torstai 21. joulukuuta 2017

Secrets of the Marathon Monks and Chain Gangs

Secrets of the
Marathon Monks and Chain Gangs

A long time ago, as a youngster in the peak of my vitality, I read about the Marathon Monks of Mt. Hiei (Tendai-school of Japanese Buddhism) and was very impressed. Before discussing my own views of this practice, I'd first like to introduce marathon running as a form of Tendai Buddhist-training.

For deeper understanding, find this article from Wikipedia or John Stevens' book on marathon monks.


The formal name of the practice is called kaihogyo which literally means ”to circle around a mountain”. The name comes from the fact that the monks run or walk marathons on paths around mountains. Monks who are accepted as marathon monks, go through an exceptionally demanding training which on top of the daily chores of being a temple monk, includes running or walking marathons at night.

The full training lasts for 7 years. On first, second and third years, the monks run 40 kilometers for 100 days in a row. On fourth and fifth years, they run marathons for 200 days in a row. On sixth year, they go 60 kilometers per day for 100 days in a row and finally on the seventh year they run a double marathon for 100 days in a row. The training is finished with a dry fast of 7 days and nights (used to be 10 days but the monks tended to die before finishing it) when the monk is required to sit up in meditation for 23-24 hours a day, guarded by two monitors whose job is to make sure the monk doesn't fall asleep. Yup, it's pretty extreme.

Perhaps it's good to add that most of the marathon monks are grown men, not youngsters. One of the monks, Yusai Sakai, finished his second training of 7 years when he was 60 years old.

My own experiences

I haven't done training as hard as the marathon monks but back in 2003 I did half marathons daily for 3 months in a row, just to test the technique. Being at the peak of my vitality and in a great physical shape without much social or financial responsibilities, with plenty of time to rest, it was no problem at all. Now, at 38 years old, I am well overweight, very occupied with work and family matters with very little time for rest. This doesn't of course mean that I couldn't do the same practice in less intensive form.

I have recently returned to walking practice of just few kilometers (5-10 km) a day where the same techniques and inner principles are applied. I have no intention or desire to go into extremes but rather to enjoy daily walks while applying the knowledge of physical and energetic yogas, most importantly mantras and ati yoga/dzogchen.

I'd like to go through the various aspects of this practice and give my own explanations how it can be done.

Body and Breath

The body is kept straight during walking. Chest and shoulders are relaxed, arms hang freely on the sides. Toes, knees and hips are aimed straight forward at all times. The rhythm of stepping should be kept the same despite of up or downhills. This means that the length of the step is adjusted though the rhythm stays the same. The whole body as one, is subtly extended but simultaneously relaxed.
The breath always flows through the nose, not through the mouth. Breathing moves the belly, doesn't raise the chest or shoulders.
Eyes gaze straight ahead. They don't look around, except when being attentive of the traffic.

In the West there is no culture how the body is kept upright, yet relaxed at the same time. We do not have culture for carrying the body the way it does in China or Japan. To get the alignment right, one has to know how the structure of the body, bones and joints, are built or aligned in a way that moving becomes natural, flowing and effortless. For thorough understanding of how to align the body it is beneficial to study inner martial arts such as tai chi, yi quan or chi gong.

It is very easy to conduct a simple test where one first pays no attention to the alignment of the posture or the harmony of the breath while walking or running too fast. That's how most people go. After going like that for an hour or two once can experience strain, discomfort and scattering of energy. On the other hand, if one skillfully opens the joints, carefully aligns the body, keeps breathing deep and even, and steps in rhythm one can see that it feels much more pleasant. After such walk one is filled with vitality and freshness.

Mind and Energy

In Tibet, there is a similar tradition of yogic running. The name for it is lung gom which literally means energy contemplation or energy meditation. I have not received training as a Tibetan marathon runner either but I think I know what they mean with this energy contemplation which enables them to walk or run extremely long distances with relative ease. I am sure shamanic practices and trances could be used too (I have no experience of those) but I prefer to look this as dharma practice.

When going long distances (long to oneself) one puts both one's body and mind into a pressure cooker. This has some similarities as sitting meditation but due to the physical involvement it is also very different.

At some point there will be some physical discomfort. Also the mind will be scattered and clouded with thought and emotions. In order to keep going in a harmonious, comfortable and non-destructive way, the posture needs to be repeatedly re-aligned and relaxed, breath kept deep and mind kept serene. If this is not done, one's vital energy will get scattered and continuing becomes very difficult, if not impossible.

To keep going despite of great obstacles the marathon monks keep a knife with them which they are to use to kill themselves if they give up. As a young man I used to keep a 2 euro coin, that I jokingly called ”two of death” in my pocket for a bus ticket (never used it). Well, it's again that old Japanese die hard mentality but I think it is good to have that same spirit of not giving up unless one absolutely has to.

So when pushing oneself to limits, one feels discomfort. Physical and emotional. Just like in sitting meditation, the situation requires energy skills to solve these knots of energy in order to keep going and to reap dharmic benefit from the practice.

The Genious of Work Song

We used to have a vibrant culture of work song in the West. From Finland at least, it has completely disappeared but I believe it still exists in some technically less developed countries which I think is a wonderful thing.

People used to sing together among physical work. On fields, at construction, in whatever physical work, even in war, people kept their minds and work fresh by singing songs. The most obvious beneficial aspect of work song is that it keeps the spirits high. However, there is another, a hidden aspect to it. It is bone vibration.

When one sings, the bones vibrate subtly. Through continuous chanting, this subtle vibration keeps the bones, joints and muscles in constant state of vibration which prevents knots of tension from accumulating. The body is getting subtly massaged. This has the effect that one won't get as tired and as soon as one would without chanting. This can be easily tested.

Pioneers, slaves and chain gangs had to do hard physical labour for 12 hours a day for 6 or 7 days a week, sometimes for years on end. I think this would have been impossible without work song and it's secretly envigorating benefits.


Along the 40 kilometer route, the marathon monks are required to stop at small shrines and other locations for short prayers. According to Stevens, the monks stop up to 200 times along the way. This means that they make brief stops every 200 meters. It is here, in brief breaks of tantric practice and meditation, where the secret of their demanding practice lies at.

Tendai is a tantric school of buddhism. This means that they have deity empowerments and mantra practices, together with sutras. According to a Tendai buddhist priest that I once discussed with, the marathon monks mainly chant the mantras of their chosen deity (tib. yidam), or buddha, in their practice. So they don't only get constant relief from physical and emotional stress through bone vibration caused by the use of their voice, also their minds are flushed with the utterly clarifying energy of the buddhas.

To speculate on this a bit, I'd say that while the currect World Champion of marathon running could probably endure days or perhaps even some weeks of staying up all day working and running marathons at night, it is absolutely certain that without specific yogic knowledge and application of energy work and mantras, the champion would not accomplish 100 days of marathon (not to even mention the more challening parts) in a row.

My own Experimentation

I am a tantric yogi and a practitioner of dzogchen, so I have used the mantras I have learned from my gurus during walking practice, combining it with the body and breath aspects that were outlined above.

One thing that is very important is to use audible voice because the bones need to vibrate physically. The effect is not the same with silent mantras.

I used to walk 1-2-3 kilometers in one stretch and then take a brief break of about half a minute of chanting mantras but recently I have found that stopping for mantras every few hundred meters is much better. I certainly prefer that over walking longer distances at stretch.

The brief tantric breaks have the effect of literally flushing one's bodymind with pure and fresh energy. When this is continued for 1-2 hours in a row, among walking, it has a very profound effect which, I think can be compared to several hours or even a day or two on meditation retreat. I think the profundity of this effect is because the moving physical body is also a very active ingredient of the practice.

I mostly use guru mantras when stopping. Sometimes I use the short syllables of Tibetan Heart Yoga when walking, rhythmically intoned, with the rhythm of the feet. Sometimes I chant long syllables, like Ooommmm Aaaa Huummmm, during breaks and walking because they get to the really deep tensions.

When I was young and did half marathons I did not know that the monks stop frequently or that they chant prayers and mantras. At the time I was a zen practitioner so it might have not made any difference anyway but now I greatly enjoy combining all these elements into one. I recommend you to try.

Thank you for reading.

- Kim Katami, 12/2017.