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On Mount Hiei in Japan, there can be found a small monastic group of Tendai monks who regularly accomplish many remarkable challenges. This mountain had been a main attraction for Buddhism since the foundation of the order of Marathon Monks. "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, miracle cures, ceaseless devotion, divine joy, and nature worship - while promising enlightenment in this very body."

This mountain monastery began in 1787 and still flourishes today. It is a beautiful place populated with all types of animals where no hunting is allowed. Rainfall is heavy in Japan and many tall trees block the sun so it can get very cold there and snow covers the ground far into April. At the base of Hiei, there is a kind of little temple-town where most of the retired priests go to live.

The Tendai priests generally marry and raise families, indeed, many of the trainees at Mount Hiei who hope to qualify for priesthood are the children of elder monks. There are many who just appear from the general public though such as college dropouts searching for the meaning of life, retired military men, reformed drunks, and unusually, a few women.

These fascinating marathon monks began their story in the year 831 with a boy who came to Hiei at age 15. A Tendai abbot called Ennin noticed this boy and initiated him into the mysteries of the faith. He named him So-o which meant "one who serves for others."

The legend goes that the Fire God, Fudo Myo-o, appeared before So-o by a waterfall. So-o was overwhelmed and jumped into the falls where 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 whom the monks still venerate, and named Myo-o-in.

So-o became an amazing monk who travelled around praying to accomplish many things such an curing people from terminal illnesses, difficult childbirths, demon possessions and much more. He believed in a type of practice where every stone and blade of grass were to be venerated and all things were seen as a manifestation of Amida Buddha.

He kept returning to Hiei where he would eventually 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 tasks. 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 the monks an appreciation of the respective stations of worship. If a gyoja receives permission, he is given a special handbook which describes everything he needs 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 cannot complete the term.

For their feet, 80 pairs of straw sandals are woven to be used for the 100-day term. In rainy weather, these sandals disintegrate within hours so many spares have to be carried. During dry weather, they usually last a few days. A special hat is also given to the gyoja for the journey.

The basic rules of kaihogyo are very important and must be followed. They are:

Then the walk begins. Each day, the gyoja begins at midnight. They are given a small meal and around 1:30, they start walking 40 kilometers each day. There are many stations that they must stop by to pray and chant and 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 marathon. 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 extremely taxing. Their feet and legs begin to throb and often get cuts and infections. Minor breaks and fractures from stumbling can result in serious malformation of the feet which causes the monk excruciating pain and as it can be so cold in the Japanese Mountains, they often get frostbite and become ill during the first weeks of the run. They also experience many problems such an pains in their back and hips, diarrhoea and haemorrhoids. By the 70th day, the gyoja has finally "acquired the marathon monk stride", that is, 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.

If the gyoja successfully completes the 100-day term, he can petition to try the 1000-day term. This term takes seven years to complete.

The first 300 days of this are basic training where they continue to walk for 40 kilometers per day. In the 4th and 5th year, the pace quickens where they walk for 200 consecutive days. After accomplishing this, they are allowed to use a walking stick and wear special tabi and bamboo 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 beforehand, 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. They usually go outside and take in the fresh mountain air so that 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 designed to make 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 from incense sticks, smell and identify foods from miles away and see the sun and moonlight seep into the interior of the temple." Physiologists who examined the bodies at the end of the nine day period found that the gyoja had many symptoms of a corpse. The gyoja are now able to experience a feeling of transparency. Everything passes directly through their bodies, be it 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 and so the length was shortened to nine 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 walks. They complete the walk within 16 to 18 hours and repeat it each day. During this time of visiting stations of worship and walking, they must also bless hundreds of people a day along the road. People flock to the 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."

Since 1885, there have been 46 of these marathon monks, and hopefully, given their phenomenal endurance, there will be many more in years to come.

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