Tuesday, October 8, 2013

The Kaihogyo


 (http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/3/35/Portrait_of_a_Buddhist_Monk.jpg, public domain, United States)

Greetings All:

Last week, I picked up Time magazine and read about Yusai Kakai who had passed away at the age of 87.  Here's the obituary that described Kakai as, "...one of only three Buddhist monks since 1571 to twice complete the rigorous Kaihogyo, a seven-year ordeal of fasting and running.  Those unable to complete it are expected to take their own life."

(Time, Milestones, p. 20, Vol 182, No 15, Oct 7, 2013)

I have never heard of the Kaihogyo prior to reading this article.  The fact that one would kill themselves for failing to complete such an endeavor got my attention.  I did a bit of research and found out that this is not just an endeavor.  Simply put, the Kaihogyo is perhaps the most arduous I have ever heard about.  The below link is to an National Public Radio story on the process.


Briefly, the Kaihogyo is a process by which monks run and pray over a punishing period of time.  It takes the equivalent of a standard American workday.  As the story above mentions, the profiled monk spends the rest of his day attending to the daily needs of his monastery and gets about four and a half hours of sleep.  It sounds like this is not just a test of endurance but good old-fashioned time management.

The more I read about this process, the more I wanted to learn.  James Clear wrote a dynamite piece on the Kaihogyo at his blog.  Here's the link and I recommend checking it out (as well as James' other work.)  The three quotes from James in this post are from this cite as well.


James writes about the daunting challenge that is the Kaihogyo.  He sums it up nicely:  "The Tendai monks believe that enlightenment can be achieved during your current life, but only through extreme self–denial."  The self-denial involves thousands of days of running and I doubt the monks are wearing the latest Asics running shoes.  The NPR article mentioned the monk interviewed was adorned in straw sandals, as I recall.

The goal of self-enlightenment is laudable, no doubt.  However, as someone firmly planted (and quite comfortable, I might add) in Western cultural, this does seem a bit much.  Oh, and then there is the part about what happens at day 101.  James writes, "During the first 100 days of running, the monk is allowed to withdraw from the Kaihogyo.  However, from Day 101 onwards, there is no withdrawal. The monk must either complete the Kaihogyo … or take his own life.  Because of this, the monks carry a length of rope and a short sword at all times on their journey.  In the last 400+ years, only 46 men have completed the challenge. Many others can be found by their unmarked graves on the hills of Mount Hiei." 

Not to sound like one of those product commercials from early 80s TV, "But wait, there's more."  Come year 5, the monk must perform a period of nine straight days of prayer.  And when I mean straight, I mean no food, water, bathroom, nothing.  The NPR article says that the only time the monk is allowed to not pray is when he goes to a fountain to bring an offering of water as part of the ritual.  Again, if a monk fails this test, then the presumption is they will end their life. 

As I finished reading on the Kaihogyo, I asked one question- why does one kill themselves for not completing it?  Is it shame?  I doubt it.  Of my pathetically small knowledge of Buddhism, I do believe I understand that personal accomplishment and recognition is not one of the tenants.  Is it some harsh aspect of overall Buddhism?  I'll say no to that one too.  So what could it be?

I conclude that as the goal is enlightenment, the monks who fail the Kaihogyo must recognize that their time on this earth has run its course.  It is time to "move on."  That, while extreme, would make sense.  After all, the monk might conclude that this task cannot be concluded in this world and moving on is a natural progression in their spiritual development.

I freely admit that I am engaging in wild speculation about this answer.  I could not find a definitive  answer and maybe that is the whole point.  It is for the monks to know why they took on the challenge and freely accepted the consequences.  Perhaps for them they are not consequences in our view (being punitive) but as part of the natural order of things.  Perhaps the austerity of the challenge, as I view it from my comfortable couch could not be further from the truth for a monk.  To him, the process of seeking enlightenment dwarfs even the most opulent material possession or pleasure-inducing comfort.

While I was working on this blog post, I thought of someone I had read about who recently took his own life.  It is a tragic tale of someone who purported to be more than he was and lived well above his means.  This is a tale that plays out with regularity, it seems.  The guy who, "has it all" and then when it all comes crumbling down, there is nothing left but the ugly consequences of horrifically bad decisions.  They see no way out but suicide.  It's the only way to escape (in their opinion) the lies.

Now contrast that with the monk who fails the Kaihogyo.  Unlike the grifter or the con man, there are no lies, only the truth.  The simple truth that they cannot compete this quest.  They are not on trial to be convicted by neatly-numbered exhibits.  They have forgone that stage and accepted their sentence, a death sentence.  Then again, perhaps it is not a sentence but a passage to the next life.  In any event, the monk carries no burden of falsity.  That has to make the journey easier.

I am glad I learned about the Kaihogyo and the monks who undertake it.  While it is not something I would want to pursue, I have profound respect for those who do.  I think we all can come up with challenges that allow us to determine what our own version of an "enlightenment challenge" and without the fatal penalties for failure.

What if an "enlightenment challenge" is not something you're interested in?  Fair enough.  I am not even sure if I could muster up a working definition of one.  So how about this- what are some goals you have?  After all, the Kaihogyo is a goal, a seven-year one, but a goal nonetheless.  Is it possible that you have a goal that is in the back of your mind that you haven't moved forward with yet?  What's holding you back?  What's the cost to you in not doing it, or even trying it?  As James mentions in his article, "You have the opportunity to choose a goal that is important to you and the privilege of failing with very little consequence. Don’t waste that privilege."  That's sage advice.

The Kaihogyo is not something I will ever undertake.  However, I do hope that in my own way I will seek my own journey to some minor version of enlightenment.  Even if that means just getting better at setting and pursuing some more challenging goals.  What is your version of the Kaihogyo?  Please drop me a line and let me know what you think.  I look forward to reading your thoughts, thanks.

Be well my friends,


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