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When it comes to marathon runners, they know they need mental discipline, a way to fuse mind, body and spirit. That same kind of discipline is practiced at a Zen Buddhist temple in Japan, where the monks walk great distances as a form of physical and spiritual exercise.

NPR's Anthony Kuhn takes us to Kyoto to meet an heir to a centuries-old tradition of extreme pilgrimages.

(Soundbite of chanting)

ANTHONY KUHN: A small congregation of Buddhists recite sutras in the Enryaku-ji temple complex. It's perched on the side of Mount Hiei, overlooking the ancient capital of Kyoto. Leading the service is 34-year-old Zen monk Endo Mitsunaga.

Mitsunaga's hands flow powerfully and precisely through a series of mudras, or hand gestures, used in prayer and meditation.

Mr. ENDO MITSUNAGA (Zen Monk): (Foreign language spoken)

KUHN: Last fall, Mitsunaga became the 13th monk since World War II to complete the Sennichi Kaihogyo, a thousand days of walking meditation and prayer. He walked 26 miles around Mount Hiei for 100 or 200 days a year for seven years. That's roughly the equivalent of walking around the Earth.

Mitsunaga kneels on the tatami or straw mats in his living quarters and pours some green tea. Walking meditation, he explains, is like sitting meditation. You have to maintain a calm mind, good posture, and steady breathing.

Mr. MITSUNAGA: (Through translator) As we walk, we recite the mantra of the Immovable Wisdom King, our principal deity. We're not supposed to be out of breath when we walk uphill. By reciting the mantra, we can first control our breathing and then control our mind.

KUHN: Fudo Myo-o, the Immovable Wisdom King, is an important figure in Japanese Buddhism. He is a wrathful-looking guardian spirit sitting amid flames, dressed in rags and carrying a sword and rope.

On his walks, Mitsunaga carries a fan and rosary, representing the sword and rope. He's dressed in white, the color of death in Japan. On his feet, he wears only straw sandals.

Robert Rhodes, an expert on Japanese Buddhism at Otani University in Kyoto, says the Kaihogyo practice is unique in that it takes a tradition of spiritual retreats in the mountains and turns it into a sort of circular pilgrimage.

Professor ROBERT RHODES (Otani University): The people who are doing the Kaihogyo aren't just walking around the mountains. They're actually doing a pilgrimage and giving prayers at, I believe, about 260 places on the mountains.

KUHN: Kaihogyo is often described as an ascetic practice. Mitsunaga says it's really not that hard. A lot of it is just learning to manage time.

Mr. MITSUNAGA: (Through translator) My walking prayers take up less than half of the day. Anyone can do that. But the rest of my daily routine is also a part of my spiritual practice. I have to take care of the whole monastery by myself, and it can take forever. If I don't do things quickly, I get no sleep.

KUHN: During the Kaihogyo, Mitsunaga got up at half past midnight. He walked from 2:00 to 8:00 a.m. The rest of his day was taken up with monastic routines and household chores. He slept for four-and-a-half hours a night.

After 700 days, the Kaihogyo practitioner faces what Mitsunaga calls a sort of exam. He enters a hall and prays nonstop for nine days, without eating, he says, or drinking or sleeping or even lying down. It's a near-death experience.

Mr. MITSUNAGA: (Through translator) Put simply, you just have to give up everything and pray to the Immovable Wisdom King. By doing this, he may recognize you and allow you to live for nine days.

(Soundbite of pouring)

KUHN: The practitioner interrupts his prayers just once a night to come to this fountain and get an offering of water for Fudo Myo-o. Toward the end of the nine days, the practitioner is so weak he must be supported by fellow monks.

Finally, his old self dies, at least figuratively, and he is reborn to help all beings and lead them to enlightenment.

Mitsunaga says that his fast helped him realize this: He is interconnected with everything else. Independence is simply an illusion.

Mr. MITSUNAGA: (Through translator) Everybody thinks they're living on their own without help from others. This is not possible. I really think that others have done something for me, and I have a feeling of gratefulness to other people.

KUHN: In order to help others, you have to first train yourself. Robert Rhodes says that breaking the Kaihogyo's 1,000 days into 700 and 300-day phases represents a solution to this philosophical problem. It's based on the different stages of becoming a Buddha.

Prof. RHODES: There's 10 stages, and the first seven are working for your own benefit, cultivating your own mental attitudes. And from the seventh, eighth and ninth stages, you're not only working for yourself, but you're working for everyone else as well.

(Soundbite of chanting)

KUHN: Now Mitsunaga spends most of his time training younger monks and tending to the spiritual needs of his small and mostly middle-aged or elderly congregation.

To his admiring followers, Mitsunaga's whole life just seems like a continuous state of pure mind. They say they learn so much more just from watching him move.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News.

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