Spiritual Athletes: Lessons From the Marathon Monks of Mt. Hiei

Flickr-running monk-Py AllSean Lang, Bushido Runner
Waking Times

The Marathon Monks of Mt. Hiei are part of a Tendai monastic order on Mt. Hiei in Japan. These monks are spiritual athletes of the highest order, who run 40km a day for 100 days. Made known to the public by John Stevens’ book, “The Marathon Monks of Mt. Hiei”, the Marathon Monks complete a sacred route that has been traversed daily by monks for over 200 years.

The story of the marathon monk practice, or sadhana (daily spiritual practice), began when a young seeker named So-o arrived at the mountain monastary at the age of 15. So-o’s daily practices involved encircling Mt. Hiei, and offering daily prayers along the way. So-o practiced a type of Buddhism where he recognized all of nature as manifestations of Buddha. As the story goes, one day along his walk he was enraptured with the image of Buddha near a waterfall. Seeking to merge with the One, he dove into the falls but along the way he hit a log in the water. So-o pulled the log out of the water and carved the image of Fudo Myo-o, which is still a venerated spot on today’s course. After his leap into the falls, So-o continued to build a number of monasteries on Mt. Hiei, which became the residence and inspiration for numerous Marathon Monks over the years.

The marathon monk practice is called kaihogyo, and their daily routines would be exhaustive to even the most motivated of individuals. The monks wake every day at 12:00am, and after an hour of prayer, they begin their daily pilgrimage at 1:30am. The “beginning” course is 40km long, and is to be repeated daily for 100 days. Before beginning Kaihogyo, the monks have 1 week of training in which they are shown the course by a senior monk, and given a book that contains maps of the course and a description of the mantras to say at sacred locations.

The attire of the monk is very simple. The monks wear white cloth pants and robe, a straw hat, and straw sandles. Along with the book and the clothes, the monk carries a knife and rope which is to be used for seppuku (ritual disembowlment) if the course cannot be completed. By demanding seppuku if the sadhana is not completed, each run becomes a confrontation with death. There is no sleeping in or missing a day, because to do so means death.

  • Stevens reported that daily caloric intake for the monks is approximately1000-1200 calories, which is based on a vegetarian fare of rice, miso soup, and green tea. The amount of calories seems very low, but nonetheless the monks seem to be the picture of health.

    During the 100 day term, the monk faces many hardships; blistered feet, aching legs, and much more. Yet by the 70th day, Stevens describes the monks as finding the ancient stride that carried numerous monks through the mountain in search of enlightenment, “Eyes focused 100 feet ahead, while moving in a steady rhythm, keeping the head steady, the shoulders relaxed, the back straight, and the nose and navel aligned.”

    After completing the 100 day term, the monk is referred to as a “Gyoja,” which roughly means “one who is on the spiritual path.” The next stage for the Gyoja is the 1,000 day term, which takes seven years to complete. The first three years the Gyoja continues to do the normal 40 km route for 100 consecutive days that he did during the original 100 day term, but in the 4th and 5th year, the Gyoja runs 200 consecutive days.

    After the 700th day of consecutive running, the Gyoja faces the ultimate test, “Doiri.” Doiri, which basically means “fire ceremony,” was originally a 10 day ordeal in which monks remained sitting in front of a fire with continual mantra recitation, with no food or water. After a number of monks died, Diori was revised to the 7 day session which is used today, but the guidelines remain the same. The only water allowed is to be used to rinse the mouth. Yet, the toughest obstacle during Doiri is to remain sitting for the 7 days. At the end of Diori the monks have a feeling of transparency, in which they can feel the moisture from the air entering their bodies, and the light of the sun enters and permeates throughout their entire being.

    After completing 700 days of running and Doiri, it is a hop, skip, and jump to the finish! The final year consists of two 100 day terms, consisting of daily 84 km runs. The Gyoja may now utilize a walking stick and assistant to accompany him on his journey. Nearing completion of Kaihogyo, the route takes the Gyoja through the city of Kyoto. Hoping to gain divine favour, shop owners and citizens greet and salute the Gyoja as he passes by. Often people will join for a period of the run. In turn, the Gyoja’s practice involves blessing all who meet him on his daily route. The final 100 day term is the same distance and course as the first 100 day term completed long ago. This reunion with the mountain and the forest is easily completed. During this final term, Stevens describes the Gyoja as having a special connection with all that inhabit the Mountain.

    “At the end of running, the marathon monk has become one with the mountain, flying along a path that is free of obstruction. The joy of practice has been discovered and all things are made new each day. The stars and sky, the stones, the plants, and the trees, have become the monk’s trusted companions; he can predict the week’s weather by the shape of the clouds, the direction of the wind, and the smell of the air; he knows the exact times each species of bird and insect begin to sing; and he takes special delight in that magic moment of the day when the moon sets and the sun rises, poised in the center of creation.”

    So how can we use the example of the Marathon Monks in our own personal practice? When I describe the Marathon Monk practice to others, often they can’t believe or understand why anyone would go through all of that hardship, or why they just don’t quit. While there is the threat of Seppuku, this is really a reminder that it is the monk’s duty to honor and stay true to the practice. This epitomizes the spirit of Bushido, the ancient Samarai code of Japan, the Marathon Monks have made a covenant between themselves and Buddha that they will continue the practice to the end. The practice of Bushido may be lacking in modern society, but we can use the Marathon Monks as an inspiration to honor ourselves and nature by getting out the door every morning for our daily run.

    Along with the will to remain on the their chosen path, the monks learn to love the practice. It is my interpretation that this is the final stage of Kaihogyo. Stevens describes it best when he says that the monk, “takes special delight in the magic moment of the day when the moon sets and the sun rises, poised in the center of creation” The Monk becomes one with Mt. Hiei, connected with all she has to offer, and each run is started and completed in the spirit of love.

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