The Hardest Zen Monks on Earth: 1000 Marathons in 1000 Days


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What is the hardest physical challenge you’ve ever put yourself through? Maybe it was a marathon, or perhaps you went further and did an ironman triathlon.

Now let me ask you this, were their unmarked graves along the route of your grueling challenge in memory of those who failed to reach the finish line? I highly doubt so. Although if this is the case, congratulations, you have some serious balls.

This is the case however in the steep hills outside of Kyoto, Japan, where monks run across Mount Hiei. These monks are called the Tendai sect and they are partaking in a spiritual quest known as ‘Kaihogyo’.

These monks believe that to reach enlightenment, they must put themselves through excruciating physical discomfort and complete the equivalent of 1,000 marathons in 1,000 days. They do this over seven whole years.

This is no ordinary feat for a Buddhist monk. Only 46 men have managed to complete this in the last 130 years. For the very few who come out the other side alive, they are believed to become human buddhas or living saints.

There are many lifetimes worth of wisdom that we can learn from these spiritually powerful yet quiet individuals. Lessons that can make us view our personal fitness journeys as something so simple to stick to and most of all, lessons about how much our mentality matters.

It’s tunnel vision or no vision

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We will often give ourselves a multitude of little goals or targets to achieve that we forget that there are only so many things the human brain can keep up with. If you focus on one thing as opposed to twenty little things, the progress towards the singular goal will be far more effective and meaningful.

I remember setting myself targets like run 20km a week, learn a muscle-up, deadlift 300lbs, read this book on nutrition, and it came to a point where I was just approaching all these targets with a brain that was filled with fog.

I couldn’t rationally devise strategies to complete all my goals. It was a pointless and stressful endeavor.

“One cannot manage too many affairs: like pumpkins in the water, one pops up while you try to hold down the other.” — Chinese Proverb

The Tendai monks focus on one thing only. Their whole lives revolve around eventually starting their journey to enlightenment — attempting to complete the Kaihogyo. Perhaps the reason this challenge may seem so crazy to us is that we aren’t used to dedicating ourselves to a single cause, it’s like our brain constantly has 20 tabs open.

This is what the seven-year-long challenge looks like for the courageous monk.

Breakdown of the Kaihogyo:

  • Year 1: The monk must run 30km for 100 consecutive days.
  • Year 2: The monk again has to run 30km for 100 days straight
  • Year 3: Again, the monk has to run 30km for 100 days.
  • Year 4: The monk runs 30km for 200 days straight
  • Year 5: The monk must run 30km for 200 straight days followed by a 9 day fast with no water, sleep, or rest. They are constantly watched over by two fellow monks to make sure they don’t sleep.
  • Year 6: The monk has to run 60km for 100 days.
  • Year 7: The monk has to run 84km for 100 days then 30km for the final 100 days of the year.

Many men die during this colossal battle against the body. Graves are loosely scattered along the trail. The dedication one must have can only come from a lifetime of preparation.

Channel your energy towards one goal:

If this insane and admirable challenge can teach us anything it’s that we must always center our attention towards our most important goal. The final destination.

Look back at why you started something; why you started your fitness journey. My reason for getting into the gym was to build the most aesthetic and impressive muscular physique to boost my insecure teenage self.

This is my one goal that all my energy is going towards. I want to boost my confidence by building muscle. It’s simple. Sure, the runs will help, hitting PB’s will also help, but these are all sub-important goals and shouldn’t take up such a large chunk of my priorities.

When you start to realize that your own ambitions are harming your progression, just step back and recenter yourself. Ask yourself:

  • Why did I start this journey?
  • If I would be happy with getting one thing out of this, what would it be?
  • Is this goal really necessary? Or is it just to please my ego?

Reflect, repurpose, and get back to work.

The journey is just as important as the destination

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Try to imagine how the monk must feel as they embark on arguably one of the world's toughest physical endurance challenges ever. As they take those first few strides of their first 30km run, they have committed fully to the journey.

The destination is incomprehensible at that point in time. If they ever do finish, it will be seven years down the line. it would be impossible to focus on the finish line at that point as it is going to harm the focus they require.

That’s why we must do the same. Fitness goals are often not easy by any means. There are people who have lost hundreds of pounds of fat. The only way they can do this is by engaging in the process and placing importance on the little steps of the journey.


Once you commit to your own fitness journey, whether it be to turn your skinny body into the body of a muscular god or lose a certain amount of weight, your commitment is what will carry you across the finish line.

The consistency of each step you take is what will allow you to see the results. As the monk completes each 30km run of their first 100 days, they accept that this challenge has become a part of them for the next seven years.

Your goals should be the same. They should become your identity.

If you associate yourself with your goal then you are the walking embodient of the commitment required to get there.

The only way one will see results in any aspect of their lives, particularly fitness, will be through commitment. The consistency required is what you need to focus on.

Strategies to stay committed:

When I’m starting a significant journey in my life, or a journey I hope I’ll stick to. I will write a contract of commitment. In the back of my journal I’ll write an agreement with myself that no matter what happens, no matter how badly I don't want to do the said thing, I still have to persevere.

It makes you feel like what you are starting is more of a formal promise to yourself. I’ll end it with my signature.

You can even do this with a habit you really want to keep up with. It just gives you that extra sense of formality and incentive to keep up. No one wants to break a professional contract, so make it the same principal.

  • Write out what you want to do.
  • Write how you're going to stick to it.
  • Write about how you can’t break this streak of commitment under any circumstance.
  • Then sign it in your prettiest signature, for that extra touch.

The consistency of sticking to one thing is what will make your achievements more significant and important to achieve.

Hold yourself accountable

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One important thing to remember about the monks is that if they don’t stick to their goal or even if they don’t focus on the challenge at hand, they die.

It is such a brutal test that the monks can’t afford to mess up. A simple mishap can cause their death. If they don’t stay in the right frame of mind they can also allow their bodies to be overtaken by exhaustion. There is no room for sloppy mistakes in such an environment.

Yes, I guess your right. “I won't die if I fail to get to the gym…”. That’s the beauty of our freedom I guess. We have that margin for error whilst the monks don’t.

“I hated every minute of training, but I said, ‘Don’t quit. Suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion’.” — Muhammad Ali

Still, the monks' meticulous and profound dedication to not mess up and stay on the right path has to be admired and respected. It’s something we have to adopt. Their quest to enlightenment is literally a life or death scenario.

When I first heard the Tendai Monks’ story and their Kaihogyo, I took it as a personal message to not allow myself to fail or fall back.

However, every single human gets lazy and we all choose the path of least resistance from time to time. But again, once you stray off the path, drag yourself on the right one, and carry on.

Did you miss a session last week because ‘lockdown’ has killed your motivation? Well, acknowledge you took the loss and make it up to yourself tomorrow.

Last week, I got sick of home training. I truly hit a brick wall. I was fed up with the high volume push-ups, pull-ups, and other bodyweight exercises I viewed as inferior to weight training. So I did the unthinkable. The action that for a Tendai monk would cost them their life.

I chose watching youtube over training that day (anticlimatic beat drop). It wasn't as dramatic as I thought it would be and yes, I didn't die. But I made it up to myself by hitting two sessions the next day on top of a 7 am run (bearing in mind this was a Sunday — the ‘relaxing’ day).

The point is that we have to admire how committed and focused the monks are on not messing up. It’s truly commendable to the highest degree. The least we can do is stick to our workout schedule, seriously.

The takeaway

There is a lot of secrecy in Japan about the lives and processes of the ‘marathon monks’. When they quit back in the Imperial Japanese Empire, one would have to kill themselves with a sword they carried.

We will never be able to comprehend such a physically exhausting test of endurance. We will never have to be locked in a dark room for 9 days after running 1000 marathons with no food and water so we can get as close to death's door as possible!

All we can do is respect, admire, and learn from these monks.

In a way, we must believe that we are the monk of our own physical journeys. Our own quest is the one we embarked on when we decided to spark the passion for physical exercise.

Everyone's journey is different, as illustrated by the Tendai’s radically dangerous quest. As long as you focus on your own fitness journey and maybe keep some of the lessons we learned from the monks in mind, the days where you feel like quitting may pass by a little easier.

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I am an entrepreneur from London with a passion for reading and writing about self-improvement, productivity, fitness, history, philosophy, and happiness.


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