The Challenging Life of Mt. Hiei’s Marathon Monks

  • Somewhere in the mountains of Kyoto live the marathon monks. These monks seek enlightenment by running 1,000 marathons in 1,000 days. Though it is very rare for a monk to embark such kind of challenge, those who succeed are regarded with respect as living Buddhas.


    Who are the Marathon Monks?


    The term “Marathon Monks” was been coined by John Stevens who wrote a book about the monks. These are monks from the Tendai School of Buddhism and reside on Japan’s Mt. Hiei. They are known for their spiritual athleticism. Their only quest is to serve Buddha in various forms of duties. They can only achieve this through the process of selfless sacrifice and devotion. This desire is ultimately expressed in “kaihogyo” or the 1,000 days of marathon running.

    The Marathon

    Kaihogyo takes 7 years to complete. In the first 300 days of the pilgrimage, the monk will have to run 40 km each day. Literally, a marathon a day for the whole year! However, in the 4th to 5th year, he will only be running for 200 consecutive days. In the 6th year, he will run a distance of 60 km for 100 days. The final year is the toughest for the monk, as he will run double the length (84 km) for 100 consecutive days.

    The monks need to wear a pure white robe and straw sandals which makes it difficult for them to walk through paved mountains. In the first few years, they are not allowed to wear any socks for protection. The training goes side by side with a diet of vegetables, tofu and miso soup. He has a rope belt tied around his waist with a knife. This is a strict reminder that should he fail to finish the challenge, he should hang himself with the rope and disembowel himself with the knife.

    In Modern Times


    Very few of the abbots of Mt. Hiei have achieved kaihogyo. So far, only 46 men have completed the challenge since 1885. It is an ardent task to do as one has to combine the marathon with meditation and calligraphy. It is considered to be the most demanding physical and mental challenge in the world!

    For the Tendai sect, the marathon is something that will exhaust every part of your body until nothing is left. Fulfilling the marathon will fill the empty space left behind which gives you a sense of oneness with the universe.

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