Japanese marathon monks

Something else I’ve been reading up on the last few days is the Kaihōgyō 回峰行 or circling the mountains meditation challenge that is undertaken by the so-called marathon monks of Mt Hiei, just outside Kyoto.

As part of a 7 year quest, a participating monk runs or walks 1000 marathons in 1000 days:

  • year 1: 30-40km every day for 100 consecutive days
  • year 2: 30-40km every day for 100 consecutive days
  • year 3: 30-40km every day for 100 consecutive days
  • year 4: 30-40km every day for 200 consecutive days
  • year 5: 30-40km every day for 200 consecutive days
  • end of year 5: survive 9 days without food, water or sleep
  • year 6: 60km every day for 100 consecutive days
  • year 7: 85km every day for 100 consecutive days

They don’t just walk along paths in the mountain, they stop off at places of worship too. It was moving to see in the film how people bowed and kneeled along the path of the kaihōgyō in order to be blessed by the monk.

The monks are part of the Tendai school of Buddhism, and only 46 monks have ever completed the challenge. Traditionally after the first 100 days, the monk must either complete the challenge or commit suicide if he fails. In practice, a solid selection process means no one has had to commit suicide for over 100 years. Upon successful completion, the monk achieves the revered status of living Buddha and become celebrities.

They don’t walk or run with the type of gear used by modern day runners. Their shoes are handmade from straw and they wear their white monk’s habit. What’s most amazing, as writer and runner Adharanand Finn discovered when he met one of the monks and tells a story of someone meeting a marathon monk on the last day of his challenge, expecting to see his feet all swollen and sore.

“But they were smooth and clean,” she says. “As though he had been floating over the ground.”

bookmarathonmonk

The term marathon monk was coined by John Stevens in his book of the same name. Himself a marathon monk, with 35 years experience living in Japan and an expert in aikido, this is a book I’d love to read.

The reader will learn about the monks’ death-defying fasts, their vegetarian training diet, their handmade straw running shoes, and feats of endurance such as their ceremonial leap into a waterfall

Perhaps not to buy. I don’t think the library has it, it’s a shame.