A statue of a monk at a temple inside the Enryaku-ji temple near Kyoto, Japan, depicts a practitioner of Sennichi Kaihogyo -- a 1,000-year-old tradition consisting of a 1,000-day walk. In his left hand, he holds a paper lantern and rosary.
Darn, I ate my dishrag!
It happened like this.
Two little slices of pickled radish — each a little larger than a quarter — sat on a plate separate from the tofu, rice and miso soup that composed the simple but beautiful lunch the monk Endo Mitsunaga served to me at the Enryaku-ji temple complex near Kyoto, Japan.
How Mitsunaga completed the intense Sennichi Kaihogyo — 1,000 days of walking meditation around Mount Hiei near Kyoto — on such a spartan vegetarian diet truly stretches the boundaries of my imagination.
But there I was, in Mitsunaga's private living quarters, with members of his small congregation sitting lined up along cloth borders on the tatami mats, facing Mitsunaga. They ate meditatively, neither wasting a grain of rice nor speaking a word. Finally, they poured some tea into each empty dish, and wiped the plate clean with the radish — but not me, because I had just eaten my dishrag.
My real regret, though, was that I had not accompanied Mitsunaga on his nighttime walkabouts, which ended last fall after seven long years. I could only imagine him swiftly gliding along Mount Hiei's paths, only dimly illuminated by the paper lantern he held in his hands.
Mitsunaga explained to me that using correct Kaihogyo technique means the legs function as shock absorbers, keeping the upper body steady.
Each practitioner of the roughly 1,000-year-old tradition carries a guidebook with rules made by previous Enryaku-ji monks and Kaihogyo practitioners. The guidebook includes the more than 200 spots at which one must stop and pray.
While observers sometimes describe the practitioner as praying to trees, rocks or clumps of grass, Mitsunaga says he is often praying in the direction of some shrine, palace or holy site that is some distance away and not immediately visible.
In the final stages of his Kaihogyo training, Mitsunaga widened his circumambulations beyond Mount Hiei to include the city of Kyoto itself. A society of devoted laypeople, the Kyoto Sokusho-ko, served as his guides, protecting him as he navigated the bustling city streets, dodging traffic, all while deep in prayer and meditation.
The pilgrimage's completion is marked with a "graduation" ceremony called the Dosoku Sandai. The practitioner goes to the Imperial Palace in Kyoto and prays for the well-being of the emperor and the whole nation. This ceremony — in addition to an earlier nine-day "exam" consisting of prayer and fasting — is meant to convey that, having completed his training, the practitioner is now equipped to work for the enlightenment of all beings.
Extreme, you say? OK, going for nine days without food, sleep or water is pushing it a bit. But sleeping for four hours a day and walking for five, Mitsunaga says, is not all that punishing. He confides that he injured his leg in the process, but he says one learns to persevere through pain, just as one does when sitting cross-legged through hours of meditation.
Every task in Mitsunaga's life is done with the same focus, or mindfulness. Life itself is practice; there's not a second to be wasted.