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.


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.


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.


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.


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.