International Policy Digest

Ryōjun Shionuma
Culture /23 Mar 2020
03.23.20

Conversation with Ryojun Shionuma, a Living Buddha

Ryōjun Shionuma is a Living Buddha. He is the Head Priest of the Fukuju-san Temple. Shionuma is also a Monk of the Shugendo Buddhist tradition.

Shionuma has been honored with the title of “Dai Ajari.” This title is conferred on priests who have completed extreme feats of endurance such as the Ōmine Sennichikaihōgyō and the Shimugyō. The 1,000-day trek up Mt. Omine is a sacred journey to enlightenment.

He is only the second man in 1,300 years to have completed two of the most difficult ascetic practices in the Shugendo Buddhist tradition.

Shionuma is celebrated as “Daigyoman Ajari” or a “Great Teacher.”

He is also called “The Enlightened Hiker.”

On February 20th, I and members of the Japan Society NYC management team sat down with Shionuma for a second conversation at the Japan Society in New York City.

This interview has been slightly edited for flow.

Cold tea is served.

Ryōjun Shionuma: This is ryokucha. Green tea. I made it myself.

Claire McCurdy: Delicious and refreshing. It tastes like spring.

So. Let us continue with our conversation. As we did in our last conversation. What shall I call you?

Shionuma or Dai Ajari.

Sensei, you are a young man, but an old soul. When I talk to you, I feel like a baby.

I also feel like a baby! Aka-chan!

My first question to you. What is your birth date? And your sign of the Zodiac?

March 15th. And my sign is the Monkey.

Ryōjun Shionuma. (Japan Society)

Secondly, what are your core values?

Honesty and humility. I cherish humility. With humility, you can accept your own faults. If you always see faults in others, you cannot be humble. But if you are humble, you can accept your own faults and not focus on others’ faults.

That internal part of yourself develops faster if you are humble. And then you can work hard.

Thirdly, who is your favorite star?

Among Japanese priests, Ryokan is my number one.

I have recently learned that you are a Living Buddha. Inspired to become an ascetic priest, a “marathon priest” when you were very young. And you were watching a TV program.

And I have learned that television has now become your medium. You are famous not only in Japan but all over the world. You are speaking directly to people on the other side of the screen via TED Talks and YouTube.

Actually, I have never watched these videos.

Of course, I would like to become your deshi (disciple.) But I remember that you are not looking for disciples.

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

Then let me ask you to describe the goals of your practice?

Extreme ascetic practices can teach us to become less materialistic and even draw us into a happier relationship with the natural world. By pushing yourself to the limit, you get to see the flowers of enlightenment blooming on the cliff edge.

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

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.

And if you cannot continue the practice, you must apologize to the gods and the Buddhas and then commit seppuku (suicide).

Death always awaits us. You must consider raising the limits of your endurance rather than exceeding them.

For the future, I believe that what we need now is perhaps simple belief, and a desire to lead one’s life in a way that surpasses the founder. The most important element is the injunction not to foster hate towards anybody.

Sensei, thank you for everything. For being you!

You’re welcome. Don’t mention it!