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.

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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.

Days 8 and 9 – Tokushima and Temple 1

On day 8 I took the ferry from Wakayama to Shikoku and the city of Tokushima. I’ve adopted a strategy of easy stages so my goal for the day was to make the crossing and get set up for the night. I decided the agenda for day 9 would involve taking the train to the little station near temple 1, find the temple and there purchase the items that a pilgrim should wear and carry. Then I would return to Tokushima and begin the pilgrimage on day 10.

I found the right train to take from Tokushima station, a one car local train that was more like a bus on rails than a train. It wasn’t the technological wonder of the Shinkansen, but like it was very clean and ran on time. After about 10 minutes it reached Bando station which was little more than a shelter alongside the track. Using Google maps on my phone (another marvel of modern technology that has been utterly invaluable on this trip) I made my way to Ryozenji (Temple 1). I had seen photographs and video of the place before and as I approached the emotions began to rise in me. I had thought and planned and wondered about this place for so long and here I was. I bowed at the gate.

Processed with Snapseed. As I entered the temple grounds I was surrounded by the sounds of pilgrims praying, the smell of incense burning and so much activity I wasn’t able to take it all in. Yet, for the first time since coming to Japan I was in a situation that felt familiar to me. What people were doing here, practicing Buddhism, is what I do at home. Only at home I either practice alone or with just a few other people. I had never been among so many people doing this at once.

I wandered a bit, confused. I had long ago read of the devotions and prayers a pilgrim makes at a temple so I climbed the steps to the Hondo, put my hands together, bowed and recited my prayers. Among them was the Heart Sutra which I had spent the last few months memorizing in Japanese. On this occasion I was so caught up in what was going on that I messed it up. No matter. The intention is what counts.

I went to the store in the temple and bought the pilgrim items which I will write about in another post. I donned the pilgrim’s robe and put on the stole, called a wagesa, that I wear at home and which identifies me as an ordained Tendai monk. I had a brief encounter with the priest in charge of the temple who asked where I was from. We spoke as best we could with our language limitations about Tendai and Shingon (the Buddhist school that runs this temple). I imagine she was somewhat curious about a head shaven, blue eyed, large sized, obviously western monk with a Tendai wagesa. I can’t speak for her, but I felt a connection.

There aren’t many days in one’s life when you are allowed to reach an important goal. This was one of them. It was very important to me. I felt emotions I’ve never had before and will always cherish. I had stepped into the transformation stage of pilgrimage.

After I left the temple and was walking back to the train station I stopped at a store to buy something to eat and drink. I went outside and toward the rear of the store out of the way of the people coming and going. As stood there an older couple pulled in with their truck and parked next to me. The woman got out and went to a little bowl on the ground next to the building and filled it with cat food. I could tell this was part of her daily routine. She smiled at me and could see I had a pilgrim’s staff. She started talking and I heard her say “Ohenrosan” or pilgrim. I told her “Hai” or yes. She asked if I was from America and I said yes. Was I doing the pilgrimage by car. No, I replied, I am walking. We continued for a few minutes in very enjoyable fashion. And then she said “Gambatte kudasai” or please do your best. I was a henro at last. I then went in the store to throw away my garbage from my snack. She followed me in and showed me where to do this and then pressed a coin in my hand as “ossetai”, the material support people on Shikoku give henro. Transformation indeed.

When I returned to Tokushima as I left the station a henro was standing by the sidewalk with a begging bowl. I went to him and placed a coin in the bowl and bowed deeply to him. No difference between us. Two together.

Day Minus 2 – Brooklyn

I’m in the tourist phase at present. My wife and I came to New York City to spend some time with our daughter before my flight on the 15th. Since our daughter lives in Brooklyn, we set ourselves up in a bed and breakfast adjacent to Prospect Park.

This morning we went out in search of coffee and found ourselves walking through the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens. We came across a Japanese garden complete with a torri in a pond. It was a striking sight foreshadowing my near future in Japan. imageIt was a very nice surprise which began a beautiful morning wandering in the gardens.

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Time to smell the roses