Practice

While making my final preparations to travel to Japan I thought it would be good to have something with me to show people I meet the people and places I call home. And, I thought, it would be nice for me to have something to look at for those times I get homesick. So I prepared a slideshow of photos I’ve made over the years. Putting the project together I realized the bulk of the pictures were of the places of my practice. So I edited a second slideshow to reflect those.

If you take the time to watch this, please keep in mind these are not the places where I practice. These are the practice itself. These are a very significant part of who I am at the moment. They are sacred, as all places are sacred. They are filled with the essence of enlightenment; they are enlightened.

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Determination

Several months ago I wrote here that I was about to leave for my pilgrimage. Just a few days later a completely unexpected setback demolished those plans.

From the time I first formed the intention to go on the pilgrimage I’ve been struck by how determined I must be to do this. The challenges of language, physical training, planning the details of getting there and getting around, not to mention the occasional illness, have confronted me nearly every day. Overcoming them has become a pilgrimage of its own.

But it now appears I am clear to go. Five weeks from today I will be flying to Tokyo undoubtedly filled with apprehension about the challenges I will be facing. But I take comfort in the fact that I have already dealt with so many setbacks; I will know I am up to whatever may come my way.

The Journey Comes Soon

There are only 60 days until I leave for my pilgrimage. I am set to fly from New York to Tokyo on March 15th. I’ve been advised to spend a day or two in Tokyo in order to adjust to the time change and to begin calibrating with Japanese customs and culture. Then it will be time to travel to Shikoku and begin walking the pilgrim’s path.

This adventure has come to dominate my life over the past few months. My time has been filled with physical, spiritual and mental preparation.

I’ve worked hard at physical training. I managed to walk nearly 3800 miles (6115 km) in 2015. As far as I can tell the pilgrim’s path (henro michi) is mostly along roads and streets. There are some challenging mountain climbs and hills along the way. So I adapted my training to include both roads and mountains. I’m fairly satisfied I’ve achieved a level of conditioning that will prevent my experience of pilgrimage being dominated by physical challenges.

Spiritual training cannot be accomplished in a few weeks or months. It is the work of a lifetime. I have wasted a great deal of my life pursuing without reflection or understanding the unimportant and illusory. But from time to time I have made the effort to change this, especially in the past few years. Had I not been doing this I would never have become attracted to pilgrimage. I have learned that spiritual practice demands effort, energy, dedication, patience, generosity, wisdom, humility and faith. These are the qualities I see in the pilgrim’s quest. So, my explicit intention in making this journey is spiritual. The long walk, seeing new and wonderful places, making friends with those I meet are, for me, considerations secondary to the religious aspect of the project. A protracted spiritual practice will, I hope, become an extended walking meditation on the true nature of reality. Should I make progress in this already long standing practice I have established for myself, then I will have more to offer others. It is the only way I know to make the world better. Thomas Merton once observed that the monastic practices to keep the earth turning on its axis. I’d like to do just that.

Then there is the process of training the mind. This is a more daunting prospect than preparing the body and less important than the spiritual. To train the mind I can’t just walk out my door and slowly adapt myself to life in Japan, or to the backpacker’s daily search for shelter and food, or to learning the ways to interact with people in a culture much different than my own. Given my strong individual preference for predictability and routine in my life, the mental qualities I need must address this quirk of my personality. In this, at present, I find the greatest obstacle to overcome. The only preparation I can make is to ground myself in the understanding of the difficulty it will present and to trust I will be able to meet the challenges skillfully. The blisters and aching muscles of my pilgrimage will be found in my personality not in my feet and legs.

Now that this dream is becoming reality, I hope to write about it here. I would like to share my experiences, both good and bad, with those of you who might happen on this. I want to post lots of photos (maybe even some video), stories and reflections so you can participate in the adventure. I hope you will check in and walk with me in Japan.

Pilgrimage

I walk. I walk to realize, to practice, to encounter the sacred. I walk for health and happiness. I’ve been doing this for years. And during those years I have read about pilgrimage occasionally letting myself dream about going. But when the dream turned into thoughts about the practicalities of the project my enthusiasm waned. Until recently pilgrimage seemed too difficult. But my attraction to a pilgrim’s quest has grown to outweigh its difficulties. Now I understand if I am going to become a pilgrim I should delay no longer. So I have decided to walk the 88 temple pilgrimage route on Japan’s Shikoku Island.

The necessary preparations are significant. First are the physical. In the words of Paul Barach, who walked the route, it’s “…really, really f—— hard.” He was 28, I’m 67. No matter how fit I may think I am, training to walk 750 miles with a pack over numerous mountains is going to be a serious challenge. Then there is my complete ignorance of Japanese which, while I may learn some survival Japanese, will leave me illiterate and nearly mute as soon as I arrive. The thought of being so far from comfortable, familiar home facing these challenges is a bit fearful.

Robert Sibley wrote, “To the Romans, to be a pilgrim was to be an alien or stranger, to leave family and community and wander into the unknown. In the unknown, of course, you can’t be sure of what will happen. The only thing you can learn to control as a pilgrim is how you respond.” To me, standing at the threshold of this journey, that is really the point. To take my practice from the familiar to the alien and strip it, and me, of the habits that attach to a routine existence.

That’s the theory, anyway.

Return

I finished the annual training last Sunday morning.  I wish I could say that I jumped right back into my routine with a new energy and awareness.  The truth is I returned refreshed in spirit but physically exhausted.  Of course, while I was away many problems arose in my everyday world that demanded immediate attention whether or not I was up to giving it.  So as I went through the motions of getting back to normal my sleepy thoughts lingered on the people I trained with and our shared experience of a common hardship.  Today is the first day I have had a few moments to reflect and regain my bearings.

Buddhism demands a lot of effort.  You can’t read a lot of books and get it, although study can be helpful.  You can’t just meditate and get it, although meditation is a very important practice for most of us.  You have to study and meditate and chant and walk and contemplate and concentrate day after day.  The teachings do not promise us enlightenment, rather they promise that if we practice with diligence and patience we will advance the awakening of all sentient beings.  It is no small task to throw off the dead weight of what blinds all of us to the truth, so it is best that we get started with joyful and determined hearts.

It is good to be home.

Gyo

Today I leave my comfortable daily routine to begin my second year of the training that may eventually lead to ordination.  It is a challenging 10 day program.  It is so challenging that I am nervous about not being able to measure up to the high standard expected.

Repeatedly I find that Buddhism brings you to a point where you are called upon to take a step into the unknown.  While one may have confidence in the Dharma, when these moments arrive I nevertheless sense an element of risk.  Engagement with that risk is the doorway to progress.  Most of the time I handle these moments clumsily but I have learned that while I am muddling my way through I will have the compassionate aid of the members of the Sangha.  So I take the step.

The River

Here in the Adirondacks water dominates the landscape.  Ponds, streams, brooks, creeks, flows, lakes, vleis, waterfalls, rapids, bogs, wetlands and mudholes are everywhere.  So it was almost inevitable that my walking practice focused on a river.

Water is as close to universal as anything gets in the realm of phenomena.  Every living thing depends on it.  The cycle of consumption and expulsion of water by living organisms is responsible for everything from the air we breathe to the most elevated functions of the human mind.  So when I stand by the side of a river I see the whole of the universe flowing by, every past and future life, dinosaurs and dish pans, stars and sawdust.