Tokushima Temple Walk: Next Steps
I want to show you something.
I received this Monk “puzzle” from the art teacher at my big school, who also happened to complete the pilgrimage. When I returned to the office, and he found out where I had been, we had lengthy conversations about the trail and our experiences. He would pull out his map book (which I guess he just had at his desk??) to show me what would be in store for the next prefecture, which is a lot more lengthy than Tokushima to say the least. While he drove the entire trail, it still didn’t take away his accomplishment. After overhearing our talks, the school secretary mentioned he also used to work at one of the numbered temples in Ehime. As the word spread, I was also asked to give presentations to the third and second year students about my trip.
This, in large, is what my pilgrimage has become: a part of me that people were immensely curious in and an easy conversation starter. I am no longer just “the American in the office.” Now I’m the “American in the office who walked around Shikoku.”
While it would be easy to complain that “now all everyone wants to talk about with me is this trip!” I simply can’t ignore that it has helped me connect more with the people around me. It’s also given me something to look forward to, something to do more research on, among other things.
There are some things that I had briefly talked about in the previous posts that I didn’t feel comfortable speaking about until the dust had finally settled and my feelings cemented. So, here are my thoughts on some of the various, more “controversial” aspects of the trail.
1. Religious Tourism
There are two prominent writers that I follow, one of which I have already highlighted here on the blog, who recently wrote about pilgrimages, temples and the like. Both quotes that I’m pulling were published long after my trip, but they still brought up something I feel needs addressing.
“But something cynical has happened to us on the way to Canterbury Cathedral. Our spiritual journeys have become vacations. We are no longer pilgrims, we are tourists. Everything else feels like an affectation: Self-aggrandizing stories that make entire nations nothing more than a supporting cast for our own first-world problems and neuroticisms,” from This Japanese Life
“Something about me – I’ve been to a dozen of these shrines and I never partake in the purification ceremony or any other Shinto rituals that lie within. I’ve always seen it as a king of religious ‘tourism’ and it never really sit well with me – nothing against those who do, of course. I see it this way – if I visited a Mosque, I wouldn’t practice Salat, yanno? I’d admire the building quietly and then go,” from Anime New Network’s Nerd Tour 2014.
Now, I’m not adding these quotes to then tear them apart, explain why they’re wrong while validating my trip in some way. Rather, I think they have a good point.
In fact, when I wrote my initial post about the walk, I even said “If I truly wanted to convert or have some ‘spiritual awakening,’ there are more than enough temples/shrines around my house that could fulfill just that. In all honesty, I’m going the walk for very selfish reasons.” I always intended the trip to be more touristy than anything else, soaking in the sights and sounds as opposed to the scripture.
But something interesting happened.
Specifically, the night I stayed at Temple 6, the head priest showed me, and the other people staying at the temple that night, around the temple’s treasure room. He showed us the various paintings, statues and other rare items not normally shown to the public. At one point, he instructed us to do a traditional prayer, which was preformed by walking around a statue of the Kannon ten times while chanting. Everyone did as instructed, but it’s not as if there was much of a choice.
As I’ve also probably mentioned in my other posts, I also found myself, well, actually praying at times. Yeah, sure, I wasn’t chanting sutras or actually believing I was communicating with a higher being, but I did stay silent, hands together and thought about things silently, calming myself. I also started to read more into the Heart Sutra and slowly understand what it actually meant, at least from my own perspective.
But, I’m still not Buddhist, nor do I honestly claim to be. In fact, I joked with some friends when I came back that I was simply a “casual.” But, I think there was still something important that came out of all of it. If I were to go on another pilgrimage or trip with religious sights, whether Muslim or Christian focused for example, I think the same thing would have happened. What I got out of the trip was more of an appreciation for the art, culture, history and people behind the faith. I have more of an understanding of the various things around the temples now and what it all means. Sure, I didn’t go into the trip as a true pilgrim, but it was still a very fulfilling educational experience. I still think that means something in the end, even if it could be painted as a vacation with religious dressings.
2. Walking Every Step
I can’t say I’ve received any negative response from readers or friends after my train confession, but reading any amount of pilgrim travelogues does give the impression that walking all/as much of the trail is more “pure.” And I can understand that: accomplishing as much of the trail as it was originally done is a virtuous one. In fact, I have to unfortunately admit that at times I found myself scoffing at the groups of people getting off of buses or cars. “I walked the path and so can they!” I would say to myself.
But as I would quickly learn, this way of thinking goes directly against what the entire trip is about. Sure, it’s easy to get a big head, saying “I walked this/that part” or whatever. And, sure, one can then have that as some sort of a bragging right, but at the end of the day it simply doesn’t matter. There were a few occasions where a fellow pilgrim would tell me I’m doing something wrong (whether going down the wrong side of stairs or heading to the wrong hall first…) and I do have to say I became annoyed at the accusations. But, in that manner, was I any better saying that everyone has to be walking to get the full experience? This trip is such a personal one that to have even the slightest opinion on what the “right way” is just doesn’t make sense. There should not be “one way” one should experience the path. Even then, with the amount of elderly people that go on the trip, for some it’s simply not possible to walk that far or that extensively (lookin’ at you Temple 12!). As it’s been said time and again, the pilgrimage is not about the temples. In fact, it never really has been. It’s all about the encounters, the sights and people you meet along the way, and it’s going to be different for everyone. To take the very, very tired JET line “Every situation is different!” But that’s exactly as it should be!
Sure, it may sound like I’m making a thinly veiled excuse why taking the train in the end was OK, but I feel less guilty about it now. In fact, for the next prefecture, I actually plan on riding my bike. No matter the way one travels to the temples, going on the trip in the first place is satisfaction enough for anyone involved.
So, in the end, did I accomplish everything I set out to do? Was it worth it?
Well, I did get out of my apartment. I did find out an extraordinary amount about Tokushima, Shikoku and the trail. I did find out a lot about myself, too.
I’m going to be completely honest here and say, before I left, I wasn’t having the greatest time or in the best of moods. Work life, personal life…it all kind of spiraled into this culture shock stage 2 abyss. It never came to the point where I was ready to pack up and leave Japan, but the month leading up to winter break was especially rough.
I found that this trip calmed me down. Never once when I was on the trail did I worry about anything back home on my island. It was all about that specific day and what was going to happen then. It was so much more about the “now” than I had ever experienced before. I know reading this next sentence may sound like I’m wrapping this up sermon style (I promise I’m not trying to!), but that is, essentially, what Buddhism is about: All about the now, because there is no past or future to worry about; those are all just creations we’ve made. Worrying about the now, or rather appreciating it, really made me interact with the people I met there and afterwards differently, or at least I like to think so. Life is short and my life in Japan is most likely going to be a lot shorter, so I have to appreciate all the moments I can. It’ll be gone before I know it.
But this still isn’t the end. I really want to complete the entire island this year in celebration of the anniversary. There is plenty more to come, I can promise you that.
And PLEASE slay me if I ever succumb and write a book about this “enlightenment.”