April 30, 2012

Tricycle Film Club for May: The Marathon Monks of Mt Hiei

 marathon monksMarathon Monks of Mt Hiei is a compelling documentary that captures the final leg of Tendai Buddhist monk Tanno Kakudo's 1000 day kaihogyo. The documentary is based on a book written by John Stevens also titled Marathon Monks of Mt Hiei. Here is some information from John Stevens' book that will help bring the documentary into perspective:

The marathon monks of Mt Hiei are a small group of monks within the Tendai sect. The Hiei marathon monks are called kaihogyo monks, which literally means "practice of circling mountains." The practice of kaihogyo has a long history, beginning in the 9th century CE with a boy named So-o, who arrived at fifteen years of age to the Tendai Buddhists of Hiei. He encountered, or met, God Fudo Myo-o and spent his life building halls in Hiei to house Fudo Myo-o images. The hall throughout Mt Hiei became part of the Hiei monk's kaihogyo, completing long terms of walking to these sites to pray and chant.

Becoming a monk at Mt Hiei requires at least an 100 day term, then one must ask for permission to complete the remaining 900 days. This 1,000 day trek takes over 7 years, over which the monks walk 27,000 miles (longer than the circumference of the earth, which is 24,900 miles). Those who choose to participate in this task are called gyoja, or "spiritual athletes." They don white garments and carry a knife and rope to kill themselves if they cannot complete the distances.

There are rules for the kaihogyo:

1) During the run you must not remove robe or hat
2) One must not deviate from course
3) There is no stopping for rest or refreshment
4) There is no smoking or drinking

The terms are divided into 3:

Term 1: 100 days
80 pairs of sandals are provided, 40km/day walking or running, a special white hat is worn.

Term 2: 700 days
First 300 days are still 40km/day, but in the fourth and fifth years you must complete 200 consecutive days. Following this 200, you receive a walking stick and special tabi hat (this is where the movie picks up). In addition, you must complete the grueling doiri (a 7-9 day fast without food, water, or sleep, which used to be done for 10 days in summer but was discontinued after all of the participants died from their bodies rotting from the inside). This exercise is meant for the gyojo to meet death.

Term 3: Two 100 day terms. 84 km runs daily.


Join us as a Supporting or Sustaining Member for this exciting film! A link is provided below to watch a clip:


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richardson.npp's picture

I was going to say, seven to nine days without food, water, or sleep could really be dangerous. It sure didn't seem like that could actually happen. Food yes, but sleep and water, no.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Jesus logged in 40 days and 40 nights in a desert and came out OK.

ANDREWCOOPER24's picture

I find this a remarkable film, and in many ways. One aspect of it I admire is that it gives a sense of the vastness of Buddhist tradition. I think many of us, especially in the West, are exposed to a very narrow range of Buddhism, and much of that is selected for its compatibility with our prior attitudes. What we get seems familiar because it is selected based on its familiarity. But this shows one of those aspects of Buddhism that are challenging for their unfamiliarity. Much of Buddhism is unfamiliar like this, and it requires effort to see past one's ideas to how it is experienced by those who see things very differently. I also appreciated how one sees how deeply the practice of one marathon monk is shared in and supported by so many others. This seems very deeply ingrained in how the whole thing works. The extreme effort put forth by one person is the occasion for encouraging the religious life of countless others. I wonder if it is even possible to have marathon monks, in any meaningful sense, without the whole network of relationships that they are part of and supported by. And there seems to be a real recognition of this. I find the story told here a fascinating look at something profound and yet hard to grasp except on its own terms.