Tuesday, August 3, 2021

Grand Illinois Trail: Day 1


Sitting in a camp site on the banks of the Illinois River across from the town of Marseilles, pronounced by those worldly Illinoisans as Mar-sale. I reserved the site online last week, and managed to pick the worst site i have ever stayed in. It was in full sun when I got here and stayed in full sun until a little after 7:00. There was nothing to do and nowhere to hide.

Rode 44.3 miles today and it took me 5 and a half hours. Pretty slow ride, even though some of that was breaks. Ran into two bridges that were closed, which meant in both cases that i had to backtrack and invent a detour. Then a section of the trail was closed so i had to do it once again.

I was tired when i got here. The sun just beat it out of me today. And tomorrow may be the longest day of the entire 10-day trip, at around 70 miles. I’m looking forward to the time out on the trails but i know that distance is going to be brutal for me. Told them i wouldn’t arrive at the campground until late afternoon.

The Cicadas are out in full force here and it’s going to be a loud night. Not much more i can think of to say tonight. Sitting in the sun all day has really messed up my brain. I’ll try to think of something to talk about tomorrow.

Sunday, January 17, 2021

Book Review: Walking In Circles

Todd Wassel sent me a copy of his book Walking In Circles and asked for a review. I am pleased to offer that and let people know that it is a wonderful read.

The two book subtitles tell you up front what to expect: Finding Happiness In Lost Japan and A Shikoku Memoir. I assume the Lost Japan part is a riff on Alex Kerr's very, very good book of the same name. But, it is a good addition here because in so many ways Shikoku does represent that rural part of Japan that is disappearing in so many other parts of Japan. He also tells us with the title that this is a memoir, and not a detailed travel guide. So, if you are looking for details of the temples or the trail, this isn't the book for you.

What Todd has given us is an accounting of his nojuku (camping out) trip around the henro trail in 2005. He brought to the walk two things that most readers won't: this was his second walk so he knew what to expect and he is fluent in Japanese, having previously lived on the main island for six years. While neither of these are requirements for the walk, it will mean that your experience will be different.

There are as many reasons to walk the henro trail as there are people who attempt it. Todd tells us at the beginning of the book that his mission was to "figure out what I wanted to be when I grew up." And whenever you meet someone who approaches a walk such as this with that mission a smile should spread across your face because missions like that are notoriously hard to accomplish. As Todd also admits at the beginning of the book, though, "It never occurred to me that I was asking the wrong question."

It is almost impossible to predict what your experience is going to be when you walk the henro trail, or any pilgrimage for that matter. The henro trail occupies a space that is neither your normal secular world nor the strictly spiritual world you would find living in a temple or monastery. As Todd writes points out:

"In Japan there is a very thin line between the [secular and the profane].

"The Shikoku pilgrimage is a good example of this. It is much more than just a collection of roads and paths. It is a gateway to a life cut off from everyday society but grounded in a physical landscape. Pilgrims occupy a unique space. We travel over and through a world stained by all the excesses and pettiness of human existence, but also through a world filled with spiritual value and meaning. This [torii] gate sitting between the tides of salvation and depravity was a reminder that you can't have one without the other."

To enter each of the Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines you encounter along your walk you must pass through a gate: a sanmon or niōmon at the temples or a torii at shrines. On one side of the gate is the secular and mundane world, immediately on the other, the sacred. Throughout the book Todd makes it clear that the distance between these two worlds can be amazingly small and that more often that not, they are entwined.

As Todd came to realize between Temples 12 and 13, each and every henro (pilgrim) walks at a different pace. There is no correct pace, there is no better or worse pace, there is only the pace that you need to walk to ensure you make it around the island in good health and in the time you have allotted for your pilgrimage. You will inevitably meet many interesting people during your walk, and you may want to walk the entire trail with them, but if they are stronger/weaker than you, healthier/in more pain than you, or on a different schedule you are going to have to separate and walk your own pilgrimages. Which means that at times you are going to have to walk alone, even if you don't particularly want to. As he says: "Relationships are like that on the pilgrimage—intense and over quickly."

And as there is no correct, better, worse, or otherwise pace, there is no better, worse, or otherwise way to do any part of the pilgrimage. We are each different, we approach it differently, and we will walk the trail differently.

"Rather than pushing my physical limits, muy challenge was becoming apparent—to control my ego and stop comparing myself with others. I needed to stop trying to gain something that I could measure, compare, and feel proud of. Instead, I needed to release that part of me that judges, competes, and criticizes in an attempt to be the 'best'."

Another reason that each henro will have a different experience is that the people we each meet along the trail will obviously be different. Different people, in different settings and situations ensures that no two of us will have the same experiences; similar, yes, but never the same. Todd gives us another fabulous lesson in pointing out that no matter what we think, you can not judge a book by its cover. You meet someone and are absolutely convinced that you know the type of person he/she is, their personality, their generosity, and everything else about them.....and, wham, in the blink of an eye they say or do something and you realize you were completely wrong, in every aspect. It brought a huge smile of remembrance of my times in this trap when he had to point out on one occasion: "He didn't strike me as the overly generous type. It turned out that I couldn't read a person at all." It also brought a nod of recognition when he pointed out on one occasion as he decided to walk alone: "I enjoyed talking to him, but we just had very different views."

Having never camped out while walking this pilgrimage myself, i can understand, but not relate to many of the experiences that Todd had during his walk. His schedule was too short, forcing him to walk more kilometers each day than his feet could tolerate, he struggled many a night to find somewhere to sleep out of the rain, he often found it hard to find food and something to drink, and since he walked during the summer, the heat and humidity were always an issue.

"Some days don't go well, no matter how hard you try and how well you plan."

"[T]he path doesn't care how you feel."

"Where to sleep is probably the most important decision walking henro face, and the availability of decent places sets each day's pace and destination."

But if you can learn to ignore the hardships you encounter, or, more accurately, learn to accept them as simply part of your experience, you enter a different world as you progress around the island.

"On long walks you become a part of the environment and notice things that others, who live in the area but pass by in cars, might ignore every day.""

"When you discover the world on foot, everything you used to know in life changes. You no longer think in terms of time spent traveling but in distance covered."

"Time slows down and life becomes simplified to its bare essentials: water, food, shelter, and companionship."

"Days of the week mean nothing, and time is dependent on the sun, not the mechanics of man. The world becomes a bigger place, and your life but a speck in the infinite universe."

If you are planning to camp out as you walk the henro trail this is a great read: introducing you to the culture of Japan, the types of people you may meet, the types of places you will find to sleep, and how to handle food and drink procurement along the way. If you are staying in minshuku and ryokan each night this won't teach you much that can be used to plan your walk, but, it is still a wonderful introduction to the world of being a henro.

I thoroughly enjoyed the book and highly recommend it to all past, present, and future henro.

Saturday, August 17, 2019

Running On Empty

When PBS was on Shikoku filming the video OHenro segment of Sacred Journeys, i was hired to get them around and take care of the day-to-day logistics. I still remember their telling me when we first talked about the project that in their opinion suffering was a requirement of doing pilgrimage successfully. It seemed that they believe suffering was the most important tool in a pilgrim's quiver if he/she hoped to find answers to whatever questions they brought to the trail.

I didn't see any sense in getting into discussions of Buddhist philosophy at the time so simply told them that i thought that idea was wrong, that they misunderstood pilgrimage, at least how it applied here on Shikoku. In the end, though, my words changed nothing as it was clear throughout the project that they continued to believe in the value of seeking out suffering as a method of purifying yourself.

I wonder how many other people bring this idea to the henro trail? I also wish i could convince people that it is absolutely not true and save them some time and effort in finding this out for themselves.

The Heart Sutra makes this clear from the very opening lines. As the sutra begins, we find Kanjizai (Kannon Bodhisattva) in a deep state of meditation when he realizes that the five aggregates are empty. If we understood nothing of the Heart Sutra beyond this, but could see this as intuitively and as clearly as Kanjizai saw it, then our paths would be nearing an end. Even without a lot of practice, a great many people can see the truth of the emptiness of the "external" world. It doesn't take a lot of time or a lot of mental effort to see the truth of impermanence, non-self, and suffering with relation to the world "out there."

Moving internally, it isn't even all that difficult to come to an understanding that this thing i call me is impermanent, has no intrinsic self-being, and causes suffering. Everyone knows on some level that who they are today is not who they were when they were children and infants. We grow and change from second to second, throughout our lives, and our beliefs, ideas, and emotions have caused us countless hours of suffering over the years.

Taking one more step backwards, though, bothers a lot of people. The majority of people don't even see any need to do it. I was walking part of the trail with a friend one year when the subject came up and after i got out about one sentence my friend cut me off and asked why in the world anyone would even want to go down that path? I changed the subject and he never even blinked an eye; he followed the new subject line and never even hinted that he saw that i hadn't answered his question. For people like this, those so firmly established in the normal material world, taking that backwards step is so counter intuitive that it doesn't even register as a valid line of reasoning. Of course the world as i see it exists. Of course i am this body and mind. Of course i change, but there is an "I" that is me.

Then some of those people learn about Buddhism and the five skandhas, and this gives them something new to hold onto as they give up their previous notion of a permanent "I." I may not be permanent, but certainly the five skandhas are. I mean, the Buddha said it himself, it's right there in the sutras — we are made of the five skandhas.

And it is right here, at the hardest step to take in the backwards direction, that the Heart Sutra begins. Yes, i know that's what he said, and in one sense it is true, but in the deepest of meditations, at the pinacle of wisdom, Kanjizai tells us that even the five skandhas are empty, that even these do not exist in-and-of themselves, that they are impermanent, and as untrue as everything else.

And what happens when he realizes this? He passes beyond all suffering and discontent. It doesn't say that he realizes that he can ignore them, that he can bear them with dignity, that he can work through them; it says that he passes beyond them. He sees them as non-existant, he sees them as the mirages that they are.

In other words, as you take your first steps on the henro michi, you are beginning with the understanding that not only do you not have to look for suffering to be successful on this walk, but that suffering does not exist. If you are looking for suffering you are looking in the wrong direction. It's as if you arrive on the trial with a new map and compass and as you try to orient your map to make sure it aligns with what you are looking at you lay your compass on it, but put south to the top in the capsule. When you do that you guarantee right from your very first move that you are looking at the world upside down.

As you bow at the sanmon of Temple One and take your first steps inside, do so with the firm conviction that not only is your superficial personality empty, everything about you is empty. In the world of absolute reality that you will be investigating during this walk there is no you. That may not make sense yet, but accept that coming to understand this is the purpose of walking the henro trail as a pilgrimage. Everything else in the sutra is an added bonus. Kanjizai tells you right up front, right in the opening words everything you need to know: Even the five skandhas are empty. There is no You. And when you get it, there is no suffering or discontent to be found anywhere. They don't exist either.

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Nehan no Dōjō (v1)

And finally, the last 20 year rememberance...

Nehan no Dōjō
The Dōjō of Nirvana
(Temples 66 to 88)

If you find yourself spending any time as you enter this last prefecture thinking about nehan and whether or not you're about there, then you had better just get on a bus, go back to Temple 1, and start all over again.

Remember those blisters back in the first few weeks? Nehan. Remember those freezing mornings in Tokushima-ken? Nehan. Remember those trucks that almost ran you off the road? Or, those long, polluted, and noisy tunnels you had to walk through? Nehan. By the same token, you were also there when you visited with that wonderful minshuku owner late into the night over tea, and when that lady on the side of the road gave you oranges as settai, and when that man offered you a ride while it was raining, and when that shop owner didn't charge you for the ramen you had for lunch. Nehan, nehan, and more nehan. Stop searching and wondering. Stop trying to put it in a place. Stop trying to make it something.

Kagawa Prefecture has been three prefectures in one for me on several occasions. As i enter the prefecture on the way down from Temple 66, it is exciting — i'm finally nearing the end; i'm about to succeed in this huge goal. Then on the other hand, as i leave Temple 87, it starts to sink in that at the next temple this journey will be over. Yes, of course i have to walk back to Temple 1 to complete the circle, but the journey to all 88 temples will very soon be finished.

Finally, during the day and a half walk back to Temple 1, all becomes intensely quiet inside. Even more quiet than on the best days on the rest of the walk. I attribute this to the fact that that planning, organizing, and comparing corner of my mind no longer has a job to do; temporarily it is completely out of a job, so it simply shuts down; goes to sleep. And my world gets very beautifully quiet. There's nothing i need to plan, nothing i need to prepare for, nothing i need to think about or analyze, no schedule to look at, no maps to pour over, no temples to get to. There is absolutely nothing to do except walk and my body can do that on autopilot.

This is a beautiful way to be. I find it more alluring than 'being' on my zafu. On the cushion, life is reduced to nothing more than Life, Being in its most basic aspect. But in my hiking boots i can find that same place, while at the same time being fully aware that i am alive, fully aware that that part of me called Dave (or Lao Bendan, if you will) isn't an accidental afterthought — he is also a part of who i am.

I think that is the lesson i want people to take away from this fourth dōjō: This search for emptiness that we will look at as we make the turn at Temple 1 and begin again doesn't mean, or entail, giving up that personality that brought you to the island in the first place. In other places i have talked about tucking that personality in your back pocket as you begin the walk, not throwing it away, or leaving it behind. You'll need that personality to function as you make your way around the island, you'll need that personality to successfully interact with everyone you meet. But, you can easily pull it out of your back pocket whenever you need it, and then stick it back in when you are done using it.

When we get back to Temple 1, take some time to celebrate, grab a cold beer at dinner wherever you spend the night. Revel your peers and hosts with stories of everything you've done and seen while doing the walk. Enjoy the accomplishment. Then get a good nights sleep.

But keep in mind everything we talked about as we made the first circuit. This is a walk of the mind. In fact, what we just finished could be called Mind Control 101; now we move up to Mind Control 201. This is a walk where we are learning to control our mind and how we use it. Is the thinking, labeling, judging mind relentlessly spinning, churning out useless nonsense? Or, have you learned to notice what it is up to and made some progress in letting it settle down. Letting it settle into stillness.

As we make that final final stretch back to the starting point, take some time to look inside. Pull that ego out of your back pocket and look long and hard at it. Is it something permanent, always abiding? Or, is it something that only comes into existence when you act, think, or speak? And if you perform no actions (doing, thinking, or speaking) is that ego anywhere to be found? If you look long and hard enough you will see that with no actions there is nothing you can call a mind, and with no mind, there is no ego, no you anywhere to be found.

That doesn't mean you'll disappear, or fall over dead, but it does mean that the you that brought you here isn't the you that has to do this walk. Once you see that, stick it back in your pocket, smile at the sun, and head down the trail.

Sunday, May 26, 2019

World Cup 2019

Another good win today vs Mexico. Go USWNT!!

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Bodai no Dōjō (v1)

Oh boy (rubbing my hands together excitedly)....now we're talking 'pilgrimage.' 😀 Here's what i thought about 20 years ago as i entered the third prefecture.


Bodai no Dōjō
The Dōjō of Enligntenment
(Temples 40 to 65)

Half way. You have now passed Cape Ashizuri and find yourself on the southwest coast and heading northward — heading home. From here on each day will bring you closer to your destination and not further away from your starting point.

Then again, aren't your starting point and destination one and the same? You may realize that there is no difference when you stop analyzing and forget the labels that you attached when you set off on day 1. And while we're at it, is there any difference between today in the Dōjō of Enlightenment and yesterday in the Dōjō of Religious Discipline? Today? Yesterday? Now? Then? Birth? Death? Those pesky labels.

Today it's sunny. Tomorrow, rain. One day you walk with a monk. Another day you walk with an irrational woman. One day you're happy. Another day you're angry. Ahhh... life on the henro trail.


This afternoon i was at my local golden arches drinking a cup of coffee when i met a guy that had tattoos from the crown of his head, across all four sides of his head, both arms and hands, and i assume all the way down to his feet. Even the whites of his eyes had been tattooed black. It was amazing.

I struck up a conversation with him and told him of the time i met a yakuza in a public bath at a hotel on the henro trail. I tell the story frequently for some reason. As i always point out, the hardest part of the conversation was just getting over the idea that i was standing there talking to a butt naked guy about the tattoos all over his body. He had a full body suit tattoo, with the only untattooed parts of his body being above the neck, and below the wrists and ankles. Once i got over the nervousness about talking to the guy, he turned out to be quite interesting, and eager to describe his "works of art." As was the guy i talked to today.

This really has nothing to do with my thoughts on entering the third prefecture on the henro trail, but after talking to him it did seem appropriate to mention it. People like the man i met today are so very easily labeled and relegated to good or bad categories, depending on your views of tattoos. Earlier in my life i would have done it as well. But if you sit and wonder about that process of categorization and how unconsciously it's done, it should make you stop and think about everything else in your life that you label and categorize for no useful purpose; it's done unconsciously and habitually, faster than a blink of an eye, without you ever knowing that you did it.

If you did your job while walking through Kōchi Prefecture over that past couple of weeks, you've spent a great deal of time learning to notice what it means to be alive. You've spent increasing amounts of time outside of your head, outside of that incessant steam of thoughts you're used to living in. You've begun to spend more and more time noticing what's going on around you as you walk — in more and more detail. And, you've begun to notice how your mind works, how it takes in sensory input, how it chooses what inputs to notice and which to ignore, how it chooses to interact with those inputs, and how it pieces all of this into what you would call "experiences."

The beauty of walking the henro trail is that your life slows down to the same speed as your fingernails grow. And as your life slows down, your thinking slows down, giving you the chance to notice more of the individual thoughts that float past the back of your eyeballs and through your brain.

Then, with greater levels of attention, and greater ability to notice individual thoughts as they come and go, you finally get to the point where you might get to see yourself attach labels to the sensory inputs almost as soon as they come in, long, long before your mind has a chance to actively and consciously process what you just perceived. And when you reach that stage, WOW. That's just about all i can say. Wow. Did i just do that? Did i just label that guy with the tattoos after having only seen him a half a thought ago? Did i just label that driver who splashed water on me as she drove past? Did i just label this entire day based on that one first raindrop?

And here's the kicker, the worst of them all....Did i just label myself as a (your choice of word) for having done that again?

Wow. Did you see that? Did you see yourself completely change reality with one thought? So simply done. No effort required. Talk about God power.

That's your homework as we spend the next couple of weeks walking through Ehime Prefecture. It's my least favorite section of the walk and i know i have to fight the labeling process each and every step as i walk through. But, while you walk notice your abuse of your superpowers, your ability to change reality, completely and utterly change the entire world with each successive thought and label. Learn to spot it as it happens. Learn to reverse it when you can. Learn to stop the process if possible.

This is terribly hard work, i'm not suggesting it is easy. But it is doable, and with time it does get easier. And as you get better at it you will slowly start to notice changes in your reality, in how reality appears to you, in how reality manifests. With work, with constant, persistent, and never ending practice, the person who steps into the next prefecture in a few weeks will not be the same person who enters Ehime Prefecture today.

That should make you smile and dance a little jig in happiness. Just knowing that you are powerful enough to change reality should send shivers up your spine.

Have fun.

Monday, May 20, 2019

Shūgyō no Dōjō (v1)

As we enter Kōchi Prefecture, i remind myself of what i wrote twenty years ago:


Shūgyō no Dōjō
The Dōjō of Religious Discipline
(Temples 24 to 39)

By now, whether you intended it or not, you are awake. By the time you reach the border of Kōchi Prefecture you are aware that something is happening to you. You are more aware of what you are doing. More aware of the people you are meeting. More aware of living. Not just existing, not just being. But living. And this awareness is probably making a difference in your life.

The Dōjō of Religious Discipline. It is a little hard to imagine what the holy men and women of old went through as they walked this trail if you stay in a warm and dry room every night. If you are guaranteed dinner each night and breakfast each morning. It is hard to imagine as you put on the high-tech rain suit each time the rain starts to fall. Hard to imagine as you stop in another coffee shop just to get out of the weather or cold.

But, even with all of the luxury it is possible to discipline yourself. Some important and interesting changes have occurred in your mind as you walked from temple to temple over the past week. By now you realize that you are alive. Maybe you have come to realize that, just like there is more to this pilgrimage than just walking from temple to temple, there is more to life than just getting from day to day. Being alive isn't what life is about — living is what life is about.

You now have an entire prefecture to walk through while you contemplate this, and several weeks to reinforce what you have realized.


Practice. Like it or not, everything in life comes down to this one simple truth — if you want to get good at something you have to practice. If you want to master something you have to practice that something A LOT. And Buddhism is no different. It's not good enough to simply read book after book about Buddhism. It's not good enough to simply go listen to teachers babble on about the subject. The books and teachers can only tell you about their experience of the path and pass on what their teachers told them.

But to actually walk the path, to actually make your life the path, to someday come to the understanding that your life is nothing but the path......then you need to practice. You need the Dōjō of Religious Discipline.

It doesn't matter if you start with the Buddhist Precepts, the Yoga Yamas and Niyamas, or any other school's admonitions, but by this point of our walk we understand that we are not isolated individuals, moving around the island encapsulated in shells that no one can penetrate. We are part and parcel of everyone we meet and everything we see. Our pilgrimage isn't just the physical walk around the island, but that plus all the experiences we have from moment to moment, with everyone we meet day after day. And to facilitate the smoothness of our constant interactions with this whole, we practice non-violence, truthfulness, and the other admonitions.

We now see that just existing was never a satisfying way to lead a life. Living is what this game is about. Even if you lock yourself in a monastery and meditate half of every day, your main goal is still living. If you think enlightenment or liberations is other than that, then, well,......i hope you have a huge store of good zafu, because you're going to be sitting there for a long time until you figure it out. Living is the activity we are trying to perfect, not sitting.

There is one quote in Minoru Kiyota's Shingon Buddhism that i have always loved. At first blush it seems too simple to even highlight, so obvious that you read right over it without a single notice. But when completely understood and integrated, it changes the way you practice. "...[W]e must remind ourselves that though practice...specifically refers to the practice to eliminate one's own klesa, the elimination of klesa (e.g. hate) cannot be accomplished only through a realization of a new conceptual horizon (e.g. non-hate). Mental state does indeed shape action but action in turn shapes mental state. The perfection of a state of non-hate requires not only the elimination of the notion of hate but also the practice of non-hate."
(my underline)

That's what this prefecture is for: advancing past the intellectual ideas about our practice and into the non-intellectual arena of practice itself. This means working with the mind, and as we spend more and more time coming to an understanding of what our mind is and how it works, there will come a day when the buddha-state will manifest itself in your life.