A man is a god in ruins.
– Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature
They call this the land of the rising sun, but as I soaked in the rays of a full moon, I thought it was beautiful enough to have equal claim.
Leaning against an uncomfortable boulder, I rubbed the sleepiness from my eyes and looked east over shimmering Lake Biwa. It loomed large, even when seen from nine hundred meters above sea level. In the humid summers, it’s one of the few sources of relief to those living below. But here, atop Mount Hiei, the air was crisp.
Behind me, down the mountain, sat Kyoto. After nearly seven years, I had almost forgotten the misery of day-to-day living on its sweltering blacktop streets and cramped office spaces.
Since then, I’ve been running.
The kaihōgyō is a mission of selfless devotion in search of enlightenment, practiced by the Tendai monks for a millennium. This mountain has felt my trampling feet for nine hundred and ninety-nine of the required thousand days.
Thirty kilometers a day, one hundred days each year, for the first three years. Then it’s two hundred days for years four and five.
Those first few years were difficult in many ways. My feet had been abused and molded into something resembling hard oak and whatever exposed skin, into the toughest leather. But that fifth year seemed to be a turning point. For seven-and-a-half days I went without food, water, or rest, forced to sit in a temple and chant. My fellow monks ensured I did not fall asleep and there were many times I felt that I was no longer in my body. I saw things I never wished to see again and I was happy to be running the trails once more.
The distance doubled in year six, though back to one hundred days. And now, in year seven, eighty-four kilometers for one hundred days, returning to thirty for the final hundred.
Each of the billions of steps I’ve taken up to this point have had the same result: one more step.
It would all end, soon.
The next several thousand will be more significant than any other. My fellow monks are waiting for me at Enryaku-ji.
Number forty-seven! they’ll cheer as I climb the carved steps to the central temple.
No one can remember number forty-six, but his name is recorded in a book somewhere deep inside the monastery.
I stood up, adjusted my oblong wooden hat, and stretched my legs before descending down the back of the mountain.
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