Tricycle Film Club

Buddhist films and discussion for the
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The Marathon Monks of Mount Hiei

Extreme Asceticism

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This month Tricycle Supporting and Sustaining Members will be treated to two films at the Tricycle Film Club, presented in partnership with BuddhaFest Film Festival, June 14-17 in Washington, DC. The first is The Marathon Monks of Mount Hiei, a documentary about the extreme asceticism of running Buddhists in Japan, and the second is Into Great Silence, a documentary about the everyday lives of Carthusian monks of the Grande Chartreuse, high in the French Alps. The Marathon Monks of Mount Hiei begins today and Into Great Silence will begin Monday, May 14.

The Marathon Monks of Mount Hiei (1992)

The marathon monks of Mount Hiei are some of the best runners in the world. These monks are known for their physical endurance in running, a form of extreme asceticism called Kaihogyo that lasts seven years. After the fifth year, the monks begin a nine day confinement without any food, water, rest, or sleep. Then they start running again. During the final year of Kaihogyo the monks run 84 km per day for 100 days straight.

The film follows Tanno Kakudo, who, over seven years, completes 1000 marathon pilgrimages to the 270 sacred sites on Mount Hiei, Central Japan.

The Marathon Monks of Mount Hiei, written and produced by Christopher J. Hayden, is based on a book of the same title by John Stevens.

Join director Michael Yorke in a discussion of this movie.

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tjfryberger's picture

Encourages me to pay off my student loans, or in other words my financial marathon.

I think the film was good, but it did not hit some of the key points that I would have expected it to. Namely, the meditational aspect of the "marathons". The notion that a single focus on anything, whether it be the breath, a mantra, emptiness, or in this case a marathon focuses and quiets the mind and can lead to potential enlightenment.

I did not like the idea that pain is something to be ignored, schools that encourage sitting through pain in order to break the idea of "like" and "dislike" are extreme in my opinion and not within the teachings of the Buddha regarding the middle way.

Why complain about it though when the film is clearly about an ascetic, and therefore extreme practice? I think people may have missed the point of the selection of the film. It's an example of fanatical, extreme practice rather than a balanced path between overindulgence and self-mortification.

Interesting film and cautionary too. A good example of how you can damage yourself by trying too hard.

Those that fail are also to either hang or disembowel themselves. Just a tad harsh,,,,,

gmskinner's picture

I'm struggling with both of the movies this month. They seem to celebrate extremely self-absorbed individuals. Regardless of the religion or belief system, how is the strict regiment and ritual not attachment? Where is the oneness and compassion and connection to everything else? Where is the right livelihood in such isolation and self-centeredness?

Buddha and Christ did not live in isolation and ascetism, but rather in very open communities and were very giving of themselves if we can trust the written histories. Why celebrate what seems very much the opposite of the religious dogma of Buddhism and Christianity? How are obsessions with running, personal ambition, silence and ritual any different than other forms of greed and selfishness?

Dominic Gomez's picture

Mahayana was the movement within the sangha to address such attachment to oneself.

markkemark's picture

This was a very nice look at an extreme form of Buddhism that I never knew existed...thank you very much!

filiperamosonline's picture


This was very very cool. Will recomend to some friends!

Anicca1956's picture

Very cool. As extreme as it seemed, I am gladdened to see evidence of people finding their own way in this lifetime. We don't all have to be what is considered "safe". Extremes are the norm for some of us. Thanks.

Danzen's picture

First i would to thank the Tricycle Film Club for bringing yet another great film. And to the director of this film Michael Yorke for showing us the monks of Mount Hiei and there extreme asceticism called Kaihogyo.Mr Yorke was Tanno Kakudo raised from birth to become a monk? Also did it say that when he completed this marathon that he would be a Buddha?I need to watch again or maybe read the book.Also i was wondering how old he was when he started and finished?Again thanks for a great film.

discoskwalla's picture

where can i get a copy of this video? i've been intending to start running myself recently, and this could be a great spiritual motivator....

Michael Yorke's picture

Great to hear of all your fascination and interest in this film. I am the person who directed the shoot of this film about 20 years ago. It was a very magical and inspiring experience. Tanno Kakudo and the other monks on Mont Hiei were very respectful, fascinating and learned and cultured people. Although it did involve a certain degree of hardship the profound satisfaction that came from experiencing one's own limitations was an intense lesson in self-awareness and other-worldly ways of being. Asceticism as a route to understanding the remarkable abilities of the human spirit is very familiar to many Buddhist and Hindu belief systems.
We spent about 3 weeks living in Tanno's monastery on Mount Hiei filming them on this remarkable ascetic practice and we went on two complete marathons with them in order to film it. Dear Tanno was most cooperative in letting us into his life, but most amusing of all were the many people who helped him in this endeavor and the large crowd of devotees who followed him and who also accompanied him on his daily marathon runs..
While being no great athlete myself; I am an anthropologist who has studied eastern religions and if anyone wants to know more about Tendai and Zen Buddhism or for that matter Hinduism on which I am an expert, I am happy to offer my comments and experiences. But for full information on the Marathon Monks John Stevens;s book is very worthwhile.
What you are seeing here is the version of the film that was re-cut and edited for the American TV transmission by Chris Hayden. The narration has been slightly changed from the European and British version.

achathampally's picture

I loved this film. It was very inspiring to see what one can accomplish when truly dedicated to one's practice. Thanks so much :)

ladyjane9's picture

I appreciate the opportunity to learn about an unfamiliar (to me) way of practicing Buddhism. As an American-born, Christian-born soul who has only practiced my own meandering path of "Buddhist bytes" extracted from the vast amounts of information online, I find the Marathon Monks of Hiei fascinating, inspiring, resonating, and yet very disturbing.
Like Andrew Cooper said in the above post, it is inspiring to see the karma of how one marathon monk's intense practice enhances the spiritual lives of so many around him.
Yet, as a soul-searching, somewhat- spoiled, somewhat-provincial American, my involuntary response is to discount this extreme asceticism as being contrary to the Middle Way, the "right" way to practice Buddhism. I am aware that this is a judgemental feeling, but it persists. The Buddhism I embrace encourages avoidance of suffering. The ascetic lifestyle strikes me as an illusory goal of trying to grasp a shortcut to Enlightenment.
I appreciate the opportunity this documentary has given me to work with my discomfort and fear of physical pain and extreme challenges. Thank you.

lashamrock's picture

Wow! It certainly makes me want to evaluate my own practice. Gassho, dina

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.

Michael Yorke's picture

How right you are. The support system behind Tanno was huge. Because of this only one person at a time is allowed to undertake this practice even though there was a queue of others waiting to take over when he finished. He also had his own masseur and acupuncturist to help him through all his problems and when I sprained my ankle on the run with him the treatment was excellent.

lotusrainfive's picture

Very uplifting, This wonderful film has giving me more determination for my own practise.
Gassho in oneness _/\_

koshin's picture

I bought this book when I lived in Japan from 1977 until 1991...beautiful story to tell.

koshin's picture

wonderful documentary. I was wondering, does anyone know how one can purchase this film? I work in four prisons in WI with Sangha in each, the inmates would find this enjoyable and helpful in their practice. Life in prison, or many years could be seen as an marathon for more skillful means and enlightenment...thanks, hands together in peace and compassion - gasho! ko shin, Bob Hanson

Michael Yorke's picture

I filmed this movie for British TV transmission and I have copies of it that are available. What you have seen is the version re-edited for American broadcast that is subtly different but basically the same. Do get in touch if you want a DVD of it.

dannystuart1979's picture

Michael, I'd be really keen on buying a copy of the DVD of the Marathon Monks for my partner's father's 65th birthday. He ran a double maraton a couple years ago (!!) and I think he'd love to see this film. I look forward to your reply.

matthew.cheyne's picture

Hi Michael,

I'm in Australia and I'd love to get a copy of it on DVD. What do I have to do?


Sam Mowe's picture

Hi Bob,

There is information about purchasing The Marathon Monks of Mount Hiei here (though it looks kind of expensive!):

But if you're looking for a film to show inmates, you might want to check out last month's film club title, The Dhamma Brothers, here:

Sam Mowe
Associate Editor

JKPenumbra's picture

Whoa! Having been a Japanese major, I found this quite interesting. I wonder where the Deities came into place? I know Buddhism takes on many aspects of the cultures where it expands, Most Japanese people do not exclusively identify themselves as adherents of a single religion; rather, they incorporate elements of various religions in a syncretic fashion. I'm assuming the Ryukyuan religion has something to do with it!

This was quite an interesting watch, thank you! :)

Dominic Gomez's picture

Re: deities. It's part of Tendai doctrine. Practitioners are allowed to combine Buddhism with indigenous Shinto beliefs. All gods, human beings, animals, plants, rocks, rivers, etc. are regarded as having buddha nature.

Eric Wetzel's picture

Good question. Buddha says this of course, but what exactly is 'middle'. What is NOT middle? Does one 'do' middle, does one 'be' middle. Certainly withholding food,sleep and water for 9 days is not middle, but can we imagine the hiei monks to dwell in such a state during the daigo?

tjfryberger's picture

This is a good point, my middle is not the same as everyone's. Example, cholesterol, some can eat a little and have their numbers go thru the roof. Others can eat a cow and not have any issues. Nice point.

My opinion, this film represents the extreme, no doubt. I doubt that most are ready to hop a plane to Japan to try out this practice.

Dominic Gomez's picture

I practice middle way as common sense: no extremes that can alienate people unfamiliar with the Law.

Michael Yorke's picture

In order to understand where the center is, it lovely to first know the outer limits of the human experience. That way the center is even stronger, more powerful and valuable. We need to understand our limits to find an inner balance. Even Tanno said that to reach enlightenment we need to understand our limits.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Yesterday I watched a guy with no legs below his knees pull himself up a curb in a wheelchair. His limits were not my limits.

frepie's picture

Who said that Buddhism was the way of the middle?