Marathon Monks of Mt Hiei is a compelling documentary that captures the final leg of Tendai Buddhist monk Tanno Kakudo’s 1000 day kaihogyo. The documentary is based on a book written by John Stevens also titled Marathon Monks of Mt Hiei. Here is some information from John Stevens’ book that will help bring the documentary into perspective:
The marathon monks of Mt Hiei are a small group of monks within the Tendai sect. The Hiei marathon monks are called kaihogyo monks, which literally means “practice of circling mountains.” The practice of kaihogyo has a long history, beginning in the 9th century CE with a boy named So-o, who arrived at fifteen years of age to the Tendai Buddhists of Hiei. He encountered, or met, God Fudo Myo-o and spent his life building halls in Hiei to house Fudo Myo-o images. The hall throughout Mt Hiei became part of the Hiei monk’s kaihogyo, completing long terms of walking to these sites to pray and chant.
Becoming a monk at Mt Hiei requires at least an 100 day term, then one must ask for permission to complete the remaining 900 days. This 1,000 day trek takes over 7 years, over which the monks walk 27,000 miles (longer than the circumference of the earth, which is 24,900 miles). Those who choose to participate in this task are called gyoja, or “spiritual athletes.” They don white garments and carry a knife and rope to kill themselves if they cannot complete the distances.
There are rules for the kaihogyo:
1) During the run you must not remove robe or hat
2) One must not deviate from course
3) There is no stopping for rest or refreshment
4) There is no smoking or drinking
The terms are divided into 3:
Term 1: 100 days
80 pairs of sandals are provided, 40km/day walking or running, a special white hat is worn.
Term 2: 700 days
First 300 days are still 40km/day, but in the fourth and fifth years you must complete 200 consecutive days. Following this 200, you receive a walking stick and special tabi hat (this is where the movie picks up). In addition, you must complete the grueling doiri (a 7-9 day fast without food, water, or sleep, which used to be done for 10 days in summer but was discontinued after all of the participants died from their bodies rotting from the inside). This exercise is meant for the gyojo to meet death.
Term 3: Two 100 day terms. 84 km runs daily.
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