From a recent Time magazine “Milestones” section: “Died, Yusai Sakai, 87, one of only three Buddhist monks since 1571 to twice complete the rigorous Sennichi Kaiho Gyo, a seven-year ordeal of fasting and running. Those unable to complete it are expected to take their own life.”
The report of Sakai’s actual demise aside, I thought his obituary was hilarious because here’s what the Kaiho Gyo is: In each of the first three years, for 100 consecutive days, you rise at midnight to pray and then run an 18-mile trail that circumambulates a sacred mountain. In years four and five, you increase the run days to 200. In year five, you include a nine-day period in which you continuously chant a single mantra without food, water or sleep. In year six, you walk 37.5 miles for 100 consecutive days, and in year seven, you walk 52.5 miles for 100 days, then 18 miles for another 100 days.
If you make it through the first 100 days, you’re obligated to finish – if you don’t, you’re traditionally expected to commit suicide by either hanging or disembowelment.
That’s what I call a real do-or-die situation. Plus, it sounds like a quintessentially Japanese proposition: First, design an impossible task; second, set expectations high, starting with “near perfect” as the goal; third, attach the stigma of shame to any failure; and finally, make death the only option to success. It’s classic.
I didn’t grow up under any penalties of death, mind you, but there was definitely a seriousness of purpose in all our family endeavors. From cleaning floors to trips to Disneyland, everything had to be executed properly and well. And nothing is made too easy. At family parties, the food is often spare in seasonings so that you can’t drown mistakes in sauces or mask errant flavors with a lot of herbs. Alcohol isn’t served, so you also can’t jolly up the crowd or dull any senses with liquor before the main dishes appear. (I’ve always thought my Acosta relations – who are never without their vino under any circumstances – are generally an easier crowd to please, because parties are typically deemed successful the minute corks start popping.)
Post-event scrutiny avails all sorts of lessons to be learned: Was the house spotless, the meal attractively displayed and delicious? Did the guests enjoy themselves? Did we make it all look effortless? Plus, in my mother’s kitchen, attitude counts. If you prepare any dish while grousing, even silently in your own head, about having to do it, then the food is wrecked before it’s even served, which then begs the question: Do you need to fix yourself before you fix another meal?
I wouldn’t be surprised if Sakai pondered the same thing himself in one form or another. The ultimate purpose of the 24,850-mile Kaiho Gyo is enlightenment. In addition to the mental and physical challenges, Sakai trained in meditation and calligraphy and performed menial temple chores. He finished his first Kaiho Gyo (starting in 1973) in 1980, took a half-year break and finished his second go-around in 1987 at age 60.
Talk about being thoroughly committed. Now that’s what I call Japanese.