Kokorodo – Half Way

Yesterday was the 50th day of my 100 day walking practice, as good a time as any to reflect on where I was, where I am and where I will be.

I’ve walked 535 miles (861 km).  I’ve walked in the snow and the rain.  I’ve slogged through the mud and slipped on the ice.  I’ve seen dozens of deer and even a coyote.  I’ve watched an ice covered river thaw and rise out of its banks.  Each day I walk to the same places I’ve never walked in before.

Change builds on change.

My body grows stronger and along with it my determination to see this thing through.  But a demanding weariness creeps in more often, a fatigue which only deep sleep can abate.

Walking for hours body and mind become focused on just the next step, the next mantra, the next place.  And then, for an instant, emptiness and they all disappear; the sleepwalker awakens for only a second.

One day when winter was still here I saw the body of a dead deer.  I felt pointed sadness when I imagined her death.  But seeing the other creatures who took nourishment from her body at a time when food was so scarce, I was glad for their deliverance from hunger; compassion for both prey and predator.

There is a white pine on my route.  It reminds me of me – old, showing signs of decay, lost its foliage on top, but still sturdy.  We take time out to encourage each other.

Along the path is a cemetery.  I stop and chant the Heart Sutra wondering what “Reverend Laura” who rests there would think of my practice.  I stand by the remains of gentle George who died two years ago this past weekend, thinking of how his wife must miss him.  I wonder if I will end up here some day.

Some days my path takes me through our little town.  I know just about everyone I see; not just their names, but also their troubles and triumphs.  I wave to them all and they wave back at me.  Interdependence isn’t just a concept here, we truly live with each other.  Compassion abounds.

I am part of the landscape not its observer.  And my journey has just begun.

Kokorodo – Day 25

I’ve reached the one-quarter mark of my 100 day walking practice.  This seems as good a place as any to take stock of how things are going.

First; the least important detail is I have walked a total of 266 miles (428 km) which puts me on pace to make the 1,000 mile goal.  When I began I made a commitment to walk 18.6 miles (30 km, which is the distance the monks on Mt Hiei walk every day on kaihogyo) on 5 days during the 100 day period.  So last Thursday I set out on my first long walk.  I didn’t know exactly how long the trail was but estimated it to be close to 18 miles.  I discovered my estimate was a bit off when I got home and found I had just walked 24 miles (38.6 km).

I am beginning to make a few observations.  What is clearest is there is a great deal in this practice I have not yet discovered and I am sure that I will not uncover in just 100 days.  As in meditation there is never an end to what can be found.

It is also clear that the heart of the practice is not the individual days of walking but rather returning to the walking day after day.  My previous encounters with the practice have always involved a single long walk.  While this can be effective, I find the daily repetition adds a dimension and quality that is difficult for me to describe at this early stage.

The role of the mantras is central.  It is easy to focus on the walking element but if one neglects recitation of the mantras there is really no point in doing kokorodo at all.  By mixing physical exertion with the mind exercise of the mantras a unique meditative concentration develops.  It is somewhat like the concentration accessible by focusing on the breath.  But I find this is more focused and “one-pointed” than anything I have experienced in meditation.  There are about 24 different mantras used in kokorodo.  At this point I have learned only half that number.  I anticipate my perception of the importance of mantras will refine as I learn them all with sufficient skill to recite without hesitation or error.

Finally I would call your attention to Fudo Myoo who plays a very important role.  He is described as a Guardian who shows all beings the teachings of the Buddha and as an aide in helping us reach our goals.  His mantra dominates the practice.  Over time he has become my companion.  Whenever I feel fatigue or discouragement his mantra moves me forward with determination.  His depiction in Buddhist art is fearsome but my experience of him is of a loyal and caring friend willing to endure with me whatever difficulties that might arise.  I have come to think of him with real affection and gratitude.  As we walk along the Buddha path we all need to accept help from others just as we all must offer that same help to others.  Fudo Myoo is teaching me this by his example.

As I had hoped at the beginning, I am starting to learn.  I do not know where this will lead me but I am happy to go down the path as it winds and turns before me.

The Most Dangerous Animal in the Woods

Late last night I planned on writing about one of the places I stop on my daily pilgrimage.  I even had a photo of it:

deerpath

This unremarkable place is a path made by the deer walking through the woods.  On my first kokorodo I was attracted to stop here without knowing why.  Nevertheless I continued coming here day after day.

Then this morning I read a post by Barry Briggs at Ox Herding called Zen Deer.  In it he contemplates that meditation may be natural to us and illustrates his idea with the image of a prehistoric hunter sitting patiently near a game path waiting for a deer whose death was needed by a hungry village.

Right after that I read a question attached by Senshin to my last post where she asked if there are any dangerous animals where I walk, specifically, are there any bears.  The simple answer is yes, there are bears around here, but they avoid contact with people.  The more complex answer is yes, there are many dangerous animals around here.  We are the most dangerous animals in the woods.

We have travelled a long way from Barry’s primeval hunter whose survival was dependent on the deer.  The hunter occupied a place in the larger world no different than any other being because each survives by consuming some other form of life.  The complex interaction of all the species coming into a balance that enables the greatest number to flourish is, to my way of thinking, a reflection of the Dharma.

But the threat I present is much greater than that of the hunter.  I have the potential to slay far more animals than I need to eat for my survival.  Moreover, I have at my disposal machines which in a short time can literally destroy the forest which has existed for thousands of years and on which all those animals depend.  The clever human mind must be tempered by understanding and wisdom.  In this, again, we see the Dharma here teaching us the necessity of restraint and compassion.

So today when I walk by the deer path I will venerate the deer who walk there.  I will honor our ancestors who sat in wait next to it.  And I will reflect on the importance of my understanding the danger I present to everything on and around that path if I fail to act with compassion for all sentient beings.

Path of the Heart

When I first began this blog it was my intention to write about what makes Buddhist practice in the wilderness unique.  Early on I became side tracked with other matters as I mastered the technical skills necessary to make a presentable web site.  But I think now is a good time to return to my original goal.  Bear with me as I explain my change in direction.

A few years ago I began walking for my health.  I found I enjoyed it very much and before long it was a confirmed habit.  Many times as I walked I would pass the time listening to audiobooks.  Quite by chance I found one on Buddhism and thought it would be interesting.  My curiosity about Buddhism was just that.  I was not seeking any answers or searching for new meaning in my life.  One sunny spring morning as I walked in the woods I listened to the Four Noble Truths.  The experience of hearing those words defies my ability to describe, but in an instant my life changed drastically.  Over the following weeks I would walk in the forest listening and learning about Buddhism.

By another seemingly random circumstance I learned from a friend that a mutual acquaintance was a practicing Buddhist.  Before long we spoke about my new interest.  In fact he turned out to be much more than a practicing Buddhist; he is an ordained priest in the Tendai tradition whose knowledge and wisdom is very deep indeed.  And so I had a sensei.

In the months that followed I continued to use the time I spent walking to think about the many things I was learning about the teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha.  As I walked I began to understand impermanence, not-self and much more.  The woods became my temple and my university.

My sensei was aware of the role walking had in my life.  So he told me about the kaihogyo, a practice unique to Tendai Buddhism.  I learned about the monks in Japan who walk thousands of miles in a kind of pilgrimage, performing amazing physical feats of endurance over a seven year period.

As time went on I continued walking but the focus of my practice shifted to the time honored and essential methods of meditation, study and ritual.  As these became more settled in me I began to understand that my time in the forest was when I was most likely to find new insight, deepen my understanding, renew my energy and confirm my patience.

So it was in the past few weeks that I formed the hope to more systematically integrate walking into my daily practice following the inspiration of the kaihogyo.  With the encouragement of my sensei I have set out to do this in an initial period of one hundred days.

In kaihogyo the monks walk 30 km (18.6 mi) a day for 100 days in their first three years.  I would like to duplicate that achievement but I must be realistic and acknowledge that at the age of 61 I may not be able to do so.  So I have set a goal of walking 1,000 miles (1,609 km) in 100 hundred days.

It is important to understand that the distances are not the practice.  The distance needs to be long enough to present a significant physical challenge.  But that is analogous to using the correct posture while meditating.  The heart of the practice is what goes on while meeting that challenge.  While walking I will recite various mantras that invoke the presence of different Buddhas, Bodhisattvas and Guardians.  Along the path I will stop at a number of locations which strongly evoke the Buddha nature that is found in all things.  At these places I will venerate that Buddha nature in a manner which arises spontaneously within me.

It is in this last element of the practice that the advantage of being in the wilderness has its greatest effect.  Quite simply, in a purely natural setting there are more places where Buddha nature is apparent because there is less to distract one from seeing it.

Today is the 16th day of my practice.  I hope to write about what happens in the coming 84 days and share at least some of my experiences with you who read this.  Quite honestly, I am not sure what to expect.   I anticipate that much of what happens will be diffiuclt if not impossible to describe for you, but I promise you my best effort.

While I am tempted to call my practice kaihogyo, it would be wrong to do so.  Our Jushoku (abbot), Monshin Paul Naamon, has designated the name kokorodo which means Path of the Heart.  I feel a strong affinity with the sentiment he has created with this name and I embrace it.

I would be most pleased if you would come to this site from time to time and share some of this experience with me.

Gassho.

Anger

When our sangha met Monday evening our leader performed a purification ceremony.   At one point we each approached the altar and took a pinch of incense, then while holding it in between the fingers, we privately considered what we needed to be purified from.  Then we put the incense on the burning charcoal and watched the smoke rise into the air.  When my turn came I had no hesitation in aspiring to be purified from anger for it is anger that hinders me more than anything.

The next morning I was performing some routine work when something unexpected occurred.  Because of it my plan for the day’s activities was disrupted.  It was nothing serious but it was enough to spark a tiny bit of anger.

As I watched that tiny reaction build and spread through me I understood why anger is called one of the three poisons.  It spreads until it dominates the entire system with its negativity.  Everything around me became colored with a sense of discomfort and dissatisfaction.  I could feel myself reaching a threshold of irritability that excluded nothing.  I knew that if I didn’t take steps to cope with it, this anger would in short order seek out a target.

Sacred Place
Sacred Place

So I put on my winter clothes, called the dogs, and off we went on a 10 mile walk to one of my sacred places which I hadn’t visited in several months.  The trail that takes you there has a series of steep hills which challenge the body.  And as my body demanded more attention my mind gradually lets go of its discontent.  In this I rediscovered that the body is often wiser than the mind.

When I arrived at my destination it was like seeing an old friend.  I could see the beauty of the place; I listened to the creak of the trees rocking in the wind; I felt the warmth in my muscles which was the pleasant price of reaching this destination; and breathing in the cold clean air was as delicious and refreshing as a drink of icy spring water on a hot afternoon in July.

Anger had disconnected me from everything.  This special-ordinary place welcomed me, showed me the Buddha nature within it and let me become part of its whole.

On days like this I wonder how I could live anywhere but here.

Sacred Places – Indoors

I recently found myself with an unused room in my little house.  So I decided it was time to create a dedicated place for meditation, study and other practice.  I have been working at it for a week with no end in sight.

In Tendai we incorporate the widest range of Buddhist practices of any school.  An important branch of our practice is work.  So as I go about the humdrum tasks of painting, cleaning and preparing a new sacred place I have made them my practice.  Since I am temperamentally impatient with these kinds of projects, I have had a bonanza of opportunities to observe feelings of impatience, frustration and aversion rise and pass away.  If I can only train myself to be an observer of rather than a participant in these negative emotions perhaps I might achieve a sense of satisfaction in the task.  At any rate, that’s the theory.  Just as when the mind wanders away from concentration during meditation, I have to keep dragging myself back from my negative emotions to something more useful.  And that is where the practice lives, in the dragging back rather than the achieving of a goal.

Rohatsu

Today is the first of the eight days of Rohatsu when we commemorate the enlightenment of Shakyamuni Buddha.  It is an opportunity to practice more diligently and to reflect on our own journey to enlightenment.