Ascetic Training

The following excerpt is from Omichi no joshiki [Tenrikyo Fundamentals] (pp. 146–149) by Koji Sato, professor at Tenri University and instructor at Tenri Seminary. Note: This translation is a provisional one at the moment and may require further revision.

Ascetic Training

Many religions have established forms of ascetic training to deepen one’s faith and to cultivate the mind. There are some that are life-threatening and actually have taken the lives of a number of people.

The Sange-gakushoshiki, a set of regulations for monks in training attributed to Saicho, the founder of Tendai Buddhism, contains descriptions of many types of ascetic practices. Among the most well-known are the Rozan-gyo” and “Sennichi-kaiho.”

“Rozan-gyo” is a 12-year training regimen where a monk in training secludes himself from the outside world, doing nothing but chant sutras and cleaning from dawn to dusk to the point it has been called “cleaning hell.” “Sennichi-kaiho” is a thousand-day trek conducted within seven years by a trainee who prays to the Buddha as he travels through the mountain paths of Mt. Hiei. These are severe ascetic forms of training that can only done by select individuals. There have been only just a few who have able to complete them.

The discipline required to walk treacherous mountain paths for consecutive days without rest through rain and severe winds is remarkable indeed. However, there is a part of the “Sennichi-kaiho” when the trainee must enter a temple hall after the 700th day and go without food, water, sleep, or rest for nine days, an ordeal that tests the limits of human endurance.

Because the trainee does not drink even a mouthful of water, his metabolism breaks down and he begins to emit a foul odor like a corpse. Further, the trainee must continue to chant sutras without rest or sleep and fetch well water once a day to offer to the Buddhist deity Fudo Myo-O. This training can be called a ceremony that holds the secrets of “death and rebirth,” giving a person the ability to die and be reborn without actually dying.

After the trainee exits the temple hall, he gradually eases himself back to be able to eat normal food over a period of 27 days beginning with a meal of thin rice gruel. It is said that it takes 120 days for the body to recover its former state.

I am sometimes asked if Tenrikyo has any kind of ascetic training. Tenrikyo does not have any established forms of asceticism. But one can call the act of devoting oneself to pray for others because one is unable to sit by and ignore people are suffering or in need a type of asceticism.

Tokichi Izumita (nicknamed Kumakichi) devoted himself to missionary work while running a business in Osaka. Whenever his confidence was shaken, he poured water over himself to encourage himself.

At midnight, during the coldest season of the year, he would immerse himself in the Yodo River for as long as two hours, and climbing up on the bank, he would dry himself in the wind, as he thought drying himself with a towel would spoil the effect. The north wind felt like it was tearing his body apart. He patiently continued these cold water ablutions for about 30 nights.

Another time, he remained immersed in the water holding onto a post of the Tenjin Bridge for an entire night. One day he returned to Jiba and was received by Oyasama, who said:

“Kumakichi, on this path you must not torture yourself.”

Anecdotes of Oyasama 64, “Smoothed Out Gently”

With these words, Oyasama was able to fully persuade Tokichi on the preciousness of the human body as a thing borrowed from God the Parent.

Oyasama Herself had conducted fasts over a long period on three occasions, one lasting 30 days, another 38 days, and another for 75 days. She abstained from eating all grains and cereals (translator’s note: not to mention any meat) and only ate a few raw vegetables with sweet rice wine.

Oyasama conducted Her 75 day fast when She was 70 years old, in 1872. About 30 days into Her fast, She walked to the home of Ichibei Matsuo in Higashiwakai Village, located 16  kilometers from Jiba. It is said that after 75 days had passed, She easily carried a 14-gallon barrel filled with water.

Oyasama’s actions most likely stem from Her wish to show that She was the Shrine of God to those around Her, but one feels there was something more behind them. The act of fasting brings to mind a form of non-violent demonstration pioneered by Gandhi or a part of a health regimen. Neither seems to be the motivation in Oyasama’s case.

Because all of Oyasama’s actions are part of the Divine Model, I believe that fasting presents us with an example of some kind. However, in Her words to Tokichi, Oyasama does not encourage asceticism that hurts the body. That is because She puts primary emphasis on being present at a place that requires salvation.

Food is indispensable to maintain life. The act of abstaining from food, to a certain extent, symbolizes a renunciation of life. Of course, when a Buddhist practitioner enters Mt. Yudono, one of the three sacred mountains of Dewa Province (Yamagata Prefecture), he or she abstains from food and is prepared to face death to become a “Buddha in this very body.”

I believe fasting acquires its significance from a spiritual realm that opens when a person places the body in the extreme situation of death and rebirth.

For this reason, there are actual cases where Tenrikyo missionaries conduct fasts and undergo cold water ablutions when praying for the salvation of people who are suffering. I cannot help but feel that such actions enable those who engage in salvation work to take firm steps toward spiritual maturity.

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*Note: This post has been revised since its original publication.