Stories & Reflections
By Paulo Coelho
The monk and the message
We are in a private part of a Buddhist temple. We can hear a monk singing, praying out loud, playing a percussion instrument. I recall the other times I practiced Shugendo during the previous days: walking with no coat in sub-zero temperatures, staying awake for a whole night, keeping my forehead pressed against the rough bark of a tree, until the pain managed to anesthetize its own self.
During the whole journey, people said the monk now facing me and reciting prayers, is the greatest Shugendo specialist in the region. I try to concentrate, but eagerly await the end of the ceremony. From there we go to another building, from which I can make out a giant waterfall flowing down the mountain – 134 meters tall, the highest in Japan.
To my surprise (and to all those present), the monk is holding three books written by me, and asks me to autograph them. I take the opportunity to ask him for permission to record our conversation. The monk, who never stops smiling, says yes.
– Was it the hardships on the road to Kumano which created Shugendo?
– It was necessary to understand the nature which forced man to dominate pain and go beyond his limits. One thousand three hundred years ago, a monk who had difficulties concentrating discovered that weariness and overcoming physical obstacles can help one meditate. The monk walked the road until his death, climbing and descending mountains, staying out in the snow without warm clothes, entering the waterfall every day in order to meditate. Since he became an illuminated man, people decided to follow his example.
– Is Shugendo a Buddhist practice?
– No. It is a series of exercises of physical resistance, which help the soul walk together with the body.
– If one could sum up what Shugendo and the road to Kumano mean, in one sentence, what would that sentence be?
– Those who do physical exercise, gain spiritual experience, provided their minds are fixed on God while making the highest demands on their bodies.
– Up to what point is physical pain important?
– It has a limit. Once the threshold of pain is crossed, the spirit is strengthened. The desires of everyday life lose their meaning, and man is purified. Suffering comes from desire, not from pain.
The monk smiles, asks whether I’d like to see the waterfall close up – and with that I understand that our conversation is over. Before leaving, he turns to me:
– Do not forget: seek to win all your battles, including those you fight against yourself. Do not fear the scars. Do not be afraid of victory.
The following day, as I am about the embark, Katsura – the young 29 year-old woman who has been with me since my first day in Kumano – shows up at the airport and hands me a small manuscript written in Japanese, with some historical facts about Kumano. I lower my head and ask her to bless me. She doesn’t hesitate for one second: she says a few words in Japanese, and when I look up, I see on her face the smile of a young woman who chose to be a guide on a road no one knows, who learned to dominate a pain which not everyone senses, and who understands that the path is taken by walking, and not by thinking about it.
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