For eight days I was swept up in intense practice, a deluge of sights, sounds, landscapes, and emotions of all kinds. Trying to express all that happened feels at this point like an impossible task. But it is clear that it is one of the most outstanding experiences of my life.
A day after I completed the pilgrimage I watched again the documentary film that began my interest. Instead of viewing it with anticipation and hope I now saw it filled with people and places that are familiar. I saw footage of pilgrims buying their robes and staffs from the same lady who sold me mine. I saw them climbing steps to the temples that I too had climbed.
I referred in an earlier post to an academic who organized the experience of pilgrimage in four stages – intention, separation, transformation and return. There is another more venerable framework for the Shikoku pilgrimage which uses the four prefectures the pilgrims’ route passes through. It designates Tokushima prefecture where the pilgrimage begins as the Place of Spiritual Awakening. Here the pilgrim forms the intention to pursue a spiritual goal. Then the second prefecture, Kochi, is called the Place of Ascetic Training. The pilgrim, after the exhilaration that comes with the start of the journey, now faces the very difficult reality of the physical and emotional discomforts that are an inevitable part of the path. Ehime, the third prefecture, is called the Place of Enlightenment. The pilgrim, now accustomed to the hardships of the path, begins to experience the inner transformation that was the reason to begin in the first place. Finally in Kagawa prefecture one enters the Place of Nirvana. There a new person emerges gladdened by the fruits of practice but also, at least in my experience, aware of the transitory nature of the gladdening and gripped by the realization of the need to practice even more intensely, knowing nirvana is not a place to relax nor a time to sleep. And so at the end the pilgrim arrives back at the beginning.
More soon. Thanks for reading.