Marathon Men

Definitely the best part of Sen. Ted Cruz’s marathon anti-Obamacare pitch on the floor of the Senate was his reading of Dr. Seuss’ classic children’s book, Green Eggs and Ham. If you recall Seuss story, Sam-I-Am insists that an unnamed character try green eggs and ham, a dish the character says, “I do not like.” In fact, he shouts, “Destroy that egg! Today! Today! Today I say! Without delay!” Sam-I-Am, being rather persistent, suggests that the character might like them, “Try them, try them, and you may! Try them and you may, I say.” Eventually, the character does try green eggs and ham, and whaddya know? He likes it.

“I have not tried it, and that’s a fact,
but still, I hate the Affordable Health Care Act.”

The irony here is almost too obvious. Republicans have not even tried Obamacare and yet they are sure they do not like it – they will not have it in the House, they will not have it with a mouse, they will not have it in a box or with a fox . . . I believe these latest shenanigans represent the 40th time Republicans have tried to destroy the Affordable Care Act, and with this attempt, they are willing to shut down the government to get their way. Try Obamacare, try it today, you may learn to like it, I say.

Enough of that nonsense. Today, I’d rather focus on a man who completed a vastly different kind of marathon.

It’s not exactly clear what he did during the war; most reports say he was kamikaze pilot, while others state he worked for Japan’s infamous Unit 731, a biological and chemical warfare program engaged in human experimentation and responsible some of the worst war crimes in history. After the war he ran a noodle shop that burnt down. His wife committed suicide. Depressed, utterly miserable, at age 40 he became a Buddhist priest. He wrote popular books, using simple language to explain not only the teachings of Buddhism but his own philosophy that action was superior to wisdom. He met Pope John Paul II at the Vatican in 1995 and explained Buddha-dharma to him.

His name was Yusai Sakai, and on September 23, he died at Imuro Fudodo Chojuin temple in Japan, age 87.

They called him “Superman.”

Yusai Sakai
Yusai Sakai

He was one of only three men to twice undertake the Kaihogyo (“practice of circling mountains”), an asceticism unique to the Tendai sect (the Japanese branch of the defunct T’ien-t’ai school founded by Chih-i). In this practice, the participants walk around Mount Hiei, home to Enryaku-ji, the temple that was once the center of Buddhist learning in Japan, and still home to Tendai today. It is a 1,000 day event stretched over the course of seven years, in which the participants run approximately 50 miles per day for 100 days. Only about 40 priests have actually completed the marathon since 1571.

The Kaihogyo is not just circumnavigating a mountain. It’s a pilgrimage that involves offering prayers at over 200 locations on the mountain. It is said that the practice is based on the chapter “The Bodhisattva Who Never Disparaged” in the Lotus Sutra. Bodhisattva Fukyo went around praising everyone he met and bowing to them, for which he was beaten to death. You can read my rendering of the story here, and an earlier post about the Kaihogyo here.

Sakai was 54 when he completed the marathon for the first time. His second completion was in 1987 at age 61. According to one article that offers a fascinating look at Sakai’s life, and the “Marathon Monks,” he was given the nickname “Superman” because “he once ran – further and harder than anyone in Japan, probably the world, perhaps even the history of the world. Sakai ran to within a breath of death, not just to visit mortality’s brink but to camp there a while. His austerities were so tortuous, it hurts even to recount them.”

Frankly, my idea of a marathon is an hour-long walk in a park. I can understand staying in shape; I can even appreciate training oneself to perfection. Punishing the body, on the other hand, strikes me as the sort of austerity that the Buddha rejected. But then, I’m not really qualified to judge. What’s important here is simply that Sakai was an remarkable individual. His life and his approach to the path to enlightenment was so very different from our own, but many paths lead to the same truth. Some of those paths encircle mountains . . .

Sakai spent his remaining years at the temple where he died of heart failure. He once said, “Leaves thrive when they are fresh green but fall when the time comes. But they are green again the next year. The sight of such workings has made me realize that life is not over when it is finished once but does go on and on. That’s probably the sort of wisdom that Buddha bestows on us.”


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