The Marathon Monks of Mount Hiei

These spiritual athletes redefine the term “ultrarunner.”

It is March. It is midnight. Snow still covers the trails of Mount Hiei, which lies just northeast of the ancient city of Kyoto, in central Japan. Kakudo Suzuki, an aspiring Japanese Buddhist spiritual athlete or gyoja, attends an hour-long service in the Buddha Hall. He sips a bowl of miso soup and chews on a couple of rice balls. Then he dresses. His outfit is pure white — the color of death — the same thing he would be dressed in at his own funeral. It is cotton and consists of a short kimono undershirt, pants, hand and leg covers, a long outer robe and a priest’s outer vestment.

He wraps a white "cord of death‚" around his waist with a sheathed knife tucked inside. Tendai Buddhist tradition dictates that if Kakudo does not complete his prescribed marathon runs and walks, and all the accompanying tasks, he must take his own life by either hanging or disemboweling himself. He also carries a small bag that holds his secret holy book, which will guide him on his journey and help him remember the 250 prayer stops to make along his 18-mile trip around Mount Hiei. Some of those stops will be to honor monks of the past who did not make it and died by suicide. Kakudo also carries candles, matches, a small bag of food offerings to the deities, and a rosary.

Mount Hiei has five main peaks, the highest being O-bie-dake at 2782 feet. It is a lush landscape of rain, high humidity and winter snows. The mountain is located in temperate western Japan, but the combination of relatively high altitude, trees that block out the sunlight and frigid air masses that move in from Siberia turns Mount Hiei into the "frozen peak" during the cold months. The mountain is a wildlife preserve full of forest animals — fox, rabbit, deer, badger, bear, boar, and the famous Hiei monkey.

Kakudo puts a pair of handmade straw sandals on his bare feet, and carries a couple of spare pairs. He also carries a straw raincoat and paper lantern. In stormy weather, the rain destroys the sandals in a couple of hours, extinguishes the lanterns, washes out the routes and soaks the spiritual trail runner to the bone.

Kakudo is one of the Marathon Monks of Mount Hiei, and this will be only the first of 100 successive nights that he will get up at midnight, attend the service and start his marathon run/walk (kaihogyo) around Mount Hiei, completing the route between 7:30 and 9:30 a.m. He will then attend an hour-long service, followed by bathing and the midday meal. After lunch, Kakudo will rest, then attend to temple chores. The last meal is taken around 6 p.m., and Kakudo gets to sleep around 8 or 9. The only variation in the 100-day ordeal will be a special 33-mile run through Kyoto, robbing him of one night’s sleep altogether.

During the route, Kakudo will sit down only once — beneath a giant sacred cedar for two minutes — to pray for the protection of the imperial family. After a first run with a master, Kakudo will be on his own. He may suffer cuts, sprains, stone bruises and punctures to his feet and ankles. He may run a fever, experience back and hip pain, develop hemorrhoids and diarrhea, suffer from frostbite, dehydration and hunger. But by about the 30th day, according to predecessors’ accounts, his discomfort will lessen as his body adapts to the pain and strain. By the 70th day he is run/walking with a smooth gait, head and shoulders erect, back straight, nose and navel aligned. He will continually chant mantras to the god, Fudo Myo-o. His spiritual goal is to become completely absorbed in the mountain and its surroundings, so that the pain and discomfort of the physical ritual will not be noticed, or at least be ignored. Kakudo hopes to achieve a state of Enlightenment– the pure spiritual joy of feeling one with the universe. As rugged as it appears, however, this test is merely a warmup in the ultimate spiritual quest of the Marathon Monks — the complete process entails seven more years and becomes progressively and unfathomably more difficult.

It is not clear exactly how these spiritual mountain marathons began, but records show that Chinese and Indian Buddhist texts of the eighth century stated that, "Mountain pilgrimages on sacred peaks is the best of practices." From about 830 to 1130, pilgrimages took place to mounts Hira, Kimpu and Hiei. Kaihogyo‚ as the rituals are known today, evolved from 1310 to the present.

Since 1885, 46 marathon monks have completed the 1000-day journey — an ordeal that is an option for the gyoja who passes the 100-day test. Two monks completed two full terms; another died by suicide on his 2500th day, trying to complete three terms. The majority of monks who complete these odysseys have been in their 30s. The oldest completed his 2000th day when he was 61 years old. The number of monks who actually died or committed suicide along the path is not known, but the route on Mount Hiei is lined with many unmarked gyojagraves.

When he finishes the 100 days, Kakudo can petition Hiei Headquarters to be allowed to undertake the 1000-day spiritual challenge (sennichi kaihogyo). If his petition is accepted, he must free himself from all family ties and observe a seven-year retreat on Mount Hiei. Kakudo will then commit himself to 900 more marathons over a seven-year period. The first 300 are 18- to 25-mile runs undertaken 100 days in a row, from the end of March to mid-October over three years. Starting in the fourth year, Kakudo will be allowed to wear socks with the sandals. During the fourth and fifth years, he will run 200 consecutive marathons each year and will be allowed to carry a walking stick. At the completion of the 700th marathon, Kakudo will face the greatest trial of all, called doiri — seven and half days without food, water or sleep, sitting in an upright position and chanting mantras day and night. If he lives through this trial, which brings him to the brink of death and therefore to the ultimate appreciation of life, he will have attained the Buddhist level of Saintly Master of the Severe Practice (ogyoman jari)

Doiri begins several weeks prior to the actual fast. Kakudo will taper down his food and water intake to prepare himself for this near-death experience, eating simple meals of noodles, potatoes and soup up to the time of his fast. But hunger is the least of the suffering. Thirst, lack of sleep and the agony of sitting upright are much greater challenges. Working in 24-hour shifts, two fellow monks will attend to make sure Kakudo stays erect and awake. By the fifth day, Kakudo will be so dehydrated, he will taste blood. He will be able to rinse his mouth out but cannot swallow any water. Defecation stops by the third or fourth day, but urination continues — if ever so slightly — right up to the end. Kakudo’s only respite from the sitting position will be the 2 a.m. trip to the holy well to draw water and offer it to Fudo Myo-o — the principal godhead the marathon monks come to embody. The principle of Fudo Myo-o is that you must let nothing deter you from the appointed task. It takes Kakudo about 15 minutes to walk to the well on the first night. On the last day, the trip will take him over an hour, aided by his fellow monks. Doiri is no longer undertaken during the hot, humid summer months because dehydration causes permanent damage to the monks’ internal organs. Two monks perished this way.

According to what predecessors have experienced, Kakudo may become so sensitive to life that he will feel himself absorbing mist through his pores, hear ashes falling from incense sticks and smell food being prepared miles away. He will feel transparent, and experience existence in a state of crystal clarity. He will lose one quarter of his body weight.

Following the "700 hundred days of moving and the seven and a half days of stillness," the next stage towards Enlightenment is the Sekisan Marathon (sekisan kugyo), which takes place the sixth year and consists of 100 consecutive days of 37.5 mile run/walks that require 14 to 15 hours to complete. The seventh and final year, Kakudo will run two 100-day terms. The first 100 days — considered by some to be the ultimate athletic challenge — consists of a daily 52.5 mile run/walk through Kyoto. That’s two Olympic marathons a day — for 100 days in a row!

An attendant will carry a folding chair for Kakudo to sit on at traffic lights and other obstructions. He will have learned to catch a few seconds of sleep at these stops. A monk saying goes: "Ten minutes of sleep for a marathon monk is worth five hours of ordinary rest." Kakudo will actually get about two hours sleep in each 24 hours. While on his double marathons, he will bless followers along the route in Kyoto, pausing to touch their heads with his rosary. He will consume only 1450 calories a day. Physiologists says he should lose 15 to 20 pounds each month — but Kakudo will maintain his weight and stamina. How can he do this? Nobody knows for sure.

The final 100-day marathon test, during the seventh year, comes easily for Kakudo considering what he has been through. He will finish off his 1000-day odyssey with 18-mile daily runs. When he takes his final steps up to the temple on Mount Hiei, he will have traveled — on foot between 24,000 and 27,000 miles — a distance equal to one trip around the equator.

Finally, Kakudo will undertake the prayer, fast and fire ceremony (jumanmai diagoma). He will live on root vegetables, boiled pine needles, nuts and water. This fast dries him out, almost mummifying him, in order to keep him from perspiring excessively during the fire ceremony, when he will sit before a roaring blaze, casting patrons’ prayer sticks onto the flames, and chanting 100,000 mantras to Fudo Myo-o. This fire ceremony is one day shorter than doiri, and allows Kakudo some sitting-up sleep. Some monks have felt that this exercise is the greatest trial of all, greater than doiri.

How can the human body endure such trials? For 20 years, I worked as a trainer in Desert and Mountain Survival tactics for U.S. Military Special Warfare Groups (U.S. Navy SEALs, Army Delta Force and Special Forces), evaluating their physical and psychological adaptations to desert and mountain heat, cold, fatigue, hunger and sleep deprivation. The testing involved simulated worse-case scenarios where teams were separated from their gear and had to adapt to the rigors of the landscape and weather with what they had in their pockets — with aggressor forces searching for them. That experience taught me that it was simply mental determination — athletic ability, size or physical strength attributes counted for little — that separated the "survivors" from the "non-survivors." As Scott Jurek has said (see Trail Runner No. 17): "When it comes down to it on race day, it’s a matter of who wants it more and who’s ready to work for it." Mental stamina is what determines top finishers.

What can trail runners learn from the Marathon Monks? We can try to emulate their positive attitudes toward adversity and awareness principles to push us into a more spiritual realm. That means opening our senses to the sights, sounds and smells of the surrounding environment. It does not mean coming in first or running the longest. We can enjoy another dimension — one of pure joy in the moment. We don’t need the special blessings of the athletically gifted. We don’t need to feel we must compete or race the clock. It means we can simply enjoy the experience, and learn to flow with the natural world.

In his book, The Marathon Monks of Mount Hiei, John Stevens sums up the greatest contributions of these spiritual adventurers: "The most admirable thing about the Hiei gyoja is their warmth, open-heartedness and humanity … Facing death over and over, the marathon monks become alive to each moment, full of gratitude, joy and grace. … [they] have much to teach us …: always aim for the ultimate, never look back, be mindful of others at all times, and keep the mind forever set on the Way."

Dave Ganci, the Rogue Senior, trains Navy and Army Special Warfare troops on desert survival. He describes himself as "a middle-aged desert rat whose skin is hard and wrinkled from too much time running, climbing, and drinking cheap beer under the sun."