoja (En-no-Ozunu). The Omine Thousand-Day Circumambulation Practice begins each day with a midnight departure from Kinpusenji on Mount Yoshino, a twenty-four-kilometer climb into the mountains to the top of Mount Omine, and back. The vertical climb is more than thirteen hundred meters (about 4,265 feet). The round trip of forty-eight kilometers on the trail takes about sixteen hours. If one makes that trek every day during the four months from May to September for nine years, one will have walked for a thousand days.

The practice brings risks at every moment. If you are bitten by a pit viper, for instance, your practice is over right then and there. You can also come across bears. You can be caught in heavy rains and find yourself in the middle of violent thunderstorms. The slightest carelessness or overconfidence can mean death. If the worst happens and the circumstances are such that you cannot continue the practice, then there is the strict rule to apologize to the gods and the buddhas and then commit suicide.

Even under extreme conditions, such as having a fever or a physical injury, you must walk single-mindedly every day, taking everything and anything that nature throws at you. You press forward dispassionately, feeling as if you are immersed in suffering. When you do that, the mind gradually becomes very clear.

During the height of my practice, when I tried to feel enlightened or act in a certain way, it did not work. But when I became able to walk in a relaxed way, without pointless effort, I could sense how small my own existence was in the context of nature. As I became aware of this, with each step I recited over and over in my mind, "Be humble, submit, be humble, and submit."

There were times, when I would stop to rest to eat an onigiri (a rice ball with pickles), that I shed tears of gratitude. I was thankful for the many blessings I had received, because of which I was able to lift the onigiri to my mouth. That sort of feeling would well up in me. It may be that truly deep joy is being able to be really grateful for the most ordinary things.

I completed the practice in 1999, the year of the thirteen-hundredth anniversary of the passing of En-no-Gyoja. I feel that this was some mysterious, karmic connection and that somebody had to do it. In the following year I completed the practice of the four deprivations (no food, no water, no sleep, and no lying down for nine days straight).

During nine years on the mountain, Shionuma says there were very few days when he felt 'good'. “There was almost always something to trouble me, whether it was knee, heart, headache, etc.,” he says. Just a month into the attempt, Shionuma lost his toenails and fingernails. Later in the first year, he dealt with blood in his urine from kidney problems. He had to care for himself, as he couldn’t take a break from the mountain to visit a doctor. “You press forward dispassionately, feeling as if you are immersed in suffering,” he says. “When you do that, the mind gradually becomes very clear.” 

It is said that for religious practitioners, practice among other people is more important than practice in the mountains. After I finished my practice, I returned to my hometown of Sendai.

It gives me joy to be able to share with many people the lessons I learned from my experience in a natural setting.

When asked what my circumambulation had taught me about the most important things in life, I said gratitude, self-examination, and consideration for others.

Gratitude is an attitude of knowing one has enough. It's an attitude of being thankful for what has been given. Self-examination means reflecting upon oneself daily. For example, it is important to ask yourself in bed at night, "Did I hurt someone today by saying something thoughtless?"

Consideration for others is treasuring your relationships and surroundings. The reason that I had a full, satisfied heart during my solitary ascetic practice might be because I felt affection for even the trees and the insects.

It may seem at first glance to be an easy thing, but if you neglect the ordinary things, you will also neglect your life.

All of this starts in daily life: talking with people, preparing a meal, greeting someone. Embracing everything in your daily conduct, one thing at a time, is actually the most difficult, the most valuable and important thing to do. If you make this your own practice, courteously, you put down your own roots. There is valuable meaning in doing the same things, in the same way, and as devotedly as you can. If you do this, the way will most assuredly open up.

From HanaHou! TVol 18, number 2 & Dai-Ajari's book, "The life of an ordinary apprentice bonze"

“When we were hunters and gatherers, we lived in small self-contained groups scattered here and there. Group members shared a common destiny, and depended on each other for their survival,” says Shionuma. “With the spread of agriculture, people came together in locations where water was plentiful, eventually creating cities. Communal life gave way to social systems in which the pursuit of material wealth and ever greater productivity reigned supreme. Instead of working together, people began to compete, leading to the breakdown of relationships. Religion is thought to have emerged from such forces. There would be a central figure in a particular age who would found a particular religion, someone like Buddha or Jesus or Muhammad. People came to depend on these figures for support and comfort, but unfortunately, even founders are mortals who die. Eventually, people came to use Buddhism, or Christianity or Islam to draw unfavourable comparisons with others, creating barriers between religions. I think that's the current situation.”

Shionuma has completed two of the toughest ascetic practices found across the esoteric-ascetic sects. The first and by far the hardest is the Omine Sennichi Kaihogyo (One Thousand Days Trekking on Mount Omine), based on the Tendai version of the practice. Every year during the trekking season (May 3 to September 22), he walked thirty miles a day in the mountains above Nara, hiking from Mount Yoshino to Mount Omine and back again, an elevation change of nearly four thousand feet. “The thousand-day practice is limited to five months out of the year because the trail is impassable during the winter,” says Shionuma. “However, because there is such a big change in altitude, you can experience many different climates during one hike, even during the summer when temperatures reach over one hundred degrees.” Averaging 110 consecutive days of trekking during each season, it took Shionuma nine years to complete the kaihogyo, a journey equivalent to circling Earth one and a quarter times. Only one other person has completed the thousand-day practice on Mount Omine in the sect’s 1,300-year history. Since 1885, forty-six people have completed a similar practice on Mount Hiei, near Kyoto, but the Hiei hike is shorter and less challenging.

Every night during the trekking season, Shionuma would wake at ll:30 p. m. and recite prayers while bathing under an ice-cold waterfall. Then he would climb the five hundred steps to Yoshino Kinpusenji, the temple where he would begin his trek. He would dress in traditional attire, his all-white robes (the colour of death in Japan) fastened by three ropes from which hung a container with half a litre of water, two rice ball snacks and a bell to signal his presence to bears on the trail. From one rope hung a dagger. If he failed to complete the course, Shionuma was prepared to use one or the other to either hang or disembowel himself. (Though having completed the hundred days of practice required of anyone wishing to attempt the kaihogyo, he was fairly confident that this wouldn’t be necessary.)

Shionuma would usually reach the summit of Omine by 8:30 a.m., where he would drink some water and eat his meal before returning to Mount Yoshino. He would arrive back at the temple at around 3:30 p.m., a fifteen-hour round-trip. After a meal of tea and rice, he was in bed by 7 p.m., waking up four and a half house later to start again.

During his nine years of hiking, the priest had to sidestep countless venomous pit vipers, avoid wild boar, navigate around landslides, weather several typhoons and once had to face down an angry, charging bear (he had neglected to wear his bell that day.) However, it was often the little things that posed a threat to survival. Because he wasn’t allowed to receive medical care during the thousand-day practice, injuries, illness and even insect bites could be debilitating, even potentially lethal. “Oftentimes I would brush up against a bush or tree and cut myself. I carried antiseptic with me and made sure that I treated the cut early and often. I knew that even a small scratch could lead to a serious infection,” says Shionuma. “The pit vipers were always a worry, but they were easy to avoid when you came upon them. The ticks and horseflies weren’t.”

Having grown up poor, Shionuma was no stranger to struggle and deprivation. His mother was chronically ill and often bedridden. His father was mostly absent and inattentive when he was around. During Shionuma’s second year in middle school, his father left his wife, son and mother-in-law to fend for themselves. Relatives and neighbours helped feed the family, and the young Shionuma pitched in where he could: He would collect the discarded metal balls from the floor of the local gambling parlour and eventually became skilled at the game, trading in his winnings for rice, shoyu and miso.

Shionuma says that his mother and grandmother were his sources of strength and inspiration during the toughest parts of the thousand-day practice. One of those came at about the halfway point, when he had contracted a stomach ailment that prevented him from eating or keeping down what little food he could eat. After several days of illness, he woke up one night an hour late, weak and delirious. He stumbled through his preparations, and shortly after starting his hike he collapsed and lost consciousness. However, drifting in and out, he felt a warm sense of calm. “I had no sense of pain or distress or discomfort,” he says. “I felt like I was encased in a protective sphere, and I hoped that time would stop and I could remain like that forever. However, there was another voice inside of me that said that if I didn’t get up and start walking, I would die there.”

Shionuma then saw his life flash before his eyes. He remembered the day his father left; he, his mother and grandmother huddled around a space heater and cried; how they vowed that they would somehow manage without his father. He remembered how they sometimes didn’t have anything to eat, how friends and family would bring them food or clothing. Mostly, he remembered his mother and everything she had done for him, how she told him on the day he left to join the temple that life is filled with adversity and disappointment. He would have to learn to “eat sand,” she’d said, and move on. Still lying on the trail, Shionuma grabbed a handful of dirt and put it in his mouth. “It was really awful, but it immediately brought me back to consciousness, and I took off with a great burst of energy and went straight up the mountain,” he says. “From that time on, my physical condition improved.”

Shionuma completed the thousand-day practice on September 2, 1999. The night before, he had gone to sleep anxious. He was worried that he would wake up without the desire and enthusiasm to do the hike—an irrational fear, given that it had never happened before. Neither did it happen that last morning; he completed the hike just as he had 999 times before, without fanfare or celebration. “I only had the sense that the practice had ended; no more, no less,” says Shionuma. “Climbing those mountains wasn’t the ultimate goal. I had things to do. Completing the practice was like graduating from college.”

Shionuma, apparently, wanted to go straight from college to graduate school. Immediately he began training for the second-toughest test, the Shimugyo, or Four Deprivations Practice. By comparison with the thousand-day practice, it’s a quickie. Only nine days. But nine days during which one is not allowed to sleep, eat, drink or lie down. According to Shionuma, about half of the practitioners who attempt the four-depravations practice die trying, so he spent a year preparing. He says that fasting was the easiest of the four aspects to complete; during his nine years of the thousand-day practice, he’d become accustomed to surviving on very little food. Sleep deprivation was also not difficult to overcome, again because of his experience with the thousand-day practice. Going without water for nine days was another matter, the most painful physical and psychological test of the four, especially because one of his daily rituals was to carry and offer buckets of water. Even today Shionuma shudders when he recalls what extreme dehydration felt like.

Shionuma says that the fourth and fifth days, when he was at a physical and mental breaking point, were the hardest of the four deprivations practice. Practitioners are allowed to rinse their mouths out with water during the second half of the practice. Shionuma had understood that this would occur sometime during the fourth day; however, he was told that he couldn’t do it until the fifth. Instead of protesting or despairing, he persevered. When he was finally allowed to rinse with water, he felt rejuvenated, just has he had when he ate dirt on Mount Omine. Unlike the subdued ending to the thousand-day practice, when Shionuma finished the Shimugyo a crowd of several hundred—many of them from Sendai—was waiting for him. After a lot of water and a simple meal of nuts and cooked vegetable, he was carried back to his quarters in a sedan chair.

Shionuma says that completing the four deprivations and the thousand-day practice has reinforced his belief in some of the central tenets of Buddhism: “When facing difficulties, throw yourself at adversity without anger and be humble. Facing hardship is the ordinary condition of life,” he says. “If you are single-minded in facing your difficulties, then mysteriously the situation will appear to you from a different and liberating angle”. After completing the Shimugyo in 2000, Shionuma decided to leave the mountain temple and return to Sendai. Today he is the head priest of Jigenji (Merciful Eye) Temple in a small village outside Sendai. There he prays, teaches, farms, writes books and welcomes pilgrims. He also speaks throughout Japan and around the world (including in Honolulu the day before the marathon). While much of his talk centres around his travails on the trail, his over all message is that anyone can have a similar experience in daily life. “Awakening is found in ordinary experiences, the change of the seasons, the difficulties of human relationships. It’s a gradual transformation”. Shionuma says that the thousand-day practice left him with an overwhelming sense of gratitude and humility. Hiking the trail day after day, week after week made him realize his close connection and obligation to others, and he wanted to continue his practice among people, not alone in the mountains. “No one exists just by themselves. There is no such thing as doing it alone.”

“This may not be an appropriate way of expressing the idea, but I think that what we need now is perhaps simple belief, and a desire to lead one's life in a way that surpasses the founder. I see this as the immutable, the part that should remain the same, and it is rooted in prayer and compassion for others. This applies to future society as well as the present.”

See Also:

The Path to Enlightenment: Talk by Shionuma Ryojun
Marathon Monks of Mt. Hiei: Documentary on Tendai Kaihogyo practitioners Mitsunaga Kakudo
What Nature Teaches Us: Talk by Shionuma Ryojun
Kaihogyo by Sakai Yusai - the original video which inspired Shionuma Ryojun

After graduating from high school in 1986, Ryojun Shionuma entered the Kinpusenji temple in Nara Prefecture in 1987. He completed the hundred-day circumambulation of Mount Omine in 1991, and in 1999 he became the second person in history to complete the Omine Thousand-Day Circumambulation Practice (kaihogyo), which is based on the kaihogyo of Mt. Hiei. In 2000 he completed the practice of the four deprivations. He is now the head priest of Jigenji temple in Sendai.