(158 pp., Echo Point Books and Media, 2013)
Reviewed by James Cole Abrams
Echo Point Books has recently republished John Stevens’s The Marathon Monks of Mount Hiei. Much like the monks’ own practices, this is to everyone’s benefit. Stevens’s work is a tremendously readable account, weaving together firsthand experience, interviews and extensive research on an extremely driven order of monks that has existed for centuries in Japan. The book primarily details a subsect of the Tendai monks famous for running the Kaihōgyō, a one-thousand-day marathon in and around Kyoto. Renowned for their discipline and compassion, the monks assert that their marathon is a direct path to enlightenment. As this practice emerged from the school of Japanese Tendai Buddhism, Marathon Monks begins with an abridged but extensive history of the Tendai school.
The second half of the book, which is where Stevens shines, is devoted to the stories of the few monks who have successfully completed Kaihōgyō. Stevens is clearly enthusiastic about these monks, and it is impossible for his enthusiasm not to grip the reader as well. It is hard not to be a thrilled reader with lines such as, “grateful to be alive, full of energy, fortified by a vision of the Ultimate, constantly moving toward the light and eager to work for the benefit of all, the monks head into the final stages of the marathon.” Accounts of both the mundane—simply running a marathon almost daily for seven years—and the fantastic—monks communing with previous Buddhas on the marathon trail—are brought to life by Stevens’s lively prose.
This second section is home to many compelling photos of the monks in action, some during their most powerful rituals. These intimate and vital portraits, taken by Tadashi Namba, capture the experience of the marathon monks, transmitting their intensity and discipline through the page. The only complaint here is that the extraordinary pictures deserve higher-quality resolution than is on offer in this printing.
It is also worth mentioning that the opening section on the history of the marathon monks is a little dry. The story of the founders of the order is crucial to understanding the rituals and struggles of the monks themselves, but the writing gets bogged down explaining various interorder squabbles. The level of detail is interesting, just not exciting.
Overall, The Marathon Monks of Mount Hiei is highly recommended. It contains fascinating characters, incredible struggles and well-researched, highly readable history. I would simply suggest reversing the order and reading it back to front.
James Cole Abrams has been a practicing meditator and Buddhist scholar since 2006. He holds master’s degrees in both Eastern classics and contemplative psychotherapy. When he’s not too busy spending all his money on education, he works as a therapist in the Boulder County jail.
From the Fall 2014 issue of Inquiring Mind (Vol. 31, No. 1)
© 2014 James Cole Abrams