The story of the marathon monk practice, or sadhana (daily spiritual practice), began when a young seeker named So-o arrived at the mountain monastary at the age of 15. So-o’s daily practices involved encircling Mt. Hiei, and offering daily prayers along the way. So-o practiced a type of Buddhism where he recognized all of nature as manifestations of Buddha. As the story goes, one day along his walk he was enraptured with the image of Buddha near a waterfall. Seeking to merge with the One, he dove into the falls but along the way he hit a log in the water. So-o pulled the log out of the water and carved the image of Fudo Myo-o, which is still a venerated spot on today’s course. After his leap into the falls, So-o continued to build a number of monasteries on Mt. Hiei, which became the residence and inspiration for numerous Marathon Monks over the years.
The attire of the monk is very simple. The monks wear white cloth pants and robe, a straw hat, and straw sandles. Along with the book and the clothes, the monk carries a knife and rope which is to be used for seppuku (ritual disembowlment) if the course cannot be completed. By demanding seppuku if the sadhana is not completed, each run becomes a confrontation with death. There is no sleeping in or missing a day, because to do so means death.
Stevens reported that daily caloric intake for the monks is approximately1000-1200 calories, which is based on a vegetarian fare of rice, miso soup, and green tea. The amount of calories seems very low, but nonetheless the monks seem to be the picture of health.
After the 700th day of consecutive running, the Gyoja faces the ultimate test, “Doiri.” Doiri, which basically means "fire ceremony," was originally a 10 day ordeal in which monks remained sitting in front of a fire with continual mantra recitation, with no food or water. After a number of monks died, Diori was revised to the 7 day session which is used today, but the guidelines remain the same. The only water allowed is to be used to rinse the mouth. Yet, the toughest obstacle during Doiri is to remain sitting for the 7 days. At the end of Diori the monks have a feeling of transparency, in which they can feel the moisture from the air entering their bodies, and the light of the sun enters and permeates throughout their entire being.
“At the end of running, 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 trusted 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 center of creation."
So how can we use the example of the Marathon Monks in our own personal practice? When I describe the Marathon Monk practice to others, often they can’t believe or understand why anyone would go through all of that hardship, or why they just don't quit. While there is the threat of Seppuku, this is really a reminder that it is the monk's duty to honor and stay true to the practice. This epitomizes the spirit of Bushido, the ancient Samarai code of Japan, the Marathon Monks have made a covenant between themselves and Buddha that they will continue the practice to the end. The practice of Bushido may be lacking in modern society, but we can use the Marathon Monks as an inspiration to honor ourselves and nature by getting out the door every morning for our daily run.
Along with the will to remain on the their chosen path, the monks learn to love the practice. It is my interpretation that this is the final stage of Kaihogyo. Stevens describes it best when he says that the monk, “takes special delight in the magic moment of the day when the moon sets and the sun rises, poised in the center of creation” The Monk becomes one with Mt. Hiei, connected with all she has to offer, and each run is started and completed in the spirit of love.