Ian Ropke writes…
The world of Buddhism is full of stories of amazing human feats achieved through meditation and power of the mind. In Tibet there are especially powerful monks who travel so fast that they appear to fly; they can travel non-stop for 48 hours and cover over 320 km a day! There are also stories of diamond-like crystalline substances found amongst the ashes of cremated super meditation monks (male and female). In Japan there were monks that mummified themselves by eating nothing but a lacquer paste between meditation sessions. And then there are the so-called spiritual athletes of Mount Hiei, the mountain which rises huge and majestic on the horizon at the northeast corner of the city of Kyoto.
Mount Hiei’s marathon monks
The marathon monks live in a small mountain monastery below the fabled world of Enryaku-ji Temple, the Tendai sect of Esoteric Buddhism. They worship a deity known as Fudo Myo-o (the Wrathful King of Mystic Knowledge in Shingon Buddhism). Their spiritual Olympic feats began in 1787 when a monk named So-o had a powerful religious experience in a waterfall on the mountain. After his vision he carved a wooden statue of Fudo Myo-o from a log he found under the falls. So-o was the first to complete the marathon course. He believed that everything was a manifestation of Buddha and was a great lover of the pure and simple natural world versus the world of man (not pure and generally not simple).
By now the reader is probably beginning to wonder, what did these monks have to do in order to complete the “marathon”? They had to complete three cycles of intense chanting, and worship requiring them to run a spiral course of locations spread out all over the endless slopes of Mount Hiei. The first cycle was 100 days, the second 300 days and the last one 1,000 days. Since the late 19th century, less than 50 monks have actually completed all three cycles.
The gyoja (training marathon monk) wear a pure white robe and hat and straw sandals. The basic rules of the kaihogyo (for any of the cycles) are pretty straightforward: 1) when running, the robe and hat may not be taken off; 2) one can not leave the designated course; 3) one can not stop for rest or refreshment during the run; 4) everything (prayers, chants, etc.) must be completed properly; 3) no smoking or drinking is allowed.
The remarkable thing is that the 40 km daily run is done at night! After meditation and chanting, they have a small meal at 1:30 and then they start running the course. They finish in the morning between 7 and 9. Then, they pray more, have a bath and eat lunch. The rest of the day is devoted to other services and work around the temple. They are only allowed to sleep about 4 hours a night (between 8 and midnight). They must do this amazing course for 100 days in a row. It takes the average monk about 70 days to get used to everything and get their “second wind.”
If one has completed the first 100 day cycle, only then can one petition to undertake the 1,000-day cycle. This takes a total of seven years to complete (less than 50 have ever completed this cycle). Near the end of the 1,000-day cycle, comes one of the biggest challenges: the doiri: no food, water or sleep or rest of any kind for 7 days straight. In the old days it used to be 10 days, but since hardly any monks at all survived, it was shortened to 7 days. Water is obtained through the skin by being in the moist air on the mountain. The really hard part of these nine days is not food or water but staying awake and in the proper posture. It is said that after surviving the doiri the monk has really overcome death and they return to life with a level of sensitivity that goes far beyond what wild animals are able to sense. Indeed, physical examinations after the seventh day indicated that many of the symptoms of death were present.
In the final year of the 1000-day cycle, the gyoja must complete two 100-day cycles during which they run 84 kilometers each day. To run or jog this distance takes about 16 hours. During the run it is also their duty to bless the people who line the route. The final initiation is a 100,000 prayer fast and fire ceremony which takes place two or three years after the finish of the 1000-day marathon.
Ian Ropke is the author of the Historical Dictionary of Osaka and Kyoto, editor of Kyoto Visitors Guide, and director of Your Japan Private Tours. You can read his previous articles for Deep Kyoto here.