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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Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.