Always the first step – part 3
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 this final part of the journey, she sees the parallels with her life’s big pilgrimage, and understands that the work is in the effort, not in achievement.
The Challenges of the Journey
The Buddha taught the Eightfold Path as a means to be free of the innate suffering of the unawakened existence. “Right effort” is one fold of the Eight. Did Kobo Daishi teach about right effort when he wandered around Shikoku? If he did, what did he say about this striving? If we, on our small pilgrimage, begin to choose only the temples in the countryside, only the temples we like, what is determining our action then? I think of the ancient yogic teachings that counsel freedom from the limitation and control of likes and dislikes. When we open the can of worms of likes and dislikes, a whole host of wiggly interferences ensues.
I recognize that I want certainty. If I stay focused on my goal of completing the pilgrimage and visiting all the temples, I can muster the drive and determination to complete this. It’s not that I don’t feel the presence of distractions, hounding me like homeless dogs sniffing for a handout. If I’ve lost the ideal of getting to all the temples, what will hold back the temptation of, say, laziness? Because, in fact, we are truly exhausted every evening and there is no denying the appeal of taking a day to soak in one of the many natural hot springs on the island. I feel the wiggly mass of likes and dislikes that congeal into tempting thoughts of choosing the most comfortable and aesthetically pleasing routes. I hear the panting at my heels of the distraction dogs, who conjure images of historic castles, museums, and galleries. “This is it, isn’t it?” I tell myself. Without the goad of success in completing this pilgrimage, I fear my ability to sustain my commitment. I don’t trust myself.
Now I wonder if the practice is to challenge
the aspect that wants it perfect and, if it isn’t,
well, what point is there to keep on striving?
The work is in the effort,
not in achieving some concept about a goal.
There’s an old tradition in Japanese pottery making. Deliberately flaw the piece. Don’t let the temptation for perfection enter into it. Give the work the best effort possible, then make it “less than.” I used to think this was a message about not expecting perfection in this life, about acknowledging that this is not a perfect world. Now I wonder if the practice is to challenge the aspect that wants it perfect and, if it isn’t, well, what point is there to keep on striving? The work is in the effort, not in achieving some concept about a goal.
I grasp this about pottery making; feel less convinced about pilgrimage making. I hum lines from a Leonard Cohen song: “Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack, a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” “Yeah, right!” I mutter to myself. But a pottery bowl doesn’t hold its soup very well if it’s cracked, does it?
Each day as I walk, I ponder and question this theme. I wanted to visit all the temples, wanted that sense of completion. That goal had to be relinquished. Okay, I tell myself, I’ll come back another time by myself and do it. But I know it’s a lie. Surrender can feel like such a cheap and easy out.
I do want certainty. These signposts and little red arrows are fabulous. We are learning where to look for them, how to find the clues that tell us where the path is. We encounter astonishing help every day. I realize I want that kind of certainty in the big pilgrimage also. When I struggle with decisions, endeavor to understand what right action is, I have longed for the red arrow of certainty to appear. If the heavens don’t part with the message written clearly in a language that I know, couldn’t there at least be granite posts with signs I can figure out?
Maybe it’s a matter of faith, I consider. Never once have I doubted the truth of the red arrows on this route. I trust those pilgrims who went before. In daily life, my mind does not recognize or accept the signs so easily. When walking on Shikoku, I go where the arrow points. When walking in my regular life, I sometimes don’t like where the arrow points and don’t want to recognize it as an arrow. But not to be too harsh on myself, usually it doesn’t even look like an arrow. If the Divine wants me to go a certain way, wouldn’t it make sense to use a signal I can clearly understand?
More challenges present themselves over the days,
but these become less bothersome because
they are so compensated by the goodwill and assistance
we receive on our journey.
I begin to have a profound and heartfelt appreciation
for the positive kindness we meet over and over.
More challenges present themselves over the days, but these become less bothersome because they are so compensated by the goodwill and assistance we receive on our journey. I begin to have a profound and heartfelt appreciation for the positive kindness we meet over and over. People go out of their way to help us. We don’t recognize the bus we need, so someone runs out of a ticket booth and hails down the bus, asking the driver to make sure we get off at the right place. It rains, we have no umbrella, a kindly woman in a shop makes us wait while she finds one in the back of her store and insists we take it. An English-speaking man appears from nowhere when we are lost and looking for the small inn where we have reservations. After he takes us there, he explains our vegetarian dietary needs to the owners, and we avoid the discomfort of being served the fish that other guests eat. We ask directions to a lost temple, and a woman clears out her back seat and drives us. Same thing when looking a few days later for a train station. We meet helpful and cheerful people.
I cannot help recalling the times in other countries when I blundered, didn’t know protocol or language, went the wrong way, and met the rolled eyes, impatient sighs, long-suffering looks of pained bother, or the very loud and then louder explanations that suggest I am dense or hard of hearing. I resolve to be kinder. More helpful. Positive.
This feels like one clear message from the pilgrimage. Be kind. Be helpful. But what about striving? What about goals? What about right effort? I count up the stamps from the temples visited so far. It doesn’t look good. At least as far as numbers go. We might get to sixty of them.
The days are getting cooler and the maples are beginning to turn, transforming the forested mountains to shades of red, orange and gold. The beauty of our daily walks has me feeling like Mole in Kenneth Grahame’s book, The Wind in the Willows, when Rat took him out in the boat in spring. “It’s too much, Ratty. Too much.”
This feels like one clear message from the pilgrimage.
Be kind. Be helpful.
Photo Credit: sugar fresh 1 / Shutterstock.com
Sometimes it feels like my heart can’t hold this much beauty as we walk along ridges, follow cascading blue rivers, find temples high in the clouds. Then the next day, the same thing – different form, same breath-catching beauty. I begin to forget about how many temples. We just get to what we can each day.
As days pass, I recognize one more difference between this pilgrimage and the big life one. We have a specific departure date whose presence I feel looming. It’s hard to be in the timeless moment of now, when I need to keep track of the date we need to be at Osaka airport. But these maples and the mountain trails give moments.
In the big pilgrimage, I don’t have a specified departure date. Not one I’ve been told about, anyway. I have no ticket with a flight and gate number. Kobo Daishi is reported to have announced his date of death, set his will in order, left clear instructions for his successor, and the day before he died he helped complete his portrait that a disciple was painting.
I live the big pilgrimage with the unarticulated assumption that my departure date is a long time in the future. Unexpected deaths of family, friends, and neighbors reveal the unreliability of this assumption. “You just never know,” we who gather to acknowledge the passing of a life nod to each other. “You just can’t put things off.” I don’t want to put things off. The fact is I don’t know my time of death the way the Daishi did, the way I accept the certainty of my ticket from Japan.
The final temple we visit is in fact Number 88, Okuboji, but it is the sixtieth of my count. We climb over a mountain and down to the temple, a mountain once forbidden to women, where the Daishi changed the restriction – a reminder that enlightenment is available in this lifetime, to female and male alike. The climb is long, steep, and cold, but it’s the beauty that is breathtaking. I didn’t think we could experience anything yet more beautiful than the routes of the previous days, but I was wrong.
We visit this temple. I bid farewell to Kobo Daishi at the enormous stone statue at the front gate, say prayers of thanks and farewell at the Main and Daishi Halls. I wait for a sense of completion, finality. An insight. There is no red arrow that points to understanding. Later, we wait for the bus down the mountain to the train station, lean against a stone wall where a small patch of the late day sun warms it, and eat Japanese oranges gifted from a young man about to depart by motorcycle. “So, this is it,” I muse. The last temple.
The pilgrimage ended. Is it finished, with all those unvisited temples around the island? Do I yet understand the meaning of pilgrimage? Do I know what impelled me to do this?
The guide map said it only mattered if I took the first step. This much I do understand, from walking this island where Buddhism saturates the land and where the sense of eternal presence leaks through everywhere. It leaks out of the bowl to the always now and every step is a first step. It only matters that I make it, one first step after the other. This much I understand. This is enough.
Article by ALANDA GREENE
April 01, 2021
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