The Spiritual Athlete's Path to Enlightenment
The Spiritual Athlete's Path to Enlightenment
Holly A. Schmid
Ultra Marathon Running
December 11, 1996
Marathon Monks of Mount Hiei
Throughout this world, there are many mysterious and amazing feats that can be found. People are capable of doing most incredible things that we have never deemed possible. Only by truly believing in ourselves can we accomplish what were thought as impossible goals.
In Mount Hiei of Japan, there can be found a small group of monks who live in a monastery and can accomplish many remarkable challenges. This mountain had been a main attraction in Japan of Buddhism. "The Marathon Monks of Mount Hiei" by John Stevens says that it "offers the seeker every type of religious experience--sacred scholarship, grand ritual, austere meditation, heartfelt repentance, heroic asceticism, mystical flight, miraculous cures, ceaseless devotion, divine joy, and nature worship-while promising enlightenment in this very body."
This mountain monastery began in 1787 and the monks feel that Hiei still flourishes today. It is a beautiful place populated with all types of animals. No hunting is allowed. There is lots of rain in Japan and many tall trees which block the sun so it can get very cold there; snow covers the ground far into April. At the base of Hiei, there is a cute little temple-town where most of the retired priests go to live.
The Tendai priests generally marry and raise families. Many of the trainees at Mount Hiei who hope to qualify for priesthood are their children. There are many who just appear from the general public though such as college drop-outs searching for the meaning of life, retired military men, reformed drunks, and a few women.
These fascinating marathon monks began their story in the year 831 with a boy named So-o. He came to Hiei at age 15. An abbot called Ennin noticed this boy and initiated him into the mysteries of Tendai. He named him So-o which meant "one who serves for others."
The legend is that the God, Fudo Myo-o, appeared before So-o by a waterfall. So-o was overwhelmed and jumped into the falls. He collided with a large log which he was able to drag out of the water. He then carved the image of Fudo Myo-o into the log . The temple was then built in this area for the God Fudo Myo-o and named Myo-o-in.
So-o was an amazing monk who traveled around using his prayers which could accomplish many things such an curing people from terminal illnesses, difficult child births, demon possessions and much more. He believed in a type of practice where every stone and blade of grass were venerable and all things were seen as a manifestation of Buddha. This meant he worshipped nature with one's entire mind and body.
He kept returning to Hiei where he would build another hall to house images of Fudo Myo-o. This became the home base of the Hiei "kaihogyo" monks. To become a monk here, it became a common practice to complete a term of 100, 700, and 1000 days of chanting, visiting stations of worship, and other special experiences where all you needed were your two feet.
A gyoja is what one is called when he/she is accomplishing these terms. A gyoja is a "spiritual athlete who practices gyo with a mind set of the Path of Buddha." This is a positive term meaning that one is "moving" along the path of awakening, for both oneself and others. There are many disciplines that are practiced in Hiei but the mountain marathon, called kaihogyo, is the greatest. To become an abbot at Hiei, you must go through a 100-day term of kaihogyo. Kaihogyo is the "practice of circling the mountains" and gives them an appreciation of the respective stations of worship. If you receive permission, then the gyoja is given a special handbook which describes everything they need to know for the marathon. This includes course maps, stations they must visit and pray at, proper prayers and chants, and other important information. The candidate then has one week of training before their term begins.
During this first week, the ground is cleared of glass, sharp rocks, sticks and other things that would hurt the feet of the gyoja. A pure white outfit is given to the gyoja to wear. A rope is tied around the waist which holds a knife within the cord of the rope. These two items remind the gyoja that they should take their life by hanging themselves or by using the knife if they can't complete the term.
For their feet, 80 pairs of straw sandals are woven together to be used for the 100-day term. In rainy weather, these sandals evaporate within hours so many spares have to be carried. During dry weather, they usually last a few days though. A special all-white hat is also given to the gyoja for the journey.
The basic rules of kaihogyo are very important and must be followed. They are:
During the run the robe and hat may not be removed.
No deviation from the appointed course.
No stopping for rest of refreshment.
All required services, prayers, and chants must be correctly performed.
No smoking of drinking.
Then the running begins. Each day, the gyoja begins at midnight. They are given a small meal and around 1:30, they start the running of 40 kilometers each day. There are many stations that they must stop by often. They are able to sit only once during the entire course.
They return to Hiei between about 7 and 9am where they attend a service, bathe, and eat a midday meal. During the afternoon, they attend more services, rest for an hour and attend to chores. They go to bed around 8 or 9pm and the day begins again at midnight. This is repeated 100 times to finish the first term.
Some time in this term, they must perform the kirimawari, which is a 54- kilometer run. A senior marathon monk accompanies the gyoja on this. To accomplish this, they usually lose a whole day of sleep but must just keep right on with their 100-day schedule.
These 100 days are very difficult. Their feet and legs begin to throb and often get cuts and infections. Being so cold in Japan, they often get frostbite and very sick during the first weeks of the run. They also experience many problems such an pains in their back and hips, diarrhea and hemorrhoids. By the 70th day, the gyoja has finally “acquired the marathon monk stride: eyes focused about 100 feet ahead while moving along is a steady rhythm, keeping the head level, the shoulders relaxed, the back straight, and the nose and navel aligned.
If the gyoja successfully completes the 100-day term, he can petition to try the 1000-day term. This term will take seven years to complete.
The first 300 days of this are basic training days where they continue to run for 40 kilometers per day. In the 4th and 5th year, the pace quickens where they run for 200 executive days. After accomplishing this, they are allowed to use a walking stick and where a special tabi hat.
After completing the 700th day, the gyoja faces their most difficult feat. They must survive nine days without food, water, sleep, or rest. This period of time is called the doiri. Several weeks before hand, they prepare for this event by limiting themselves to small amounts of food so they will be ready when the time comes. When the doiri period begins, they spend their days reciting chants that they repeat 100,000 times. By the fifth day, they are dehydrated and are allowed to rinse their mouths with water but must spit out every last drop that enters their mouth. They usually go outside and take in the fresh mountain air where they are able to absorb moisture from the rain and dew through their skin. Usually what the gyoja finds most difficult is not the lack of food and water, but keeping awake and keeping the proper posture at all times of the day.
The doiri is purposely made to let the gyoja face death. After this period of time, they have come so close to death that they develop a sensitivity to life. They "can hear ashes fall form incense sticks, smell and identify foods from miles away and see the sun and moonlight seep into the interior of the temple." Psychologists who examined the bodies at the end of the seven day period found that the gyojas had many symptoms of a dead person. The gyoja are now able to experience a feeling of transparency. Everything exits their bodies-good, bad, and neutral.
One relative of a gyoja 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."
It has been reported that the doiri used to last 10 days but almost all the monks died during this period of time. So, they shorted the doiri to seven days. The doiri is also too dangerous to be held during the summer because the bodies were found to rot internally due to all the heat and lack of water in the body.
The final year of the 1000-day term consists of two 100-day terms. These consist of daily 84-kilometer runs. They complete the run within 16 to 18 hours and repeat again each day. During this time of visiting stations of worship and running, they also must bless hundreds of people a day along the road. People flock to these gyojas because they are considered special and people feel that many of their abilities can be transferred into the people by being near them.
The final 100-day term is much like the first one they did long ago and is usually quickly and easily finished. They are now declared to be a Daigyoman Ajari which is a "Saintly Master of the Highest Practice."
The final initiation is a 100,000 prayer fast and fire ceremony which takes place two or three years after the finish of the 1000-day marathon.
Since 1885, there have been 46 of these marathon monks. It is amazing how they accomplish these 1000 days of strenuous activities. They must get by on a minimum of sleep through those years so they learn to be excellent cat-nappers, catching a little sleep while doing things like stopping at stop-lights or other slight moments. While running, they learn to rest sections of their bodies as they run such as their shoulders or arms, etc.
Lung-gom-pa Runners of Tibet
The Marathon monks of Japan are quite similar to the Lung-gom-pa runners of old Tibet. There have been many records kept of these amazing running monks who appear to fly when they run. Across grassy plains, they seem to float apparently in a trance. They are said to travel nonstop for forty-eight hours or more and can cover more than 200 miles a day. Many are said to be faster than horses and at times they were used to convey messages across a country.
In order to qualify as a lung-gom-pa runner, the trainee must first learn to master seated meditation. They had lots of emphasis on breath control and visualization techniques. They had to be able to imagine their own bodies as being light as a feather.
Other techniques they had to master required them to watch a single star in the sky intently for days, never allowing themselves to be distracted. When they have attained this ability of moving meditation, they are able to fly like the wind.
The term "lung-gom" is used for the kind of training that develops uncommon nimbleness and gives them the ability to make extraordinarily long tramps with amazing rapidity. They run at a rapid pace without ever having to stop for days. They do not run short, quick races but have the ability to go far distances in a quick amount of time.
"The Way of the White Clouds" by Lama Anagarika Govinda explains that the word Lung, pronounced rlun, signifies the state of air as well as vital energy or psychic force. Gom means meditation, contemplation, concentration of mind and soul upon a certain subject. It has to do with the emptying of one’s mind of all subject-object relationships. This means that a lung-gom-pa runner is not a man who has the ability to fly through air, but one who can control his energy, re-channel and concentrate it in a new direction. These lung-gom-pa runners follow the ancient practice of pranayama. They follow the idea of completely anonymity and therefore no one is allowed to talk to them or see any part of their bodies.
True lung-gom-pa runners are very rare for it is very difficult to really master their skills. In the book, "Magic and Mystery in Tibet" the author, Alexandra David_Neel, mentions how she encountered her first lung-gom-pa runner in Northern Tibet. This is a wild, grassy region where a few tribes live in tents. There are few people in this area, and when they spotted the lung-gom- pa runner, he was alone in a plain and was the first person they had spotted in more than ten days of traveling. Thinking the man to be lost and wandering on the plain, they were going to go retrieve him and take him with them. As they grew closer they realized he was traveling at a remarkably swift speed and was one of the so-called lung-gom-pa runners. David_Neel was told not to speak to the runner because they were not allowed to break their meditation while running. The God that lives within him would then escape and the runner would die. Just witnessing this was enough to amaze her though.
"By that time he had nearly reached us; I could clearly see his perfectly calm impassive face and wide-open eyes with their gaze fixed on some invisible far distant object situated somewhere high up in space. The man did not run. He seemed to lift himself from the ground, proceeding by leaps. It look as if he had been endowed with the elasticity of a ball and rebounded each time his feet touched the ground."
The lung-gom-pa runner can also be called a Maheketang. The word "mahe" is from the fearless buffalo, which they had been know to ride. To aspire to be a part of Maheketang, there is a lot of training. This includes breathing exercises that are practiced during a seclusion period in complete darkness, which lasts three years and three months.
The student must sit cross-legged on a large cushion. He inhales and allows his body to fill with air. Then holding his breath, he jumps up with legs still crossed using no hands to support him. He repeats this always remaining in the same position. This method enables them to become extremely light, almost weightless. "The lung-gom method does not aim at training the disciple by strengthening his muscles, but by developing in him psychic states that make these extraordinary marches possible."
Only after years of drilling oneself with different types of breathing exercises are they permitted to attempt the actual racing performance itself. When he finally reaches this point in time, he must completely concentrate on the walk, the in and out breathing rhythm, always looking ahead, never speaking. He can not be distracted by anything and must keep his eyes fixed on a single object.
The best conditions for their runs are flat plains, desert spaces, and evening twilight. Even after walking for miles or days, when the evening has been reached, the tiredness of the run subsides and the lung-gom-pa runner and continue on for miles more. During their runs, they are continually told to keep their eyes fixed on a particular star. Some float through the air so much, that they wear heavy chains around their bodies so that he is not in danger of floating in the air.
After having performed all these feats, the lung-gom-pa usually finds a quiet place to retreat to where they spend the rest of their lives teaching, meditating, and pursuing various religious duties. Those who come to him, he will heal or bless and console those who are upset.
"The Zen of Running" is a book written by Fred Rohe which states, "Whatever you do with your running, you only cheat yourself by pushing, pressing, competing. There are no standards and no possible victories except the joy you are living while dancing your run." This statement is a perfect way to describe the lung- gom-pa runners of Tibet and the Marathon Monks of Mount Hiei. They do not run to simply be quick or to win. They are in a way dancing when they run. They are to totally focus on running and let the running take them away. Their trance-like movements show that they are completely focusing and are at peace. Rohe goes on to say that "our spirit is not separate from our body anymore than the water is separate from the stream. The water is the stream." This has to do with the fact that running is dancing. Their spirit is with the runners when they are moving.
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." To experience this and have these feelings would be the most remarkable thing, unbeatable by anything. I would love to see as these monks are able to see and live. They worked so incredibly hard those 1000 days to get to this point. For them, the work is not even over yet. For them the "real practice soon begins."
These amazing runners have for years been impressing others with their skills. The fact that they can accomplish all this simply to receive enlightenment is such a nice thought. Ultra Marathon Runners are provided with drinks, foods and other things that help them to run and keep their energy up. The marathon monks have only a few small meals a day consisting of some rice, soup and other vegetarian foods.
They have proven that when we are running and think we can go no farther, this just is not quite true. Just to remember these runners should help us quicken our pace. They have gone to extraordinary limits in their runs and maybe someday the rest of the world will be able to come across the wonderful talents of these people. These "spiritual athletes" intrigue me and I look forward to finding out new, interesting information about their lives.