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.
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 (most holy 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, the head temple of Shingon Buddhism, on Mount Yoshino in Nara Prefecture. I remember the 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, and it really sank in. He meant that it is very important to focus on benefiting others (humanity) and that should be my ultimate aim. 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.
The Feeling of Immersing Yourself in Suffering
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).
Embracing the Ordinary
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.
After graduating from high school in 1986, Ryojun Shionuma entered the monastery at the temple Yoshino Kinpusenji 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. In 2000 he completed "the practice of the four deprivations." He is now the head priest of Jigenji temple in Sendai.
This article was originally published in the April-June 2012 issue of Dharma World.