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.

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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.

“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.

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.

Days 6 and 7 – To Wakayama

The short version is I took the train from Tokyo to Wakayama and hung out the next day. The long version is about my complex encounter with Japan. At times I feel confident of my reaction to this nation and then something happens and I am off in a whole new direction.

This much I understand; Japan is like all cultures, complicated, kaleidoscopic and elusive. To the stranger it is charming, amazing and sometimes intimidating. The people I have interacted with have all been genuinely kind to me. Smiling seems to be the national expression. Please, thank you, good morning, good afternoon, are all spoken with enthusiasm. In short, it is very different from the culture I come from.

The train journey was unique in my experience. I reserved a seat on the Shinkansen (bullet train) from Tokyo to Osaka to depart at 10 am. The night before I became so worried about getting there on time I managed to arrive hours early. The agent at the gate saw how early I was and offered to put me on an earlier train. But I instinctively, and unreflectively, declined her offer of help. When I got to the platform where the train was to depart I knew I had made the right choice. I had the chance to spend a couple of hours watching the incredible performance and organization of the people who make these trains run. First of all, the trains come and go constantly. Just before a Tokyo bound train would pull into the station the members of the crew that was to take it on the next leg of its journey were already waiting to board. Also waiting were the cleaners lined up at the position of the car they were about to clean. After the passengers cleared the train, the cleaners began their job. Four to a car, their moves were choreographed to change all the seats, clean everything and have the car ready for the new passengers in ten minutes. It was a sight to behold. Then the new passengers boarded and five minutes later the train cleared the station for its next destination. This process went on continuously. I have always enjoyed watching people work who do their job well, and this was full enjoyment.

When the time came to board my train I was treated to a smooth and quiet ride. None of the lurching and banging I am used to on American trains. And the speed…unprecedented in my experience. The landscape passed by in a blur. Everyone should ride the Shinkansen at least once in their life.

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My destination of Wakayama meant I had to change trains in Osaka. I had no idea where to go and was resigned to a delay here. I worked my way through the station until I reached the ticket gate. I asked the agent at the gate where I should go. He briskly consulted a thick book of timetables and told me my train was leaving in 3 minutes from Track 11. In 2 minutes I was on the train and soon on the move. My sojourn in Osaka was brief indeed. This train was more modest and slower. The conductor went from person to person to collect the fare or tickets, tipping his hat to each of us as he finished. In an hour’s time I was in Wakayama far earlier than I had hoped.

In Wakayama another Japan revealed itself. A sizable city it is modest by Tokyo standards. The pace was noticeably slower, the dimensions of life more in line with what I am accustomed to in my small town at home. When I checked into the hotel I looked out the window to see perched on a hill in the distance Wakayama Castle. I knew I had to take some time to explore this wonder and the charms of this city so I arranged to spend the next day here.

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The story of this structure is quite interesting dating back to the Tokugawa shogunate of the 16th century. The original castle was abandoned some time ago and what was left of it was destroyed by American bombs in World War II. It was rebuilt and restored in the 1950’s. Walking the grounds it becomes clear the castle itself was just the innermost redoubt of a huge fortified position built in monumental fashion to discourage any attempt at attack. Below the castle heights were the administrative buildings and in that location a beautiful garden has been established. I spent more time there standing alone and observing than I did in the military surroundings of the castle itself.

A final thought about observation. The further I travel in Japan the less English I encounter (although I am still surprised at how much I see). As I walked the castle grounds there were many signs imparting much information completely inaccessible to me. And so by stages I have become more and more an observer. I have returned to some degree to the mind of a pre-literate child. I soak up all the information I can non-linguistically. It’s a real shift employing a part of the mind in my case long neglected.

The next stage of the journey will be, at long last, to Shikoku. A destination fixed in my mind for more than a year will finally be reached.


Days 2 to 5 – Tokyo

My original plan was to stay two days in Tokyo and travel to Shikoku. But the forces of nature in the form of a typhoon have intervened. As I write this Shikoku is being inundated with torrential rains. So I extended my stay in Tokyo in order to arrive after the storm will have passed.

Day 2 brought a visit from a Tendai monk who has helped train me the past two years. It was a real pleasure to see him for the short time we were able to arrange. Although I am more than old enough to be his grandfather, he has been my teacher and that dominates our relationship. He has such an extraordinary devotion to Buddhist practice which he pursues with a fierce determination. He really inspires me to learn more and try harder. We walked around the city for a few hours. Since it was the weekend the parks and streets were filled with people enjoying their day off. The multitude of little shops were busy some with the owners of some loudly hawking their goods to the passers by.  We heard taiko drumming in the park. He wanted to look for koi fish in a pond in Ueno park. I was astounded to find the pond absolutely filled with lotus plants. In the middle of the pond was a small Tendai temple with a monk inside beating the drum while he chanted a sutra by himself.

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Acres of lotus

We encountered a number of people running along the path around the pond. My friend told me they were playing Pokémon Go. What a mix.

On day 3 I took a long walk from my hotel to the area around the Imperial Palace which has gardens open to the public. For most of the walk I was in a nice residential neighborhood but near the end as I reached Tokyo Station I emerged into a place of power and wealth. Buildings established to impress, to convey stability and permanence, surround the very busy station. A few blocks away are the Imperial Gardens with remnants of the stone wall fortifications that were built long ago, in fact long before the emperors came here. In the midst of a city where space is the most precious commodity there is lavish open space.

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Imperial fortifications

On day 4 things caught up with me and some serious fatigue set in — appropriate to my age I suppose. The weather was turning bad so I dedicated the day to rest, planning and self maintenance. I took the opportunity to go to a local laundromat to wash some clothes. It was a space about 6 feet by 10 feet in which there were three washers and two dryers. People came and went with the wash. They would start their wash or dry and then return precisely when the cycle was done. No inconvenience to anyone because of delay. I had a conversation with a young woman from Oregon and realized I was speaking in English for more than a single sentence for the first time in several days. It felt strange, actually. That evening I went to a restaurant for dinner and found myself across from a family consisting of three generations, including a baby about a year or two old. Grandmother and Auntie were playing peekaboo with the baby who enthusiastically participated. The Japanese smile a lot, but these people were completely lit up with their enjoyment of each other.

Day 5’s adventure was my first encounter with the Tokyo subway. It runs in the same tradition of precision, cleanliness and professionalism I’ve noticed in all Japanese transportation systems. I was somewhat nervous about getting lost, but the many signs in English, clear maps in the cars and some good luck got me to my destination of Tokyo Station. I was there to initiate my Japan Rail Pass for my journey starting tomorrow towards Shikoku. The station is immense, extremely busy and complicated. Somehow I found the right desk, got my pass and reserved a seat on a Shinkansen (bullet train) for tomorrow’s trip. The plan is to go to Osaka, then get a train south to the port city of Wakayama. I’ll stay the night there and on the following day take a two hour ferry ride to Tokushima and Shikoku at last. My adventures will then really begin.

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.

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


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.