The World’s Deadliest Pilgrimage: 1,000-day Marathon To Enlightenment

In 2015, James Lawrence completed an astonishing feat in endurance sports. Lawrence, who is also known as the Iron Cowboy, completed what he called the “50-50-50 Project”: 50 triathlons, in 50 different US states, in 50 days. Each day, he swam 3.86 km, biked 180.25 km and ran 42.2km; that was 226.31 km or 141 miles every single day for 50 days in a row. And in the roughly two months, he covered over 11,315 km or 7,000 miles.

After accomplishing the “Triple Fifty”, James knew he wasn’t done yet. On March 1, 2021, at age 45, the Iron Cowboy pursued his biggest project – Conquer 100– racing 100 triathlons for 100 consecutive days of swimming, cycling, and running, doubling the distance of his previous record (without traveling to different states this time). For 14 weeks, he conquered a total of 22,631 km, which was longer than the straight-line distance between the North Pole and the South Pole.

Take a moment and note your reaction to this story. Do you believe it? Is it really possible? Do you wonder why on earth anyone would do that? Do you think the Iron Cowboy is the toughest athlete in the world?

With all due respect to Iron Cowboy’s unbelievable achievements, I want to tell you another story that may seem even more unbelievable.

The marathon monks

In the northeastern hills outside Kyoto, Japan there is a mountain known as Mount Hiei. That mountain is littered with unmarked graves. Those graves mark the final resting places of the Tendai Buddhist monks who have failed to complete a quest that many have deemed impossible.

The Tendai monks believe that enlightenment can be achieved during your current life, but only through extreme self–denial. And the route to enlightenment — is a physical challenge known as the Sennichi Kaihogyo – which translates to ‘the practice of circling the mountains a thousand times 千日回峰行.’

The Gyoja is a title given to monks undertaking this challenge, who are often called the “Marathon Monks.” But the Kaihogyo is much more than a marathon. It’s more like a super long death march.

The Kaihogyo is a 1,000-day challenge that takes place over seven years.

Over 7 years, those who become true Gyoja will rack up over 38,400 km (24,000 miles), which is almost equivalent to running around the equator. To put that into context, you need to run 10 miles almost every single day for 7 years straight, to reach 24,000 miles.

Here’s how the Kaihogyo breaks down:

During Year 1 to Year 3, the Gyoja must run/walk 30 km per day (about 18.6 miles) for 100 straight days, totaling 3,000 km (1,860 miles) per year.

During Year 4, the Gyoja must run/walk 30 km per day. This time for 200 straight days, totaling 6,000 km (3,720 miles) a year.

During Year 5, the Gyoja must again run/walk 30 km per day for 200 straight days, another 6,000 km (3,720 miles) a year. After completing the fifth year of running, the monk must go 9 consecutive days without food, water, or rest.

During Year 6, the Gyoja must run/walk 60 km per day for 100 straight days, another 6,000 km across the year.

During Year 7, the Gyoja must run/walk a mind-bending 84 km (about 52 miles) per day for 100 straight days, followed by 30 km a day for the final 100 days; totaling 11,400 km in the final year.

Total: 1,000 days – 38,400 km (24,000 miles).

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.
  •   No deviation from the appointed course.
  •   No stopping for rest or refreshment.
  •   All required services, prayers, and chants must be correctly performed.
  •   No smoking or drinking.

In 7 years, the marathon monks move more miles than most of us will in a lifetime and they do it in a robe, a pair of straw sandals, an inconveniently large hat, and a ridiculously small amount of food. No fancy running shoes, no energy gels, no Gatorade, or an aid station every two miles. They get a bowl of rice and a bowl of noodles. That’s it.

Can you possibly fathom how these monks could move distances between 30 and 84 km and they do this in straw sandals and with minimal food every day? But this isn’t even the craziest part. There’s another component that makes Kaihogyo different from any other toughest ultra-marathons or physical feats.

The pilgrimage of no return

For the first year, a monk is allowed to quit whenever he wants for whatever reason. But if he chooses to continue on after that, then this marks the point of no return, now he must start to carry a dagger and a rope at all times. Why? To kill himself if he fails.

You read that right: if a monk chooses to continue after the first year, he either has to finish the Kaihogyo or he must take his own life by either hanging or disemboweling himself for failing. No excuses. Doesn’t matter if you get sick, injured, or get attacked by wild animals. Finish the Kaihogyo or finish yourself. Do or die.

The Kaihogyo is extremely difficult that since 1571 as far as is recorded, only 51 monks finished. And, of the 51 that have completed the Kaihogyo, three have completed it twice and one of them died by suicide on his 2,500th day, trying to complete three terms.

The majority of monks who complete these odysseys have been in their 30s. The oldest completed his 2,000th day when he was 60 years old. The number of monks who actually died or committed suicide along the path is not known, but the route on Mount Hiei is lined with many unmarked Gyoja graves.

Death is more than a threat to the Gyoja and he is reminded every day of the Kaihogyo. Rather than traditional black robes, the Kaihogyo monks wear white, the color representing death in Japanese culture.

As one Gyoja describes: “I dress in the clothes of the dead. I put on my sandals in the house. The Japanese never wear shoes indoors. So, putting them on inside means you’ve no intention of returning. At a funeral, the corpse has its shoes put on inside the house. This means that every day I leave on a pilgrimage of no return.”

The ultimate trial

At the completion of the fifth year, the 700th day of the marathon, the monk will face the greatest challenge of the Kaihogyo, called Doiri—nine days without food, water or sleep, sitting in an upright position and chanting 100,000 mantras day and night. Working in 24-hour shifts, two fellow monks will attend to make sure the Gyoja stays erect and awake.

Keep in mind that scientists consider that anything beyond seven days in such conditions risks death. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, the longest anybody has ever gone without sleep is 11 days. A 17-year-old high school student from San Diego named Randy Gardner did it in 1964. But during his sleepless marathon, Randy could eat, drink and move as much as he wanted.  

The Doiri is purposely made to let the Gyoja face death. During the nine-day period, the Gyoja symbolically dies (and comes pretty darn close to death anyhow). After emerging from this state of pseudo-death, they are reborn, a clean slate with a new understanding of the temporary nature of life and the self. And that is the ultimate goal of Kaihogyo – to train monks in how to lead themselves and others into enlightenment.

One relative of a Gyoja remarked, “I always dismissed Buddhism as superstitious nonsense until I saw my brother step out of Myo-o-do after Doiri. He was really a living Buddha.”

The late Yusai Sakai, only the third monk ever to complete the Kaihogyo for a second time when he was 60, described the process of Doiri in an interview, “Your nails die during Doiri and you develop deep furrows in your hands, between your fingers. On the second day, your lips dry out. On the fourth day, you see spots on your body and you start to smell like a rotten fish. You have to burn incense to cover the smell. On the fifth day, they bring you water to gargle. You have to spit the water out into a different cup. If the amount you spit out is less than you put in your mouth, you fail the ritual.” By the end of the Doiri, Sakai had lost a quarter of his body weight.

It has been reported that the Doiri used to last 10 days but almost all the monks died during this period of time. So, they shorted the Doiri to nine days. The Doiri is also too dangerous to be held during the summer because the bodies were found to rot internally due to all the heat and lack of water in the body.

Once completing the 1,000-day challenge, Gyojas are given the title of Daigyoman Ajari, or Saintly Master of the Highest Practice. In imperial Japan, such monks were granted a special place in court and were the only people allowed to wear shoes in the presence of the emperor. Today, those who complete the challenge become national celebrities, television cameras transmitting the final stages of their journey live to the nation.

The 50th Daigyoman Ajari

Mitsunaga Endo became the 50th monk and the 13th since World War II to have completed the Kaihogyo in 2009 when he was 34.

In 2003, Mitsunaga starts the 1000 days Kaihogyo as well as 12 years of Rozan Practice in which one has to remain in isolation, and is forbidden to leave Mt.Hiei for 12 years. 

During the Kaihogyo training, Mitsunaga gets up at 12:30 a.m. and walks up and down the mountain from 2 a.m. to 8 a.m., stopping to pray at about 260 different shrines along the way. At 8 a.m., he will return and perform his duties at the temple. Each night, he sleeps about 4 and a half hours.

“The people who are doing the Kaihogyo are not just walking around the mountains,” Mitsunaga says. “They’re actually doing a pilgrimage and giving prayers at about 260 places on the mountain. As we walk, we recite the mantra of the Immovable Wisdom King, our principal deity. We’re not supposed to be out of breath when we walk uphill. By reciting the mantra, we can first control our breathing and then control our minds.”

One lesson of the Kaihogyo is that in order to help others, you have to first train yourself. Mitsunaga says that dividing the Kaihogyo’s 1,000 days into 700-day and 300-day phases is a way to determine how much time to devote to cultivating yourself and how much to spend to help others. He says the 70-30 split is based on the different stages of becoming a Buddha — of which there are 10.

“During the practice, I injured my right leg and was prepared to die, but many people watched over me and an unseen force supported me,” Mitsunaga says. “Everybody thinks they’re living on their own without help from others. This is not possible. I really think that others have done something for me, and I have a feeling of gratefulness to other people.”

The lessons

1. Put a gun to your head

Over 450 years, only 51 monks have completed the Kaihogyo. The marathon monks’ story is a testament to the astonishing, almost limitless power of having a gun to your head.

I’m convinced that there would have been less than 51 monks completing this challenge if there had not been a gun to their head (in monks’ case it’s a dagger and a rope). Physical endurance and mental toughness were undoubtedly large factors but were nowhere as important as the do-or-die factor.

On the surface, it appears that do-or-die adds to the challenge. Look deeper, and you’ll find that it’s actually a form of empowerment. These were men who had committed to a cause and had trained painstakingly for it. Indeed, the first 100 days of the Kaihogyo served as a selection process of sorts. Those who were deemed not ready by the senior monks were not allowed to complete the remaining 900 days.

It’s a phenomenon that has been utilized by great generals throughout history. The most well-known application of this do-or-die strategy is perhaps in the movie 300, where Leonidas and 300 of his Spartans hold off the entire Persian army. It recognizes and applies the benefits of Parkinson’s Law, which states that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” As Elon Musk once said, “If you give yourself 30 days to clean your home, it will take you 30 days. But if you give yourself 3 hours, it will take 3 hours. The same applies to your goals, ambitions, and potential.”

If you know what you need to do, and you’re struggling to make yourself do it, you might think, “Oh, it’s because I suck. I don’t have the self-discipline.” Wrong! It’s because you don’t have a gun to your head forcing you to take action whether you like it or not.

Create your own do-or-die factor. Next time you’re struggling to lose weight, take a few naked pictures of yourself, give them to somebody you trust and tell them to post them on Facebook and Instagram in front of everyone you know if you haven’t lost 20 pounds within three months.

It sounds crazy, scary, and potentially disastrous. But, that’s exactly why it’s so powerful.

2. Consistency over intensity

Pointing a gun to your head is a great way to get yourself to fire up and take a leap forward. You may be able to muster up the courage and push yourself to run two, three or even four marathons in a row (which is already a monumental achievement), but to be able to do it in 100 consecutive days takes much more than courage and mental toughness.

In her book Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, Angela Duckworth explains grit, some call it fortitude, has two components: passion and perseverance. Passion is how intensely you’re committed to your goals. Perseverance is how long you stick to your goals with the same intensity. In interviews about what it takes to succeed, Duckworth notices that high achievers often value perseverance more than passion. Rather than intensity, what comes up again and again in their remarks is the idea of consistency over time. This is especially important in a world where passion and enthusiasm are common, while perseverance and endurance are rare.

So how do you develop consistency? The answer is to create a ritual. The power of rituals can be easy to overlook because they seem so simple. Rituals include habits, routines, systems, and even group traditions. Think of rituals as anything structured that creates inertia. Once started, rituals are hard to stop. That’s why people often say old habits die hard.

To the marathon monks, the Kaihogyo is not a 1,000-day marathon– which takes an almost incomprehensible amount of time and effort to complete – but a part of their daily spiritual rituals to train themselves and help others into enlightenment. Instead of relying on motivation or passion to do the work, marathon monks rely on their rituals. As the days turn to weeks the inertia and structure take hold and become the path of least resistance. The rituals take over.

When people seem uncommonly disciplined, look for a powerful ritual hiding in plain sight. It’s not they have more discipline than you, but they are able to turn that discipline into consistency with a ritual. Short-term results come from intensity but long-term results come from consistency.

3. Be grateful for the journey

The purpose of the Kaihogyo is not to race, per se. It’s like a pilgrimage.’ Along their journey, the monks must stop off at holy sites and shrines, performing prayers and chanting as they go. The time spent out in the wilderness of Japan allows the monk to connect with nature, and in turn to discover their inner nature and pace. 

What we can learn from the marathon monks is their positive attitudes toward adversity and awareness principles to push us into a more spiritual realm. That means opening our senses to the sights, sounds and smells of the surrounding environment. It does not mean coming in first or running the longest. We can enjoy another dimension—one of pure joy in the moment. We don’t need the special blessings of the athletically gifted. We don’t need to feel we must compete or race the clock. We can simply enjoy the experience, and learn to flow with the natural world.

The lesson from marathon monks is to ensure that whether you’re competing in a race, pitching to an important client, or fighting for a promotion, you must let go of your self-sabotaging goal obsession. Set free to focus on doing and being rather than winning. Although you still hope to win, the hope of winning is not occupying your thoughts. That space was taken up instead by gratitude for the mere chance to try and grow – such profound gratitude for the privilege and process of pursuing your goal and dream makes failure seem nothing to fear and success an almost inevitable outcome of a total embrace of the process.

In his book, The Marathon Monks of Mount Hiei, John Stevens sums up the greatest contributions of these spiritual adventurers: “The most admirable thing about the Hiei gyoja is their warmth, open-heartedness and humanity … Facing death over and over, the marathon monks become alive to each moment, full of gratitude, joy and grace … [They] have much to teach us: always aim for the ultimate, never look back, be mindful of others at all times and keep the mind forever set on the Way.”

4. Go beyond yourself

The ultimate goal of Kaihogyo is to train monks on how to lead themselves and others into enlightenment. But what is enlightenment anyway? How do you know if you have reached it? Genshin Fujinami, one of the few living marathon monks who completed the Kaihogyo in 2003 when he was 44, explains, “There is not this one point of understanding where everything else stops and you’ve made it. Learning continues. Once you graduate from university, you don’t stop learning. The 1,000-day challenge is not an endpoint, the challenge is to continue, enjoying life and learning new things.”

Enlightenment, the monk says, isn’t a point where everything stops and you’ve made it, forever surrounded by a halo of bliss. Instead, it’s a spiritual commitment to go beyond, with a mindset of the Path of Buddha, meaning that one is moving along the path of awakening, for both oneself and others. It’s an infinite journey based upon going beyond yourself every minute of every day for the rest of your life.

If you’re truly going beyond, you are always at your limits. You’re never back in your physical and psychological comfort zone. A spiritual being feels as though they are always against that edge, and they are constantly being pushed through it and thus soar far beyond oneself. And for some of us, it means lacing up our shoes and heading out for another run and another the next day, knowing that beating the competition is relatively easy, beating yourself is a never-ending commitment.

Closing thought

Throughout this world, there are many mysterious and amazing feats that can be found. From Iron Cowboy to Marathon Monks, people who are capable of doing the most incredible feats that we have deemed impossible.

But often all that holds us back from achieving the impossible is the belief that it is impossible. 

Remember that the marathon monks devote their entire lives to training for a 1,000-day challenge. Just because something can’t be done in the short term doesn’t mean that it’s impossible; often we overestimate what we can do in the short term and underestimate what we can do in the long run.

Perhaps the biggest lesson that the marathon monks offer for everyday people like you and me is the lesson of commitment and devotion.

Imagine the sense of commitment that the monk feels on Day 101. Imagine the devotion it takes to embrace the final 900 days of that challenge. Imagine what it feels like to accept a goal that is so important to you that you tell yourself, “I’m going to finish this or I will die trying.”

There would be an immediate sense of purpose and urgency in your life. You will have an inner power that forces you to succeed by devoting every fabric of your being to push through every obstacle. You will get rid of all distractions and focus on the only thing that matters. All else is secondary.

It’s something everyone can do. You just have to commit to something, or you will be distracted by everything. Today could be your Day of Commitment. Today could be your First Day of a 10-day or 100-day or even 1,000-day journey to enlightenment.

Published by Anthony Tsang

I’m a bookworm, a sports & fitness addict, an adventurer, and more than anything else, I’m a permanent work-in-progress, always learning and evolving till the day I die.

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