THE MARATHON MONKS OF MT. HIEI
Updated: Oct 12, 2020
Photo by Gerald Forster
“It is only when a man is completely determined to achieve something that he can realize his inner power.”
- Shinsho Utsumi
(Tendai Abbot and Marathon Monk)
I first learned of the Marathon Monks of Mt. Hiei from my teacher, Shinzen Young, while sitting in the zendo during one of his Dharma talks on retreat
Shinzen shared the memorable experience of meeting a Marathon Monk while he himself was practicing as a Shingon monastic during his three years on Mt. Koya, in rural Japan. The tales he told of these legendary men were so extraordinary they are hard to even believe.
They are true.
The Marathon Monks are select individuals from the Tendai sect of Buddhism, stationed northeast of Kyoto at a monastery on Mt. Hiei. What sets them apart is Kaihogyo, “The Thousand Walks,” a tradition that has been alive for over one thousand years. Over the course of a seven year period, a Marathon Monk vows to complete 1000 marathons.
The commitment to become a Marathon Monk is freely chosen, and the stakes are very high.
During his seven year commitment, a Marathon Monk carries a rope and a knife. Not to defend himself as he travels alone through the woods before dawn, but because
should he fail, for any reason whatsoever, this very rope and knife will become the implements of his ritual suicide.
The foothills of Mt Hiei are littered with the unmarked graves of Tendai monks who have failed to complete the thousand walks, but did honor their commitment to take their own life.
Each of the thousand marathons is a long pilgrimage to Mt. Hiei’s two hundred and seventy sacred sites.
Tanno Ajaro is a Marathon Monk in training. Rising at 2am, he begins his journey. Dressed in white funeral robes to remind him that he is already dead, wearing sandals made for him by devoted peasant farmers, and walking briskly in formal meditation practice (known as hoko-zen) he endures spinal contortion, blown knees, busted toes, and crippling physical pain. He’s been doing this for years. Day in and day out.
His wise elder, the Abbot of the Tendai sect says, “Pain does not matter. It is only a symptom of effort. The first and the last day of the 1000 days walk are exactly the same. The beginning is the end, and the end is the beginning. Your only aim must be to achieve your purpose.”
Tanno endured the first three years, which he says were the hardest. A constantly aching body, no sleep, and near constant diarrhea were not enough to stop his resolve. Once, he says, the pain was so severe he had to walk backwards.
In addition to the physical trauma, we can only imagine what pain and darkness he surely encountered in the recesses of his own mind.
After year five, having walked the first seven hundred marathons, Tanno completed what is known in Tendai as The Great Fast.
Tanno has relentlessly pushed his body, mind and spirit for half a decade. Now, as part of Kaihogyo tradition, he will go nine days without food, water, or sleep.
(Again, this tradition has stood unbroken for over a thousand years.)
Medical science estimates that after seven days without food or water the metabolism will fail completely resulting in death. Tanno has nine days, minus sleep. No doubt, he will directly confront his mortality.
The Great Fast begins with a funeral feast. It’s Tanno’s funeral. He sits in the dining hall, to the left of his elders who have formerly completed Kaihogyo, surrounded by Tendai monks who are feasting upon delicious food. Tanno maintains his practice.
He does not eat, or drink.
After the funeral feast, Tanno is sealed in a shrine for nine days and nights where he maintains wakefulness by continuously chanting one hundred thousand mantras.
Every evening he leaves the shrine, surrounded by other monastics and devotees, to gather holy water from a nearby spring and make an offering to the Buddha.
On the first evening this walk takes him twelve minutes. On the fifth night, forty minutes.
On the ninth and final night, having lost a quarter of his body weight, barely able to walk or even think, this short walk takes him one hour and twenty minutes.
He is emaciated, never closer to death.
Having survived The Great Fast, Tanno is given three weeks to recover. Then, by the end of his sixth year, he will complete one hundred 35 mile marathons.
For his seventh and final year, Tanno will embark on one hundred consecutive 52 mile marathons. Each takes eighteen hours to complete. He gets an average of two hours of sleep per night.
Asked how he endures such hardship, Tanno, smiling, says “To outsiders it seems to be about pain and suffering, but I feel great joy and satisfaction. Everyday I return feeling alive and well.”
People from all over Japan gather to watch Tanno complete his thousandth and final marathon. Devotees believe him to now be a living Buddha, and so they feel a blessing from him will heal them.
Tanno walks his path, as he has nine hundred and ninety nine times before, in deep meditation.
Arriving at the monastery, now immortalized as a Marathon Monk, the Abbot tells him: his journey begins now.
Tanno and the Marathon Monks show us what a man is capable of enduring when he is fully committed to fulfilling his purpose. They show us what resolve really is, what strength of spirit truly means. They show us what a man committed to his purpose is capable of enduring.
Do not dare fall into the trap of believing Tanno has something inside of him that does not also live inside of you - if you’re willing to dig deep enough to find it.
Draw inspiration from Tanno and these great spiritual warriors and get clear on your reason for being.
Relentlessly nourish your resolve every moment of every day. Focus your mind upon the task at hand. Strive to move forward, always.
Go forth and persevere in spite of all obstacles.
Live your marathon, and complete the task.