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27,000 Miles to Buddhahood

The Tendai Monks of Mount Hiei take
the ultramarathon to a whole new level
by Pete Bampton

The path of a marathon monk is never-ending.

Tendai Saying

MILE 20. But I don't cruise by this mile marker with the same breezy elation as the others I have passed. Another six miles to go? Crikey, I don't know if I can make it! It feels like an unbearable, interminable prospect. I am in trouble. My new British-made state-of-the-art running shoes are turning out not to be a very good fit. What on earth was it that possessed me to buy British, I wonder, as I am overtaken by a fellow countryman wearing Union Jack shorts and a pair of Nikes. My left big toe is crushed under a fold in the leather upper and feels like it is bleeding profusely. It throbs more and more painfully as I pound the asphalt up an on-ramp, which looms before me like a mountain . . . I gaze at the surroundings to try and distract my attention. Ominous tower blocks, barricaded storefronts, and sky the color of wet sugar and cement. I'm in the Bronx now, and the roaring crowds that fueled my heroic ascent up Manhattan's First Avenue have thinned out. And so have the runners. We aren't buoyed by each other's slipstream and spirit anymore. It's every man and woman alone with him- or herself grinding through “the wall,” confronting the concerted rebellion of mind and body head-on. A pall of lonesome desperation descends upon me as I listen to the sound of my heavy feet echoing among the oppressive brownstone tenements. Then it starts to rain. The first few splatters are gently refreshing, like manna dropping from heaven, but it soon turns into a torrential downpour of Biblical proportions. Before long, I am soaked to the bone, my aching feet sloshing through streams of water. Our roadside supporters run for cover or batten down beneath umbrellas. No more smiling kids slapping high fives or offering bananas. And no mile marker on the horizon.

No mile marker . . . Where the heck is mile 21? Surely I must have passed it by now? I'm breaking up and my mind has gotten a foothold. This is hell. You're crazy! You hate this. Why, why, why are you doing this? I approach the next water station, and as I slow down to reach for a bottle in the pelting rain, I almost grind to a halt. All the momentum of mind and body coaxes me to stop: You're injured; it's dangerous to carry on. There'll always be next year . . . Suddenly I realize if I don't snap free of these voices, I'll be dead in the water—literally. I pull up my head and focus my inner antennae beyond the grey smudge of the Harlem skyline. Over there is the finish line in Central Park. A surge of energy arises from nowhere, and I see the next marker just ahead. Mile 21. I splash by with determined elation, riding above the pain in my toes. The rain begins to taper off a little and I speed up a notch. I'm going to beat my previous time, I think to myself. And I do. About forty minutes later I am euphoric as I cross the finish line. I've shaved off fifteen minutes!

The ordeal of this marathon proved once again to be a graphic illustration of the fact that going beyond self-imposed limitations of mind and body could open up hitherto unknown potentials. This was fortifying inspiration for any aspiring spiritual warrior, to be sure. But that was about as far as I had taken it. When I learned about a sect of Tendai Buddhists in Japan known as the Marathon Monks of Mount Hiei, however, I found out that they had taken it, well, quite a bit further. Their lofty goal was nothing less than Buddhahood in this life through the purifying practice of multiple marathons! I was intrigued, to say the least. And as I pursued my investigation further, I soon discovered something remarkable beyond belief, a phenomenon that takes the term “ultramarathon” to a whole new level.

The “One-Thousand-Day Mountain Marathon,” as described in John Stevens's book The Marathon Monks of Mount Hiei and in Christopher Hayden's documentary film of the same name, was initiated in the ninth century by So-o, the Grand Patriarch of Tendai Buddhism. After hearing the legend of “Priest Big Shoes,” a revered walking monk in China, So-o had a dream that instructed him to follow in the legendary monk's footsteps. All of the pilgrimage sites on Mount Hiei are sacred, the voice informed him. Visit them often. And he did. Very often. But in the eleven centuries since So-o first set off up the mountain, few have endeavored to follow in his footsteps. It is only very rare individuals within the Tendai ranks who dare to undertake this formidable challenge. In fact, there have only been forty-six “marathon monks” since 1885. The Great Marathon is revered as the ultimate in austere practices. If you are curious to know why, then let me take you on a journey . . .

Picture this. You awake at midnight. It's the middle of winter. Very cold. You attend an hour-long service in the frigid Buddha Hall, sip on some miso soup, and chomp on a few rice balls. Then you dress in a white vestment—the same garment you would be dressed in at your own funeral. You wrap the “cord of death” around your waist and tuck a sheathed knife inside. Why the cord and the knife? Tradition dictates that if you do not complete your prescribed cycle of marathons, you must commit suicide by hanging or self-disembowelment! You gather candles, food offerings, and a rosary for the 250 prayer stops you will make on your eighteen-mile marathon around Mount Hiei (some of which will be at unmarked graves to honor monks who died by suicide). You put your handmade straw sandals on your bare feet, and take a couple of spare pairs along in case they are destroyed by rain or wear and tear (sometimes you go through five pairs in one trip). Then, you pick up your paper lantern and head out into the icy night for the snowy trails of Mount Hiei.

Your running style dates back over a thousand years, and is poised somehow between walking and running. “Eyes focused about 100 feet ahead while moving in a steady rhythm, keeping the head level, the shoulders relaxed, the back straight, and the nose and navel aligned.” You harmonize your pace and breathing with the inner drone of a mantra that you chant continuously. As you gain experience, you flow through the course, maintaining the same speed for climbing up and going downhill.

So this is the first of one hundred successive very early mornings on which you will set off for your marathon, finishing between 7:30 and 9:30 AM. Sound grueling? Well, you're just getting started. This is just a warm-up! Once you finish your hundred days, you are qualified to apply for the real deal—the full One-Thousand-Day Mountain Marathon of Hiei. If accepted, you will commit to a seven-year retreat, which will consist of nine hundred more marathons! The first three hundred will be undertaken over three years, one hundred days in a row, at some point between March and mid-October. From your fourth year, you will have earned the privilege of wearing socks and be allowed to carry a walking stick. However, along with these added luxuries, the stakes are upped considerably—you will now complete two hundred consecutive marathons each year!

If one were to liken the One-Thousand-Day Mountain Marathon to a mere twenty-six-mile marathon in New York City, then on completion of your seven hundredth marathon (at the end of five years), you are approaching mile 18. As you run up Manhattan's First Avenue toward the Bronx, you are about to hit that unpredictable twilight zone respectfully known among marathoners as “the wall.” In a regular marathon, this is where you face down the devil as your body and mind start giving out and insisting that you stop! You may at times feel like you are going to die, but the only recourse is to keep going no matter what. In the One-Thousand-Day Marathon however, “the wall” is a literal confrontation with death known as doiri. You do stop moving, but not for a nice cup of tea and a sit-down. Rather, you go into a nine-day retreat that consists of seven and a half days without food or water or sleep (it's been reduced from the original ten days because a few too many monks before you died during the last day). You sit in a full lotus posture and chant mantras day and night. If you live through this forbidding trial, which is designed to bring you to the very edge of your mortality and plunge you into a resplendent vision of the Ultimate, then you will have attained the title of Togyoman Ajari, or “Saintly Master of the Severe Practice.”

Hunger will be the least of your agonies. By the fifth day, you will be so dehydrated that you will taste blood. But at least you will be allowed to wash your mouth out with water, even if you can't drink it. Two devoted novices will make sure that you stay erect and awake. Your only break from the sitting position during this ordeal will be the 2 AM pilgrimage to the Holy Well. You will draw water, which you will then offer to Fudo Myo-o, the Unshakable King of All Light, a deity whose awesome energy you aspire to embody. This walk will take about fifteen minutes on the first night. On the last night, it will take you roughly an hour and a half, moving at a snail's pace across the stone floor, assisted by the novices. According to the marathon monks who have preceded you, you will find yourself in an extraordinarily rarefied, crystalline state of consciousness. You will feel yourself absorbing mist through the pores of your skin, hear ashes falling from incense sticks, and smell food being prepared in dwellings far away. You will probably lose about a quarter of your body weight.

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This article is from
Our Collective Intelligence Issue


May–July 2004