“It may well be that the greatest athletes today are not the stars of professional sports, nor the Olympic champions, nor the top triathlon competitors, but the marathon monks of Japan’s Mount Hiei.”

John Stevens, author of ‘Marathon Monks of Mount Hiei’.

Often dubbed as the “Running Buddhas” or “Marathon Monks”, an eclectic group of Tendai-shu monks living at the foothills of Mount Hiei in Kyoto, Japan are known for their amazing physical feats that can put even Olympic athletes to shame. Legend has it that these monks can run 1,000 marathons in 1,000 days in their quest to attain enlightenment. This 1000- Day Challenge, known as ‘Sennichi Kaihogyo’, is a medium of veneration to ‘Fudo-myo-o’, who is the central deity in the Tendai sect. Only selected monks, called ‘Gyoja’, can undertake this arduous 1000- Day Challenge. Over a seven-year training period, the Gyoja should successfully make a pilgrimage to over 250 sacred sites that are nestled on Mount Hiei. It is believed that once he the Gyoja completes the challenge, he will have walked far enough to make a complete circle of the earth.

How do they do it?

Clad in minimal clothing that consists of a white robe, a Renge-Gasa hat, split toe socks and straw sandals, the Gyojas undertake this seven-year challenge by walking a distance of 30-40 kilometers everyday for the first four years. They make pit stops at sacred sites – rivers, rocks, sacred trees- to chant incantations and prayers. The trek is very difficult and is aptly termed as ‘the walking hell’. It is worst during the rains where the monks have to go through several pairs of sandals each day, often resulting in festering wounds, sore feet and other injuries.

In the fifth year, the monks have to undergo a fast called the ‘Do-Iri’, in which they have to chant a special mantra towards Fudo-myo-o for a period of 9 days. During this entire period they are not allowed to eat or drink or sleep. They can however take a swig of water in the morning only to spit it out immediately. If the journey wasn’t difficult enough the fasting period makes sure that their physical and mental strength is tested to its maximum capacity. The Gyojas become so weak after the fast that they lose sense of day and time and can no longer think straight. The ordeal is so terrible that it is often refereed to as a living funeral.

The Gyojas have to go through 5-6 pairs of straw sandals for each day of the Kaihogyo. (Image: RocketNews 24)

If the monk has successfully survived the Do-Iri, he continues into the 6th year which involves a 60-kilometer daily trek for 100 consecutive days. In the seventh year he has to completes 84 kilometers. The final lap of the challenge is marked by a 100-day challenge of covering a distance of 30 to 40 kilometers each day.

It is a rule that once a monk starts his seven-year journey he cannot quit halfway under any circumstances. The Gyojas are even allowed to carry a rope and dagger to take their own lives if they are unable to go on with the challenge for any reason. The idea is to bring the body as close as possible to death. Once they complete the challenge, they are given the title of ‘Daigyoman Ajari’, or Saintly Master. So arduous is the journey that since the beginning of this challenge in 1585, only 50 monks have successfully completed this challenge, the rest have perished on the slopes of Mount Hiei en route this ultimate quest for enlightenment.

Of the few successful Gyojas who went on to become Dai Ajaris was Yusai Sakai (1926 – 2013). He is still a revered Ajari for having completed the Kaihogyo challenge twice in his lifetime – a feat many die trying. Sakai was known for his resilience and has been an inspiration for many Gyojas and lay people. “The message I wish to convey is, please, live each day as if it is your entire life. If you start something today, finish it today. Tomorrow is another world. Live life positively,” Sakai preached.

What do they get from it?

Though the final goal of the challenge is largely to attain “enlightenment”, this outlook is rather subjective. When Adharanand Finn of The Guardian interviewed one of the present Ajaris, he was rather surprised at the answers he had unearthed from Genshin Fujinami, one of the few monks to have completed the grueling endurance ordeal.  When asked why he did it, Fujinami calmly explains, “All humans are asking the question: ‘Why are we alive?’ The constant movement for 1,000 days gives you lots of time to think about this, to reflect on your life. It is a type of meditation through movement. That is why you shouldn’t go too fast. It is a time to meditate on life, on how you should live.”

Buddhist monk Genshin Fujinami, is one of the few Gyojas who has completed this grueling challenge (Image: The Guardian)

When asked ‘What enlightenment felt like?’, he continues nonchalantly “Once you do reach your end goal, there is not this one point of understanding where everything else stops and you’ve made it,” he says calmly. “Learning continues. Once you graduate from university, you don’t stop learning. The 1,000-day challenge is not an end point, the challenge is to continue, enjoying life and learning new things.”

These monks are revered as some of the wisest, most spiritual men on earth, with insight gained through incredible feats of endurance. And yet a real-life Dai- Ajari is telling us that running for 1,000 days was basically some good thinking time and that life continues to go on despite attaining “enlightenment”.

Monks vs. Olympic Athletes? 

It’s no wonder that the author of “ The Marathon Monks of Mount Hiei”, John Stevens made a vague comparison of these ascetics to Olympic athletes. Though Stevens’ belief comes from a good place, as both the groups are proven to accomplish amazing feats of distance and exhibit tremendous amounts of stamina. However, Amy Chavez of RocketNews24 seems to think it is a bit unfair to both parties, especially to the athletes “who have spent their whole lives training, and cross-training, to have someone extenuate their accomplishments by comparing them to an eclectic group of enlightenment-seekers on top of a sacred mountain in Japan. These are two completely different worlds.”

Maybe a comparison can’t really be drawn between the Olympic athletes and the monks, but it is undeniable that a certain amount of mental strength is needed to go the distance, whether you are on a quest for spirituality on Mount Hiei or are running a marathon for gold.


Main Image: John Stevens| Marathon Monks of Mount Hiei

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