Conversation with Dai Ajari Ryojun Shionuma

05.14.18
Japan Society
Culture + Religion /14 May 2018
05.14.18

Conversation with Dai Ajari Ryojun Shionuma

Ryojun Shionuma has been honored with the title of “Dai Ajari.” The title is conferred only on priests who have completed extreme feats of endurance such as the Ōmine Sennichikaihōgyō and the Shimugyō.

Dai Ajari Ryojun Shionuma is only the second man in 1,300 years to have completed two of the most difficult ascetic practices in the Shugendo Buddhist tradition. The 1,000 day trek on Mt. Omine is a sacred journey to enlightenment.

For one thousand days Shionuma ascended 4,000 feet up to the summit of Japan’s Mt. Omine, then back down again. For nine years he was walking 16 hours daily, traversing rocky terrain, battling the elements, and marching on despite injury or illness. After finishing this strenuous training, he went on to complete the Shimugyō: nine days straight without food, water, sleep or even lying down.

On April 24, 3018, Ryojun Shionuma came to share his experiences with a sold-out crowd at Japan Society. I caught up with him prior to his presentation.

I am very glad we have this chance to meet and talk and to learn about your ascetic practices. Please describe them to me?

I first started thinking about undertaking this “circumambulation,” or severe meditation practice, when I was 11 or 12 years old. I was watching a TV program!

After graduating from high school, I spent my novice period at Kinpusenji, the head temple of Shingon Buddhism, on Mount Yoshino in Nara Prefecture. At this time the master told me that it is very important to focus on benefiting others.

And I came to realize that this was the essential way to live. When I thought about human relations, I saw so much difficulty, so much fighting. And I wondered, how could I be useful? To address these human problems? Perhaps this ascetic practice could help.

Can you describe the goals of your practice?

These extreme ascetic practices can change our thoughts and feelings, teach us to become less materialistic, and even draw us into a happier relationship with the natural world.

In this world we sometimes meet individuals who provoke negative thoughts in us.

We tend also to be satisfied only with material things. But I believe that this practice helps us to change both areas.

When you are walking alone on the mountain, you will notice that your thoughts and feelings have become more positive. You may start to make some happy small discoveries, as I did – a growing affection for all living beings, for the trees, flowers, and animals you encounter on the mountain.

What kind of change in thought and behavior can be created through the practice?

There are four areas of understanding: we live, we grow older, we suffer illness, and then we die. In addition, we can’t always get what we want. We meet people we dislike. We have to part with loved ones. And we can’t do much about any of these.

But through our training, and practice, we can redirect our thoughts into a more positive direction.

Through this practice, you have deliberately put yourself to the test, walking alone outside of human society. Is this one way to approach enlightenment?

By pushing yourself to the limit, you get to see the flowers of enlightenment blooming on the cliff edge, so to speak. There are things that you can’t see, you can’t feel, unless you push yourself to the limit.

If enlightenment is the ultimate goal of your practice, what are the smaller, incremental gains towards that goal?

Even under extreme conditions you must walk single-mindedly every day. You press forward dispassionately, feeling as if you are immersed in suffering. When you do that, the mind gradually becomes very clear.

When I tried to feel enlightened during this trek, it did not work. But when I became able to walk in a relaxed way, without pointless effort, I could sense how small my own existence was in the context of nature.

There were times, when I would stop to rest to eat an onigiri (a rice ball with pickles), that I shed tears of gratitude. I was thankful for the blessings I had received, because of which I was able to lift the onigiri to my mouth. It may be that truly deep joy is being able to be really grateful for the most ordinary things.

But you have also shared with us a warning about pushing yourself too far. What are the physical or spiritual dangers of this practice?

The practice brings physical risks at every moment. If you are bitten by a pit viper; or come across bears; or become caught in heavy rains and mudslides – your practice will end then and there. The slightest carelessness or overconfidence can mean death. If the worst happens and the circumstances are such that you cannot continue the practice, then there is the strict rule to apologize to the gods and the buddhas and then commit seppuku (suicide).

Spiritual danger: during this severe practice your spirit may became untethered from your body. In the seventh year of my practice I was taken by surprise one day when I felt my soul leaving my body. I felt like I was floating 30 or 40 cm above my physical self, and I remember thinking that if I rose any further, I would never be able to return to my body, and would die as a result, so I mustered all the willpower I could to pray out loud for my soul to return, to get back to my body.

After this experience, which suggested to me that death awaited if I continued to punish myself, I took to imagining myself raising my limits of endurance rather than exceeding them.

What did your practice teach you about the most important things in life?

Gratitude, self-examination, and consideration for others. Gratitude is knowing one has enough and being thankful for what has been given. Self-examination means reflecting upon oneself daily. I had a full, satisfied heart during my solitary ascetic practice because I felt affection for even the trees and the insects.

I think that what we need now is perhaps simple belief, and a desire to lead our lives in a way that surpasses the founder. I see this as the immutable, the part that should remain the same, and it is rooted in prayer and compassion for others.

The severe (kibishi) conditions of your practice are outside the experience of most people of faith, in this country. Could your system can be translated into our local context?

I actually don’t recommend that others try my ascetic way of life. [laughter] In fact I am not looking for disciples! I don’t want a lot of other people cluttering up my mountain!

What role do you think religion should perform in life?

What we need now is perhaps simple belief, and a desire to lead one’s life in a way that surpasses the founder. I see this as the immutable, the part that should remain the same, and it is rooted in prayer and compassion for others.

What is your role as Abbott of your own temple?

After finishing the practice, I founded the Jigenji (Merciful Eye Temple) in a small village close to the city of Sendai. This temple and this village have become my home base. There, I pray, teach, farm, participate in the activities of the village, write books and welcome pilgrims.

In the same way many people go to university to learn, maybe even to become teachers, I thought that I needed to be my own teacher in life. And perhaps through my practice I have succeeded.

I don’t do anything as difficult as teaching at university. But I do say that we should be able to love everybody equally and not to foster hate towards anybody. This is my work, to share these thoughts with others. And I feel that my words will not be as weighty for those who are listening unless I am teaching them about my own life.

At this time I don’t have anybody I dislike or hate. I don’t have anything that I want in terms of material things. I don’t have big ideas of what I want to be. And I believe I owe this to my practice. I think that in life, whether people are meditating, or simply living their lives, they should also be able to achieve this positive state.

About your experience with extreme meditative practice – what can we teach a new audience?

Whenever I am asked about the way we should live our lives I always go back to communications. Communicating truth requires three elements: heart or spirit, words, action. Ascetic practices can help us. This is not something I learned by reading books, but through my own experience.

In meditation, you have to figure out the right way for your posture, the right way to breathe. And these physical and spiritual issues must work together in order to communicate.

For example: if I were to say arrigato (thank you) while I am leaning on my elbow and looking away from the person I am thanking, it wouldn’t seem genuine. All three systems need to be working together. Otherwise communication doesn’t work.

What are the key lessons in your thought, about right behavior?

The most important element is the injunction not to foster hate towards anybody.

One day I bumped into a person with whom I had had a bad relationship. And I experienced a moment of clarity: it was my own fault if I allowed this hateful feeling to remain within me. And as I approached him I realized that all I wanted to do was to make him happy. And to be able to embrace him.

And as we were talking there was one thing that he did – a smile – a nice gesture. When he did this I felt something like a tumor of anger and hatred fall away, leaving my body.

I realized that my resentment must have communicated itself towards him – through my words, my eyes, my heart. It was my selfishness that had given him such a bad impression. At that moment I deeply, deeply apologized to him for my earlier thoughts and behavior.

May we move to a new point? You have spoken about AI (Artificial Intelligence) and the contribution of Japan and Japanese corporations to its development. Can you explain?

Let’s touch upon AI. Are humans searching, through AI, to find a more enriching life or possibly just a more convenient way of living? When we think about what is true happiness I wonder if this is not something an AI can provide us.

In life what’s really important is our ability to forget, to cut away, to forgive. And to do all these three things completely. So maybe we don’t need to spend so much time exploring AI.

Japan boasts a great many companies with histories of over 100 years. Their common denominator is a focus on living within their means and maintaining relationships. They have tended to sustain an ideal balance between their own growth and the evolution of society as a whole.

I think it would be wonderful if we could do as many Japanese companies aim to do: create a homegrown Japanese AI that embodies the harmony exemplified in such expressions as ‘enough is as good as a feast,’ an AI capable of reaching decisions that make everyone happy.

I think that further honing our traditional priority on harmony and providing the world with IT that reflects such values could also revitalize Japan.

In order to make your thoughts available to a broader audience, are you thinking of publishing your books in English?

I have published 13 books in Japanese. Their titles include: The Life-long Spiritual Journey of an Apprentice Japanese Bonze, Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter, Living in Nature, Walking Zen: Walking Your Way to Health, and Bonds Bring Pain, but Pain Can Bring Us Closer.

If you know of any publishers in English who might be interested I’d love to hear about it.

I will gladly send you the list. It’s a great pleasure to be here talking to you.

A pleasure for me also. I am sorry I have been so busy I have not studied English!

But you have had so many other things to do!

Laughter…and farewells.

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