torstai 21. joulukuuta 2017

Secrets of the Marathon Monks and Chain Gangs

Secrets of the
Marathon Monks and Chain Gangs

by Kim Katami, 
Pemako Buddhism,
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.

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 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,

torstai 7. joulukuuta 2017

Why I Didn't Quit Guru Yoga

Why I Didn't Quit Guru Yoga

In the Winter release of 2017, the Tricycle magazine published Stephen Batchelor's article entitled ”Why I Quit Guru Yoga?”. This is my casual response to Mr. Batchelor's presentation.

I consider Batchelor a great contemporary voice of buddhist study. I think his work is a fresh breeze of reason and intelligence among the large and quite colourful field of buddhism. I have been a fan of Batchelor's work for several years. However, learning about his views of Guru Yoga lead me think that it was either presented to him in a mistaken manner or he misunderstood the instructions, or both.

Batchelor doesn't mention Guru Yoga with nonphysical masters, like Guru Rinpoche, as it's method. He only discusses his experiences with his living Tibetan lamas who he apparently was encouraged to be seen as living buddhas. Rightly, this should easily raise doubts. It is strange that he doesn't mention Guru Yoga with nonphysical gurus as their presence is widely invoked in various schools of vajrayana buddhism. I think there are big problems in the way this is practiced but that is another discussion.

I would like to expand on what is correct Guru Yoga.

Tantric Guru Yoga

Contrary to orthodox vajrayana buddhism, I do not think that a student needs to receive an empowerment or initiation in order to practice Guru Yoga with a particular nonphysical guru, such as Guru Rinpoche, Milarepa, Machig Labdron or any other. I am neither saying that an empowerment couldn't help. It's just that it isn't a requirement.

The principle is that minds vibrate. The mind, or energetic body, is a developed and complex organic machine which vibrates energetically. The difference between the mind vibrations of deluded beings and gurus is that the minds of samsaric beings are soiled with numerous habits while the minds of gurus aren't. Despite of the significant difference between these two, the point is that minds vibrate.

This is the reason why anyone at any time or place, can focus one's mind and tune in to the presence of any guru, say Guru Rinpoche. This can be done by calling the name of the guru (Guru Rinpoche... Guru Rinpoche... Guru Rinpoche), thinking his image, by combining name and image or by mere intention. What happens is that the mind of the one who invokes gets in touch with the mind of the guru's. This brings in a flood of blessings and fresh energy which greatly clarifies the mind and hence makes the dharmakaya aspect of the buddhanature, or awareness of the student pronouncedly evident and helps purifying the many defilements stored in the energy body. This principle applies to any mahasiddha guru, or an attained buddha. To do this, there is no requirement of empowerment, particular mantras or other specific practices. The principle is simple and straightforward.

When it comes to long prayers, mudras, rituals and whatnot else in Guru Yoga these are just a matter of technical and cultural elaboration based on the principle. However it should also be added that unfortunately the underlying principle of particular techniques quite often seems poorly understood.

By Great Transference we mean that the material body is
integrated with the substance of the elements and disappears
into the light. Those who have the capacity can continue to see it,
but for those who are limited to a common vision it is as if it disappears.
In short, those who manifest the Great Transference continue to live in light, give teachings and work for the benefit of all beings who have
the capacity to get in contact with them”
- Namkhai Norbu

It seems that Batchelor was not introduced to this underlying principle. If this is so in his case, it probably is so in the case of many others as well. Would be wonderful to get this clarification from Mr. Batchelor.

The Greatest of Gifts

I do not think there is a gift greater than helping a deluded being recognise his nature of mind (buddhanature). In my understanding, based on thousands of hours of tantric guru yoga, this is exactly how the nonphysical gurus want to help those still caught in the wheel of samsara. They want to help. But it needs to be asked first. Asking and receiving the charge is the practice of Guru Yoga. One outgrows Guru Yoga only when becoming a living buddha oneself.

I wanted to write this short text to clarify this point to that faulty views about Guru Yoga wouldn't spread and cause harm to beings who would benefit of correct Guru Yoga the most.

I was relieved to have recovered my own authority for living my life. I realized that I had been intimidated by a culture of fear. I no longer needed to ask my teachers’ permission for what I could and couldn’t do with my mind.” - Stephen Batchelor

This is precisely what true gurus help us to accomplish.

- Kim Katami, 7.12.2017

tiistai 5. joulukuuta 2017

Shane's Awakening

Shane's Awakening

See Shane's before and after photos below.
"Before I discovered the Two-Part Formula I hadn’t much experience in meditation, in fact, for reasons that I am not entirely sure of, I hadn’t meditated for nearly 10 years.

My brother introduced me to meditation about 12 years ago and the first method I learned was a breathing awareness meditation. This seemed to have a very positive effect on me so I made a commitment to practice everyday, even though the idea of awakening or enlightenment was completely unknown to me at this stage. Around this time I also took part in a small number of retreats that were focused mainly on the practice of pure awareness. I stuck with this meditation for a while but found it
hard to stay committed. My daily practice became less and less frequent until
eventually I stopped.

During the 10 years of not meditating I had considered returning to a daily practice but could never find the inspiration that I needed. One day my
brother mentioned to me that he had discovered a new meditation technique that was awakening nearly everybody who tried it. As you can imagine I found this quite hard to believe but simply hearing about it was enough to reignite a spark in me. I didn’t go to the 2PF straight away, there was definitely something in me that was resisting it. It took a few months before I eventually decided to give it a go.

The 2PF felt strange at first and was quite unlike any meditation technique I had tried before. I certainly wasn’t one of those individuals who awakens
after one or two days. In fact, it took several weeks to break through the illusion. The 2PF never felt like it was having a very strong effect on me. I found it difficult to trigger any strong sensations of self, but I was committed and eventually it worked.

My awakening happened early on a Saturday morning, but since the afternoon of the previous day I had felt like a shift had occurred. I went out that evening to meet friends and go to a concert and throughout this whole time I felt unusually peaceful. So content and relaxed, yet energised. Socialising was much easier than usual. I often had difficulty relaxing in large groups and would usually resort to excessive drinking as a way of dealing with the tension. While cycling home I decided to try out the affirmation. Saying the words out loud and in my head, I couldn’t help but notice how the words had lost some of the meaning that they previously had. Almost to the point where they felt like they weren’t bouncing off anything, like they weren’t triggering anything in me. I went to bed when I got home and as I lay there, already after 4 am at this point, I couldn’t stop thinking to myself that something was missing. This couldn’t be awakening. My experience lacked heart, lacked warmth and love.

While lying there I became increasingly aware of a glow between my eyes. I had felt something like this before during meditation, but it had previously felt more like tension, like a clenched fist, or a rock, or a knot in my forehead. Now it felt like it was coming to life , growing warmer, and pulsing with energy. I decided to focus my entire being on it and as I did so it started to expand. The more it expanded the warmer and freer I felt. Suddenly I realised something that I had known before, but there was a sudden shock realisation of what it truly meant. For the first time in my life I realised I can be me now, really me. I said this to myself out loud. “Oh my God, I can be me now”. Nothing to be scared of anymore, nothing to chase, no-one to be, except me.
These words had such profound meaning to me that I needed to repeat them several times, completely shocked by the realisation. Suddenly I started crying
and the warm glow that was expanding across my forehead suddenly exploded, releasing a massive wave of energy across my entire body. The feeling was so indescribably intense that I broke down in completely uncontrollable tears.

My body was shaking. It felt like a huge amount of dark energy was bursting out of my body through this point in my forehead. I’m not sure how long the tears lasted but as they calmed down they were replaced by laughter and a feeling of lightness and energy like nothing I’d felt before. Even though it was 5 am I felt like getting dressed and running down the road telling everybody I met what had happened to me and how much I loved them! Crazy! I did go for a walk but you can imagine what the few people around would be like at that time on a Saturday morning, so I kept it to myself.

My awakening was such an intense experience that it took several days to recover from. The whole experience had rattled me so much that I could do
very little for those few days. But as my life gradually returned to normality reality started to sink in. The sights, the sounds, I no longer feel separated from them as I did before. I feel so connected with everything and everyone around me. Such a strange but beautiful feeling. My self could never have experienced life in this way." 



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