Why Japan's Buddhists run a deadly 1,000-day marathon

Only 46 monks have completed the seven-year marathon since 1885.

  • The kaihōgyō — a seven-year, 1,000-day marathon — is among the world's most difficult physical challenges.
  • It is rarely completed, and those who fail are historically expected to kill themselves.
  • Why do Japan's Buddhist monks take on this nearly impossible challenge?

Many of us have that friend—the one who runs marathons. Their car is plastered with bumper stickers: 13.1, 26.2, "I'd rather be running." Half of the photos on their Tinder profile is of them smiling in the rain with a marathon number affixed to their Lycra shirt. They use their cardiovascular health as a club to bludgeon us undisciplined folks.

If you know somebody like that, you may find it satisfying to know that there is a marathon out there where bragging is very much frowned upon. It's the kaihōgyō, and its difficulty is enough to put even the most ardent ultra-marathoner to shame. The marathon can only be carried out by Buddhists monks belonging to Japan's Tendai sect of Buddhism, and it takes 1,000 days spread out over seven years to complete. Instead of bragging rights, the monks who complete what is likely the most difficult marathon in the world are said to receive a better understanding of the universe.

The marathon's structure

The kaihōgyō takes place on Mount Hei, which overlooks the ancient capital of Japan, Kyoto. The grueling, 1,000-day marathon is carried out over the course of seven years, with a different regimen each year.

For the first year, a monk must run 30 km each day for 100 consecutive days. On top of this, they must still perform their regular temple duties, leaving very little time for sleep. Endo Mitsunaga, the most recent monk to complete the challenge, would wake up at a bit after midnight, lace up the straw sandals he was required to wear, and run up and down the mountain, stopping to pray at about 260 different shrines along the way. At 8 a.m., he would return and perform his duties at the temple. Each night, he slept about 4 and half hours.

As Mitsunaga ran throughout the mountain, he would also pass by a number of unmarked graves. These, along with the knife at his side, were reminders of the seriousness of kaihōgyō. At the end of the first year — the first 100 days — a monk is permitted to withdraw from the challenge. If, however, they decide to embark on the 101st day of the marathon, they are no longer permitted to stop. If they fail, tradition demands that they take their own lives. Mount Hei is littered with the graves of monks who failed to meet the challenge; none, however, date from the later than the 19th century.

If the monk chooses to continue, the next two years go on much like the first: 30 km per day for 100 consecutive days, praying at shrines throughout the mountain, and taking care of their duties at the temple. Then, for the fourth and fifth year, the monk must run 30 km per day for 200 consecutive days. Here, a little bit after the midpoint, comes perhaps the most difficult aspect of this practice.

Flirting with death

After completing the fifth year of the marathon, the monk must perform the dōiri, a grueling nine-day ritual. Fortunately, it doesn't involve running. Instead, it's a light and breezy nine-day period forgoing food, water, and sleep. The monk must sit in a temple at Mount Hei and recite a mantra nonstop. To make sure the aspiring monk doesn't fall asleep, two other monks watch him.

Keep in mind that the longest anybody has ever gone without sleep is about 11 days. As if this wasn't enough, the monk must also go fetch water from a well 200 m away at 2 a.m. each night, not to drink, but to offer up to a statue of the Buddha Fudō Myōō.

If the monk manages to pass this ordeal, then they can begin the sixth year of kaihōgyō. For 100 consecutive days, the monk must run 60 km. In the seventh and final year, the monk must run 84 km everyday for the first 100 days, and then the practice winds down to just 30 km a day for the rest of the year. By the end of the seven years, the monk has run about a distance that equals the circumference of the Earth.

Wikimedia Commons

A Tendai monk wearing the traditional kaihōgyō garb. Notice the thin sandals the monks are required to wear during their seven-year marathon.

Whew

The insane mental and physical commitment that it takes to complete kaihōgyō puts it squarely among the most challenging tasks in the world. In fact, it's so challenging, that only 46 monks have completed the challenge since 1885.

The enormity of the task begs the question: why? You don't even get a bumper sticker at the end of it.

Most runners train for their marathons, but with kaihōgyō, this principle is inverted — the marathon itself is instead training for the monk in order to attain enlightenment. The demanding physical and mental tasks associated with kaihōgyō are meant to instill an understanding of the body's and self's transient, empty nature.

During the nine-day period of dōiri in the middle of kaihōgyō, the monk 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. Ultimately, the goal of kaihōgyō is to train monks in how to lead others into enlightenment as well.

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Maps show how CNN lost America to Fox News

Is this proof of a dramatic shift?

Strange Maps
  • Map details dramatic shift from CNN to Fox News over 10-year period
  • Does it show the triumph of "fake news" — or, rather, its defeat?
  • A closer look at the map's legend allows for more complex analyses

Dramatic and misleading

Image: Reddit / SICResearch

The situation today: CNN pushed back to the edges of the country.

Over the course of no more than a decade, America has radically switched favorites when it comes to cable news networks. As this sequence of maps showing TMAs (Television Market Areas) suggests, CNN is out, Fox News is in.

The maps are certainly dramatic, but also a bit misleading. They nevertheless provide some insight into the state of journalism and the public's attitudes toward the press in the US.

Let's zoom in:

  • It's 2008, on the eve of the Obama Era. CNN (blue) dominates the cable news landscape across America. Fox News (red) is an upstart (°1996) with a few regional bastions in the South.
  • By 2010, Fox News has broken out of its southern heartland, colonizing markets in the Midwest and the Northwest — and even northern Maine and southern Alaska.
  • Two years later, Fox News has lost those two outliers, but has filled up in the middle: it now boasts two large, contiguous blocks in the southeast and northwest, almost touching.
  • In 2014, Fox News seems past its prime. The northwestern block has shrunk, the southeastern one has fragmented.
  • Energised by Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, Fox News is back with a vengeance. Not only have Maine and Alaska gone from entirely blue to entirely red, so has most of the rest of the U.S. Fox News has plugged the Nebraska Gap: it's no longer possible to walk from coast to coast across CNN territory.
  • By 2018, the fortunes from a decade earlier have almost reversed. Fox News rules the roost. CNN clings on to the Pacific Coast, New Mexico, Minnesota and parts of the Northeast — plus a smattering of metropolitan areas in the South and Midwest.

"Frightening map"

Image source: Reddit / SICResearch

This sequence of maps, showing America turning from blue to red, elicited strong reactions on the Reddit forum where it was published last week. For some, the takeover by Fox News illustrates the demise of all that's good and fair about news journalism. Among the comments?

  • "The end is near."
  • "The idiocracy grows."
  • "(It's) like a spreading disease."
  • "One of the more frightening maps I've seen."
For others, the maps are less about the rise of Fox News, and more about CNN's self-inflicted downward spiral:
  • "LOL that's what happens when you're fake news!"
  • "CNN went down the toilet on quality."
  • "A Minecraft YouTuber could beat CNN's numbers."
  • "CNN has become more like a high-school production of a news show."

Not a few find fault with both channels, even if not always to the same degree:

  • "That anybody considers either of those networks good news sources is troubling."
  • "Both leave you understanding less rather than more."
  • "This is what happens when you spout bullsh-- for two years straight. People find an alternative — even if it's just different bullsh--."
  • "CNN is sh-- but it's nowhere close to the outright bullsh-- and baseless propaganda Fox News spews."

"Old people learning to Google"

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox News search terms (200!-2018)

But what do the maps actually show? Created by SICResearch, they do show a huge evolution, but not of both cable news networks' audience size (i.e. Nielsen ratings). The dramatic shift is one in Google search trends. In other words, it shows how often people type in "CNN" or "Fox News" when surfing the web. And that does not necessarily reflect the relative popularity of both networks. As some commenters suggest:

  • "I can't remember the last time that I've searched for a news channel on Google. Is it really that difficult for people to type 'cnn.com'?"
  • "More than anything else, these maps show smart phone proliferation (among older people) more than anything else."
  • "This is a map of how old people and rural areas have learned to use Google in the last decade."
  • "This is basically a map of people who don't understand how the internet works, and it's no surprise that it leans conservative."

A visual image as strong as this map sequence looks designed to elicit a vehement response — and its lack of context offers viewers little new information to challenge their preconceptions. Like the news itself, cartography pretends to be objective, but always has an agenda of its own, even if just by the selection of its topics.

The trick is not to despair of maps (or news) but to get a good sense of the parameters that are in play. And, as is often the case (with both maps and news), what's left out is at least as significant as what's actually shown.

One important point: while Fox News is the sole major purveyor of news and opinion with a conservative/right-wing slant, CNN has more competition in the center/left part of the spectrum, notably from MSNBC.

Another: the average age of cable news viewers — whether they watch CNN or Fox News — is in the mid-60s. As a result of a shift in generational habits, TV viewing is down across the board. Younger people are more comfortable with a "cafeteria" approach to their news menu, selecting alternative and online sources for their information.

It should also be noted, however, that Fox News, according to Harvard's Nieman Lab, dominates Facebook when it comes to engagement among news outlets.

CNN, Fox and MSNBC

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox (without the 'News'; may include searches for actual foxes). See MSNBC (in yellow) for comparison

For the record, here are the Nielsen ratings for average daily viewer total for the three main cable news networks, for 2018 (compared to 2017):

  • Fox News: 1,425,000 (-5%)
  • MSNBC: 994,000 (+12%)
  • CNN: 706,000 (-9%)

And according to this recent overview, the top 50 of the most popular websites in the U.S. includes cnn.com in 28th place, and foxnews.com in... 27th place.

The top 5, in descending order, consists of google.com, youtube.com, facebook.com, amazon.com and yahoo.com — the latter being the highest-placed website in the News and Media category.
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