Marathon runners eat your hearts out… Meet The Tendai Monks of Mt. Hiei

The Tendai Monks of Mt. Hiei in Japan are an ancient Buddhist order that trace their origins as far back 806 AD.  Masters of mental and physical discipline, among their regular meditation and religious worship, the Tendai Monks practice an ancient endurance challenge that ranks as one of the most grueling endurance challenges of all human history.

The Tendai Monks like to prove their mental discipline through acts of physical endurance.  These devoted Buddhists take the saying, “where the mind goes, the body will follow” to the highest extreme.  Called the “Kaihogyo” (circling the mountain), the Tendai Monks walk a series of roads and trails which circle Mt. Hiei.  The full Kaihogyo takes seven years to complete altogether, with the first year being a trial period, and the remaining six being the ultimate challenge.

Most monks typically only do the first year of the Kaihogyo, which is a challenge in itself.  In that year the monks walk 30 kilometers (18.6 miles) a day for 100 consecutive days.  During the walk, the monks only take breaks to pray or meditate at the various shrines that circle Mt. Hiei.  When walking the monks wear their traditional monastic garb, as well as hand woven straw sandals for footwear.

If a monk completes the first year of the Kaihogyo, he may petition the elder monks to complete the remaining six years of the challenge.  Originally in ancient and medieval Japan, there was no turning back after being accepted to complete the Kaihogyo.  Those who failed to complete the challenge committed ritual suicide.  Today in modern Japan, the suicide clause of the Kaihogyo has been removed from the challenge.

The remaining of the Kaihogyo follows as thus, on years 2 and 3 the monk must walk 30 km a day for 100 consecutive days.  On years 4 and 5 the monk must walk 30 km a day for 200 consecutive days.  On year 6 the monk must walk 60 km (37.3 miles) a day for 100 consecutive days.  Finally on year 7 the monk must walk a whopping 84 km a day (52.2 miles) for a consecutive 100 days, followed by a “cooling off” period of 30 km a day for 100 consecutive days.  During “rest periods” of the year, the monk is expected to complete all his monastic duties, such as administering to the public, meditating, worshiping, conducting scholarly studies, and completing chores around the monastery.

Those who complete Kaihogyo will have certainly achieved an amazing feet, walking 38,500 kilometers (23,860.7 miles).  That’s only about 1,500 km short of walking the circumference of the Earth.  Few have ever completed the challenge.  In fact since 1885 only 46 monks have successfully completed the full 1,000 days.  One of the oldest was a monk named Yusai Sakai, who completed the Kaihogyo at the age of 60 in 1987.

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