Ask the Goat: The Running Buddhas

Many of you have asked me about the history of the Running Buddhas, Marathon Monks or the Japanese Ultra-runners of Mount Hiei. They are all one and the same, and here is their story.

Ask the Goat by Chris Knodel

Ask the Goat
by Chris Knodel

The Marathon Monks of Mount Hiei –the Running Buddhas –are followers of Tendai Buddhism. The founder of Japanese Tendai is Saicho, meaning quite simply, ‘Highest Clarity.’ On Mount Hiei, the spiritual athlete, or gyoja, must request permission to begin the 100-day term of kaihogyo. This is the mountain marathon, and “it encompasses the entire spectrum of Tendai Buddhism –meditation, esotericism, precepts, devotion, nature worship, and work for the salvation of sentient beings.”

To begin the journey, the gyoja wears the tradition garb of the Mount Hiei monk: a white outfit comprised of a kimono, nobakama pants, leg & hand coverings, a robe, a priest’s surplice, and a “cord of death” with sheathed knife. In Buddhism, white is the color of death. If the journey is a failure, the gyoja takes his life by either hanging or seppuku. The gyoja also carries a small bag over his right shoulder containing his Sutra, handbook, two candles and some matches. The higasa hat has a small coin inside to pay the boatman in case of death along the pilgrimage. Ironically, the higasa and rosary are not worn, but are carried in the hand at most times. Last, 80-100 pairs of woven straw sandals are allotted for kaihogyo. A straw raincoat and paper lantern are allowed as optional items; in fact, it is not unheard of to witness the modern vinyl raincoat and ‘electric torch,’ –the flashlight.

After successful completion of the kaihogyo, a gyoja may petition for permission to undertake the sennichi kaihogyo, or 1000-day quest. There are strict conditions for acceptance outside of simply completing the 100-day challenge. Candidates must be without familial ties, meticulously screened, and agree to a 12-year retreat period. If selected, 300-days of basic training are initiated. By year four (or five), 200-days of consecutive running is initiated.

Upon completion of the 500th running day, the monk is awarded a walking stick and certain entitlements. By the 700th day, the gyoja “faces the greatest trial of all: dori, nine days without food, water, sleep, or rest.” If successful through the entire dori, the monk enters the sixth year and the running distances lengthen. By the seventh and final year the gyoja has 2, 100-day running terms. The first is 52.5-miles daily, each double loop being referred to as the “Great Marathon.” The second (and final) 100-day term is considerably easier, and usually results in completion of the 1,000-day challenge.

Yet the monks attribute the results of their training to spiritual, rather than physical methods. Most are devotees of Fudo Myo-o (the Unshakable Giver of Light). He reigns fire down on evil passions and illuminates our existence. When a monk of Mount Hiei dons the robe of a gyoja, it is a journey not of 1000 days, but the eternal path to Enlightenment. Unlike the Western quest to save souls for the afterlife, these monks run to Transcend in this life.

Historical information from: Stevens, John. The Marathon Monks of Mount Hiei. Echo Point Books & Media, 2013.

Chris Knodel is a Mangum Track Club member and Sandhills Region native. He is the author of “More, Better Quicker – The Irish Goat: A Fat-Boy & His Path to Ultra-Distance.” His column will appear each Thursday on

Filed in: Outdoors, Sports

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