MARATHON MONK AND READING FOR BOYS

One of the notions I had in mind for my retirement, and might yet get round to, is a compilation of reading aimed at boys. From my own small experience as a school helper, and from listening to a lot of teachers, I am convinced there is a vacancy.
I suggest the following obituary as a good example of the sort of thing …

yusai sakai, borrowed from asahi shimbun

Yusai Sakai, borrowed from Asahi Shimbun

obit below is from teleg 17 Oct 2013
Yusai Sakai, who has died aged 87, was a Japanese monk and one of only a handful of men to complete the Sennichi Kaihogyo, a seven-year quest for enlightenment that ranks among the toughest known physical challenges; at the age of 61 he became only the third monk ever to complete it for a second time.
Sakai was one of the so-called “marathon monks” who for 1,300 years have worshipped on Mount Hiei, just north of the ancient city of Kyoto. Unlike most Buddhists, who believe that enlightenment is a process which can be achieved only over several lifetimes through the process of reincarnation, Tendai Buddhists, like the monks of Mt Hiei, consider enlightenment possible in one lifetime.
Not that the process is easy. Enlightenment, they believe, is attained through acts of ascetic devotion to Buddha. The most extreme of these is the Sennichi Kaihogyo, an epic trek through the mountains surrounding their temple, Enryaku. It involves walking increasing distances over 1,000 days, divided into 100-day chunks, during a period of seven years. The distances gradually increase so that, in the seventh and final year, devotees are walking 51 miles (two marathons) each day. If for any reason – from blister to boar attack – they should fail to complete a day, the traditional requirement is suicide.
By the time that the 60-year-old Sakai was completing his second Sennichi Kaihogyo (literally, “the practice of circling the mountains”), the regime was taking its toll. He would rise at midnight for a simple meal of vegetables and miso soup, his only food for the day. Dressed in white burial robes (in acceptance of death), he set out on hand-woven straw sandals to visit some of the 270 places of worship scattered around the mountain landscape. By his own account, if it was a good day he would be back at Enryaku by 9pm. If not, there were no allowances, and he would be on the move again at midnight. Whatever torments he suffered his face remained impassive.
Apart from a flaming torch to light the way, he carried with him a knife and a rope to kill himself “had Buddha wanted it” and he had not been able to complete the course. The path he followed remains lined with shrines to those monks who had faltered.
But the Sennichi Kaihogyo is not purely a feat of walking vast distances. In the test’s fifth year monks begin the Do-iri – a nine-day fast during which they are denied food, water and sleep. Scientists consider that anything beyond seven days in such conditions risks death. During the Do-iri the monks retreat deep into their temple, emerging only once a day (at 2am) to collect water from a sacred spring 200 yards away. On the first day this process takes minutes. By the ninth day, with the monks drastically enfeebled, it takes hours. The point is to bring the monk face to face with death. Those who have endured it claim that their senses are dramatically heightened, so that they “can hear the ashes fall from incense sticks”.
“Your nails die during Do-iri and you develop deep furrows in your hands, between your fingers,” Sakai revealed in an interview. “On the second day your lips dry out. On the fourth day you see spots on your body and you start to smell like a rotten fish. You have to burn incense to cover the smell. On the fifth day they bring you water to gargle. You have to spit the water out into a different cup. If the amount you spit out is less than you put in your mouth, you fail the ritual.” By the end of the Do-iri he had lost a quarter of his body weight.
Having completed the Sennichi Kaihogyo for the first time, Sakai became a Daigyoman Ajari, or “Saintly Master Of The Highest Practice”. In Imperial Japan, monks with such status were granted a special place at court, and were the only people allowed to wear shoes in the presence of the Emperor. In modern times those who have completed the Sennichi Kaihogyo become celebrities, with cameras transmitting the final stages of their journey live to the nation. Yet as he completed his first journey, Sakai was not happy. “The first time I didn’t feel satisfied, I could have done a lot of things better,” he said. Such sentiments were a reminder of his early years, before he dedicated himself to the monastery, and when his life was far from spiritual.
Yusai Sakai was born on September 5 1926 and was, by his own admission, a poor student: “As a child at school I failed my exams again and again.” Unable to graduate, he signed up to the Japanese war effort, serving – according to some sources – in Unit 731, a notorious chemical warfare unit active in China. Others have suggested he volunteered as a kamikaze pilot, only for the war to end before he could make the “ultimate sacrifice”.
His situation did not improve much in post-war Japan. He tried once more to enter university but again failed, drifting instead into various jobs around Tokyo. He got married but at almost 40 was still living hand-to-mouth: “Sometimes I’d find work for a month, sometimes two years, but I’d wander and work, wander and work.” Then his wife committed suicide.
“I was lazy and had a good-for-nothing life,” he said, looking back. Mourning his wife, in 1965 he made a pilgrimage to Mt Hiei on foot from Osaka. There he appealed to the monks to be allowed to join their number. Told he was too old, Sakai was allowed to perform a prayer ceremony that involved standing under a freezing waterfall, then rising from his knees 108 times. “Every time that I rose, I could feel my faith grow,” said Sakai. He was accepted into the order.
Six years later he announced his taste for the harshest ritual when he embarked on the “ceaseless nembutsu”, an incantation of the name of Buddha over 90 days, with only two hours of sleep allowed each day. No one had performed this act of devotion for a century, deeming it too risky. Sakai himself counted it even more daunting than the Sennichi Kaihogyo. “I saw this golden glow in the distance, and all these dancing specks of light, and I remember coming down from what seemed like an immense height and just gliding,” he said afterwards. “I’m sure that if I’d just followed the feeling, and if I hadn’t opened my eyes when I hit the floor, I would have passed over into death.”
By the end of the Sennichi Kaihogyo the monks are, inevitably, supremely fit (if often a little deformed), taking 20 minutes to complete the 1,400ft climb back up the mountain that novices puff at for three-quarters of an hour. Marathon and extreme endurance runners have attempted to train with the monks on Sennichi Kaihogyo, but the relentlessness of the ritual is unmatched in modern athletics.
In recent years, Yusai Sakai’s celebrity spread beyond the borders of Japan, where people would queue for his blessing. He continued to walk, making journeys in India and China. He was presented to Pope John Paul II in 1995.
“The message I wish to convey is, please, live each day as if it is your entire life,” he said. “If you start something today, finish it today; tomorrow is another world. Life live positively.”
Yusai Sakai, born September 5 1926, died September 21 2013
**

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