Going for the Gold, Buddhist Style

In case you hadn’t noticed, the Olympics are in full swing. I thought this might be the perfect time to talk about some Buddhist monks that could put even the most accomplished and medaled Olympian to shame. They’re known as “The Marathon Monks of Mount Hiei.”

That’s also the title of a wonderful book by John Stevens. It’s out of print now, I believe, but a new copy is available on Amazon for only $324.36! I paid $18.95 for my copy, purchased at a used book store some fifteen years ago.

Tendai Marathon Monk

The marathon here is something called kaihogyo (“practice of circling mountains”), a 1,000 day event stretched over the course of seven years, in which the participants run approximately 50 miles per day for 100 days. I’m  pooped out just thinking about it.

This “challenge” has been in existence in one form or another since at least 830 CE, and it’s sponsored by the Tendai sect (the Japanese branch of the defunct T’ien-t’ai school founded by Chih-i), and held at Mount Hiei, the mountain monastery that was once the center of Buddhist learning in Japan, and still home to Tendai today.

Just how monkish these monks actually are, I’m not really sure. In Japan most “monks” are actually priests who can marry and raise families. According to Stevens, all candidates for the Tendai priesthood (both male and female) are required to participate in a sixty-day training period at Gyo-in, the Priest’s Training Hall, and they must do kaihogyo at least one day during this training period. Those who wish to go further are called gyoja (Skt. acarin) “a spiritual athlete who practices (gyo) with a mind set on the Path of Buddha.”

The kaihogyo is considered a form of walking meditation, and it corresponds with the four types of samadhi (meditation) set out by Chih-i in the Mo-ho Chih-kuan: constant sitting, constant walking, half-walking and half-sitting, and neither walking nor sitting.

In this practice the gyoja circumnavigate the “sacred space” of Mount Hiei, following a prescribed course that includes stops at various temple halls and shrines, graves, mountain peaks, trees, rocks, waterfalls, and ponds, where they meditate and recite mantras, particularly the mantra of Fudo Myo-o, a “deity” in esoteric Buddhism who is the central figure in the kaihogyo.

A more detailed description of the marathon is too involved for me to detail in this post. However, you can read more about it at Wikipedia’s article on kaihogyo here. The monks are truly awe-inspiring: they adhere to a vegetarian training diet, engage in a 9 day fast (doiri) of no food, water or sleep, and run on hand-made straw shoes. One of the highlights is the Taiko Mawashi (“Drum Turning’) festival where new gyoja leap from a huge rotating drum made of old katsura wood into a crowd of spectators (Maybe this inspired Springsteen? Nah). At one point the gyoja actually throw themselves off a waterfall, an act that symbolizes the ancient beginnings of the marathon, when the Grand Patriarch So-o (in 859) supposedly leaped into the falls of Katsuragawa to embrace Fudo Myo-o who had suddenly appeared before him.

I engage in a vigorous walking meditation somewhat similar to this myself. Several times a week I circumnavigate my block, and I stop at various locations to do ikitsuku, which means to “rest and catch one’s breath.” My doctor suggested I do 45 minutes of hard walking each day, and I said, “Doc, sometimes it is hard walking.”

I’m joking of course, but seriously,  kaihogyo does sound rather extreme. John Stevens explains the rationale behind it:

Some may condemn this type of severe training as a violation of Sakyamuni’s Middle Way, but such death-defying exercises lie at the heart of Buddhist practice. There would be no doctrine of the Middle Way if Sakyamuni had not nearly fasted to death, subjecting himself to the most rigorous austerities to win enlightenment. Asceticism did not get him enlightenment, but it did lead to his transformation into a Buddha. This is why the emergence of a marathon monk from doiri is compare to Sakyamuni Buddha’s descent from the Himalayas following his Great Awakening.”

In Tendai Buddhism, enlightenment is not something attained in the distant future. An essential  teaching of the school is “original enlightenment” (hongaku shiso) and the “gold” to be captured in the Olympiad or marathon of life is sokushin-jobutsu or “enlightenment with this very body.” In Tendai, the potential for awakening is inherently present within all people and that process is accessible within this present life.

Enryaku-ji, the famous Tendai center of learning

At one time, Tendai was perhaps the most influential of all the Japanese schools. It was from the Tendai tradition that such major branches as Zen, Pure Land, and Nichiren arose. Today, it is little known. The various Nichiren sects rely heavily on Tendai teachings, although they are often filtered through Nichiren’s very dogmatic perspective.  Owing to my experience in that tradition, I feel a connection with the teachings of Chih-i’s T’ien-t’ai and with Japanese Tendai. While the kaihogyo is awesome and Tendai’s affinity with nature admirable, I can’t help but feel that if Tendai today spent more time engaged with the world at large, more people could benefit from exposure to their important teachings.

The mountain itself is a mandala. Practice self-reflection intently amid the undefiled stones, trees, streams, and vegetation, losing yourself in the great body of the Supreme Buddha.”

So-o, quoted in The Marathon Monks of Mount Hiei

Enryaku-ji photo: 663highland


2 thoughts on “Going for the Gold, Buddhist Style

  1. Circling mountains reminds me of the ritual trek Tibetans do around a mountain (can’t recall the name) in relation to the Kalachakra. Does the circumparambulation of mountains predate both the Tendai monks and the Tibetans I wonder.

    1. I can’t recall the name of the Tibetan trek either, but I think the mountain they circumnavigate is Mt. Kailash. I’d be surprised if circling mountains wasn’t a very ancient practice.

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