NARA--German monk Gyoei Saile has long prepared for the chance of a lifetime, to take the qualifying oral exam at the prestigious Kofukuji temple here to become a chief priest.

The challenge has been passed down for more than a millennium.

On the night of Nov. 13, Saile, 41, who has served as a monk at the Nara temple since 2011, sat for the test after a grueling three-week preparation period. He took it and passed.

It is unusual for a foreigner to successfully take the “ryugi,” according to Kofukuji, one of the two head temples of the Hosso Sect of Buddhism.

“It was an honor for me to be named to take the exam that has a history of more than 1,000 years, and I am so grateful,” Saile said afterward.

Saile hails from Hamburg. He studied Japanese classic literature at the University of California, Berkeley. Later he majored in history of Japanese Buddhist thought as a graduate student there.

Saile became a visiting scholar at Ryukoku University in Kyoto in 2010. He entered the Buddhist priesthood in 2011 and started serving at Kofukuji.

He once served as a so-called “doji” to assist a senior monk at Kofukuji in preparation for the exam.

The oral exam has been carried out in accordance with “Jionne,” the anniversary of the death of the founder of the Hosso Sect, Jion Daishi, which started in 951.

Monks of the Hosso Sect have been allowed to take the exam only once during their lifetime. In the past, failure of the test has resulted in the monk’s banishment.

Saile was the first monk of Kofukuji to sit for the exam in eight years.

It began at a little past 9 p.m., following the Jionne memorial rite at the temple’s temporary lecture hall.

Saile, dressed in a stark white robe, responded to other monks who asked five difficult questions in succession about the teachings of Buddhism. The exam continued until after 10:30 p.m.

Saile had prepared through a 21-day pre-exam process called “zenkegyo.” The preparation started in late October with Saile retiring to a room and staying in a sacred space about the size of half a tatami mat in the enclosure.

There he memorized catechetical dialogues about Buddhist teachings and scriptures written in ancient languages. He ate twice a day. The intense process allowed him to sleep only while sitting.

With the passing of the exam, Saile is qualified to serve as a chief priest of a sub-temple of Kofukuji.

He said the three-week process was a fulfilling time for him.

“My training as a monk will continue. I hope to utilize the understanding and wisdom that I obtained through the exam in my practices from now on,” Saile said.