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The Marathon Monks
of Mount Hiei

Order at Der.org

57 Minutes
Available on VHS

The narrator opens this 57 minute documentary by saying: "The ultimate test of human athletic endurance is the marathon; a 26 mile cross country dash reflecting the achievement of a Greek messenger in the year 490 B.C. Today the unrivaled champions of this endeavor are not the professional stars, but an order of Tendai Buddhist monks whose monastery is in central Japan. They are the Marathon Monks of Mount Hiei." This film follows Tanno Kakudo, the sixth man to attempt the feat since World War II and only the 46th monk since 1885. Over the course of seven years the 1000 marathons cover 27,000 miles. He sees the physical ordeal as a spiritual event to seek enlightenment.

Most marathons take between six and seven hours as he stops at the 270 sacred sites including temples, tombs, ponds and images on Mount Hiei to chant and recite prayers that are outlined in a handwritten manual called a tebumi. For the first three years he carries his Higasa hat (shaped to represent a lotus leaf breaking the surface of water) and wears his straw sandals without any socks. Starting the fourth year tabi socks are permitted and starting the fifth year he begins using a wooden staff called a byakutai gyōja. Tanno Kakudo lives each day as if it is his last and has vowed to end his own life if he fails in the daily pilgrimages. He finds joy and satisfaction when he comes back alive and well.

Upon completion of the 700th marathon, ending the fifth year, is the start of the dōiri, a nine day confinement without any food, water, rest or sleep. Over 100,000 chants are conducted and he leaves the shrine each night to walk to a pond to obtain an offering to Fudō Myō-ō, their deity. He completes the journey in twelve minutes the first night and by the last night, having lost a quarter of his body weight, the task takes eighty minutes. Tanno now has three weeks to regain his strength before the marathons increase each day to 37 mile pilgrimages, during the sixth year, that leave the mountain into the cities below.

The last year of marathons consist of two sets of 100 52 mile (84 km) marathons. Taking about 18 hours daily to cover this distance, sleep is limited to a couple of hours nightly before the route is again covered the next day. After completing the last marathon, Tanno Kakudo begins an eight day fire ceremony where prayer sticks are offered to Fudō Myō-ō which is his final right in his quest for enlightenment. His followers believe he is now a "living Buddha" and teaches by example and possesses great spiritual insight.

To order this film you will need to contact Documentary Educational Resources who obtained rights to distribute this film in late 2002 and whose prices are directed towards institutions, although individual-use-only copies can be obtained for $49.95. This film was completed in 1992 based on the book (featured in the picture) Marathon Monks of Mount Hiei by John Stevens, who himself was a marathon monk. The book has an extensive history of Mount Hiei, Tendai Buddhism, a complete glossary, and the practices of the "Running Buddhas". For additional perspective read an article that appeared December 1996 in Ultra Marathon Running that was written by Holly A. Schmid entitled The Spiritual Athlete’s Path to Enlightenment. The film was directed by Michael Yorke while Harry Miles Muhiem gives narration to this fascinating film production. The writer and producer was Christopher J. Hayden who is considering returning to Japan to do a follow-up documentary.

Some quotes from Marathon Monks of Mount Hiei include:
  • "I wanted to do it, I asked, and they let me."

  • "The first and last day of the 1000 day walk are no different; the beginning is the end and the end is the beginning. Your only aim is to achieve your initial purpose, then you can really enjoy what you have done. There is no backing out. When you have finished what you have set out to do you have created something of huge value."

  • "The more you suffer the more pleasure you get from what you are doing. If you let your mind dwell on the pain you will debase it. If you only think about the pain you are not ready. The pain is only a technique so you can learn to overcome it. To get to the top you have to climb the mountain step by step. If you find that painful you should not have set out on the journey in the first place. It is not the pain that really matters, pain is only a symptom of the effort you are putting into the task."

  • "Never look back, be forever mindful of others, and keep the eyes at all times set on the way. If you do this, the Marathon Monks are telling us, there is nothing that cannot be accomplished."

· Documentary   · 1992   · Topics   · Ultra Running