Tendai Marathon Monks - The
Run of A Lifetime by James Davis -
The London Observer
Some of the world's best athletes give a
very good run for their money in the London Marathon, others pick up their
appearance fee and potter round without threatening to win. The world's top
distance runners are well rewarded - the best earn one million dollars a year -
and they reckon to run only two or three marathons a year.
What a comparison that is to a group of men
who can claim - though they never do - to be the greatest, toughest, most
committed athletes in the world. They run for no other reward than spiritual
enlightenment, hoping to help themselves along the path of Buddha towards a
personal awakening. They are the so-called 'marathon monks' of Mount Hiei,
The monks, known as Kaihigyo, are spiritual
athletes from the Tendai Sect of Buddhism, based at Mount Hiei, which overlooks
the ancient capital city of Kyoto.
The ultimate achievement is the completion
of the 1,000-day challenge, which must surely be the most demanding physical
and mental challenge in the world. Forget ultra-marathons and so-called
iron-man events, this endurance challenge surpasses all others.
Only 46 men have completed the 1,000-day
challenge since 1885. It takes seven years to complete, as the monks must
undergo other Buddhist training in meditation and calligraphy, and perform
general duties within the temple.
The first 300 days are basic training,
during which the monks run 40km per day for 100 consecutive days. In the fourth
and fifth years they run 40km each day for 200 consecutive days. That's more or
less a full marathon every day for more than six months.
The final two years of the 1000-day
challenge are even more daunting. In the sixth year they run 60km each day for
100 consecutive days and in the seventh year they run 84km each day for 100
consecutive days. This is the equivalent of running two Olympic marathons
back-to-back every day for 100 days.
Author John Stevens, in his book, The
Marathon Monks of Mount Hiei describes the running style which dates back over
a thousand years. 'Eyes focused about 100 feet ahead while moving in a steady
rhythm, keeping the head level, the shoulders relaxed, the back straight, and
the nose aligned with the navel.'
What makes all these distances even more
amazing is the manner and the conditions in which the monks run. These runs are
usually begun at night and are over mountain paths that are uneven and poorly
marked. During the winter months the low temperatures and snow are a great
hindrance to the runners. These monks do not wear the latest in footwear and
clothing, but run in straw sandals, an all-white outfit and a straw hat. They
also run on a diet of vegetables, tofu and miso soup, which modern athletes and
nutritionists would deem to be unsuitable for endurance events.
Not only do they wear clothes and shoes
unsuited to running, but they have to carry books with directions and mantras
to chant, food to offer along the way, candles for illumination, as well as a
sheathed knife and a rope, known as the 'cord of death'. These remind the monk
of his duty to take his life if he fails, by hanging or self-disembowelment.
The course is littered with unmarked graves, marking the spot where monks have
taken their own lives. However, there have been no cases of monks' suicides
since the nineteenth century.
During theses long runs the monks must make
stops at temples of worship that can number up to 260. This means that the 86km
run can take up to 20 hours to complete leaving the monk with very little time
for recovery or rest, but as an old saying goes: 'Ten minutes' sleep for a
marathon monk is worth five hours of ordinary rest.' They also learn to rest
sections of their body while running, such as their arms or shoulders.
And then there is the doiri, where the monk
faces seven days without food, water or sleep or rest. During this time the
monk will spend his entire day reciting Buddhist chants and mantras - perhaps
up to 100,000 each day. The only time the monk will leave the temple is at 2am
to walk the 200m to a well and return with water to make an offering. He is not
allowed to drink any himself and the 200m walk can take up to two hours in the
final days of the fast. During his time spent meditating there are two monks
who are in constant attention to ensure that he does not fall asleep.
For several weeks before doiri, the monk
will reduce his food intake so his body can cope with the fast. The first day
is no problem, but there is some nausea on the second and third days. By the
fourth and fifth days the hunger pangs have disappeared, but the monk has
become so dehydrated that there is no saliva in his mouth and he will begin to
The purpose of doiri is to bring the monk
face-to-face with death. During this fast, the monks develop extraordinary
powers of sense. They talk of being able to hear the ashes of incense sticks
fall to the ground and, perhaps unsurprisingly, of the ability to smell food
being prepared miles away.
Physiologists, who have examined the monks
after conclusion of the rite, find many of the symptoms of a 'dead person'.
Monks talk of experiencing a feeling of transparency where everything good, bad
and neutral leaves their body and existence in itself is revealed in crystal
clarity. Relatives of those who undergo this rite of passage talk of the
difference that the seven days makes to those who undergo it. One remarked, 'I
always dismissed Buddhism as superstitious nonsense until I saw my brother step
out of Myo-o-do [the name of the temple] after doiri. He was really a living
When the Japanese Emperor maintained his
court in Kyoto, the monks were afforded a special thanksgiving service in the
Imperial Palace after completing their 1,000-day term and the 'marathon monks'
were the only people who were allowed to wear footwear in the presence of the
Even today thousands will turn out to watch
a monk nearing completion of a 1,000-day term, as he runs the old course that
now passes through Kyoto's shopping streets and the entertainment district,
complete with its bars, restaurants and strip joints. Many turn up hoping to be
blessed by these special monks whom they believe have powers to heal.
Japan has the largest number of marathon
runners per capita in the world. From the Arctic northern island of Hokkaido to
the balmy tropical islands of Okinawa in the Pacific, each and every town will
organise a number of long-distance runs and each school will have a strong
There is even a corporate-sponsored running
league, whose teams are even allowed to have one foreigner in their team. Jeff
Schiebler, a Canadian Olympic runner, is the only non-African foreigner who
competes. He described what it is like to run in Japan. 'It is totally
different from anything in North America. They have multimillion-dollar
contracts, team chefs, great training facilities. That kind of thing makes
Japan a power in long-distance running. They go mad for road races. Kids there
grow up wanting to be the next marathon champ.'
Japan's love of marathon running was
epitomised with the incredible outpouring of emotion that followed Naoko
Takahashi's victory in the women's Olympic marathon in Sydney last year. The
race and the prize-giving attracted a massive 84 per cent TV rating as the
fresh-faced girl from the mountains of Gifu became the first Japanese woman to
win an Olympic gold medal.
She became an overnight superstar and her
face was splashed across newspapers, magazines and on talk shows. She even
received The People's Honour (only the third woman ever to do so) from the then
prime minister Yoshiro Mori, who said: 'You have given inspiration and
encouragement to youngsters as well as a whole people by crossing the finish
line with a refreshing smile.'
Very few runners will cross the finish line
in London with a 'refreshing smile' after 26 hard miles. Grimaces of exhaustion
and relief will be a more common sight. However, after looking back at the 26
miles and a bit, there will be a feeling of great personal pride and
achievement in their performance. Many will have achieved personal best times
and others will have raised hundreds of pounds for charity. But will many of
them be able to say they have gained something spiritually, as with the
'marathon monks' of Japan?