Holly A. Schmid Ultra Marathon Running December 11, 1996
Marathon Monks of Mount Hiei
Throughout this world, there are many mysterious and amazing feats that can be found. People are capable of doing most incredible things that we have never deemed possible. Only by truly believing in ourselves can we accomplish what were thought as impossible goals.
In Mount Hiei of Japan, there can be found a small group of monks who live in a monastery and can accomplish many remarkable challenges. This mountain had been a main attraction in Japan of Buddhism. "The Marathon Monks of Mount Hiei" by John Stevens says that it "offers the seeker every type of religious experience--sacred scholarship, grand ritual, austere meditation, heartfelt repentance, heroic asceticism, mystical flight, miraculous cures, ceaseless devotion, divine joy, and nature worship-while promising enlightenment in this very body." This mountain monastery began in 1787 and the monks feel that Hiei still flourishes today. It is a beautiful place populated with all types of animals. No hunting is allowed. There is lots of rain in Japan and many tall trees which block the sun so it can get very cold there; snow covers the ground far into April. At the base of Hiei, there is a cute little temple-town where most of the retired priests go to live. The Tendai priests generally marry and raise families. Many of the trainees at Mount Hiei who hope to qualify for priesthood are their children. There are many who just appear from the general public though such as college drop-outs searching for the meaning of life, retired military men, reformed drunks, and a few women. These fascinating marathon monks began their story in the year 831 with a boy named So-o. He came to Hiei at age 15. An abbot called Ennin noticed this boy and initiated him into the mysteries of Tendai. He named him So-o which meant "one who serves for others." The legend is that the God, Fudo Myo-o, appeared before So-o by a waterfall. So-o was overwhelmed and jumped into the falls. He collided with a large log which he was able to drag out of the water. He then carved the image of Fudo Myo-o into the log . The temple was then built in this area for the God Fudo Myo-o and named Myo-o-in. So-o was an amazing monk who traveled around using his prayers which could accomplish many things such an curing people from terminal illnesses, difficult child births, demon possessions and much more. He believed in a type of practice where every stone and blade of grass were venerable and all things were seen as a manifestation of Buddha. This meant he worshipped nature with one's entire mind and body. He kept returning to Hiei where he would build another hall to house images of Fudo Myo-o. This became the home base of the Hiei "kaihogyo" monks. To become a monk here, it became a common practice to complete a term of 100, 700, and 1000 days of chanting, visiting stations of worship, and other special experiences where all you needed were your two feet. A gyoja is what one is called when he/she is accomplishing these terms. A gyoja is a "spiritual athlete who practices gyo with a mind set of the Path of Buddha." This is a positive term meaning that one is "moving" along the path of awakening, for both oneself and others. There are many disciplines that are practiced in Hiei but the mountain marathon, called kaihogyo, is the greatest. To become an abbot at Hiei, you must go through a 100-day term of kaihogyo. Kaihogyo is the "practice of circling the mountains" and gives them an appreciation of the respective stations of worship. If you receive permission, then the gyoja is given a special handbook which describes everything they need to know for the marathon. This includes course maps, stations they must visit and pray at, proper prayers and chants, and other important information. The candidate then has one week of training before their term begins. During this first week, the ground is cleared of glass, sharp rocks, sticks and other things that would hurt the feet of the gyoja. A pure white outfit is given to the gyoja to wear. A rope is tied around the waist which holds a knife within the cord of the rope. These two items remind the gyoja that they should take their life by hanging themselves or by using the knife if they can't complete the term. For their feet, 80 pairs of straw sandals are woven together to be used for the 100-day term. In rainy weather, these sandals evaporate within hours so many spares have to be carried. During dry weather, they usually last a few days though. A special all-white hat is also given to the gyoja for the journey. The basic rules of kaihogyo are very important and must be followed. They are: During the run the robe and hat may not be removed.
No deviation from the appointed course.
No stopping for rest of refreshment.
All required services, prayers, and chants must be correctly performed.
No smoking of drinking.
Then the running begins. Each day, the gyoja begins at midnight. They are given a small meal and around 1:30, they start the running of 40 kilometers each day. There are many stations that they must stop by often. They are able to sit only once during the entire course. They return to Hiei between about 7 and 9am where they attend a service, bathe, and eat a midday meal. During the afternoon, they attend more services, rest for an hour and attend to chores. They go to bed around 8 or 9pm and the day begins again at midnight. This is repeated 100 times to finish the first term. Some time in this term, they must perform the kirimawari, which is a 54- kilometer run. A senior marathon monk accompanies the gyoja on this. To accomplish this, they usually lose a whole day of sleep but must just keep right on with their 100-day schedule. These 100 days are very difficult. Their feet and legs begin to throb and often get cuts and infections. Being so cold in Japan, they often get frostbite and very sick during the first weeks of the run. They also experience many problems such an pains in their back and hips, diarrhea and hemorrhoids. By the 70th day, the gyoja has finally “acquired the marathon monk stride: eyes focused about 100 feet ahead while moving along is a steady rhythm, keeping the head level, the shoulders relaxed, the back straight, and the nose and navel aligned. If the gyoja successfully completes the 100-day term, he can petition to try the 1000-day term. This term will take seven years to complete. The first 300 days of this are basic training days where they continue to run for 40 kilometers per day. In the 4th and 5th year, the pace quickens where they run for 200 executive days. After accomplishing this, they are allowed to use a walking stick and where a special tabi hat. After completing the 700th day, the gyoja faces their most difficult feat. They must survive nine days without food, water, sleep, or rest. This period of time is called the doiri. Several weeks before hand, they prepare for this event by limiting themselves to small amounts of food so they will be ready when the time comes. When the doiri period begins, they spend their days reciting chants that they repeat 100,000 times. By the fifth day, they are dehydrated and are allowed to rinse their mouths with water but must spit out every last drop that enters their mouth. They usually go outside and take in the fresh mountain air where they are able to absorb moisture from the rain and dew through their skin. Usually what the gyoja finds most difficult is not the lack of food and water, but keeping awake and keeping the proper posture at all times of the day. The doiri is purposely made to let the gyoja face death. After this period of time, they have come so close to death that they develop a sensitivity to life. They "can hear ashes fall form incense sticks, smell and identify foods from miles away and see the sun and moonlight seep into the interior of the temple." Psychologists who examined the bodies at the end of the seven day period found that the gyojas had many symptoms of a dead person. The gyoja are now able to experience a feeling of transparency. Everything exits their bodies-good, bad, and neutral. One relative of a gyoja remarked, "I always dismissed Buddhism as superstitious nonsense until I saw my brother step out of Myo-o-do after doiri. He was really a living Buddha." It has been reported that the doiri used to last 10 days but almost all the monks died during this period of time. So, they shorted the doiri to seven days. The doiri is also too dangerous to be held during the summer because the bodies were found to rot internally due to all the heat and lack of water in the body. The final year of the 1000-day term consists of two 100-day terms. These consist of daily 84-kilometer runs. They complete the run within 16 to 18 hours and repeat again each day. During this time of visiting stations of worship and running, they also must bless hundreds of people a day along the road. People flock to these gyojas because they are considered special and people feel that many of their abilities can be transferred into the people by being near them. The final 100-day term is much like the first one they did long ago and is usually quickly and easily finished. They are now declared to be a Daigyoman Ajari which is a "Saintly Master of the Highest Practice." 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. Since 1885, there have been 46 of these marathon monks. It is amazing how they accomplish these 1000 days of strenuous activities. They must get by on a minimum of sleep through those years so they learn to be excellent cat-nappers, catching a little sleep while doing things like stopping at stop-lights or other slight moments. While running, they learn to rest sections of their bodies as they run such as their shoulders or arms, etc.
Lung-gom-pa Runners of Tibet
Getting ready for a trail race? Try this for your training:
Seclude yourself in a remote cave for three years.
Spend most of your time practicing breathing exercises and chanting Buddhist mantras. Practice leaping upward from a cross-legged sitting position without using your hands. Repeat ad infinitum.
Return to the world three years later, light as a feather, in a heightened state of consciousness.
Run vast distances. Win races. (Known side effect: By this point in your training, the act of winning will have become meaningless to you).
Such was the training practice of the lung-gom-pa runners of pre-westernized Tibet.
a would-be lung-gom-pa enters the monastery having forsaken all claims to his previous life, including his name. Absolute anonymity is a prerequisite for training. If the initiate is approved, he is sealed inside a simple meditation hermitage for three to nine years. During his time in seclusion, he is allowed no human contact. Food is passed to him through a small opening in the wall. He spends his days meditating, chanting and deep breathing. For physical exercise, he paces his chamber and practices the art of levitating, or "yogic flying" as it is known today. He sits in a cross-legged position, fills his lungs with a deep breath, and then leaps into the air without using his hands. He repeats this exercise over and over again. As time passes, he is able to deeply synthesize his breath and movement.
After the prescribed amount of years has passed, a lung-gom-pa is released from his seclusion. Govinda writes that by this point, the lung-gom-pa "has become so light and subtle ... that he can move with the speed of a galloping horse, while hardly touching the ground." He is now qualified to serve as a "Maheketang." According to an ancient Tibetan legend, a runner must be sent every year to the far corners of the country to collect spiritual demons that haunt the land. Such a runner is called a Maheketang and is selected from the lung-gom-pa runners at Samding or Nyang-to Kyi-phug monasteries. Every year, the Maheketang sets out in November, crossing the central part of Tibet in six weeks. The Maheketang invites the demons to return with him to the monastery where they are subdued with a religious rite.