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The Spiritual Athlete’s Path to Enlightenment
Throughout this world, there are many mysterious and amazing feats that can be found. People are capable of doing most incredible things that we have never deemed possible. Only by truly believing in ourselves can we accomplish what were thought as impossible goals.
In Mount Hiei of Japan, there can be found a small group of monks who live in a monastery and can accomplish many remarkable challenges. This mountain had been a main attraction in Japan of Buddhism. “The Marathon Monks of Mount Hiei” by John Stevens says that it “offers the seeker every type of religious experience–sacred scholarship, grand ritual, austere meditation, heartfelt repentance, heroic asceticism, mystical flight, miraculous cures, ceaseless devotion, divine joy, and nature worship-while promising enlightenment in this very body.”
This mountain monastery began in 1787 and the monks feel that Hiei still flourishes today. It is a beautiful place populated with all types of animals. No hunting is allowed. There is lots of rain in Japan and many tall trees which block the sun so it can get very cold there; snow covers the ground far into April. At the base of Hiei, there is a cute little temple-town where most of the retired priests go to live.
The Tendai priests generally marry and raise families. Many of the trainees at Mount Hiei who hope to qualify for priesthood are their children. There are many who just appear from the general public though such as college drop-outs searching for the meaning of life, retired military men, reformed drunks, and a few women.
These fascinating marathon monks began their story in the year 831 with a boy named So-o. He came to Hiei at age 15. An abbot called Ennin noticed this boy and initiated him into the mysteries of Tendai. He named him So-o which meant “one who serves for others.”
The legend is that the God, Fudo Myo-o, appeared before So-o by a waterfall. So-o was overwhelmed and jumped into the falls. He collided with a large log which he was able to drag out of the water. He then carved the image of Fudo Myo-o into the log . The temple was then built in this area for the God Fudo Myo-o and named Myo-o-in.
So-o was an amazing monk who traveled around using his prayers which could accomplish many things such an curing people from terminal illnesses, difficult child births, demon possessions and much more. He believed in a type of practice where every stone and blade of grass were venerable and all things were seen as a manifestation of Buddha. This meant he worshipped nature with one’s entire mind and body.
He kept returning to Hiei where he would build another hall to house images of Fudo Myo-o. This became the home base of the Hiei “kaihogyo” monks. To become a monk here, it became a common practice to complete a term of 100, 700, and 1000 days of chanting, visiting stations of worship, and other special experiences where all you needed were your two feet.
A gyoja is what one is called when he/she is accomplishing these terms. A gyoja is a “spiritual athlete who practices gyo with a mind set of the Path of Buddha.” This is a positive term meaning that one is “moving” along the path of awakening, for both oneself and others. There are many disciplines that are practiced in Hiei but the mountain marathon, called kaihogyo, is the greatest. To become an abbot at Hiei, you must go through a 100-day term of kaihogyo. Kaihogyo is the “practice of circling the mountains” and gives them an appreciation of the respective stations of worship. If you receive permission, then the gyoja is given a special handbook which describes everything they need to know for the marathon. This includes course maps, stations they must visit and pray at, proper prayers and chants, and other important information. The candidate then has one week of training before their term begins.
During this first week, the ground is cleared of glass, sharp rocks, sticks and other things that would hurt the feet of the gyoja. A pure white outfit is given to the gyoja to wear. A rope is tied around the waist which holds a knife within the cord of the rope. These two items remind the gyoja that they should take their life by hanging themselves or by using the knife if they can’t complete the term.
For their feet, 80 pairs of straw sandals are woven together to be used for the 100-day term. In rainy weather, these sandals evaporate within hours so many spares have to be carried. During dry weather, they usually last a few days though. A special all-white hat is also given to the gyoja for the journey.
The basic rules of kaihogyo are very important and must be followed. They are:
During the run the robe and hat may not be removed.