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Japan, Buddhism and the Ultramarathon of a Lifetime

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For your enjoyment, I offer an excerpt of my recently released book, Running the Shikoku Pilgrimage: 900 Miles to Enlightenment (Volcano Press, $18.95), edited by Mark Schumacher and with a foreword by Barefoot Ted McDonald. It's the story of a solo woman's journey running Japan's 900 Mile 88-Temple Buddhist Pilgrimage a distance equal to running from San Diego, California to Oregon.

Despite the overwhelming majority of Christians in the world, I wonder why Christianity isn't as 'cool' as Buddhism. Must be all those Buddha beads you get to wear. To Americans, everything about Buddhism exudes coolness: Meditation is cool, wandering around on pilgrimages is cool, finding yourself is even cooler, and enlightenment, should you reach it, is totally galactic. Even artistic renditions of the Buddha on T-shirts are cool.

The hippies thought Buddhism was cool, anyone living on the fringe thinks Buddhism is cool, the Dali Lama is indisputably cool and every college student who travels through Asia for a stint comes back emblazoned with elements of Buddhism: prayer beads, talismans, and Sanskrit in the form of tattoos. Even my own grandmother at 94 said, "If I could do it all over again, I think I'd be a Buddhist!"

Is it possible that deep down, Americans are Buddhist wannabes? Not that most people would ever convert. We'd rather pick up the religious karma and leave the rest to the ascetics. Christianity offers many of the same cool things Buddhism does, but in a completely different way. Whereas Christianity is group-oriented (group worship, Sunday school, youth groups, Christian grammar schools, charities, right?), Buddhism is more about self, improving and perfecting it. This inward search for self appeals to our American sense of self-reliance. When we hear about the marathon monks of Mount Hiei, who, over seven years, run a rigorous pilgrimage under conditions so adverse the monks come close to confronting death, we are imbued with awe. But not so much because of their religious devotion as their physical devotion.

The Buddhist pilgrimage appeals to the motives of the independent traveler in us. Meditation appeals to our inward search for meaning. Shingon Buddhism presents enlightenment as something tangible, or at least achievable, and something that can be attained before death. All that, and you even get to sleep in on Sundays! It's a wonder the Japanese, who seem so dependent upon community to succeed, have embraced Buddhism so wholly. And it's a wonder that Americans, so independent and self-reliant, should embrace such a group-based religion like Christianity so fervently.

Even though I had not taken much interest in Buddhism during my previous five years in Japan, it had apparently taken an interest in me. It must have, because on this pilgrimage I have come to realize that I know far more about Buddhism than I thought I did. Because of my year living on Shiraishi Island, a small island in Japan's Inland Sea, and because of teaching English to a Buddhist priest during that time, I did have a passive knowledge of the rituals. During my one year living on the island, I had been growing Buddhism in my heart without even knowing it.

One of the festivals held annually on our island is the the Bussharito Festival. This festival includes a goma fire ceremony. Outside the temple, an altar is set up with two large candles and offerings of fruit and fish. The locals, in a ritual of spiritually cleansing, gather in a circle around a pile of pine branches, holding on to a long strand of juzu beads. This juzu is believed to have spiritual powers to purify us from our sins and is passed from participant to participant while everyone chants the Heart Sutra.

Men wearing white flank the yamabushi (mountain ascetic priest) who performs the ceremony. The yamabushi holds out a short sword and makes a symbolic slash through the air to open the fire ceremony. He invokes the Fire God Fudo Myo-o, whose flames purify you by burning away your material desires and defilements. He does this by chanting the deity's mantra, addressing the Great Fierce One, telling him to destroy all evil enemies--exterminate all defilements! as the assistants touch the mountain of pine branches with their torches. The fire crackles to life. Smoke rises in furls of white, black, and brown. One assistant shakes his staff, which lets out a constant jingle that keeps time with the chanting of the Heart Sutra, while the yamabushi starts tossing votive plaques into the fire, one by one, calling out a blessings for safety at sea, good health, happy marriage and strong families. The participants continue to pass the wooden juzu beads around while chanting the Heart Sutra until the fire dies down.

Where normal juzu beads are small and resemble rosary beads that you can hold in the palm of your hand or wear around your wrist, the juzu beads for this ceremony are the size of tennis balls and are used specifically for ancient Buddhist ceremonies. A normal juzu strand has 108 beads, each bead representing one of the 108 defilements of man (and women, I presume). When I first heard this, I couldn't help but think, only 108? I have way more than that! But the Buddhist priest told me that it really didn't matter because as a precursor to inner peace and enlightenment, I would rid myself of all my defilements by the end of the pilgrimage, no matter how many.

What are the 108 defilements? Glad you asked. Take a deep breath: ostentatiousness, grudge, gambling, ingratitude, dipsomania, ambition, dominance, faithlessness, manipulation, stinginess, pessimism, hostility,abuse, debasement, sexual lust, sarcasm, humiliation, jealousy, gluttony, unruliness, hurt, cruelty, unkindness, obstinacy, envy, indifference, negativity, furtiveness, sadism, enviousness, derision, falseness,high-handedness, know-it-all, rage, aggression, rapacity, effrontery, disrespectfulness,hard-heartedness, power hungriness, lying, insidiousness, self-denial, inattentiveness, contempt, wrath, haughtiness, greed,seducement, vindictiveness, insatiability, voluptuousness, excessiveness, censoriousness, dissatisfaction, egoism, ignorance, hatred, greed for money, impudence, imposture, cursing, imperiousness, lecherousness, callousness, malignancy, torment, intolerance, blasphemy, shamelessness,irresponsibility, obsession, prejudice, arrogance, violent temper, garrulity, dogmatism, presumption, intransigence, oppression, prodigality, lack of comprehension (like, for example, this list?), obstinacy, pride,conceitedness, delusion, quarrelsomeness, self-hatred, violence, vanity, hypocrisy, stubbornness, baseness, pretense, mercilessness, disrespect, ridicule, masochism, tyranny, capriciousness (oh, nooooo!), deceit, anger, discord, calculation, unyielding, desire for fame (say it ain't so!), and deception.

Sniffle. How does anyone ever reach enlightenment?

Speaking of juzu beads, although I have run over 200 miles already, I haven't used my own set of juzu to recite any mantras on this pilgrimage yet. Surely, not using your juzu beads is the 109th defilement.