Pilgrimage – Practices

It would be wrong to think that every pilgrim observes the same devotions and practices. While there is a prescribed set of prayers but this more of a suggestion than a command and is honored more in the breach than the observance. Everyone has their own peculiar way of go about things. I developed mine fairly quickly using a combination of the rituals I follow in Tendai and those unique to the pilgrimage.

To understand the practices, it is helpful to know the general physical layout that applies to all the temples. At the entrance to the temple grounds is a large wooden gate which generally houses two wrathful looking guardian deities there to insure that evil remains outside the sacred temple grounds. They can be quite colorful and are all meant to be intimidating, not to the pilgrim, but to evil itself. As you stand on the threshold of the gate, you simply bow to indicate your respect for the sacred place you are entering and your good intentions. Stepping over the threshold into temple grounds you quickly encounter a place for water purifications. Usually this is some kind of stone basin with water running in it with a number of ladles propped over the basin. You dip a ladle in the water and pour some over your left hand, then repeat the process over the right hand, then pour some water into your cupped left hand and take that into your mouth cleansing it and expelling the water on the ground. Each temple has at least two buildings. The Hondo or main temple contains the image of the Buddha or Bodhisattva to which that temple is particularly dedicated. A second structure called the Daishido is dedicated to honor Kobo Daishi the venerable Buddhist monk and teacher who established many of the temples, not to mention the pilgrimage route itself, and who was also the founder of the Shingon school of Japanese Buddhism. The pilgrim goes through rituals at both buildings, starting at the Hondo. You approach the Hondo and light a small candle in a shelter where numerous candles are usually already burning. Then from the flame of the candle you light you light three sticks of incense which you place in a huge incense holder where dozens of incense sticks are burning. There are three sticks of incense because in the Buddhist way of things one acts and practices using the body, speech and mind. Then the pilgrim climbs the few steps up to the threshold of the Hondo and places a kind of calling card known as an osamefuda in a receptacle. This indicates your name, where you are from and your intentions for the pilgrimage. The color of the osamefuda indicates how many times you have made the pilgrimage, white being reserved for the first four times. Then you deposit a coin at the Hondo and begin your prayers. The process is repeated at the Daishido.

In my case I developed a sequence of prayers and chants that differed between the Hondo and Daishido. At the Hondo I followed the general structure of Tendai rituals by reciting mantras and performing mudras (hand gestures) intended to act as purification. Then I would recite a brief prayer of repentance for my past misdeeds and a prayer designed to focus myself on the importance of the teachings contained in the Heart Sutra which I recited immediately afterward. After completing the Heart Sutra I would recite the mantra associated with the Buddha or Bodhisattva of the particular Hondo and ended with a prayer that dedicates any merit I might have attained because of my practice to all beings rather than myself alone. At the Daishido I would recite a mantra associated with Kobo Daishi, the Heart Sutra and end with reciting the Mantra of Light (Komyo Shingon) which is used in Tendai but also in Shingon practice. In this second sequence I would recite the Heart Sutra in Japanese.

After completing these devotions one simply walks back to the gate, turning around at the threshold and bowing in farewell.

Many pilgrims recite their prayers out loud. Sometimes WAY OUT LOUD. I kept my words to myself since I found it very distracting when others were chanting nearby. When other pilgrims chanted out loud I would either wait until they finished or silently fall in with what they were doing. Some days I would be so tired I would have a complete lapse of memory. Then I would just draw my attention to my purpose and recite the prayers later while on the way to the next temple.

Over the course of the pilgrimage I noticed a change in my mental state when performing these devotions, becoming more focused and peaceful. I could tell then that the practice was having its effect on me, imbuing its benefits in me. But you don’t have to go on a pilgrimage to experience that. Meditate every day, chant a sutra every day, repeat any practice and over time it will change you – and for the better.

The Pilgrimage

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.

Pilgrims Gear

Many of you aren’t familiar with the clothing and other items pilgrims bring with them on their path. So here’s a short description.

A white vest is worn called a hakui. The white color is significant since in Japan it is the color associated with death. The pilgrim undertakes the journey leaving behind everyday life and its routine concerns. It can also be thought of as a commitment to the pilgrimage even if it means death. I think this is expressed in a western idiom as giving the pilgrimage everything you’ve got. On the back is the name of Kobo Daishi who established the pilgrimage and most of the temples it visits, along with the Sanskrit letter A which is associated with some of the esoteric practices that Kobo Daishi promoted in his life time.

Processed with Snapseed.

In addition to the vest, many pilgrims wear a conical shaped sedge hat which I can’t offer a picture of since I haven’t as yet bought one. I expect to be buying one soon and will post a picture for you then.

The pilgrim also carries a book, called a nokyocho, which is presented at each temple office where a unique vermillion stamp is placed on a blank page and calligraphy identifying the temple is written over the stamp. Since I was able to visit a few temples already I have some stamps in my book. This is the main keepsake of the pilgrimage and traditionally it is buried with the pilgrim’s body when he or she dies.

Another important item is the staff or kongozue. This is thought to embody Kobo Daishi himself and is treated with the utmost care and respect. When a pilgrim arrives at lodging for the night it is customary for the bottom of the staff to be washed in water (the feet of Kobo Daishi) before anything else. Most of the staffs have the words Dogyo Ninin written on them which means “We two practice together”. A pilgrim with the staff always has Kobo Daishi with him or her. The one I bought has the text of the Heart Sutra written in Japanese on it. I chose this because the Heart Sutra is an important part of my practice and will be throughout the pilgrimage. A small bell is attached to the head of the staff to warn small sentient beings that someone is coming so they won’t be stepped upon. Finally, the pilgrim while practicing in the temple wears a stole called a wagesa and a “rosary” called a juzu. These two items I brought with me. The wagesa I will wear is meant to identify me as an ordained Tendai practitioner. The juzu I brought was a generous gift made to me by my Dharma Brother Doko O’Brien last summer when we were training together.

“Houston – We Have a Problem”

This is a difficult post to write.

For more than a year and a half it has been my dream to walk the Shikoku pilgrimage route. The day after my last post – 5 days ago – I set out from my hotel with my pack on my back and guidebook in hand to begin the journey. Things did not go well.

I’ll spare you the details except to say it was very clear that I wasn’t going to be up to the strain of walking with a heavy pack. I was aware of the need to travel light but I have a medical condition (sleep apnea) that requires me to carry a device that keeps me breathing while I sleep. In recent years smaller machines were developed and I bought one which I calculated to be small enough to make my backpacking trek possible. Since there would be times when my shelter would not have electricity I would have to carry a battery heavier than the machine to run it on those nights. I knew the pack was heavy as I prepared to come to Japan and expressed my concerns to my wife. But I decided to push on. On the day I began, as I walked on the straight and level paths at the start of the pilgrimage it was evident my leg muscles were not up to the job. Climbing a steep stairway at one temple made me so unsteady I was seriously concerned about getting back down without a fall. I knew that in a couple of days I would be facing the climb into the mountains and Temple 12, a notoriously difficult section of the path. I’m aware enough of my body to know that it would be an unacceptable risk of serious injury if I were to proceed.

While the pack was the main problem, there were other factors at work. I talked about them all with my wife and decided the prudent thing to do was return to Tokushima and work on an alternative plan.

Thanks to my wife we hit upon a solution in a few hours, namely, visiting the 88 temples by taxi. So the past few days have been taken up with making the arrangements for that. I will be setting out early tomorrow morning for a 12 day circuit.

To be blunt, I’m disappointed in myself. I should have foreseen the problems more realistically. I was so attached to walking I let it override an objective view of my limitations and difficulties. My emotional reaction to all this has been strong.

But, the walking is not the pilgrimage. A pilgrim friend of mine advised that you must make your own pilgrimage. Each pilgrim faces his or her own adversity and deals with it in his or her individual way. I’ve had to confront mine right at the beginning.

While I’ve been waiting around in Tokushima I’ve taken a few brief excursions to amuse myself and I’ll be posting photos of some of it on Facebook.

In the meantime, I ask for your understanding and hope I can still have your interest and support. And I hope you’ll come here to read about the journey. Gassho.

Day minus 7 – Separations


A week from now I’ll be in the air on my way to Tokyo. The preparations of months are becoming complete and the adventure is about to begin.

Recently I read a scholar’s analysis of the act of pilgrimage which he divided into four stages: intention, separation, transformation and return. I have most definitely reached separation. Friends are stopping by to wish me well, the sangha threw a bon voyage party last evening. I’ll be saying good bye to my dogs in just a few days and after a few days more to my wife and daughter. I feel acutely the pangs that come with separation. As I leave the comforts of the familiar and routine I must cope with the strong desire to abandon my plans and remain in place. My foolish desire for permanence is showing me, in classic Buddhist fashion, the nature of suffering. For transformation to begin I must step off into the unknown. Each good bye is a step into the next stage of transformation. As I said to the sangha on Monday, I don’t know who will return here from Japan but he will definitely not be the person I am today.

What I’m about to do literally feels like this. Go Justin.


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.