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Ryojun Shionuma

Portrait of Ryojun Shionuma

The immutables of prayer and compassion

Photo of Ryojun Shionuma during ascetic practices

Ryojun Shionuma has been honored with the title of “Dai Ajari”. An Ajari (Acharya) is an exalted priest capable of serving as a model for his disciples. Buddhism recognizes an even higher rank, Dai Ajari, that is conferred only on priests who have completed extreme feats of endurance such as the Ōmine Sennichikaihōgyō (One-thousand Days Trekking Practice on Mt. Ōmine). Shionuma is the second priest in the 1300-year history to complete this feat on Mount Yoshino. Shionuma currently serves as the head priest of the Jigenji Temple in Sendai while also giving lectures both in Japan and overseas. He has penned many books, including ‘The Life-long Spiritual Journey of an Apprentice Japanese Bonze’, ‘Shunkashuto Shizen Ni Ikiru (Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter, Living in Nature),’ ‘Aruku Dakede Fuchou Ga Kieru Hokozen No Susume (Walking Zen: Walking Your Way to Health)’,’En Wa Ku To Naru Ku Wa En To Naru (Bonds Bring Pain, but Pain Can Bring Us Closer) ‘.

In this so-called Information Age in which we live, we are witnessing the emergence of new social systems that leverage artificial intelligence (AI) and the internet of things (IoT). In the long history of our species, human society has undergone constant transformation, firstly from hunting and gathering to agrarian society, and then, through the Industrial Revolution, to industrialized society, and now, our information society. What kind of role has religion performed in this process?

“When we were hunters and gatherers, we lived in small self-contained groups scattered here and there. Group members shared a common destiny, and depended on each other for their survival,” says Shionuma. “With the spread of agriculture, people came together in locations where water was plentiful, eventually creating cities. Communal life gave way to social systems in which the pursuit of material wealth and ever greater productivity reigned supreme. Instead of working together, people began to compete, leading to the breakdown of relationships. Religion is thought to have emerged from such forces. There would be a central figure in a particular age who would found a particular religion, someone like Buddha or Jesus or Muhammad. People came to depend on these figures for support and comfort, but unfortunately, even founders are mortals who die. Eventually, people came to use Buddhism, or Christianity or Islam to draw unfavorable comparisons with others, creating barriers between religions. I think that's the current situation.”

Shionuma also stresses the importance of understanding the principles of immutability and fluidity — considering what can be changed and what must remain the same — as society undergoes transformation.

“This may not be an appropriate way of expressing the idea, but I think that what we need now is perhaps simple belief, and a desire to lead one's life in a way that surpasses the founder. I see this as the immutable, the part that should remain the same, and it is rooted in prayer and compassion for others. This applies to future society as well as the present.”

Developing a Japanese AI that reflects a desire for harmony

Photo of Ryojun Shionuma during ascetic practices

Despite its name, the One-thousand Days Trekking Practice does not entail 1000 consecutive days of walking. Mount Yoshino is open for such practices for only 123 days of the year between May and September in consideration of the climate and risks involved, and Shionuma accordingly took nine years to complete the feat. The ordeal tested the limits of his endurance to the hilt, even to the extent of passing bloody urine in addition to physical pain of various kinds.

“I think it was the seventh year. I was taken by surprise one day when I felt my soul leaving my body,” Shionuma recalls. “It was during the daytime in bright surroundings, when I was overcome by this strange sensation as I was walking. I felt like I was floating 30 or 40 cm above my physical self, and I remember thinking that if I rose any further, I would never be able to return to my body, and would die as a result, so I mustered all the willpower I could to pray out loud for my soul to return, to get back to my body.”

After this experience, which suggested to him that death awaited if he continued to punish himself, Shionuma took to imagining himself raising his limits of endurance rather than exceeding them. Shionuma suspects that life in modern society with all its conveniences is making us lose our inherent abilities.

Photo of Ryojun Shionuma during ascetic practices

“You can put yourself through ascetic practices without pushing yourself, but I felt that if I did so, I'd regret it later. By pushing yourself to the limit, you get to see the flowers of enlightenment blooming on the cliff edge, so to speak. There are things that you can't see, you can't feel, unless you push yourself to the limit. Even if you have a high-powered telescope, there are some things you can't see from a distance. You need to actually experience them close up to gain insight and enlightenment.”

There are experts who say that the information society will be superseded by a data-driven society. What kind of human intellectual capital will such a future demand? “No matter what period in time, I think the most important thing is to think about how to make everyone happy, and be able to correctly decide on the best overall solutions,” says Shionuma. “For example, if you use computers to simulate a war, the various data might suggest that attacking first is the best idea. Or in a court trial, a person may be found guilty purely because the data says so. But the Japanese way of thinking, encapsulated in the example of Tadasuke Ooka, the “wise judge of Edo Era”, seeks to weigh up both sides of an argument based on a deep understanding of the circumstances involved. I think it would be wonderful if we could create a homegrown Japanese AI that embodies the harmony exemplified in such expressions as ‘immutability and fluidity’ and ‘enough is as good as a feast’, an AI capable of reaching decisions that make everyone happy.”

What do people need to survive? Japan boasts a great many long-established companies with histories of over 100 years. Rather than the pursuit of efficiency and low prices, the common denominator of such companies is a focus on living within their means and maintaining relationships. They have tended to sustain an ideal balance between their own growth and the evolution of society as a whole. “I think that further honing our traditional priority on harmony and providing the world with IT that reflects such values could also revitalize Japan,” concludes Shionuma.