I’ve been interested in modern day pilgrimages, and how you can walk your way to better mental health and wellbeing since having had some great experiences on the Camino to Santiago de Compostela in Spain.
To try and capture the spirit of the pilgrimage experience, I made this video which is based on my experiences in Spain as well as on the 88 temples route around the island of Shikoku in Japan.
In Spain, I found that walking 20 to 30km a day with often only the birds for company, you have plenty of time to think, and after you hit some kind of rhythm, you find your mind in kind of a different place compared to where it was back home. I think that there’s something about the pleasures to be gained from life where the only thing you have to do each day is to simply walk.
I spent a lot of time trying to work out what it was about this simplicity that led to such a feeling of fulfilled contentment. I found myself coming back to particular themes. These thoughts about how to live a happier life whilst on the Camino made me wonder about how I might live better once I got home.
In normal day-to-day life you can be aware of a tension between what you have achieved and what you think you should have accomplished by a certain time in your life. Have I achieved enough? Am I on track to accomplish what I feel I ought to be able to at the age of 30?, 40?, 50 ?
When you are walking, day in, day out, over an extended period, it all gets quite simple as there is the satisfaction, day-to-day, you get when achieving the goals you set for yourself. A 30km day over the next mountain-range or managing to walk 200km in a week. You can spend your time looking back on yesterday’s achievements as well as looking forward in the hope and expectation of the hurdles you’ll overcome tomorrow because you have proved to yourself that you can do it.
When you set yourself a goal in daily life, progress can often be quite haphazard. There can be a lot of one step forward, 2 steps back. When you’re walking with the simple goal of making it to the next village in time for dinner though, each step is a step towards that goal. For your life whilst walking, your reason to be alive is quite clear and defined. In simple terms, you just want to make it to the next place. Because you have found some security in the reasons for “why” you are living, it makes it easier to endure the “how” – that is the hardships involved in getting there…. the heat, the cold, the fatigue ..
For that short time you are walking, that reason “why” you are living and the push from yesterday and the pull from tomorrow can feel nicely balanced.
So it was with these thoughts from the Camino experience in mind that I set off in early June for the Japanese island of Shikoku, arriving by boat into the port of Takamatsu.
Pilgrimage in Japan
Religious pilgrimage has been around in Japan for some time. These days perhaps one of the most famous pilgrimage ways is the one that follows the perimeter of Shikoku where you pass 88 temples before completing the circuit. To walk the full circle of about 1200 km, it takes 40 to 50 days on foot though these days it’s more common to drive or take a bus between the temples.
When pilgrims walk the 88 temples route, they do so kind of in the footsteps of the monk Kukai who was born at temple no. 75 – Zentsuji – in the year 774. As the founder of the Shingon or Tantric school of Buddhism, Kukai features prominently in the imaginations of Japanese people. During his ascetic training, he spent a lot of time around these temples of Shikoku and so plays a central role in the 88 temples pilgrimage.
If we are to awaken to our true selves, Kūkai says we need to observe the ritual practice of bodily acts, verbal acts, and mental acts – the 3 mysteries.
Bodily acts are complex movements of the hands and fingers in coordination with mantra-chanting and meditative bodily postures, and the handling of ritual instruments.
Verbal acts – words – involve mantra-recitations and other forms of prayer formulas or chants and verses
Mental acts – thoughts – involve visualizing or focussing upon mandalas or the figures of Sanskrit mantra letters as well as visualizations of deities or buddhas
So the practice of the three mysteries, which initially had only a ritual aspect, can start to occur naturally, no longer needing to be restricted to its ritualized context. Walking between the temples, performing the act of pilgrimage could be, in itself, considered to encompass these bodily, verbal and mental acts.
Shikoku’s four prefectures also reflect the four separate parts of the mandala -the symbol of the universe – that shows the world of Buddhism and, seeing into one’s true nature, the ultimate comprehension of being.
Tokushima, where you might start your journey, at temple number 1, is the place of spiritual awakening; then to Kochi, the place of ascetic training; Ehime, the place of enlightenment; and finally to Kagawa, the place of Nirvana.
Although there are references to people making the pilgrimage as early as the 12th century, it didn’t become popular among the general public until the first guide books were published in the late 17th century.
In these feudal times, travel for the commoners was tightly controlled but if you said that you were embarking on a religious pilgrimage then it was allowed although still with restrictions. One was that you had to prove that you were actually visiting the temples and you did this by getting a stamp or nokyo. Modern-day pilgrims still get these.
This is the stamp from temple #2, Gokurakuji. In the centre we have kiriku (きりく)、in Sanskrit then muryouju (無量寿), the sutra of immeasurable life. On the right we have hono (奉納), meaning an offering or dedication. On the left is the temple’s name: gokurakuji (極楽寺) – the temple of paradise, or extreme pleasure. If you collect the stamps from all 88 temples then that’s the proof you’ve completed it and you’ll likely treasure your stamp book and even take it to your grave.
In a lot of ways the Shikoku pilgrimage starts at Mount Koya (koya san). As well as being instrumental in the formation of the Shikoku pilgrimage, Kukai developed this centre for Shingon Buddhist practice and teaching around the years 810 to 813.
Kukai saw out his days here where he died in 835 at the age of 61.
Kūkai was not given the traditional cremation, but instead, in accordance with his will, was entombed on the eastern peak of Mount Kōya where he is said to still live on after having entered a state of eternal meditation.
Priests still make food offerings at his resting place twice a day. Kukai received his posthumous Buddhist name Kobo Daishi from the emperor in 921.
The temple complex itself is in the centre of a ring of 5 mountains where each of those mountains is said to be a leaf of the shape of a lotus flower.
So in Buddist symbolism, the lotus represents the purity of body, speech and mind as if it is floating above the murky waters of human attachment and desire. According to legend, Buddha’s steps made lotus flowers appear everywhere he stepped!
In wearing the attire, you are said to be fulfilling one of the three mysteries (sanmitsu), namely acts or deeds.
If you identify as a pilgrim in this way, you are likely to get even more help from local people.
The first thing to wear is the proper hat where the sanskrit mark is to the front. Next is the white vest (hakui) which represents purity and innocence. It can also be seen as a death shroud, symbolising the preparedness of the pilgrim to die at any time. You can also get the vest covered with the temple stamps and it then would be put on you when you’re cremated. The stamps on the hakui could act like visas to prove that you are eligible to cross the border into the great here-after. Also important is the staff which is meant to embody the spirit of Kobo Daishi. It can also double as a handy grave marker just in case you pass away whilst on the trail and the staff can serve as a kind of grave marker to show where you fell.
Because the staff (kokozune) is said to embody the spirit of kobo daishi, there are a few rules governing its use.
- Make sure you take care of your staff before yourself.
- When you reach the end of your day and stay at your inn, make sure you put it in your tokonoma – or corner alcove – area of the room.
- There’s a belief that Kobo Daishi might be sleeping under a bridge so don’t go tapping your staff when you walk under the bridge.
- The end of the staff is going to fraying over time but don’t be cutting it or reshaping it with a knife; instead use a stone or other blunt object.
If you can avoid passing away in the mountains, there is also something about being immersed in nature where a feeling of insignificance can help you lose those preoccupations with yourself and be quite freeing.
When you’re walking and realise that everything you need can be carried on your back, you can feel a kind of lightness, even if your bag is heavy. You come home and think “why have I got so much stuff!” As you only have space for essentials, it can be quite a treat when something unexpected comes your way. Appetite is unjaded by too much luxury. You can come to understand what is “enough” and then realise that actually “not that much” is enough.
It’s the realisation that a fulfilled life comes not from the continual acquisition of “more”, but from somehow managing to subtract from that great pile of desires.
Like at the end of any hard day’s work, the pleasure of good food or a cold beer is so much the greater because you feel you’ve earned it. You’ve removed the excesses from life to the point where such a simple pleasure can be all the more enjoyable.
Pilgrimage – why do it?
As with the Camino in Spain, the question that often gets asked is “why”?
On a daily basis, there are times when you can feel bored as well as elated, extremely fatigued as well as energised, you could feel lonely or you could be enjoying the solitude.
These days, the reasons that people take on this arduous 1200km circular journey around Shikoku are many and various and could be spiritual or worldly.
For such a seemingly secular society, it can be surprising to see Japanese people showing pious religious observance in the native Shinto components of weddings or the Buddhist rituals to be seen at funerals, for example.
And from the way you can see pilgrims at each of the 88 temples devoutly following the rituals, it seems that it is a case of more than just following “form”, but an assertion of a set of beliefs normally inexpressible in peoples’ day to day lives. So even for people who would normally be non-practising, pilgrimage seems like a chance to reconnect back to something in the Japanese psyche that has been lost or forgotten.
But within this religious framework, there can be some more down-to-earth reasons for doing the pilgrimage.
They might want to make the journey in memory of a loved one who died,
or to get away from the responsibilities of numbing routine,
or to enjoy the outdoors
or just get some time to be alone.
Walking the 88 temples route in mid 2020 with all the uncertainties around the corona pandemic, it was a great time to be reminded just how good people can be.
When you’re walking, you often find yourself needing help. And it’s this vulnerability that can open up a space where the kindness of other people can get a chance to shine through.
While I was eating udon noodles a man approached me to offer me Y1000. This is part of the practice of giving alms where people want to acknowledge your efforts and will intimate that you are kind of walking for them too.
When I get back home, I realise that what I don’t need is a tensionless state but rather I need to be striving and struggling towards goals that will stretch me. When I’m back in the city, though, away from nature, it’s easy to forget that we’re creatures of the Earth; that our life is part of the life of the earth, and we draw our nourishment from it just as the plants and animals do. I need to be reminded that people are created for happiness, that happiness is within all of us, in the satisfaction of simple human needs, and that much unhappiness comes not from too little but from too much.
Sometimes I feel part of the “mass of men leading a life of quiet desperation” and could “die with my song still inside me” (Henry David Thoreau) but in the wildness of nature, I can feel that I’m no longer part of the mass of men. I can appreciate that I have even more than a dual nature; both body and mind but maybe even soul as well. I can be fully engaged, fully alive and can appreciate that I have a dual nature of both body and mind. I think we can only become the best of ourselves when these natures are pulling together.
“If man were never to fade away like the dews of Adashino, never to vanish like the smoke over Toribeyama, but lingered on forever in this world, how things would lose their power to move us! The most precious thing in life is its uncertainty.”
Yoshida Kenko (兼好)
Whilst on the road I had many beautiful experiences but life and beauty and pleasure and love are all the more precious precisely because they cannot last. For example, the appreciation of cherry blossom in Japan is heightened because the beauty is so short-lived. In Japanese; Mono no aware – the pathos of things. This awareness of impermanence, though sad, is tinged with beauty.