Always the first step – part 1
ALANDA GREEN and her husband are on a pilgrimage to visit the Buddhist temples that date back to the 8th century on the island of Shikoku in Japan. The journey is as much about learning to let go of expectations and maintaining harmony as it is about visiting the temples!
Sustaining the Pilgrimage
A few words on the side bar of a guide map reassure me: “It doesn’t matter where you begin the pilgrimage. It only matters that you take the first step.”
Presumably, it matters that I take the second step as well, since I’ve already made the first step just by getting to Shikoku, the smallest of Japan’s four main islands.
I’ve persevered to get this far in order to do a pilgrimage that I know little about and can’t explain my motivation for doing.
“I’ve always wanted to,” I stammer, when asked why I’m doing this, “ever since I read about it in a book some years back. Just a line, really, but it set something off in my mind.”
Then I’d try to change the subject and talk about my fondness for Japan, or how my husband is coming with me but adamantly proclaims, “I’m not doing any pilgrimage. I’m just going on a hike.” I like that line and steer the conversation to its humor or its vague portent of challenge. But sometimes the questioner would not be put off track.
“Why are you interested in a Japanese pilgrimage? Are you Buddhist?”
No, no, I explain, and then backtrack. It’s not that I’m not Buddhist or that I am Buddhist. This gets worse as I try to clarify my motivation. Pretty soon the listener is convinced I’m actually heading off on a spy mission to Chechnya, or at least that’s my take on the quizzical expression that looks back at me .
So I talk about the beauty of Japanese temples, landscapes, gardens and statues, because it’s what I can talk about. How I like to walk. There are 88 sacred temples on the pilgrimage that circumnavigates the island. It has a rich history dating back to the 8th century when a Zen monk born on Shikoku wandered, built bridges, made roads, established temples, and spread the teachings of Buddhism. At this point, I go back to talking about enjoying walking through the Japanese land, because I’ve pretty well reached the end of my beginner’s knowledge. What the pilgrimage will mean and my knowledge of its background will have to unfold through the process of doing.
At the first temple, I realize that although I may not understand the why of the pilgrimage, I do understand that I have chosen a purpose and a direction. I realize that I want to complete this pilgrimage, want to visit each of the 88 temples, and that I am beginning at the first and will end at the last. This realization becomes clear that first day because I discover my husband does not share this purpose.
“It doesn’t matter if we get to every temple,” he announces. “This isn’t about that. It’s about enjoying the journey.”
How can I explain that it matters a great deal to me, when I can’t even explain why I want to do this in the first place? I begin to think about this journey as a mini-version of the greater pilgrimage of life: we start out and we journey to the end. Yes, it’s true, what’s in between is what matters. It’s the journey, the quality of the journey. But I see at the same time that if I do not have a purpose, a direction determined by that purpose, then the journey itself becomes meaningless. It’s the purpose that defines my choices. I’m walking the narrow paved road along a back street of the city of Tokushima, on the way to Gokurakuji, Temple Two. This purpose, I reason, is what guides me to choose this alley to the left, where an exquisitely shaped pine arches over a driveway, and not the alley to the right, where an exquisite stone lantern sits at a house entrance.
I recall the old folk tale of a young girl walking a road that forks in front of her. At the fork sits an old woman.
“Which road should I take?” the girl asks.
“Where are you going?” asks the old woman.
“I don’t really know,” the girl answers.
“Then it doesn’t really matter.”
How do I sort out what matters without a goal?
How do I release striving and still hold to purpose?
“We don’t have to only go to temples,” my husband Sonni continues. “There’s so much we could see on this island, now that we’re here. Besides, there’s no way we’re going to get to all of them. We just don’t have time.”
I keep my lips tight and decide this is not the time to say anything out loud. But my silent thoughts protest loudly. “I didn’t come here to go sightseeing. We could get to all the temples if we really wanted because then we would really try.
We start out and we journey to the end.
Yes, it’s true, what’s in between is what matters.
It’s the journey, the quality of the journey.
But I see at the same time
that if I do not have a purpose,
a direction determined by that purpose,
then the journey itself becomes meaningless.
Maybe there isn’t time to walk to all the temples, but we can find transport.”
Is it still a pilgrimage if I don’t do the whole thing? What is a pilgrimage anyway? All these years I’ve heard and used the word. Suddenly its meaning is vague. Foggy like the low clouds that dollop mountains in the distance.
That first day we miss the turn off to temples four and five, Dainichiji and Jizoji. We’ve walked and walked many kilometers already, pavement kilometers, and we’re a long way past where we needed to turn. Our feet ache. I notice my husband is grumpy. I suspect he notices the same of me. “We don’t have time to go back,” he says. “It will take too long. We can miss those two.”
Only the first day and the plan is ruined. My efforts will come to nothing. I muse about the wisdom of having a travel companion who doesn’t share my goals. So what if we have to backtrack? I suggest getting a bus. He’ll have none of it. I breathe deeply. This is like the learning of the Japanese martial art Aikido, I tell myself. You set out and move with what unfolds, harmonize rather than oppose the energy that comes into play. Okay, I re-evaluate. This isn’t about getting it all perfect or not missing a temple, because then it’s all ruined. Sort of like my friend who kept quitting smoking, but then she’d have one cigarette and that was it. Whole effort sabotaged. She’d be smoking steady for months until the next attempt to stop began. The whole plan isn’t ruined I affirm. I’m still putting one foot in front of the other. I’m walking dead tired along this path from temple to temple, with two visits missing. That’s all. Get the facts in line, girl.
As I walk, I think about how this plays out on the big pilgrimage – life. We choose a purpose, set out in a direction, and things happen that we don’t expect. Then what? Do I give up? Get petulant? Disheartened? Divorced? How do I realign with my direction when things throw me off track? How do I sustain the freshness of yet another first step when my ideal is already compromised? I think about how many times in my life I gave up, dropped an aim, a goal, because I believed I’d messed up and felt like a failure, so that there wasn’t any point in keeping going. How did I manage to feel like a failure before I was even twenty? Or was it fifteen? Twelve? So I walk, I breathe, I release those temples, but I am still determined to visit 86 of them.
To be continued.
Article by ALANDA GREENE
April 01, 2021
April 01, 2021
April 01, 2021