The marathon monks of Mount Hiei: Lessons in soulfulness

There are some people who are simply extraordinary. People who set goals so ambitious, so audacious that they give over their lives in devotion to a higher cause. These people should act as role models to the rest of use, using their search as an example of what we can all do, should we just turn our minds to it. 


38400 kilometres on the path to enlightenment

One of the most extreme versions of this is found with the Tendai monks, a sect of Buddhism based in the mountains outside of Kyoto. The order practices kaihōgyōliterally translated as ‘circling the mountain’. This is an ancient tradition based around the idea of offering your body to the Buddha in hope of reaching enlightenment in this life.


Every morning for 100 days, aspirants set out to run and walk 30km up and down the surrounding mountains, paying their devotion at shrines scattered throughout the countryside. On the morning of the 101st day, comes a choice: either stop and become one of the order, or keep on this course and keep running, on a 1000-day, 38,400 km path to enlightenment.  


This is done over the course of seven years, in 100-day segments. During the off days, they meditate, learn calligraphy and perform their ordinary temple duties. Beyond a prescribed route and the chants and prayers they must offer at each shrine, there are other rules: no stopping for drinks and refreshments, no removing of the robe, hat and straw sandals they wear, and stopping to sit only once a day. As an additional challenge, the man that steps out to run on that  101st day has taken an oath that he is now a seeker – and must take his own life if he fails to reach his goal. It is a small wonder that only 46 monks have ever completed the full 1000 days.


Despite the hardship, the reward is worth it to those that persevere. Completing kaihōgyō – and surviving the nine day abstention from food, water and sleep that follows it, not to be outdone – is to become a living Buddha, to be considered a saint during your own life. In pushing their bodies and minds to the very brink of what humans beings are capable of, it is considered that these monks have touched upon the entire gamut of the human experience. Through these extremes of physical fitness, mental toughness and spiritual dedication, they have given themselves body, mind and soul to their devotion.


Lessons from the ‘marathon monks’

Though there are very few of us who will come away from the story of kaihōgyō emboldened to run 38400 kilometres, there are some very concrete lessons that we can take from the Tendai monks’ story. They are an incredible example of the beauty of endeavor, a vision of what we can do if we can only set our minds to it. So how can we harness the power of the monks in our own lives?



Balancing mind, body and soul


Practicing presence

A large part of a Tendai monk’s life is spent simply running – and with it, naturally comes lots of time to reflect. Practice taking time to be still and allow your mind to lightly follow any path it chooses to go down.


Help yourself to help others

The kaihōgyō is naturally divided into two stages. The first 700 days are devoted to the self, while the final 300 are devoted to those around you. The intention in this is to become more grounded in your self before you can teach those around you – a lesson that resonates even in our daily lives.


Setting lofty goals

1000 days – or even 100 – is an almost incomprehensible amount of time. Taken day by day, it might seem like just a lot of pain and exertion, but by cultivating extreme mental toughness, the monks are able to make it through. Look to them as your inspiration when setting goals of your own. They may seem far away, but with every small step you’re making progress towards them.


Living by your values

The 1000-day aspirants are literally so tied to their quest that they have pledged to die for it, if they cannot complete it. (In recent years, this has been reduced to a symbolic death. Surely we can, in a lesser way, commit to the causes we love. Take this as a wake-up call to speak up for what you believe in, or take action for the things you know to be right.