Always the first step – part 2

Always the first step - part 2

ALANDA GREENE 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. In part 2, Alanda connects with the saint who built the temples in the 8th century, Kobo Daishi, and the earlier pilgrims who travelled the path. She also sees the pilgrimage as a metaphor for life itself.

A Saint’s Legacy

It is getting dark when we reach the last temple of our first day, Number Eight. Our plan had been to take a bus or train back from this one to our hotel in Tokushima City, from where we would head out again tomorrow. In this way, we travel with light day packs and not with all our gear. We are so tired we can hardly stand. At this point, the kindly monk who stamps my temple book manages to explain in broken English, from my question in broken Japanese, that there is no bus or train from here. I stand in his small office and contemplate just how I will break the news to Sonni, who waits outside. I look for an alternate exit but know I am too tired to run far. In the end, the monk calls us a taxi to the train station that is ten kilometers across the valley.
“This does not bode well,” my husband comments.

Obstacles. A pilgrimage has obstacles. A life has obstacles. Any goal worth going after has obstacles. These are the challenges that make us strong. Recognized as obstacles, as challenges, I can choose to meet them. Learn from them. Taken as things that shouldn’t happen, viewed as errors, viewed as wrong – they are not met in the right spirit. It’s good for me to keep telling myself this and holding my lips closed.

In the big pilgrimage, recognizing when a situation is a challenge and when it is a sign to change course has been a source of considerable discomfort for me. But on this small pilgrimage, it’s easier to accept the process I’ve entered into – there’s a path, a guidebook that’s a challenge to understand but infinitely better than no guidebook at all, there’s difficulty with language, but there’s a definite direction.

Later that night, after the luxury of a hot bath, just before sinking into exhausted sleep, I feel a rush of gratitude for those who have made the path, left the guidebooks, the clues, the signposts, the encouragement. Their legacy of wisdom is a treasure.

The legacy of signs becomes even more appreciated as the days go by and we struggle to find our way from one temple to the next. For hundreds of years, pilgrims have set stone pillars along the route, have carved in kanji characters the temple’s name, a directional arrow, and the distance left to go. Some are so weathered they can barely be deciphered. Other new granite posts sit upright at corners and forks in the path, their message carved in deep, black grooves. The information, however, we do not know how to read. It takes some days before we begin to make sense of their messages.

Not without missing a few more temples, however. I’ve accepted already that I’m not getting to all 88 temples – not even 86. I have made progress in releasing my goal of visiting every one of them, and am developing intrigue with connecting this pilgrimage to the big one of life. These signs in a language I don’t understand remind me of learning the symbolic language of dreams. At first, there was no sense to be found. Dream symbols were a mystery and a language I didn’t get. Of course not, I think now. I’d never given any time to learning their language, just like I haven’t learned kanji. But then, when I gave that effort to understanding my dreams, a meaning unfolded along with a new source of wisdom.


Sure enough, six or seven days into the route on Shikoku, the stone pillar language starts to reveal helpful clues. My night dreams encourage me with signs of harmony and completion.

Each evening, Sonni pours over the guidebook, the first English version ever published, available just a few days before we began. From this we determine each day’s route. The map certainly is not the territory. Learning to navigate the roads and paths requires considerable time and effort, and mistakes. What did the pilgrims do before such aids were available, and before these steep trails that wind through pine and bamboo forests to the top of mist-wrapped mountains were built? They had to climb through dense woods, usually slippery from rain, without handrails, to places hard to find even now with signposts and maps to help us. The first record of pilgrims dates to the twelfth century. Men and women inspired by the life of Kobo Daishi, the seventh century teacher, walked to the places he made famous, places now filled with legend and tales of miracles.

A pilgrimage has obstacles.
A life has obstacles.
Any goal worth going after has obstacles.
These are the challenges that make us strong.
Recognized as obstacles, as challenges,
I can choose to meet them.
Learn from them.

He was Kukai when he lived his life as a simple monk, and he was given the honorific title Kobo Daishi after he died. The title means a great master who spread the teachings of Buddhism widely – in simple words, a saint. At every temple is a statue of him, along with various Buddhas. He stands in pilgrim attire, conical reed hat, prayer beads, straw sandals, travel cloak, and pilgrim staff. The Japanese pilgrims believe that Kobo Daishi travels with each one on their journey. As days pass and I learn more about this historic founder of the Shingon sect of Buddhism, as I witness the devotion of pilgrims chanting the heart sutra at each temple, invoking the name of the Daishi and his protection, I find arising in me unexpectedly a fondness for him.

Being in the presence of this much-loved teacher is what impels so many to make the journey. Each temple feels redolent with the presence of the past, and of the Daishi, and as we approach each one I begin to look forward to seeing his statue. In addition to prayers at the Main Hall and the Daishi Hall of each temple complex, I include an affectionate greeting, a moment to remember the treasure of his legacy.

Even with the paths and ways marked and cleared – even with the small red arrows pasted on walls, rocks, posts and gateways, by modern pilgrims who leave one more bit of assistance to those who come after – even with this, the journey is demanding. We have good hiking shoes, state-of-the-art socks, packs engineered to balance our load, and hot baths every night. It is, after all, Japan. But the early pilgrims traveled in straw sandals, no moleskin for blisters, no youth hostel or Japanese inn or business hotel with breakfast included.

What sustained them? What is that mysterious quality that keeps the effort alive, keeps a person going through demanding challenges?

This route goes around the island of Shikoku for a walking distance of about 1,400 kilometers. We’ve been using buses, trains, and even bicycles to cover the distance between far apart temples. By the time we’re halfway through our allotted time, we’re visiting Temple 33 and have missed a few more along the way, but I’m still intent on visiting all the remaining ones.
“Let’s just focus on the ones in the country,” Sonni suggests. “I don’t like the ones in the cities anyway, or at least the routes to them. We’re definitely not going to visit them all now.”

It feels like the plug gets pulled on my basin of enthusiasm. We could visit all the remaining ones, I repeat to myself yet again, for I know it’s impossible to backtrack to the ones we’ve missed. We could push through our tiredness. Yesterday, when I wanted to hurry down the trail from the just visited temple at the top of a mountain, to catch the train that would let us visit another that day, he wanted to go slowly and enjoy the walk. It was the most beautiful temple we had visited to date. It was high on a forested mountain, with gardens that stopped my breath in their beauty, and vistas to the Pacific and its legendary blue. But we missed the train by five minutes and couldn’t visit the next one. Should we have hurried, as I suggested? Should we have walked slowly and enjoyed the gift of this place?

Another day, in the mid-afternoon, we were tired and it looked like rain.
“But we can still make it to one more,” I offer.
We didn’t try. When is pushing past fatigue, or hurrying to get to one more, the right action? When is it just striving, striving in the goal-oriented, achievement-minded hungry craving for experience or stuff or power that characterizes so much of modern life? The kind of striving that has brought our world to its imperiled condition.

To be continued.


Alanda Greene

About Alanda Greene

Alanda Greene lives in the Purcell Mountains of British Columbia, Canada. Having a deep connection with nature, she and her husband built their house of stone and timber and a terraced garden, and integrated their life into this rural community. Alanda’s primary focus is the conscious integration of spirit with all aspects of life.

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