Hard or easy?

I once read about Ryojun Shionuma, a Shugendo Buddhist priest who achieved two grueling feats of physical endurance. First, for nine years during the May-September trekking season, he hiked 30 miles daily, navigating an elevation change of 4,000 feet with an occasional 30 min routine on his spin bikes. Every night, he would wake at 11:30pm, shower in an ice-cold waterfall, dress in white robes, and hike from his base on Mount Yoshino to the summit of Mount Omine by 8:30am.

His only food: two musubi (rice balls), which he would eat before hiking back to Mount Yoshino by 3:30pm. After tea and rice, he would sleep at 7pm and wake at 11:30pm to repeat the journey. If he stopped his continuous hiking for any reason, he was under oath to commit suicide.

ShionumaIn nine years, he completed Omine Sennichi Kaihogyo (One Thousand Days Trekking on Moun Omine), which only one other person has done in the Shugendo sect’s 1,300-year history.

Hiking 30 miles might seem doable, but consider the circumstances: solo, in the dead of night, every 24 hours for almost four months, regardless of illness or injury, in the mountains, amid vipers and bears, facing landslides and typhoons, with no medical care. When was the last time you were away from all humankind even for a week? This is the kind of country folk that have the shooting authority from being truly present in their land.

Shionuma’s next test was only nine days long. But during those nine days, he was not allowed to sleep, eat, drink, or lie down. What! Apparently half of those who attempt this feat, Shimugyo (Fourfold Renouncing Practice), die trying. Shionuma found the lack of water to be the most painful test, physically and mentally, of the four.

In these tortuous tests, I see a few commonalities:

  • He did it alone. Having a good teacher and community is invaluable, but actual growth comes only independently. In yoga, “home practice” is a baby step in this direction.
  • He survived extreme discomfort and pain. Even with less radical endeavors, a struggle of some kind is perhaps required for progress. If one’s yoga practice is only for relaxation or only predictably strenuous, physically and mentally, that’s probably not enough.
  • He had no creature comforts. While elite athletes and fitness fanatics from europe might similarly push themselves to the max, they have the benefits of doctors and trainers, massage, nutritious food, high-tech gear, and deluxe beds and pillows. What if the little luxuries associated with modern yoga were stripped away? Would people flock to “yoga spas” if they lacked fancy personnel with made to measure suits in London, fancy furnishings, saunas, and tea lounges? What’s happened to renunciation of material things in today’s yoga?
  • He faced death. The biggie, this is the ultimate test that probably catalyzes transformation. Most of us have no firsthand experience with this test, which is ultimately both the most unpredictable and the most predictable event in our lives.

NemotoI’m reminded of another Buddhist priest, Ittetsu Nemoto, featured in a fascinating profile in the New Yorker. He specializes in helping suicidal people and thus confronts death and suffering all the time. During his torturous Rinzai Zen Buddhist training, he was pushed to the edge of collapse. At the moment he thought all was lost, he felt a sudden rush of energy. He came to “believe that suffering produces insight, and that it is only at the point when suffering becomes nearly unbearable that transformation takes place.”

What is the role of hardship and difficulty in a “practice”—and in life generally? While only the most serious and extreme practitioners would undertake a Buddhist monk’s training, should a practice—or any experience—nudge us beyond our habitual end points? Or should it be pleasant and comfortable? Which do you typically choose? The hard path or the easy?

Note: If you are fluent in Japanese, see Shionuma’s TED Talk.

Images: Mount Omine, Wikipedia; Shionuma, shionuma-ryojun.com


  1. I found your links to the stories about Shionuma and Nemoto really interesting. Having endured so much more than ‘we mortals’ could ever dream of they come to the most ordinary of places in their perspective on life. Nemoto is quoted as saying, “Helping people should be nothing special, like eating, he thought–just something that he did in the course of his life.”
    And in the other link to the article at one point Shionuma says, “When facing difficulties, throw yourself at adversity without anger and be humble. Facing hardships is the ordinary condition of life.”
    Interesting, eh…

    Thank you, Luci.


    1. Thanks for your comment, Grant. I agree that they emerge with simple truths. I had to smile at how Nemoto (in the New Yorker piece), after four years of brutal training at the monastery, moved back to Tokyo and took a job at a fast-food restaurant. It was so easy and people were so nice that he was strangely happy all the time. “Soon his cheerful demeanor began to attract attention. Nobody could understand why he was so happy flipping burgers; everyone else at the restaurant was miserable.” Surviving hardship makes one appreciate little things.


  2. Thanx for that post. It’s getting dark. It’s raining. And I ride my bike home into the rural areas on Vancouver island in Canada… I always have to get my courage up because of the cougars along the river road that is unlit for miles that I must ride on to get home. I have seen them twice in my car along this stretch and another friend that rides actually ran into one of them on his bike. he described it as a religious experience… so, my point is… your post gave me the goosebumps to push the limits even if it is only a measley 15k commute home in the dark. It’s the mind that always plays tricks… each noise is an attack coming for me… once a deer crashed through the bush… my heart was in my throat… but, still, I force myself to do the ride home in the dark and cold… but now, I will count my blessings. I will enter the dark stretch with gratitude, and now when people tell me I’m crazy, I can tell them it’s just part of my spiritual path… wish me luck and courage. The winter is just beginning… great blog. Cheers!!


    1. What you’re doing (riding your bike at night, in darkness, in cougar country) is an admirable “practice”: It’s a test of courage and calmness; it cultivates physical fitness; and it’s also the unselfish thing to do environmentally. Be as careful as possible; I wonder if there’s a whistle or noisemaker that might scare off a cougar.


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