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Monks sitting on the top of a hill, looking out over the mountains

Living Buddhas: The 1,000-day Journey of the Monks of the Mountains


In the arduous Buddhist pilgrimage of kaihōgyō, we’ll find one of asceticism’s most astonishing manifestations.

Kaihōgyō – a Japanese term that might be translated “to go round the mountain” – is a ritual in the Buddhist tradition. It consists in the overcoming of obstacles encountered in walking for one thousand days on routes around Mount Hiei, home base for the Tendai branch of Buddhism.

An unlikely pilgrimage, it’s believed to have been performed for the first time in the 10th-century by the monk Sōō Oshō. As an apprentice monk (a gyōja), he spent seven years making offerings and praying in the temples and sacred places of the moutain and following a careful and constant practice of calligraphy. During the trip, monks travel a distance equivalent to a walk around the Earth. In fact, since 1885 only 46 pilgrims have managed to finish the pilgrimage. By tradition, those who fail to complete it must take their own lives.

The monks of the mountains begin the pilgrimage by praying during the night. While others sleep, they pray to the buddhas, to their predecessors and for the good of the people, because the daytime is intended for work in the temple. Preparation for the ritual is important because the gyōja who will meet the challenges is expected to perform for many years. The body needs to be prepared to enter into a state of acceptance of the hours of physical effort. The pilgrimage is only the way, a method, for achieving what the monk will then do for the rest of his life: commit himself to spreading the teachings of the Buddha.

For this unique journey, gyōja need to set modest goals. Preparation is similar to that performed by an athlete. The monk, considering only these small goals then fulfills them, one by one, to reach the end and to not give up while on the journey, to not collapse. In fact, the literal meaning of the Greek word “ascetic” is “athlete.”

The process of the entire kaihōgyō moves through multiple stages. The most arduous, incredibly, comes toward the end as the 1,000th day approaches. The gyōja undergo nine days with no food, water, sleep or rest. The objective of this phase is to actually confront death. If the body can survive, it’s said, life acquires a sense that few in the world have experienced – and the last of this initiation.

Kaihōgyō is a path to light, to spiritual freedom through physical endurance, of pain, of fasts and many of the ascetic practices of other religious traditions. During the journey, the deterioration of the body strengthens the heart of the monk, who remains immutable and generous, praying at night for the good of all the people of the world and traveling the mountain during the day.

The documentary by director Ivan Olita provides a brilliant portrait of the path of the kaihōgyō:



*Image: Pixabay / Creative Commons

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