The Marathon Monks of Mt Hiei

Syndicated, 2003

Starvation, sleeplessness and running and running to the cusp death – the running Buddhas of Mt Hiei in Japan undergo feats of astonishing endurance in the belief that enlightenment exists at the end of it all.


Photographs by Vera Hartmann

In the lush foothills of Mt Hiei, overlooking the city of Kyoto, they call the monk Sakai Yusai “superman” because of the way he once ran – further and harder than anyone in Japan, probably the world, perhaps even the history of the world. Sakai ran to within a breath of death, not just to visit mortality’s brink but to camp there a while. His austerities were so tortuous, it hurts even to recount them.

The last time he ran was 1988, when, at the age of 61, he completed two marathons per day for 100 days in succession. According to the unsparing strictures of his practice, he would rise at midnight for a simple meal of vegetables, tofu and miso soup, his only daily sustenance. At no time was he allowed to stop for rest or refreshment, nor to remove the heavy, invariably rain-sodden monastic robes and long furled hat. The only footwear permitted, despite the jagged, slippery terrain, was a crude pair of straw slippers, and at all times, he had to carry a burden of candles, food (for strangers) and books containing directions to the places of worship he had to visit, the prayers he had to recite. On a good day, Sakai would return relatively intact by 9pm. On a bad day, he’d limp in late, gashed and bloody having been attacked by wild boar or bitten by vipers. Either way, by midnight, he’d be running again.

Fellow monks recall seeing the old man labour up and down the hard, wet mountain in his distinctive upright running style, his hat bobbing behind the trees and disappearing into the mist. They recall his stoic expression, a mask for the myriad agonies that tore through his body – the raging thirst, burning muscles and shredded feet, and not least the knowledge that his only alternative to completing the course was death, either by exhaustion or suicide. Which is why Sakai also ran with a knife at his side, a rope (known, morbidly, as the ‘cord of death’) and a white ceremonial handkerchief used to veil the dead in funeral ceremonies. He’d have used them too, had Buddha chosen it. Sakai’s itinerary is graced with shrines to previous monks for whom the end came before the finish. In fact, since 1885, only 46 monks have made it – ‘it’ being perhaps the most demanding feat of endurance ever devised.

The Sennichi Kaihogyo is the summit of achievement for monks of the Tendai Buddhist order, the fabled ‘marathon monks’, or ‘running Buddhas’ of Mt Hiei. It lasts 1000 days, commonly distributed in 100-day chunks over a period of seven years, and in addition to traditional monastic chores, it includes no end of ‘kaihogyo’, literally “the practice of circling the mountains”. Starting with 40km per day for 100 days at a stretch, then climbing to 200 days, Sennichi Kaihogyu also includes a gruelling nine day fast known as Do-iri during which the monks are not only denied food, water and sleep, but must recite mantras and maintain correct posture at all times. Only then do the 100 consecutive daily double-marathons begin.

It is believed that to complete the 1000-day challenge makes one a “Saintly Master Of The Highest Practice”, or “Living Buddha”. And of the few that survive today, Sakai, the 9th living Buddha of the modern age is indisputably the greatest. When he hung up his straw slippers in 1988, he had completed his 2000th day of training – that is, he finished the Sennichi Kaihogyo twice. “The first time I didn’t feel satisfied, I could have done a lot of things better,” he said. So he did, completing his second 1000-day challenge as he entered his sixties, without sustaining a injury, and in six, rather than seven years. Piece of cake.


Panting up the hill to his temple abode, I felt woefully unworthy of an audience with Sakai. After all, Sakai is a superman, the subject of several books and documentaries and at 77, well into his autumn, he has already transcended agonies I can barely imagine, not least a fear of death. I, on the other hand, once took up jogging at a local track but lasted all of a week on account of it was a little cold.

The photographer, interpreter and I were greeted at the gates by his younger brother, a cheerful scruffy man in turned-up jeans and battered sneakers who, despite the hushed serenity of the scene, was in a Lewis Carroll hurry. Paying no heed to the brook babbling below or the scintillas of diamond sun bursting through the towering trees above, he whisked us off on a whistlestop tour of the temple: courtyard, idol, prayer bell, fountain, arch, garden, big gold Buddha, wow d’you see that Buddha, pond full of fat fish and finally, the exhausted drop-off at Sakai’s door where we removed our shoes. Suddenly, all was still. Creeping nervously through Sakai’s quiet carpeted home, we discovered him sitting at a low cluttered table, under the fierce gaze of a figure of Fudo (the God to whom the temple is dedicated ever since He appeared to a mountain monk over 1000 years ago). At his feet were a profusion of gifts from his many global visitors, and on the walls were several shots of his meeting with the Pope John Paul II in the early 90s.

“Come in, come in!” he beckoned, springing to his feet, a short, beaming man in full cream cotton right down to the dinky foot gloves that individually wrapped his toes. He hadn’t been expecting us, despite our numerous confirmations – “I don’t pay much attention to that thing,” he said tossing his diary to one side, “I believe that life is now!” He poured us green tea and smiled so warmly his thin eyes disappeared into a concertina of reassuring wrinkles. My trepidation dissolved at once. “Now what is it you would like to know?” he asked. And we spoke not only for three hours but for three days.

Sakai has none of the severity or obscurity I’d expected he neither dispenses wisdom from on high nor shelters behind koan smokescreens about clapping with one hand. Instead, he laughs and listens and tells simple stories about “once when I was going around the mountain.’ (He has this way of talking about going round and around that is immediately endearing and uncannily appropriate – he says “guru-guru-guru-guru-guru” very quickly and makes stirring shapes with his hands). For a dear old man with a benign, twinkling smile, he has many spry, youthful qualities he is open and inquisitive and delights in the smallest of things, such as butterflies and rain. He is also an elegant and effusive storyteller, whose Japanese, I’m assured, is remarkably humble for a man of his eminence.

Sakai-2  Sakai-7

Yet the enduring experience of Sakai’s company is his unencumbered devotion to the moment. He is present and therein lies his presence – always utterly attentive and patient and without the slightest air of distraction or haste. To spend time with Sakai is to be flattered by his focus.

His remarkable story is one of wandering, a perilous proximity to death and the tremendous metamorphosis of a hopeless forty-year-old through spiritual labour. It is all the more inspiring because Sakai was by no means “likely to succeed” — rather he was considered a shiftless dullard who would never amount to squat.

Repeatedly unable to graduate from school, he answered the call for Japan’s war effort, specifically because the recruitment drive offered automatic graduation to those who completed army training. Given his fatal bent, Sakai picked the kamikaze pilot program, an indecisive choice at best – what did he plan to do with his graduation certificate as he hurtled to certain death? In any case, WWII ended before his training so he left empty-handed, and not a little troubled by the toll his country had paid in defeat. “Why have so many fine men perished,” he said, “‘while a no-account like me remains alive?”

He then found filing work at a university library and, seduced by his new setting, resolved to graduate from school once more. This time he was so confident that, before retaking his exams, he boasted far and wide that he’d already passed and would definitely be a university student next term. When he failed with flying colours he was so ashamed, that rather than admit it, he faked it – he took the train to university, disembarked one stop early and wandered around Tokyo all day.

“That was the start of my wandering life,” said Sakai. “Little did I think then that I was merely rehearsing for my 84km runs, 20 years later!” He drifted from job to job, from clerk to noodle vendor to black marketeer, a purposeless roam propelled either by necessity or any number of teflon whims. “Sometimes I’d find work for a month, sometimes two years, but I’d wander and work, wander and work. That’s how it was until I was 40.” By which point, his aimless existence had led to the great tragedy of his life, which in turn turned him towards God – his wife committed suicide.

“My poor wife,” recalled Sakai. “Her mother told her to leave me because I was a good-for-nothing, but for a wife it is very difficult to leave her husband. So she was caught in a dilemma. The only thing she could do was to leave us both, so she removed herself entirely.” Although he now hedges around the loss with euphemism, at the time, her death left him devastated, alone and approaching 40. Viewing the rubble of his life with increasing anguish, he continued his listless drift until his ex-mother in law, of all people, was sufficiently alarmed by his state of mind to persuade him to visit her favoured temple, Enryakuji, the beating heart of the marathon monks. He had little to lose, so he went, making the 50km journey from Osaka – by foot, of course. He left at 7pm one night and arrived 22 hours later, so ending his tortuous path to the mountain he would call home for the next 35 years.

“I was too old, usually they do not permit anyone over 35,” he said. “But the monks took pity on me and allowed me the honour of performing a prayer ceremony that involved rising from kneeling to standing 108 times.’ It had to be performed three times a day, each time after standing beneath a freezing waterfall, for purification. ‘Every time that I rose, I could feel my faith grow,” he said. It was 1965.

Enryakuji is the most magnificent cluster of temples on Mt Hiei. We stayed a night there , in the temple guest house, to witness a monk in the excruciating throes of Do-iri, the 9-day fast. Every morning at 2am, the 42 year old Fujinami would emerge from his seclusion and perform the water ceremony – walking 200 yards downhill to the well, and returning with two pails. It sounds simple enough but come Day Six when he’s withered by dehydration and wrestling powerful hallucinations remember, he hasn’t eaten, drank or slept what once took 15 minutes may last an hour or more. According to standard medical primers, Fujinami ought to be already dead.

Do-iri is regarded as the most treacherous stage of Sennichi Kaihogyu, more dangerous even than the endless marathons, and since Fujinami is the first monk in 10 years to attempt it, the temple was abuzz with anticipation. A coachload of followers had arrived, and a TV crew, and the coffee lounge beside the gift shop was choked with their cigarette smoke and bickering. (It’s odd, all this smoking here in the crisp mountain air, around such dedicated runners. But the Japanese are also dedicated smokers: every corridor had a cigarette machine. Besides, the marathon monks are not athletes in the pursuit of good health and physical perfection. Rather they seek to transcend their physicality, the husk of the soul. One veteran of Sennichi Kaihogyo, the charismatic Utsumi Shunsho, is even a smoker himself.)

Sat among the smokers was Sakai, in his golden robes, bashfully receiving the reverence of those around him. “I don’t like to wear all this gold,” he whispered. “But if I don’t these people will be disappointed.” Sakai had come to preface the water ceremony with a lecture about his own experiences.

“Your nails die during Do-iri and you develop deep furrows in your hands, between your fingers,” he explained, as members of the audience sidled around the hall taking pictures. “You also realise how sweet water tastes. When you are permitted to rinse your mouth out, many men become hysterical and delirious, they want to seize the cup, they speak to it.” Sakai chuckled. “You get a full glass of water but to make sure you do not drink any, there is a test – when you spit it back the glass is supposed to overflow, because during the fast, your mouth accumulates a lot of residue, mostly blood.” The first time Sakai underwent Do-iri, he spat out a thick brown fluid, as is typical. The second time, however, his spittle was clear.

Incredibly, Sakai regards his first Do-iri as only his second closest brush with death. His nearest miss took place in 1971, barely six years into his monkhood, when he revived the “ceaseless nembutsu”, a practice deemed so dangerous that it had been banned since the Meiji era when the last monk who attempted it collapsed, his legs swelling to twice their normal size. His parting words were ‘please, please do not let anyone do this anymore.’ So in wades Sakai, 100 years later from the off, Sakai always had a taste for the ultimate showdown. The “ceaseless nembutsu” involves chanting the name of Buddha (“Hail to Amida Buddha”) incessantly for 90 days at a temple called Jogyo-do, while walking around a blood-red candle-lit hall and stopping for only two hours of sleep per day.

“I saw this golden glow in the distance, and all these dancing specks of light and I remember coming down from what seemed like an immense height and just gliding,” said Sakai. “I’m sure that if I’d just followed the feeling, and if I hadn’t opened my eyes when I hit the floor, I would have passed over into death.”

fujinami-forest  young-monk

Fujinami’s water ceremony took place on a fittingly drenched night, at a temple tucked deep into the mountain, a good hour’s hike away. Sakai himself couldn’t be there, but he’d arranged for a young Zen master called Takyebashi (literally “Bamboo Forest”) to accompany us instead. Bamboo was an unlikely companion a 31 year old meditation teacher with a secret penchant for hard rock. As we trudged down the mountain, squelching and crunching on wet pebbles and boots, Bamboo would call out the names of bands he liked. ‘Marilyn Manson-o! Ozzy Osbourne-o!’ In the distance we could make out the natter of old women, huddled under temple-blue umbrellas but charging up the mountain nonetheless the same women who were sprint-smoking in the lounge hours before. “Nine Inch Nails-o!” announced a delighted Bamboo.

At the temple, lit loud with lanterns, one hundred pilgrims and a TV crew jostled for a glimpse of the heroic Fujinami. When he appeared, weary on his feet, he was swiftly surrounded by stern monks bearing lanterns and umbrellas, and as the sombre procession marched down the hill, the crowd began to pray for the monk’s soul, a leaden dirge that Sakai later informed me, had no literal translation since it was not composed of any recognisable words – rather it was a crude Japanese mimickry of the sound of a Sanskrit chant. “It is the sound that matters,” said Sakai, “the sound has the power.”

It was a visceral, elemental night. There was fire and water and a full moon on a mountain top. A small crowd of strangers had gathered to witness the near-death of another and the air was humming with ancient incantations that no one quite understood. I had an odd feeling of collective solitude. The rain was relentless even as I cursed my puddle shoes, I thought about rain, the bane of a marathon monk’s life. When he runs, it triples the burden of his robes, ruins his sandals and makes him slip and fall. And when he fasts, every drop mocks his fatal thirst. Everywhere you looked tonight was rain and the lush forest life it provides you could hear it, feel it, smell it in the air but only Fujinami, the wilfully desiccated monk at the heart of it all was discovering rain’s Buddha nature.

After 20 minutes, Fujinami returned, buckling under the weight, but otherwise impenetrably focussed. As the temple doors closed behind him, and he returned to his punishing deprivation, we tramped back up the mountain, brimming with our own mortality.

A year on it is stirring to think of these monks running, even as you read this, through the mountains on their mythic, severe journeys. Fujinami went on to complete his daily double marathons through the mountains, and Sakai is probably hiking up some mountain or other, he can scarcely help himself. Since completing kaihogyu he has hiked through China and India, meeting religious leaders, and he now has his sights on South America. For Sakai, training never stops.

“I die every night,” he told me, cheerfully, “and every morning I am born anew. This feeling grew within me while I was doing mountain training. When I was running, I was in the world of motion, then I entered Do-iri, which is nine days of stillness. Similarly, after each day that I circled the mountains” – ‘guru-guru-guru-guru’ – “I came back to sleep. I would look back on the day and assess any mistakes I’d made and this allowed me to be reborn the next day. That’s why I see each day as a life. It’s just by repeating this day after day, that I completed my 2000 days of training.’