The Marathon Monk of Mount Hiei

by Todd Tsuho Sattersten

I prepared this report for a seminary class I took at Dharma Rain Zen Center and found the topic so fascinating I wanted to share it further.

In 2015, James Lawrence completed a feat in endurance sports. Lawrence, who is also known as the Iron Cowboy, completed fifty Ironman marathons across fifty states in 50 days. Each day, he swam, biked and ran 141 miles and in the roughly two months, he covered over 7,000 miles.

Take a moment and note your reaction to that story. Do you believe me? Do you think it was a waste of time? Do you wonder why anyone would do that? I appreciate all of those reactions, but I want to tell you another story that may seem even more unbelievable.

There is a Buddhist temple in Japan where monks walk 24,000 miles as a part of a religious practice to clarify the mind and spirit. The practice is called the kaihogyo – “practice of circling the mountains.” The participants are more commonly referred to as The Marathon Monks of Mount Hiei.

The mountain itself is a mandala.
Practice self-reflection intently amid
the undefiled stones, trees, streams and vegetation,
losing yourself in the great body of the Supreme Buddha.

That passage is attributed to Sõ-õ, the patriach of the kaihogyo. Sõ-õ was a Tendai monk who lived in the 9th century C.E. and spent years in ascetic practice in the mountains located outside modern day Kyoto.

Sõ-õ had a strong affinity for the Fudõ, a deity drawn from early Indian buddhism into early sects of Buddhism in Japan. Fudo in Japanese means “Immovable” and he is often depicited in an intense pose with a sword and rope; his job to cut through ignorance and bind those ruled by their violent passions.

According to his biography, the diety appeared to Sõ-õ during one of his aestic pilgrimages in waterfall surrounded by raging fire. Sõ-õ jumped into the waterfall to embrace and instead emerged with a log from a katsura tree. It is believed that he crafted the log into the three images of Fudo, one for each of the temples he founded. Sõ-õ also reportedly gained profound inspiration from the story of the Never Disparaging Monk in the Lotus Sutra, the story of a monk who professes his belief in humankind, only to persecuted by those same people.

Sõ-õ was not doing anything unusual in his practice. Buddhist texts from the eighth century in India and China stated that, “Mountain pilgrimages on sacred peaks is the best of practices.” Academic research has found that Tendai monks pursued mountain pilgrimages in search of mystic powers and enlightenment during So-o’s time. Pilgrimages on Mount Hiei formalized in the following years among across the three main temples and many associated temples. Rules for the kaihogyo further solidified with a standardization of dress and routes. By the 14th century, the length of the course, the number of days and the nine day fast are detailed in religious texts, all practices resemble the kaihogyo as it is practiced today.

The 24,000 miles of the kaihogyo is completed over 1000 days and those 1000 days are spread out over seven years. As you start to do the math in your head, it may seem simpler or easier to complete. Let me end that idea.

In Year One, there are 100 days of walking. The official season for the kaihogyo runs from March 28th to July 5th. The course is roughly 19 miles. The gyoja, a title given to monks undertaking the challenge, awaken at 1am and are on the trail by 2am. They walk mostly in the dark by the light of a lantern. As a daily pilgrimage, the gyoja makes over 250 stops playing respects to places through the temple complex at Enryaku-ji – ponds, trees, bamboo groves, patriachs of Tendai. The monk continually chants a mantra to Fudo:

Homage to the all-pervading Vajras!
O Violent One of great wrath!
Destroy! hûm trat hâm mâm.

The gyoja (and yes, so far they have been male) returns five to six hours later. They have breakfast, do soji (morning work), hold service at noon, and work on the temple grounds the rest of the day before going to sleep around 8pm to start the cycle again the early morning hours.

Those 19 miles are hard for me to visualize and it’s even harder to internalize what that cycle would be like day after day. Given the topography of the area, the gyoja also deal with a 1400 foot change in elevation with a descent through the various stops and a return ascent as they finish the course each day.

Many monks do these first 100 days. Completing this first phase is a requirement for all monks who wish to serve as abbots at the temples at Enryaku-ji. That means five to ten monks complete this leg of kaihogyo each year, but most stop there. A very small percentage of monks continue on with the kaihogyo.

For those who do continue, Year Two and Year Three have the same 100 day segments of 19 miles. In Year Four and Year Five, the gyoja continue to walk the 19 mile course but they walk for 200 days, finishing their commitments in early October rather than July.

The final day of Year Five marks the 700th day of the kaihogyo and the first day of the doiri, an extreme nine day retreat. During this time, the gyoja goes without food, water, rest or sleep. Two attendants are with him the entire time to ensure the monk abides by the commitment. The monk will chant the same mantra from his walks 100,000 times.

The doiri is considered a turning point in the kaihogyo. The first 700 days are meant for self-benefitting practice, devoting practice to gaining enlightenment for oneself. The final 300 days shift toward others-benefitting practice; leading others and oneself to enlightenment.

In the sixth year there are 100 days of walking but the distance is 34 miles, almost twice the distance of the main pilgrimage.

In the final year, the seventh year, the gyoja will walk for 200 days. The first 100 days are the most difficult. The segment is known as the “Omawari” and the monk walks for 52 miles each day. The route takes him deep into Kyoto, visiting many temples, religious sites, and benefactors that support his practice financially. The route takes 18 hours to walk. The monks sleeps for a few hours, rises again and retraces the path back to the home temple.

The final 100 days are like the 100 days the gyoja starts with. He walks 18 miles on the main pilgrimage route around Mount Hiei. On the 1000th day, he finishes without ceremony or celebration, though there are often television crews and admirers lining the route to see the completion of the kaihogyo.

The intensity of the 1000 days of kaihogyo is inseparable from the what Fudo represents to the monk. Nothing must deter the gyoja from the task. They must cut through the delusions of what is possible. The lay confraternity of over 200 people that supports the Mt. Hiei kaihogyo take their name from the Japanese word sokusho or “ending/stopping obstacles.”

Monks participating in the kaihogyo are consider a living form of Fudo. The unusually shaped hat, or higasa, is considered to be Fudo Myoo himself and is treated with the highest respect. The monk carries with him a rope and daggar much like the diety, though they receive emphasis because of their other purpose: tools for the monk to end his life if he fails at any point to complete the kaihogyo.

Death is more than a threat to the gyoja and he is reminded every day of the kaihogyo. Rather than traditional black robes, the kaihogyo monks wear white, the color representing death in Japanese culture. A coin is placed in the higasa to be used the monk should die and need ferry passage across the mythological sanzu river, separating life from death. As Ajari Tanno Kakudo describes:

“I dress in the clothes of the dead. I put on my sandals in the house. The Japanese never wear shoes indoors. So, putting them on inside means you’ve no intention of returning. At a funeral, the corpse has its shoes put on inside the house. This means that every day I leave on a pilgrimage of no return.”

Hakozaki Bunno wrote this haiku to his student Sakai Yusai after he narrowly survived an attack from a wild boar during his kaihogyo:

The path of practice:
Where will be
My final resting place?

Download a pdf version of this article.

Quotations from Daigyomon Ajari

“If you are not afraid of death, you can achieve anything. Put your life on the line and great enlightenment will be yours.” – Hakozaki Bunno

“It is only when a person is completely determined to achieve something that he can being to realize his inner power.” – Utsumi Shunsho

“You learn how to see your real self. You learn to understand what is important and what isn’t.” – Genshin Fujunami

“To others it seems to be about pain and suffering, But I get really great joy and satisfaction. Every day I return feeling alive and well.” -Tanno Kakudo

“The message I wish to convey is, please, live each day as if it is your entire life. If you start something today, nish it today; tomorrow is another world. Life live positively.” -Sakai Yusai

“The hope is in each of us. It’s no longer in the govern- ment, or world powers, but in each individual — we, you and I, are the hope.” – Uehara Gyosho

“Everybody thinks they’re living on their own without help from others. This is not possible. I really think that others have done something for me, and I have a feeling of gratefulness to other people.” – Endo Mitsunaga

Finn, Adharanand. “What I Learned when I met the monk who ran 1,000 marathons.” The Guardian, March 31, 2015.
Ganci, Dave. “The Marathon Monks of Mount Hiei.” Trailrunner Magazine, March 2003.
Japanese Monks Endure With a Vow of Patience.” The Associated Press, June 10, 2007.
Kuhn, Anthony. “Monk’s Enlightenment Begins With A Marathon Walk.” NPR Morning Edition, May 11, 2010.
Ludvik, Catherine, “In Service of the Kaihogyo Practitioners of Mt. Hiei.” Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 2006 Vol 33/1:115-142.
Marathon Monks, Produced by ABC Australia, November 2004.
Marathon Monks of Mount Hiei, Directed by Christopher J. Hayden, Documentary Educational Resources, 2002.
Nakanishi, Sherry. “A Mantra for Ajari.” Kyoto Journal, July 2004.
Rhodes, Robert F. “The Kaihogyo Practice of Mt. Hiei.” Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 1987 Vol 14:2-3.
Schmid, Holly. “The Spiritual Athlete’s Path to Enlightenment.” Ultra Marathon Running, December 11, 1996.
Stevens, John. Marathon Monks of Mount Hiei. Book, Echo Point Books & Media, 1988.

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