Mystery and Excellence on The Human Body - Marathon Monks

Marathon Monks

A marathon monk salutes a sacred tree

Marathon Monks

Marathon Monks

Marathon Monks

It may well be that the greatest athletes today are not the stars of professional sports, nor the Olympic champions, nor the top triathlon competitors, but the marathon monks of Japan's Mount Hiei. The amazing feats and the incredible endurance of these "Running Buddhas" are likely unrivalled in the annals of athletic endeavour. And the prize they seek to capture consists not of such trifles as a pot of gold or a few fleeting moments of glory, but enlightenment in the here and now — the greatest thing a human being can achieve.

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.

— Attributed to So-o

The fascinating story of the marathon monks, perhaps history's greatest athletes, begins with the birth of the Grand Patriarch So-o in 831. From an early age the boy refused to eat meat or fish and displayed scant interest in the toys and bubbles that attract other children. At age fifteen he ascended Hiei and two years later received preliminary ordination. The young postulant lived simply in a tiny hut until he caught the attention of the abbot Ennin. Over the years, Ennin had noticed a young monk visiting the main temple every day, rain or shine, summer and winter, to offer incense and wild mountain flowers before Saicho's image of Yakushi Nyorai. Impressed by the monk's sincerity, the abbot offered to sponsor him as one of the Tendai sect's official government ordinands, but the monk suggested another trainee who spent hours and hours doing prostrations in the main hall.

Two years later an aristocratic candidate for the position of government ordinand decided to remain a layman and consequently asked

Marathon Monks

Marathon Monks

Ennin to choose someone worthy to serve in his stead. The abbot  selected the young pilgrim monk, giving him the name So-o, "one who  serves for others".

Ennin initiated So-o into the Tantric mysteries of Tendai and also  described the great mountain pilgrimages of Chinese Buddhism....

Later in a dream, So-o heard a voice telling him: "All the peaks on  this mountain are sacred. Make pilgrimages to its holy places following  the instructions of the mountain gods. Train hard like this each and  every day. This is the practice of Never-Despise-Bodhisattva. Your sole  practice is to be the veneration of all things; through it you will realize  the True Dharma."...

Following his formal ordination in 856, the twenty-five-year-old  priest built a hermitage in what became known as Mudo-Ji Valley. In 859,  So-o hid himself in remote Katsuragawa Valley in the Hira mountain  range for a thousand days of austerities. Vouchsafed a vision of Fugen  Bosatsu (Samantabhadra) one night, So-o was thereafter blessed with  immediate intuitive understanding of the sutras. Later, after a period of  particularly intense meditation, Fudo Myo-o appeared before So-o in the  Katsuragawa waterfall. Overcome, So-o leaped into the falls to embrace  the deity. Instead he collided with a large log, which he then dragged out  and carved into the image of Fudo he had just seen. The image was  enshrined, and the temple built around it was named Myo-o-in.

Upon completing his retreat in Katsuragawa, So-o returned to Hiei  and constructed a hall to house another image of Fudo Myo-o. This hall,  called Myo-o-do, became the home base of Hiei kaihogyo monks. So-o  also established the Veneration of the Names of the Three Thousand  Buddhas Practice. From December 31 to January 3 the names of the  three thousand Buddhas are copied individually, accompanied by prostrations and chants.

In the tenth month of 918, So-o sequestered himself in Myo-o-do,  offered incense and flowers to the image of Fudo Myo-o, sat facing the  west, and serenely repeated the name of Amida Buddha as he entered  eternal meditation. Upon his passing, it is said, the entire mountain  peak was flooded with celestial music. So-o is venerated as the father  of Tendai Shugendo, "the mountain religion of practice and enlightened experience."

So-o's successor, Hengo, further developed Myo-o-do and Katsuragawa as centres of kaihogyo. Hengo is traditionally believed to have done

Marathon Monks

Marathon Monks

kaihogyo for 3,600 days, representing ten years of continuous pilgrim age....

Kaihogyo as it is known today was largely developed in the third  stage, from 1310 until the destruction of Hiei by Nobunaga in 1571.  The manner of dress, the basic routes, and other procedures were codified in this period. A work called The Story of Wandering Saints, com posed in 1387, describes the kaihogyo of that era as consisting of a 40 kilometre (25-mile) course. The full term was 700 days with two nine day retreats each year at Katsuragawa Valley. Upon completion of the  700th day, there was a nine-day fast at Myo-o-do, the same as today.

Kaihogyo monks were the first to resettle on Hiei — after all, the  only thing they needed for practice was their two feet — with the monk  Koun completing a 1,000-day term in 1583. Formal permission to  rebuild Hiei was granted in 1585, and since then kaihogyo monks have  served as the mainstay core masters of Tendai Buddhism.

The Path of the Spiritual Athlete

... Of all the disciplines practiced on Hiei, the mountain marathon —  kaihogyo — has had the greatest appeal over the centuries, for it  encompasses the entire spectrum of Tendai Buddhism — meditation,  esotericism, precepts, devotion, nature worship, and work for the salvation of sentient beings.

In principle, all Tendai priests and nuns must do kaihogyo at least  one day during their training at Gyo-in. Men who wish to become  abbots of one of the subtemples on Hiei frequently opt for a 100-day  term of kaihogyo. The requirements for the 100-day term are: to be a  Tendai ordinand in good standing, sponsorship by a senior Tendai cleric, and permission of the Council of Elder Gyoja.

If permission is granted, there is one week of preparatory training  (maegyo) before the term begins.. The candidate is given a secret hand book (tebumi) to copy which gives directions for the course, describes  the stations to visit, lists the proper prayers and chants, and contains  other essential information. Because this handwritten manual is often  damaged by rain and constant handling, the gyoja*  makes two copies.

Also during this week, all the marathon monks of that particular  term clear the route of debris, especially glass, sharp rocks, sticks, and


* Gyoja (Skt. aachaarin). One who undergoes strict Buddhist training

Marathon Monks

Marathon Monks

branches, and piles of leaves in which vipers like to hide. While the  new gyoja are rather lax about such clearing of the path, the senior  marathon monks — who know what it is like to have their feet slashed  or punctured by pointed objects or to step on a poisonous snake —  cover every inch of ground thoroughly.

On day one, the gyoja suits up in the unique Hiei uniform and visits  So-o's tomb to ask for spiritual guidance. The pure-white outfit —  made of white cotton only, for animal hair, skin, and silk are prohibited  — consists of a short kimono undershirt, nobakama pants, hand and leg  covers, a long outer robe, and priest's surplice. Around the waist goes  the "cord of death" (shide no himo), with a sheathed knife (goma no  ken) tucked inside; these two accessories remind the gyoja of his duty  to take his life — by either hanging or self-disembowelment — if he  fails to complete any part of the practice. This is the reason the gyoja is  dressed in white — the colour of death — rather than basic Buddhist  black. A small bag to hold the handbook, a sutra book, two candles,  and matches is hung over the right shoulder; on occasion a flower bag  to hold shikimi branches or food (offered at spots along the way) is  draped over the left shoulder. The gyoja carries his rosary in his left hand.

Inside the higasa, the distinctive woven "trademark" hat of the Hiei  gyoja, a small coin is placed; if the monk dies on pilgrimage he will  need the money to pay the boatman on the Oriental equivalent of the  river Styx. Except for rain, the Great Kyoto Marathon (kirimawari),  and the Katsuragawa Retreat, the higasa must be carried, not worn, by  all gyoja with fewer than 300 days of training; it is always held in the  left hand, and if put down it must be placed on the hisen, a special type  of fan. The higasa is covered with the oiled paper when it rains. Since  Buddhist monks and other religious pilgrims customarily wear large  round straw hats, the reason for the peculiar elongated shape of the  Hiei gyoja hat is uncertain, especially because it appears to afford less  protection against sun, rain, and wind. On the other hand, one marathon  monk believes that the length of the hat keeps branches away from the  gyoja's face and provides a clear view, two important considerations for  those who walk along pitch-black mountain paths. The shape of the hat  is also said to represent a lotus leaf breaking the surface of the water,  signifying the emergence of Buddhist enlightenment in the midst of the  world of illusion.

Marathon Monks

Marathon Monks

Eighty pairs of straw sandals are allotted for the 100-day term in  Mudo-Ji. For the longer Imuro Valley Course, gyoja are allowed the  use of one pair per day. During the Great Marathon, the monk can use  as many straw sandals as necessary, usually going through five pairs a  day. This style of straw sandal is, like the hat, lotus-shaped and is  thought to have originated in India.... In sunny, dry weather, one pair  can last three or even four days, but in heavy rains the sandals disintegrate in a few hours. Thus the gyoja carries one or two spares.

The old-fashioned straw raincoat and the paper lantern, the other  two permitted articles, are on occasion replaced in stormy weather by  their modern counter parts — a vinyl raincoat and an electric flashlight.  Rain — and in early spring, snow — is the bane of the marathon  monks. It destroys their sandals, extinguishes their lanterns, slows their  pace, washes away their paths, and soaks them to the bone. In years  when the rainy season is especially bad, a marathon monk's robe never  dries out completely.

The basic rules of kaihogyo are as follows:

During the run the robe and hat may not be removed.

No deviation from the appointed course.

No stopping for rest or refreshment.

All required services, prayers, and chants must be correctly performed.

No smoking or drinking.

On the first day of the term, which begins at the end of March or the  beginning of April, the new gyoja is accompanied by his master, who  takes him through the entire course, giving his disciple various instructions and pointers. Thereafter the marathon monk is on his own. Since  the gyoja is supposed to train alone, when there is more than one candidate (as has been the case every year recently), both the initial day of  the run and daily starting times are staggered.

The day begins at midnight. After conducting (or attending) an  hour-long service in the Buddha Hall, the gyoja munches on one or  two rice balls or drinks a bowl of miso soup and then dresses. At  Mudo-Ji, the 30-kilometer (18.8-mile) journey commences at around  1.30 A.M. From Mudo-Ji the marathon monk proceeds to Kompon  Chu-do and from there through the rest of the Eastern Precinct, then on

Marathon Monks

Marathon Monks

to the Western Precinct, Yokawa, down to Sakamoto and back to Mudo-Ji, stopping at 255 stations of worship and negotiating thousands of  stairs and several very steep slopes along the way. At Imuro Valley, the '  course is longer, 40-kilometers (25 miles), with a few more stations of  worship, and runs from Sakamoto up to the Eastern Precinct, Western  Precinct, Yokawa and then back down to Imuro.

The stations include stops at temples and shrines housing just about  every Vedic, Buddhist, Taoist, and Shinto deity that exists in the pantheons of those creeds; at the tombs of the Tendai patriarchs and great : saints; before outdoor stone Buddha images; at sacred peaks, hills,  stones, forests, bamboo groves, cedar and pine trees, waterfalls, ponds,  springs; even a stop at one or two places to placate the gremlins or hungry ghosts residing there. At each station the gyoja forms the appropriate mudra (ritual hand gesture) and chants the necessary mantra; the  stops range from a brief ten seconds to several minutes. During the  entire course the monk sits down only once — on a stone bench beneath  the sacred giant cedar at the Gyokutaisugi, to chant a two-minute prayer

Marathon Monks

Marathon Monks

for the protection of the imperial family while facing the direction of  Kyoto palace.

Depending on the weather and the pace, the gyoja returns to the  starting point between 7:30 and 9:30 A.M. The course can be conquered  in six hours or even five and a half, but that is likely to draw criticism  from senior monks, who disapprove of youngsters racing through the  pilgrimage, hastily rattling off the chants and prayers. Most gyoja take  between six and a half and seven and a half hours to complete the circuit.

Following an hour-long service in the main hall, the monk goes to  his quarters to bathe and then to prepare the midday meal. After a simple, high-calorie lunch of noodles, potatoes, tofu, miso soup, and rice  or bread, there is an hour's rest and time to attend to chores. At 3:00  P.M there is another temple service. The second and last meal is taken  around 6:00. By 8:00 or 9:00 P.M the gyoja should be sleeping.

This routine is repeated daily without fail, one hundred times, with  the exception of kirimawari, the 54-kilometer (33-mile) run through  Kyoto. It occurs between the 65 and 75th days of the term, depending  on the gyoja's starting date. In kirimawari, a senior marathon monk  accompanies the new gyoja as they visit the holy sites of Kyoto and  call on parishioners in the city. Thegyoja are thereby introduced to  "practicing for the sake of others in the world". The freshmen receive  more refreshment than usual during kirimawari, but they lose a day of  sleep — kirimawaritakes nearly twenty-four hours to complete, and  almost as soon as they return to Hiei they must be out on the road  again.

The freshman marathon monks have a very rough time. It takes two  or three weeks to memorize the exact location of each station and the  appropriate chants and mudras. Before then, gyojaunfamiliar with the  route sometimes get lost in the heavy fog that frequently blankets Hiei  and go miles out of their way. Despite the cleaning of the pathways  during the pre-training period, there are still plenty of sharp edges or  points to cut tender feet to the quick. By the third day the legs and  Achilles tendons begin to throb, and after a week they are painfully  swollen. Cuts and sores become infected, and monks who were raised  in the southern part of Japan often develop frostbite. Most monks run a  slight fever the first few weeks, suffer from diarrhoea and haemorrhoids,  and experience terrible pains in their backs and hips. By the 30th day,

Marathon Monks

Marathon Monks

however, the worst of the discomfort is over, and around the 70th day  the gyoja has acquired the marathon monk stride: eyes focused about  100 feet ahead while moving along in a steady rhythm, keeping the  head level, the shoulders relaxed, the back straight, and the nose and  navel aligned. The monk also runs in time with the Fudo Myo-o mantra  he continually chants.

Following successful completion of a 100-day term and participation in the Katsuragawa Summer Retreat, a gyoja may petition the Hiei  Headquarters to be allowed to undertake the 1,000-day challenge (sen-nichi kaihogyo). This involves being free of family ties, willingness to  observe a twelve-year retreat, and careful screening by the Council of  Elder Gyoja.

The first three hundred days are the basic training, the "boot camp"  of the marathon monks. From the fourth year, the monks are allowed to  wear tabi, Japanese-style socks, which considerably lessen the wear  and tear on their feet. In the fourth and fifth year, though, the pace  quickens to 200 consecutive days of running from the end of March to  mid-October. Upon completion of the 500th day, the monk earns the  title "White-Belted Ascetic" (Byakutai Gyoja) and may use a walking  stick for the rest of the runs. He is also qualified to perform kaji, "merit  transference" prayer services. Upon completion of the 700th day, the  gyoja faces the greatest trial of all: doiri, nine days without food, water,  sleep, or rest.

A few weeks prior to doiri, the monk sends out this invitation to the  other Tendai priests: "I cannot express my joy at being allowed to  attempt doiri. This foolish monk vows to commit himself wholeheartedly to the nine-day fast, purifying body and mind, hoping to become  one with the Great Holy One Fudo Myo-o. Please join me for a  farewell dinner." The saijiki-gi, the symbolic "last meal," is attended  by all the senior priests on the mountain — a goodbye party to a gyoja  who might not survive. This point is underscored by having the screens  in the room reversed, just as they would be for a funeral.

Following the meal, a bell is struck at 1:00 P.M., and the senior  marathon monks and other high-ranking Tendai prelates accompany  the gyoja into Myo-o-do. The gyoja begins by making 330 full prostrations; after this, the guests depart, the doors are sealed, and the gyoja is  left to his nine-day prayer fast.

At 3:00 A.M., 10:00 A.M. and 5 P.M. the gyoja chants the Lotus Sutra

Marathon Monks

Marathon Monks

before the altar. (During the course of the fast, the entire text is recited). At 2:00 A.M. he performs the shusui (water-taking) ritual. Chanting  the Heart Sutra, he walks to the Aka Well, about 200 meters from the  temple, and scoops up a bucketful of water, carries it back to the main  hall, and offers it to the image of Fudo Myo-o.-The remaining hours  are spent sitting in the lotus position silently reciting the Fudo Myo-o  mantra — "namaku samanda bazaranan sendan makaroshana sowataya untarata kanman" — 100,000 times in all. It takes about 45 minutes to recite the mantra 1,000 times. Working in twenty-four-hour shifts,  two monks, holding incense and candles, are always in attendance to  make sure the gyoja remains awake and erect, touching his shoulders  whenever he appears to be dozing off.

For several weeks prior to doiri, the gyoja tapers down on his intake  of food and water to prepare for the fast, usually limiting himself to  one simple meal of noodles, potatoes and soup during this time. (He  would usually not eat anything at the farewell dinner.) The first day is  no problem, but there is some nausea the second and third day. By the  fourth day the pangs of hunger usually cease. By day five, however,  the gyoja is so dehydrated that the saliva in his mouth is dried up  and he begins to taste blood. To prevent the sides of the mouth from  adhering permanently, the gyoja is allowed, from the fifth day, to rinse  his mouth with water, but every drop must be spat back into the cup.  Unbelievably, the amount of liquid returned is often greater than the  original amount. The drops that remain on the gyoja's tongue are com pared to the sweetest nectar. Defecation usually disappears from the  third or fourth day, but very weak urination generally continues right to  the end. Also from day five, the gyoja is given an arm rest when he  recites the Lotus Sutra.

The 2:00 A.M. water-taking ritual helps revive the gyoja. As he  steps out of the hall made stuffy by incense smoke and poor circulation, the pure, bracing mountain air helps clear his head.Gyoja claim  further that they absorb moisture from the rain and dew through their  skin during this walk outdoors. The round trip to the well takes fifteen  minutes the first day, but near the end it requires an hour, as the gyoja  seems to move in a state of suspended animation.

The doiri — the actual period without food, water, rest, or sleep is  seven and a half days (182 hours) — is designed to bring the gyoja  face-to-face with death. Hiei legend has it that the original period of

Marathon Monks

Marathon Monks

doiri was ten days; when almost all of the monks died it was shortened just a bit. It was further discovered that the humid months of  summer were too dangerous — the deaths of the two doirimonks  mentioned in the modem chronicles both occurred in August — they  rotted internally.

All the gyoja agree that the greatest ordeal of doiri is not starvation  or thirst but keeping the head erect and not being able to rest. It is interesting to note that the hardest part of making a Buddha image is the  carving of the head. If the head is not perfectly balanced between the  shoulders and on top of the body, sooner or later, it will fall off due to  improper stress. Maintaining the correct posture at all times is the ultimate challenge.

During doiri, the gyoja develop extraordinary sensitivity. They can  hear ashes fall from the incense sticks and other normally inaudible  sounds from all over the mountain. Not surprisingly, they can smell  and identify food being prepared miles away, and they see beams of  sun and moonlight that seep into the dark interior of the temple. At  3:00 A.M. on the ninth and concluding day, the gyoja makes his final  trip to the Aka Well. A large crowd of upward of three hundred Tendai  priests and lay believers gathers to attend the grand finale. The trip to  the well, which only required twenty minutes the first few days of  doiri, now takes the weakened gyoja an hour to complete. He returns to  the hall, sits before the altar, and bows his head as an official document  from the Enryaku-ji Headquarters is read, proclaiming the end of the  fast. The gyoja is then given Ho-no-yu, a special medicinal drink, to  revive him. The final barrier is three circumambulations around the  hall. When that is done, the gyoja emerges from the "living death" as a  radiant Togyoman Ajari, "Saintly Master of the Severe Practice."

Most gyoja report that they pass out for a second or two when they  emerge from the temple out onto the veranda, in what is evidently a  sudden transition from death back to life — for thegyoja, according to  physiologists, who have examined them at the conclusion of the rite,  manifest many of the symptoms of a "dead" person at the end of the  diori. As diori nears conclusion, the gyoja experience a feeling of  transparency. Nothing is retained; everything — good, bad, neutral —  has come out of them, and existence is revealed in crystal clarity.

Some may condemn this type of severe training as a violation of  Sakyamuni's Middle Way, but such death-defying exercises lie at the

Marathon Monks

Marathon Monks

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  compared to Sakyamuni Buddha's descent from the Himalayas following his Great Awakening. As one of the gyoja's relatives remarked,  "I always dismissed Buddhism as superstitious nonsense until I saw  my brother step out of Myo-o-do after doiri. He was really a living  Buddha." . .

Around 3:30 A.M. the gyoja, twenty to thirty pounds lighter, returns  to his room, where he is greeted by his family and other well-wishers,  receives a shiatsu massage, and sucks on ice made out of water taken  from a miraculous spring on Mount Hira. The gyoja will then lie down  for a few hours but only sleep about twenty or thirty minutes. It takes

Marathon Monks

Marathon Monks

two weeks or so before he can take solid food; until then he lives on ice  shavings, water, thin soup, sake or amasake (sweet, lightly fermented  rice wine), and pudding. Nor does he sleep much the next several  weeks, averaging two or three hours a night.

Following successful completion of the "seven hundred days of  moving and the nine days of stillness," the gyoja are indeed men trans formed. Grateful to be alive, full of energy, fortified by a vision of the  Ultimate, constantly moving toward the light, and eager to work for the  benefit of all, the monks head into the final stages of the marathon.

In the sixth year, the route lengthens to include a round trip to   Sekisan-in at the base of Hiei (Sekisan Kugyo). The Sekisan Marathon along the extremely steep Kirala Slope...increases the course to 60 : kilometres (37.5 miles), requiring fourteen to fifteen hours for stopping  at all 260 stations of worship.

The seventh and final year again has two 100-day terms. The first  — perhaps the supreme athletic challenge of all times — consists of a  daily 84-kilometer (52.5 miles) run through the environs of Kyoto. The  run encompasses the 30-kilometer walk around Hiei, the 10 kilometres ; of Kirara Slope, and the 44-kilometer circling of Kyoto. This is the  equivalent of two Olympic marathons, and it is not run once every four  ; years but performed 100 days in a row. During the aptly named Great Marathon (0-mawari), the monk sets out from Hiei at 12:30 A.M., covers the 84 kilometres over the next sixteen to eighteen hours, and then  arrives, sometime between 4:00 and 6:00 in the afternoon, at a temple  in the centre of Kyoto to rest for a few hours. The following day,  beginning at 1:00 A.M., the monk reverses the course....

In addition to the three hundred or so stations of worship, the gyoja  blesses hundreds of people each day (thousands on weekends and holidays). People of all ages sit bowing along the road to be blessed by the  touch of the gyoja's rosary on their heads, diseased portions of their  bodies, crippled limbs, hospital robes, or even on photographs of their  loved ones. The gyoja is considered to be a vehicle, if not an incarnation, of the great saint Fudo Myo-o, with the capability of transferring  his merit to others. The Great Marathon is truly the practice of bestowing merit on others; while the monk's previous runs were solitary pursuits deep in the mountains, this marathon is for the benefit of all those  struggling to survive in the midst of a big city, a silent turning of the  Wheel of the Dharma, preaching by example rather than with empty

Marathon Monks

Marathon Monks

words. Since the Great Marathon takes place in summer, the colourful  procession of Tendai priests, lay believers, photographers and film  makers, interested observers, joggers, and other assorted hangers-on  literally stops traffic in the busy tourist season.

Negotiation of the 84-kilometer course is made somewhat easier by  the use of a "pusher" on straightaways. A padded pole is placed at the  small of the monk's back while the pusher applies a gentle force. If the  pusher (a different person every day) has a lot of experience, he can  supply as much as half the locomotion needed by the marathon monk  on long stretches. If, on the other hand, the pusher is a novice or a  young parishioner who cannot keep up with the monk, the extra assistance is nil. (Some marathon monks dispense with the pusher for part  or all of the course.) Another attendant carriers a small folding chair  along, placing it down the instant the monk is held up by traffic lights  or crowd control. Perhaps because of the constant encouragement and  excitement of being welcomed by crowds of admirers, the gyoja come  through the Great Marathon in surprisingly good shape despite the  almost total lack of sleep. Such sleep as they do get is deep, sound, and  refreshing. An old saying goes: Ten minutes of sleep for a marathon  monk is worth five hours of ordinary rest.

During the Great Marathon the monk is supported by dozens of  sokuho-ko parishioners. This special group of supporters accompanies  the monk on his rounds, directing traffic and carrying equipment,  preparing his meals, washing his clothes, and attending to his other  needs. Some of the sokuho-ko — the position is inherited from generation to generation — have been serving in this way for decades, covering nearly as much ground as the gyoja themselves.

The final 100-day term on the regular course is a snap; on day 1,000  the gyoja, who has run enough to have circled the globe, is declared  to be a Daigyoman Ajari, "Saintly Master of the Highest Practice."  Several weeks later the marathon monk visits the Kyoto Imperial Palace  to conduct a special thanksgiving service known as dosoku sandai.  When the emperor maintained his court in Kyoto, everyone had to  remove his or her footwear before entering the grounds. A Hiei marathon monk was the sole exemption from this custom — he alone could  enter the palace clad in straw sandals. The ceremony evidently originated with the kaihogyo Patriarch So-o's visits to the palace centuries ago  to cure the imperial family's ailments.

Marathon Monks

Marathon Monks


The final rite of the initiation: the 100,000-Prayer Fast. The fire ceremony 

consumes all evil passions and purifies the consciousness

There are two other practices integral to the 1000-day marathon. The first is the annual Katsuragawa Retreat (Katsuragawa Geango) held from July 16 to 20. Gyoja who have completed at least one 100-1  day kaihogyo term gather on Hiei on July 16. (Some gyoja from outlying districts walk hundreds of miles to get there.) Lining up in order of seniority (according to the number of retreats attended), the gyoya set out from Hiei at 4:00 A.M. for Mount Hira, 30 kilometres (18.8 miles) I  distant. The impressive body of gyoja — in certain years they can number as many as fifty — descend en masse from the mountain and pass   through Otsu City on their way to Katsuragawa, arriving in the valley , about twelve hours later. ;

During the retreat, the gyoja fast and conduct various rites. The   highlights of the retreat are, first, the taikomawashi festival, in which  the new gyoja, in imitation of So-o's leap into the waterfall to embrace  Fudo Myo-o, bound off a large rotating drum and into a crowd of excited spectators; and, second, the secret rite at Katsuragawa in which the

Marathon Monks

Marathon Monks

gyoja, firmly anchored by a lifeline, actually throw themselves into the  cascading falls.

Since the Katsuragawa Retreat is devoted to the memory of So-o,  it takes precedence over all else, and marathon monks doing 200 days  a year interrupt their running to attend. Thus the actual number of  days on the road is more like 980 than an even 1,000, although  recently the monks have been adding on the extra days after formal  completion.

The final rite of the initiation for the marathon monks is the 100,000 prayer fast and fire ceremony, the jumanmai daigoma. One hundred  days before the ceremony, the gyoja embarks on a stringent fast. All  grains — rice, wheat, soy beans, and the like — plus salt and most leafy  vegetables are prohibited. Consequently, the monk is obliged to live  on potatoes and other root vegetables, boiled pine needles, nuts, and  water. The fast dries the gyoja out, almost mummifying him, so that he  will not expire of excessive perspiration during the eight-day fire ceremony in which he will sit in front of a roaring fire, casting in prayer  stick after prayer stick. On each stick a supplicant has written a petition, which the gyoja "relays" to Fudo Myo-o. Usually the number of  prayer sticks exceeds 100,000, going as high in some cases as 150,000.  Although this fast is one day shorter than that of doiri and a few hours  of sitting-up sleep is permitted, most gyoja feel that this is the greater  trial — it is in the early stages, "like being roasted alive in hell".

Here again, the gyoja eventually becomes one with the fiery presence of Fudo Myo-o, consuming all evil and purifying the world. The  Great 100,000-Prayer Fire Ceremony takes place two or three years  after completion of the 1,000-day marathon. It is not obligatory, but  most of the modem marathon monks undergo it, partly to raise money  for new construction projects — people donate money for each prayer  stick that they write. Sakai Yusai is the most recent monk to have done  the ceremony, the sixth since the end of World War II....

How do the monks train for this ultimate marathon? Young novices  build their strength by doing lots of manual labour — chopping wood,  carrying heavy provisions from temple to temple, doing repair work on  stone fences and stairs. They also spend years acting as attendant to a  senior marathon monk, accompanying the master while loaded down  with baggage or acting as a pusher, matching the monk step for step.

What do they eat? The meals on Hiei are vegetarian — shoji yore,

Marathon Monks

Marathon Monks

"food for practice" — and the monks thrive on what most modem athletes would consider a woefully inadequate diet. The following is a  typical menu of a marathon monk:

1:30 A.M

7:00 A.M.

10:00 A.M.

before starting out): a bowl of miso soup with  tofu

(upon completion): miso soup, a bowl of rite  gruel with daikon leaves, grated daikon with soy  sauce

herbal tea, honey and lemon water

12:00 NOON

(main meal): half a bowl of rice, noodles, boiled  vegetables, tofu with sesame seed oil, natto(fermented soybeans), seaweed, pickles, and a glass  of milk

2:30 P.M.

6:00 P.M.

potato dumpling

a bowl of rice gruel and soup

The marathon monks will occasionally take fish in the off-season  and richer foods such as tempura, yuba (dried soybean cream), and  sweets. Most favour several kinds of tonic drinks, concocted from  herbs, lotus root, ginseng, and other secret ingredients. During the one  hundred days prior to Jumanmai Daigoma, the monks subsist on buck wheat flour, nuts, potatoes, cabbage, and pine needles.

Older gyoja eat even less than the typical monk. Sakai, for example,  takes two meals a day consisting of one plate of noodles, two boiled  potatoes, half a cake of tofu with sesame seed oil, and boiled vegetables. This adds up to about 1,450 calories a day. According to modem  dietary science, Sakai must use at least 2,000 calories during his 40 kilometre runs and therefore should be shedding ten to fifteen pounds  a month. Far from wasting away, however, Sakai retains his robust  physique.

Marathon monks must get by on a minimum of sleep; consequently,  they become expert cat-nappers, catching a few winks while waiting  for traffic lights to change or at other lulls in their daily schedules. The  monks learn to sleep sitting or even standing up, and most in fact prefer  not to lie down to nap because that confuses their sense of time. Unsure  of the correct hour, monks sometimes leap up from a mid-day nap,  jump into their outfits, and race out of the temple. While on the road,

Marathon Monks

Marathon Monks

they develop the faculty to rest different sections of the body as they  move along — "Now I am resting my shoulders, now I am resting my  hips, now I am resting my knees," and so on.

Other essential factors are proper rhythm, breath control, and intense  concentration. The marathon monks harmonize their pace with the "beat"  of the Fudo Myo-o mantra, which they chant continually, and cover  meters and meters on each deep abdominal breath. An experienced  marathon monk flows along naturally, maintaining the same speed for  climbing up or coming down. The monks cannot allow themselves to  be distracted by any obstacle, whether external or internal. They must  be quite similar to the famed lung-gom-pa runners of old Tibet. Scores  of explorers to Tibet and Mongolia recorded encounters with these running monks, who appeared to bound across the immense grassy plains; apparently in a trance, they could travel non-stop for forty-eight hours  or more, covering over 200 miles a day. Since accomplished lung-gom-pa runners were faster than horses over long distances, they were often  employed as a human "pony express" to convey messages across that  huge country.

Interestingly, in order to qualify as a lung-gom-pa runner, a trainee  first had to master seated meditation. Must emphasis was placed on  breath control and visualization techniques — for example, imagining  one's body to be as light as a feather. After acquiring good breath control, a novice was instructed to practice in the evening by fixing his  gaze intently on a single star as he ran and coordinating his pace with a  secret mantra given to him by his teacher. The runner must keep his  eyes fixed on the star (or some other equally distant object) and never  allow himself to be distracted. Once lung-gom-pa runners attained the  proper level of moving meditation, they could fly like the wind, virtually; gliding along in the air in a state of deepest contemplation.

The marathon monks of Mount Hiei achieve similar results with  their training methods, but the secret of their success lies in their spiritual rather than their physical strength. The spiritual strength — derived  from the desire to realize Buddhahood, for the sake of oneself and the  sake of others, in this very mind and body — is the key to the question  "What makes the marathon monks run?"

Buddhism can never be understood purely through the intellect; it  must be experienced: "Learn through the eyes, practice with the feet."  The manner in which a suitable practice unfolds is known as innen in

Marathon Monks

Marathon Monks

Japanese. In is composed of the inner factors, the stirring up of the  Buddha-mind from deep within; en are the circumstances in which the drama is played out.

A man is drawn to Hiei and then to the path of a marathon monk.  The gyoja have said that as soon as they don the robe of a marathon  monk, all other concerns vanish; they gravitate toward the mountain  paths, compelled by a powerful force that suffuses them with energy.  The first 700 days of training are to enable the marathon monk to  establish himself; it is a pilgrimage carried out in the immense silence  of the Absolute on a remote, majestic, and mysterious mountain where  gods and Buddhas dwell. Leaving behind the cacophony of the restless,  relentless world, the monk isolates himself to live every day as if it  were his last.

Midway on the marathon route the road narrows to a tiny footpath.  To the left the runner looks down on Kyoto, a sea of lights wherein all  the attractions, good and bad, that the world has to offer hold forth. To  the right is Lake Biwa, sparkling in the moonlight, calm, clear, and  empty. The marathon monk hovers briefly between' the two spheres of  worldly entanglement and Buddhist enlightenment and then presses on,  hoping someday to transcend both.

In the last 300 days of the marathon, the focus shifts. The monk  emerges from his hibernation, possessed of a certain measure of wisdom and compassion; to roam in a big city among all sorts of human  beings, spreading light and happiness. A balance is struck between  practice for one's own sake and practice for the benefit of all.

At the end, the marathon monk has become one with the mountain,  flying along a path that is free of obstruction. The joy of practice has  been discovered and all things are made new each day. The stars and  sky, the stones, the plants, and the trees, have become the monk's trust ed companions; he can predict the week's weather by the shape of the  clouds, the direction of the wind, and the smell of the air; he knows the  exact times each species of bird and insect begin to sing; and he takes  special delight in that magic moment of the day when the moon sets  and the sun rises, poised in the centre of creation. Awakened to the  Supreme, one marathon monk described his attitude thus: "Gratitude  for the teaching of the enlightened ones, gratitude for the wonders of  nature, gratitude for the charity of human beings, gratitude for the  opportunity to practice — gratitude, not asceticism, is the principle of

Marathon Monks

Marathon Monks

the 1,000-day kaihogyo." Indeed, on the last day of the 1,000-day run,  the monks have a saying: "The real practice begins from now."

The marathon monks are devotees of Fudo Myo-o (Acala Vidya raja), the Unshakable King of Light. Fudo has a fearful face, terribly  troubled by the world's inequities, its stupor, and its implacable hatred  of the Dharma. Encompassed by a fiery nimbus, Fudo burns up evil  passions while illuminating the darkest comers of existence. His lasso  can be used to bind devils or to pull those in distress out of the mud.  Fudo's sword hacks off the heads of those who pollute the world but at  the same time slices through all obstacles to reveal the deepest wisdom.  As an incarnation of the cosmic Buddha Dainichi (Mahavairocana),  Fudo is the active element of salvation, capable of channeling his  awesome power to others. The marathon monks strive to become one  with Fudo, to actually perceive that dynamic image as a living force  and to tap that awesome energy. When questioned about this experience the marathon monks remain mum, but senior gyoja know when  their disciples have had the vision, the greatest of all rewards: "You  have seen him, haven't you? Now you have the look of a real marathon  monk!"

The Story of Sakai

If ever there was an unlikely candidate for Buddhahood it was Sakai  Yusai, the ninth sennichi kaihogyo of the modern era. Sakai was born  in Osaka in 1926, the eldest son of a family that eventually contained  ten children. His father was a rice merchant, and when he went bankrupt speculating in the grain market the family moved to Tokyo, where  they lived hand to mouth for some years.

Sakai's relatives and friends remember him as something of a cry-baby,  a sleepyhead, and a very dull student. He was, by all accounts, unexceptional, although the family recalls that he was never attached to his  possessions — if he won at marbles, he world immediately return his  winnings to the loser, and he would give away his pencils or toys with out hesitation to his brothers and sisters if they .asked for them.

Following elementary school, Sakai enrolled in night school and  worked at a military hospital laboratory to help support his family. (He  later learned to his dismay that the lab specialized in the production of  chemicals for germ warfare.) The family financial situation worsened  when Sakai's father was drafted, despite his large number of dependents,

Marathon Monks

Marathon Monks

and sent to the front in China, where he was seriously wounded. Sakai  was so hungry at this time that he often stole and ate the feed for the  lab animals. The teachers at Sakai's school informed him that because  of poor attendance and low marks he could never graduate as a regular student. The only option open to the failing student was to enlist in the  army, which would guarantee automatic graduation. Sakai did so, and '  in 1944, he was assigned to a naval base in Kagoshima, Japan's southernmost island — an area exposed to the full wrath of the American air  force.

By that time Japan had lost the war for all practical purposes, and few of the pilots in Sakai's division returned from their futile sorties. : American bombers from Okinawa began raiding Sakai's base, raking  it daily with machine-gun fire and bombs. As soon as Sakai and the  rest of the ground crew repaired the runways, they would be attacked  again. The death of his comrades and the futility of war anguished the  young soldier: "Why have so many fine men perished while a no,  account like me remains alive?" Japan surrendered in August 1945;   the men at Sakai's base were told that the war effort had been "suspended" and they were all to return home. The transportation system ,  had been largely destroyed, and it took Sakai nearly a month to make it  back to Tokyo.

When he reached the desolate city, Sakai found his family alive, but '  everything else had been lost in the firebombing. He found a job as a clerk in the Hosei University library and worked quietly there for two years. He and his father then opened up a noodle shop in an entertainment district; the shop prospered, and they also did brisk business selling daily necessities, at the time in very short supply, on the side. Sakai   procured those items on the black market. Tragedy struck when fire in  the neighbourhood engulfed their restaurant. They were unable to  rebuild the business, and Sakai became a full-time black-marketeer. He  did well for himself on occasion but ultimately lost his shirt in the  panic of 1954.

Thereafter, Sakai aimlessly drifted from job to job. He married a  cousin, but the shy, retiring girl adjusted poorly to the match — within  a month of the wedding, she returned to her family's home in Osaka.  Sakai quit his job in Tokyo and rejoined his wife in Osaka. He was  unable to learn the nature of his wife's discontent, and she seemed to  improve. Two months later, however, she killed herself.

Marathon Monks

Marathon Monks

Shattered, Sakai lived purposelessly, working as a shipwright in a  large boatyard. When he was thirty-five years old, one of his aunts took  along her listless nephew on a visit to Hiei. At first Sakai thought to  himself, "Why on earth did she drag me to this awful place?" Yet he  was also strangely attracted to the quiet on the mountain and the stately  demeanour of the priests, perhaps remembering past visions of his  grandfather, whom he had once seen dressed up in full yamabushi  regalia.

On his days off, Sakai would wander around Hiei. On one such  occasion he saw Miyamoto Ichijo emerge from Myo-o-do on the last  day of doiri, an impression that remains with him to this day. After  learning about the practice of kaihogyo, Sakai began doing informal  pilgrimages in the Osaka area near his home and occasionally making  the return trip from Hiei. to Osaka on foot, a good 50-kilometer hike.  One day Sakai decided to ask Kobayashi Ryusho, a Hiei priest he  greatly admired, to accept him as a lay monk on a month's trial basis.  Such a request is not at all unusual on Hiei, a kind of last hope for  unrepentant sinners. At the same time there was a furniture dealer at  Kobayashi's temple who had been sent there by his family to cure him  of habitual gambling. Kobayashi took both lost souls in, and the two  men helped out with temple chores — chopping wood, cleaning the  grounds, preparing meals, and attending the services. Near the end of  the month-long trial the two lay monks secluded themselves in the temple and chanted the names of the three thousand Buddhas, each recitation accompanied by a full prostration. The gambler, cured of his affliction, returned happily to Kyoto, but Sakai wished to remain on the  mountain. Kobayashi felt that Sakai was different from the other troubled souls who worked out their problems with a dose of Tendai practice and agreed to sponsor the forty-year old for ordination. Sakai, the  man who — in his own words — "had experienced hell," became a  Tendai priest at the end of 1965.

Kobayashi sent Sakai to do his initial training under one of his  disciples, Odera Bunei, head priest of Reizan-in. Odera, seven years  Sakai's junior, was a dedicated scholar-priest. As a young monk he had  studied in Burma for two years, following the Theravadin rule, the only  priest from Hiei to finish the two-year term. The one-time dunce Sakai  was inspired by the example of Odera, a recognized expert in Tendai  thought, who stayed up late every evening poring over his books after a

Marathon Monks

Marathon Monks

full day of conducting temple business.

A novice monk is a novice monk regardless of his age, and Sakai  cheerfully fulfilled the tasks required of newcomers. He cleaned, shopped, cooked, and helped tend Odera's five little children (including a  pair of twins), taking them to the park to play, feeding them, and  changing their diapers. Sakai's family, with the exception of his grand father the yamabushi priest, had never been religious, and they were all  shocked to learn that their relative was acting as a temple servant with out pay.

Sakai enrolled in the Hiei Higher Academy in 1966 and, in a miraculous turnabout, passed both the basic and advanced course with honours. In fact, his graduation thesis, "Dengyo Daishi"s Theory of Gods  and Buddhas," won the "Abbot's Award" as the best student essay of  that year.

In 1971 Sakai embarked on a three-year retreat in order to qualify  as a head priest of one of the temples on Hiei. The following year he  completed his first 100-day term of kaibogyo and then decided to  attempt the 90-day ceaseless nembutsu. Uncharacteristically, Sakai did

Sakai performing "water-fall training" to purify himself.

Sakai performing "water-fall training" to purify himself.

Marathon Monks

Marathon Monks

not consult with either Kobayashi or Odera before submitting his petition to Enryaku-ji headquarters. When they heard of the plan both  opposed it because of Sakai's advanced age and the severity of the  practice. One monk in the nineteenth century had attempted the cease less nembutsu; his legs swelled to twice their normal size, he collapsed  in the training hall, and he died a week later with these words: "Please  do not let anyone do this anymore."

Since that time there had been no candidates for the practice until  Sakai and a classmate at the Hiei Higher Academy, Takagawa Jisho,  applied. Like most of the top gyoja, Takagawa came from general  society rather than a temple family, entering Mount Hiei at age twenty.  After much discussion among the senior priests, permission was grant ed to the aspirants. From June 1 to August 30 Sakai and Takagawa  were sequestered at the twin temples of Jogyo-do and Hokke-do.

The ceaseless nembutsu involves constant revolution around the  hall while chanting endlessly, "Hail to Amida Buddha, Hail to Amida  Buddha." In the beginning, Sakai felt as if he were walking on air gliding around the hall; later it was if he were traipsing through deep mud.  He slept poorly in the two hours of rest-meditation that he was allowed  each day, and during the walking he sometimes lost consciousness temporarily and fell asleep against the railing for five minutes or so. Near  the end of the ninety-day term Sakai perceived himself moving along a  narrow white path over a raging river. Even though he was revolving  around a square room, Sakai distinctly sensed himself walking in a  straight line as the path opened before him. The ghosts and goblins that  had previously threatened him turned into the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas  of the Lotus Sutra, and all was peace and light. Sakai recalls reposing in  a timeless state, one with Amida Buddha.

Kobayashi, concerned about Sakai's condition, frequently visited  the training hall during the night to check on his disciple. He was  surprised that Sakai's voice was consistently stronger than that of  Takagawa's next door, even though the other monk was twenty-one  years younger.

In 1974 Sakai finished his three-year retreat and went to Tokyo to  call on his ailing father. He also made a pilgrimage to Buddhist holy  sites in India. After his return to Hiei and assumption of the position  of abbot of Hoju-in, Sakai resolved to undertake sennichi kaihogyo.  Since he was intent on selecting the hardest course, he petitioned the

Marathon Monks

Marathon Monks

demanding master Hakozaki to accept him as the restorer of Imuro  Valley sennichi kaihogyo.

Hakozaki was the harshest taskmaster on Hiei; in addition, Choju-in was an isolated place with few visitors to break the monotony.  Consequently, none of Hakozaki's previous disciples had lasted more  than a few months on the job — even the exemplary Odera had to call  it quits in less than half a year. One unsuccessful postulant recalls  working with Hakozaki in the fields: one day Hakozaki nearly severed  his toe with the sharp hoe, but he refused to stop until all the work was  done. The sight of the abbot's bloody toe, attached to his foot by a sliver of flesh, flapping back and forth, was more than the young trainee  could bear, and he fled the temple. Normally Sakai would have been  spared regular temple duty as a Hiei abbot, but since he was the only  other monk at Choju-in, he was obliged to act as Hakozaki's attendant.

As mentioned above, Hakozaki had restored the Imuro Valley  course in 1943 and conducted a 100-day kaihogyo term there. Another  monk, named Otsuka, did a 100-day term over the course in 1970 or  1971, and Sakai began his effort to permanently reestablish the Imuro  Valley course in 1975. Hakozaki was then too old (age eighty-two ) to  take Sakai around the course, so Otsuka and Miyamoto Ichijo, who had .  been entrusted with Hakozaki's maps and charts, went over the route with him. Sakai was forced to make a few alterations because portions ; of the course had been completely washed away by flash floods or ; blocked by new road construction. Sakai began his 1,000-day pilgrim; age on April 7, coincidentally the birthday of his master Hakozaki and  the anniversary of his wife's death. Hakozaki's advice: "Ever onward; never look back."

On top of his daily kaihogyo of 40-kilometers, Sakai had to handle  all of the cleaning, cooking, and laundry for the two of them. He rose j  each day at midnight, purified himself in the temple's two waterfalls,  conducted the morning service, and then set out on kaihogyo around  1:30 A.M. Upon his return to Choju-in at around 8:30, he attended to all  the chores. Under normal circumstances, Sakai would have been able  to retire around 8:00 P.M., but Hakozaki was, at the time, in the habit of  taking a nightcap, and Sakai, of course, had to heat and serve the sake.  Word got out that the exuberant Hakozaki was treating guests to copious amounts of rice wine; consequently, almost every night parishioners showed up to keep the old master company. Sakai was on duty

Marathon Monks

Marathon Monks

until the final visitor staggered home, and after cleaning up he barely  had time for an hour or two of sleep.

Sakai has said that of all the trials he has undergone, the first two  years at Choju-in were by far the worst. Hakozaki was deliberately  testing Sakai's mettle — like all true masters, he wanted his disciple  to surpass him — and the old priest gave Sakai no rest. When Sakai,  for instance, began to prepare meals in advance to save a few precious moments, Hakozaki rejected the food with a curt "This is stale!"  Sometimes when he did prostrations in the temple, Sakai was so sure  that he would die of exhaustion on the route that he began to carry the  equivalent of several hundred dollars in cash on his person rather than  the customary symbolic few cents as consolation money for whoever  discovered his body and arranged for his funeral.

Sakai survived, and during the fourth 100-day term he achieved a  breakthrough — he was no longer troubled by visions of his dead wife  and army pals or other distracting and disturbing thoughts, nor was he  tormented by physical and spiritual pain. He successfully completed  doiri, with most of his family in attendance on the last day, and seemed  to be safely on his way to finishing the full 1,000-day term.

The path of gyoja is never completely smooth, however. About a  week before setting out on the Sekisan Marathon, Sakai was doing preliminary training in the mountains when he was attacked by a wild  boar. There had been piles of snow on Hiei that winter, and the boar, a  touchy beast anyway, was probably starving and thus charged the monk  in a furious attempt to drive away a perceived threat to its food supply.  As Sakai leaped out of the way, he was either slashed by the boar's  tusks or lacerated by a sharp branch. Sakai ignored the wound, but it  soon festered, and after a few days of Sekisan Marathon his first two  toes had swollen to twice their normal size and turned deep purple.

The toenail on his big toe had fallen off, and the pain was so intense  that he shrieked in pain with each step. Unable to continue, Sakai sat  down on a rock on an isolated spot, pulled out his "suicide knife," and  lanced the wound; blood and pus gushed out, and Sakai fell into a faint.  He pointed the knife at his throat so that if he fell the blade would  pierce the skin and he would remain faithful to his vow to kill himself  if he failed to complete the course. Thirty minutes later, the groggy  monk recovered slightly from the shock, wiped off the wound, and proceeded to Sekisan-in, where a crowd of believers awaited his arrival.

Marathon Monks

Marathon Monks

Showing up at the temple gates an hour late, Sakai apologized for the  delay, explaining sheepishly that he had "overslept." Sakai washed off  the wound again with temple well water, rested a bit, and then started  back on the return trip. Out of sight of the believers, he fainted again  but recovered in about ten minutes. Sakai knew now that he was tap ping a higher power just as he had been at the darkest moments of the  ceaseless nembutsu practice. Reliance on human strength was out of  the question; Sakai felt he must have been propelled along by a superior force.

Even though the injury never healed properly for the duration of  Sekisan Marathon, Sakai miraculously completed the term. Another  Hiei priest heard the story and walked by the place where Sakai had  lanced his wound; he nearly passed out at the sight of the blood-and  pus-splattered rock. Following this incident, Sakai truly earned the  respect of his master Hakozaki, and the old priest presented Sakai with  this haiku:

The path of practice:

Where will be 

My final resting place?

According to the oldest documents, the last three terms should be  conducted in the traditional manner, that is, from Mudo-ji Valley, and  Sakai conducted the remaining terms from his former temple of  Hoju-in. As mentioned previously, the actual number of days on the  road usually comes to 975 or 980 because of the time out for the Kat suragawa Summer Retreat. Sakai, ever the innovator, wished to do a  full 1,000 days, so after the official ceremony of dosoku sandai, he  logged twenty-five more days at Imuro Valley.

Sakai has often expressed his desire to die on the road, and not long  after finishing the first 1,000-day term in 1980, he went for a second.  This time he finished in six years: 200 days the first and second years,  100 the third, 200 the fourth, 100 the fifth, and 200 the sixth. He came  out of his second doiri in better shape than the first. (It is said that the  liquid spat back into the cup during doiri is usually dark brown and  foul-smelling. In Sakai's case, the second time it was pure white.) The  second 1,000-day term was very close to the Buddhist ideal of "Every  day is a good day". On day 2,000 films of the sixty-one-year-old marvel

Marathon Monks

Marathon Monks

  Sakai stopping at a temple to have a cup of tea and chat with the priest

Sakai stopping at a temple to have a cup of tea and chat with the priest

zooming along the mountain paths were shown on every television  news program in Japan. Looking tan and ever so fit, the supermonk  announced his intention to realize his dream of kaihogyoto the sacred  mountains of China. Sakai did complain, however, about the increased  pollution of Kyoto's air: "During the second Great Marathon I nearly  choked on the smog, which was much worse than before." He completed the 100,000 prayer fire ceremony and nine-day fast in 1983 and  plans another in 1988.

During the kaihogyo terms, Sakai typically sleeps from 9:00 P.M. to  midnight. Upon rising he heads straight for the two waterfalls of Choju in, where he purifies himself in each one for a few minutes while  chanting the Fudo Myo-o mantra. (Sakai began waterfall training the  day after he witnessed the blind and lame Hakozaki enter the falls in

Marathon Monks

Marathon Monks

midwinter.) He then conducts a forty-minute service in the temple and  sets off around 1:10 A.M., arriving back at around 9:00 A.M. On non kaihogyo days, Sakai rises at 2:30 for waterfall purification, conducts  the service, and then takes one or the other of his dogs for a long walk  in the mountains.

When Sakai completed his first 1,000-day term, Hakozaki retired at  age eighty-nine, turning over Choju-in to his one and only prize disciple. Hakozaki and Sakai are alike in many ways. Both men became  monks around age forty following stormy careers in the world below.  Seemingly in an effort to make up for the wasted first half of their lives,  they threw themselves into their training and, in terms of accomplishments, they rank as two of the greatest monks who ever practiced on  Hiei or anywhere else in the Buddhist world. Sakai refers to Kobayashi  and Odera (who passed away at the young age of fifty-two) as his teachers but always calls Hakozaki "Grandfather."

The continually smiling Sakai is rather less intimidating than the  gruff Hakozaki and more approachable, a wonderful combination of  intensity and warmth. The long years of training and ceaseless introspection have rubbed the rough edges smooth, and Sakai is — as one  would expect of a living Buddha — open, wise, and unpretentious. His  sanctity is unsanctimonious; constantly smiling — even just before  doiri, the "living death" — Sakai unostentatiously makes tea for his  guests while chatting away in a lively Osaka accent, answers the phone  with a hearty "Hello, this is Sakai," and slips into a threadbare warm-up  suit when he has a lot of calligraphy to brush. One of Sakai's favorite  calligraphic sayings is the Zen-flavoured "Everyday mind is the way."  Sakai never boasts of mystic flights or clairvoyant powers; the only  unusual experience he might mention is the breaking of his rosary at the  moment of his father's death in a Tokyo hospital.

One unique quality about Sakai is his sensitivity to all forms of life.  As he walked through the mountains day after day, he was struck by  the incredible energy of the weeds, how they sprout and grow despite  all obstacles. Even though weeding is an important Buddhist practice,  Sakai stopped weeding his temple garden, explaining: "Weeds, too,  have a right to live." This marathon monk is also fond of animals.  The beasts he encounters on his runs — birds, rabbits, monkeys, deer,  snakes, even boars — he feels are his companions. Sakai keeps a bunch  of dogs at his temple, including a couple of real old mongrels, and at

Marathon Monks

Marathon Monks

least one happily wags along with its master on the kaihogyo rounds.

Regarding his practice, Sakai has said: " Human life is like a candle; if it burns out halfway it does no one any good. I want the flame of  my practice to consume my candle completely letting that light illuminate thousands of places. My practice is to live wholeheartedly, with  gratitude and without regret. Practice really has no beginning nor end; when practice and daily life are one, that is true Buddhism."

This effervescent sixty-year-old marathon monk often exclaims  brightly to his visitors, "Life is so wonderful!"


from John Stevens, The  of Mount Hiei,
Shambala Publications, Inc,, Boston 1988.

Marathon Monks

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