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.

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.

100th Day

Today is the final day of my walking practice.  I passed the 1,000 mile mark last week and today’s walk will be the last.

I have been reflecting a great deal on how to share this experience with you.  Words seem to be the least effective method.  So I’ve decided to combine my words with some video and photography I’ve made as part of this practice.  Because of the time I must dedicate to the walking I haven’t had much opportunity to prepare anything for you, but after today I will be able to shift my focus to those projects.

Recently while walking the faces of my dharma sisters and brothers have appeared to my mind’s eye.  I realized the practice was not mine but everyone’s.  I walked with those who cannot walk.  I stood in places of profound beauty with everyone who could not be there with me.  And so I thank you for your participation in these special days.