Day One – Tokyo

Arrived in Tokyo yesterday after a 14 hour flight from New York. Although long, I must say the Boeing 787 is kind to economy class passengers in terms of room. The ordeal was the duration of the flight not the physical discomfort of the plane.

By the way, when Japanese transportation systems say something is going to happen at 1:42 pm, it does. Not 1:41, not 1:43. And the ride is smooth as can be. Their systems are fantastic.

After logistical adventures at the airport I reached my hotel after being awake for 24 hours. I donned my yukata (Japanese bathrobe/pajamas supplied by the hotel) and slept nearly 12 hours.

I’ve walked around quite a bit since getting here and am quite aware of being a slack jawed tourist. I really stand out around here and I’ve quickly given up any hope of blending into the crowd. People are so kind. In situations when I’ve needed help it was offered in full measure and with a smile.

In addition to being slack jawed, I’m nearly illiterate. It’s a lot like being a child again. In a way it’s a relief not to be reading advertising all the time. But I still wonder what I’m missing sometimes.

This morning I went out early to find Senso-ji temple which isn’t far from where I’m staying.  It’s the oldest temple in Tokyo and was, until the end of World War II, a Tendai temple.

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The gate at Senso-ji

During the war it was destroyed by American bombs and was rebuilt. It was strange to be in a place where something like that had happened.

Approaching the main temple I purified my hands and mouth in the manner I had learned about in my preparations for my pilgrimage. Then I climbed the steps to stand in front of the main image. I placed my hands together in gassho and bowed and then recited the Heart Sutra in Japanese. The main image in the temple is the Bodhisattva of compassion who is said to respond to the pleas of humans for help. So as I prayed I asked for her support on my pilgrimage. I found the experience very moving and worked hard to keep back my tears of joy. I thought this a wonderful way to begin my pilgrimage. I bought incense, lit it and placed it in the burner before the temple as an expression of my gratitude.

The streets around the temple are lined by shops selling sweets, trinkets, clothing and food. As I wandered around the place began to fill with tourists like myself. I had the good fortune to be there early when things were peaceful.

I have so many impresssions and these are only a few. I hope I can convey some of my amazement at the wonders of this special place here and in later posts.

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

 

Day minus 7 – Separations

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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.

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.

Determination

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.

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.