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The Kaihōgyō (回峰行) (circling the mountain) is a set of the ascetic spiritual trainings for which the Buddhist "marathon monks" (a term coined by John Stevens) of Mt. Hiei are known. These monks are from the Tendai school of Buddhism, a denomination brought to Japan by the monk Saichō in 806 from China.
Their quest is to serve Buddha through many duties but they are best known for their great spiritual effort and perseverance in ascetic practices. In particular a form of asceticism whereby the monks meditate on Fudo Myoo, chant his mantra and circumambulate a sacred mountain for many days in a row. The school is based north of Kyoto, at Mt. Hiei, which overlooks the ancient capital city.
Quest for enlightenment
Part of Tendai Buddhism's teaching is that enlightenment can be attained in the current life. It is through the process of selfless service and devotion that this can be achieved, and the kaihōgyō is seen as the ultimate expression of this desire. By the end of the practice the monks have achieved a form of identification with the emanation of Buddha known as Fudo Myoo.
There are many serving priests at the temple on Mt. Hiei, but very few of them have completed the 1000-day kaihōgyō. Abbots of Mt.Hiei temple must complete 100-days of kaihogyo. 1000 day practice is an uncommon and specialized area of both ascetic and esoteric disciplines.
The selection process for the kaihōgyō is after the first 100 days of practice, the gyōja (practice person) will petition the senior monks to complete the remaining 900 days. In the first 100 days, withdrawal from the challenge is possible, but from day 101 onwards the monk is no longer allowed to withdraw; historically he must either complete the course or take his own life. In contemporary times this symbolic and the selection process ensures that those who embark on the practice will complete it. The mountain has many unmarked graves from those who have failed in their quest, although none date from either the 20th or 21st century.
There are many aspects to the kaihōgyō, but the main portion of walking meditation can be broken down into the following sections:
The ultimate achievement is the completion of the 1,000-day challenge, which would rank among the most demanding physical and mental challenges in the world. Only 46 men have completed the 1,000-day challenge since 1885. Of these, three people have completed the circuit twice, most recently Yūsai Sakai (酒井雄哉, (1926–2013)), who first went from 1973 to 1980 and then, after a half year pause, went again, finishing his second round in 1987 at age 60.
The kaihōgyō takes seven years to complete, as the monks must undergo other Buddhist training in meditation and calligraphy, and perform general duties within the temple. They are required to spend 12 years total on Mt.Hie and includes vows of lifelong celibacy and sobriety in the spirit of renunciation.
The training is divided into 100-day sections as follows:
|Year 1||Year 2||Year 3||Year 4||Year 5||Year 6||Year 7|
|30 (40) km per day for 100 days.||30 (40) km per day for 100 days.||30 (40) km per day for 100 days.||30 (40) km per day for 200 days.||30 (40) km per day for 200 days.||60 km per day for 100 days.||84 km per day for 100 days, followed by 30 (40) km per day for 100 days.|
(The numbers in parentheses indicate the distance of the Imuro Valley course which is slightly longer.)
The walking meditation is punctuated in the middle of the term by the Katsuragawa retreat which takes 4 days. Although not required, all modern initiates have been known to add the missing days due to this retreat onto the end of their course, thereby completing the full 1000-day term.
Author John Stevens, in his book, The Marathon Monks of Mount Hiei, describes the long distance walking style which dates back over a thousand years: "Eyes focused about 100 feet ahead while moving in a steady rhythm, keeping the head level, the shoulders relaxed, the back straight, and the nose aligned with the navel."
Dōiri or "Entering the Temple"
During the fifth year of the challenge, the walking practice is punctuated by what many consider the most daunting phase of the process. The ascetic monk must go for 9 days (216 hours) without food, water, or rest of any kind. He sits in the Temple and recites the Fudo Myoo mantra constantly. Two monks accompany him, one on either side, to ensure he does not fall asleep. At 2am every night he must get up to fetch water for offering from a special well, around 200m away, as an offering for Fudō Myōō.
- The Marathon Monks of Mount Hiei, p. 84
- Transcript of a story on the Kaihōgyō from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's Foreign Correspondent television program
- Journeyman Pictures : short films : Marathon Monks (movie from the former transcript)
- The Spiritual Athlete's Path to Enlightenment by Holly Schmid
- 27,000 Miles to Buddhahood by Pete Bampton
- about Tendai Buddhism
- Tendai Buddhism in Denmark
- Head Temple Takao-san Yakuo-in Central Shugendo Training Center in Kanto