Secrets of the
Marathon Monks and Chain Gangs
by Kim Katami,
Pemako Buddhism, www.pemakobuddhism.com
12/2017, updated 2/2020
See also: Walking Meditation Tutorial at YouTube.
A long time ago, as a youngster in the peak of my vitality, I read about 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 as a form of Tendai Buddhist-training.
The formal name of the practice is called kaihogyo which literally means ”to circle around a mountain”. The name comes from the fact that tendai-monks run or walk marathons on paths around mountains. Monks who are accepted as marathon monks, go through demanding training which on top of the daily chores of 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 and then 9 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. It is extreme.
It is interesting that some marathon monks are grown men, not youngsters in the peak of their vitality. One of the monks, Yusai Sakai, finished his second 7-year training when he was 60 years old. He is the only one who has done it twice.
My own experiences
I haven't done training as rigorous as the marathon monks but back in 2003 I did half marathons (15-35 km) daily for 3 months in a row, to test the technique.
I'd like to go through the various aspects of this practice and share my own findings with whoever might be interested. The practices that the marathon monks do are stricly guarded by secrecy but I believe I have figured out the very practices that enable them to keep going.
Body and breath
The body is kept straight during walking. Chest and shoulders are relaxed, arms hang and swing freely on the sides. Toes aim forward. Knees are kept close to each other which enables one to keep the center line of the body straight and the posture integrated. The rhythm of stepping should be kept the same throghout the course, regardless of up or downhills. Length of the step varies a bit but rhythm stays the same. The whole body is subtly extended but simultaneously relaxed.
Some schools of yoga insist on breathing trough the nose and never through the mouth but I think one can use both: mouth when more oxygen is needed (for example during uphills or after chanting of mantras) and nose when the air is sufficient. What matters more is the settledness of the breath and even calm rhythm of breathing. Breathing moves the belly, doesn't raise the chest or shoulders.
Schools of meditation that are based on the view of mindfulness instruct one to keep the gaze of the eyes straight ahead, while remaining panoramically attentive. Nonmeditation or dzogchen, however, does not rely on effort-based mindfulness so the question of eye posture is irrelevant.
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. To understand how to align the body it is beneficial to study inner martial arts such as tai chi, yi quan or chi gong. It will take at least couple of hundred hours to understand what proper alignment means.
Common people do not pay attention to their posture or the flow of the breath. Non-practitioners also walk or run too fast. This results in strain, discomfort, injury and scattering of energy. On the other hand, skillful use of the body, opening of joints, upright alignment, deep breathing and rhythmical movement increases vitality and clarity of the mind, while strengthening the muscles of the body, without any risk of injury.
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. Tibetan word lung is prana in sanskrit, as in pranayama, for example. Hence, the meaning of lung gom is to work with subtle energy of the breath and channels in the midst of running.
Long distance running is demanding, like a pressure cooker, but energetically is no different than prana practices performed on one's sitting cushion or yoga mat. The similarities with sitting yogic practices are great but due to the physical stress there are also differences.
At some point there will be physical discomfort and straining. Also the mind will get scattered and perhaps clouded with thought and emotions in various degrees depending on one's stage of practice. In order to do the training in harmonious, comfortable and non-destructive way, the posture needs to be repeatedly re-aligned and relaxed, breath kept deep and mind serene. If this is not done, one's vital energy gets scattered and this single issue will make things difficult, if left unadressed. We only need to watch a running competition from television to see how athletes fail in their performance due to not understanding these basic guidelines. When done as spiritual practice, we always need to make sure that we don't force ourselves. Exercising will power is different from forcing.
To keep going despite of great obstacles, such as aches and tiredness, the marathon monks carry a knife with them which they are to use to kill themselves if they were to give up. This is again that old ascetic die hard mentality but I think that at the same time there is truth in not giving up too easily. I think that modern people especially need to learn to not give up so easily. It is good to have that same spirit of not giving up unless one absolutely has to. When I did my half marathins as an enthusiastic young man who had very little real understanding, I used to keep a 2€ coin in my pocket. I jokingly called it the ”two of death” that I was to use for buying a bus ticket if I had to give up. Never used it though.
When pushing ones limits, there will be physical and emotional discomfort. This is true with any spiritual practice.
The Genious of Work Song
We used to have a vibrant culture of work song in the West. From Finland it has completely disappeared but I believe it still exists in some countries and cultures such as Tibet, Nepal and Bhutan. I think work song is a wonderful thing but it is such a pity that this tradition is lost in most cultures.
People used to sing together during physical labour. On fields, at construction, in whatever physical work, even in war, people kept their bodies and minds fresh by singing songs. The most obvious beneficial aspect of work song is that it keeps the spirits high. However, there is another aspect to it which is as important. It is bone vibration.
When one sings or chants, the bones vibrate subtly. Through continuous chanting, this subtle vibration keeps the bones, joints and muscles in constant state of vibration which prevents knots or areas of tension from accumulating. The body is being subtly massaged and because of this one won't get as tired as one would without chanting. In fact, while one can feel the tiredness of muscless one's energybody, that is the mind, can remain completely fresh.
Pioneers, field 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 immense benefits. This is also what marathon monks do.
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, where another secret of their practice lies, in addition to actually giving the muscles of the body repeated moments of rest.
Tendai is a tantric school of buddhism. This means that they have deity empowerments and mantra practices. According to a Tendai buddhist priest that I once discussed with, the marathon monks mainly chant the mantras of their chosen deity (tib. yidam) 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, but also their minds are flushed by the utterly pure energy of the buddhist deities - embodiments of perfect enlightenment.
To speculate on this a bit, I'd say that while the world champion of marathon running could probably endure days or perhaps even weeks of staying up all day working and running marathons at night, it is quite certain that without specific yogic knowledge and application of energy skills and mantras, event the best sports athletes would fail to accomplish 100 days of marathon, not to even mention the more challening parts of the 7-year training.
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 mantra, although this can also be used.
Tantric charge has the effect of 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. The same happens when applying tantric mantras to prostrations and yoga postures.
I mostly use guru mantras: Namo Guru Rinpoche, Namo Yeshe Tsogyal Ye. Sometimes I use the short syllables of Open Heart Yoga, rhythmically intoned, with the rhythm of the feet. Sometimes I chant long syllables, like Ooommmm Aaaa Huummmm, because they get to the really deep tensions.
I greatly enjoy combining all these elements into one. If you like, I recommend you to try.
Namo Guru Rinpoche,