Extreme Monks and Marathon Mums

Ever feel like your faith is a little lazy? Ever questioned the easy road?

I read in The Week recently the obituary of Yusai Sakai, a Japanese Buddhist ‘marathon monk’ who belonged to the Tendai sect of Buddhism. One of the Yusai Sakaidistinctives of this branch of Buddhism is the belief that individuals can attain enlightenment within a single lifetime, by virtue of undertaking a number of extreme physical practices in devotion to Buddha. According to the obituary, indeed by any human standard, Sakai excelled at the extreme.

He undertook one of the severest tests, the Sennichi Kaihogyo: ‘a gruelling 1000-day trek, carried out over seven years in 100-day stints, each more intense than the last. This had to be achieved with a minimum of sleep and on a daily diet consisting of a bowl of soup and a few vegetables.’ Five years into the Sennichi Kaihogyo, Sakai undertook the Do-iri, a nine-day test spent in a temple, in which practitioners go without food, drink, sleep, all the while chanting a mantra. Having looked death in the eye, and on completing the seven year course, Sakai had a feeling of dissatisfaction—“I could have done a lot of things better,” he said—so he undertook the course again. We are told that he wore white burial robes throughout to indicate his acceptance of death, and that he carried a dagger and rope with him at all times ‘so that if on any given day he failed to complete the course, he could kill himself.’

Wow. (Sip coffee).

I don’t know about you, but this man’s life sets my thoughts whirring. When one reflects on his ability to tolerate hardship, his choice of suffering as a means of spiritual purification, Sakai’s accomplishments are quite simply breathtaking. My troubles start to feel like chicken feed. I’m stretched if one of my children wakes me in the night, if I don’t get enough ‘me-time’ in the day, if the bus doesn’t come when I want it to, if I forget to put sugar in the apple crumble. I’ve just eaten four chocolate digestives. Is my life horribly mediocre? Is my faith lamentably comfortable? And if trekking solo round the remotest mountains of Japan is the way to enlightenment, what hope is there for me, a mum of three in Chiswick?


I know that there is more to discover through the ‘narrow gate’ (Matt. 7:13) and am conscious that, left to my own devices, I’d choose the wide gate and the broad road most days. I genuinely feel challenged by Sakai’s achievements and endurance yet at the same time I question this business of ‘extreme.’ We can’t all live on a knife edge, there’s simply not enough room. Besides, it’s terribly dangerous for toddlers. And what sort of enlightenment is in view, what sort of God is in view, if the practice of suicide is the only acceptable response in the event of a day’s ‘failure’? Where’s the love? Where’s the grace? (Where’s the OCD counsellor?)

I look at my life and there is safety, comfort and caution. There is also marathon of sleeplessness (endurance), the daily call to self-control (patience), mundane and repetitive tasks—changing nappies, washing up, ironing, cleaning, cooking (sacrifice, service), and something no religion should be without: compassion (hugs). I may not be up a mountain, I may not be a monk, but strangely, in the comfort of my own home, there are rituals and practices as refining as fire.

Madi Simpson


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