Monday, June 7, 2010

Walking The Henro Trail

Not having my bicycle (which they now say i'll get back later this week) has left me with a lot more time to sit, read, and think. Lately, while downstairs i have been re-reading The Path of the Human Being, by Dennis Genpo Merzel. I originally bought it because he structured the book into four sections, matching the structure of the henro trail.

  • Searching for the Way: Raising the Bodhi-Mind
  • Stepping onto the Path: Practice
  • Returning Home: Realization
  • Walking the Path: Manifesting the Liberation

What struck me about this was his seeming confirmation of something i have written about several times, i think, regarding the henro trail: getting to Temple 88 and the last of the trail markers and then returning home is not the end of your pilgrimage. For true henro, this is just the beginning of your practice.

First and foremost, you have to see that you are searching and see, even in a vague and not at all clearly understood way, that the henro trail can offer an opportunity and the right conditions to allow some of the answers to your questions to appear.

After this understanding you can start your walk and your daily, minute by minute, practice of living. From day one, at Temple 1, you surrender your life to the trail, not worrying about the hows, wheres, and whys of the journey, but simply putting one foot in front of the other and simply going where the maps and trail markers tell you to go, when they tell you do go there. Surrendering, you let the maps and the trail take care of the organizational needs of your daily life while you focus on something more important. Your sole focus for the next month and a half becomes being, opening yourself to experiencing "aliveness" and all that entails. Opening yourself to the fact that you are not what you think you are, that, in the relative sense, you are an interconnected piece of the whole of existence, that, in the absolute sense, you are nothing but that whole, that being is, and that you are both a piece and the entirety of what that is.

But, glimpsing this somewhere between Temples 1 and 88 is not the end of your henro. There is no end of your henro, that's why it's a circle. The purpose of the henro isn't simply to give you room for these glimpses; the purpose is to give you the experiences and the tools you need to walk the Path after you return home from Shikoku.

In a sense, the 8 weeks spent on the henro trail is similar to an 8-week intensive foreign language course for someone planning to move overseas. Could you move without the ability to speak the language spoken in that country? Of course. Life will be difficult and you will stumble and trip frequently, but over time you'll pick up the language and customs and slowly daily life will begin to be less problematic. Taking the 8-week language course before moving, though, alleviates many of these problems. After the course, from the first day of arriving you can communicate, you understand the customs and why people do what they do, why certain actions and ways of behaving cause you grief and why others bring happiness. Just taking the course wasn't the end in itself, even if you did learn some of the language. Taking the course was a way to give yourself the tools needed to understand and work more easily with the life you will lead after moving to your new home.

In a like manner, the henro trail is not your final destination, it is simply an intensive course where you can learn valuable life tools — with one oh so very important difference that can not be misunderstood. In the language course your intention is to learn more by taking in more external knowledge; on the henro trail your intention is to learn more by discarding all external knowledge, by stripping away one layer after another of what you think you know, what you've been taught, what you've been told is true, what you are certain is true about who and what you are. The purpose of the 8-week Shikoku intensive is to unlearn what you've already been taught, to unlearn the conditioning you have become slave to. And it is this unlearning that will serve as such a valuable tool in the life you lead after the henro trail on Shikoku.

Genpo says this about this practice:

Zen practice is about seeing what is and then acknowledging that truth. An inevitable part of that process is returning to square one. Even after many years of practice, we discover that we are just beginning. This Path is a never-ending process; we continually discover and rediscover what practice is. Returning to square one doesn't mean that our practice is immature or incomplete somehow. Returning to square one is absolutely fundamental to Zen. Beginner's mind is Zen mind, just as Suzuki Roshi said. We return to the mind of a beginner again and again because this practice goes beyond any understanding. No one can tell us what Zen is, and there is nothing in this practice that we can cling to or grasp. Instead, we must keep rediscovering practice for ourselves. There will be different phases, of course, times of progress as well as times of stagnation. As long as we keep going we will always encounter times of renewal, when we rediscover what practice really is. And in those times of rediscovery, we always find new appreciation for life.

And that's the key to the henro trail as well; just keep going. Jumping out of Genpo's book for a minute, let me switch to the book i've been reading while upstairs, Francis Lucille's Eternity Now. In it, he has this exchange with his students, where he tells us what we might see from the highest peaks and best vantage points on our walk:

The essence of our being is not a concept.

For each of us?

Of course. It is life itself. It is beyond any concept. Concepts are superimpositions, such as: I am a man, I am forty years old. I am a physician. All these distinctive features are mere superimpositions, not our real nature. The substratum, which is free from limitations, doesn't have any boundaries, doesn't need a knower to reveal itself, and is self-evident and autonomous.


When we say that the non-dualist sees humanity as non-real, we mean that he doesn't see it as an object, as something that is separate from awareness, from himself. He sees, instead, humanity as one with himself. From this vision of oneness, of non-separateness, real compassion, ethical behavior, and justice follow. We should not consider the sage as some crazy solipsist, isolated in his ivory tower, denying existence to the rest of mankind and granting existence only to himself as a person. On the contrary, the truth-lover starts by questioning his own existence as a person, as a separate entity, asking, "Who am I? Am I this body? Am I this mind? Am I this limited entity?" He isn't interested in theories, but in reality. He starts with the only field of experience that is available to him, that is, himself.


When what we are not is eliminated, not by effort or by violence, but as a result of understanding, what remains is our real nature. It is an experience, but not an experience in time and space, and for this reason we could call it a non-experience, a non-event. In this non-event, we are one with mankind. It is a non-excluding, an all-comprehending perspective.

So the non-dualist does disagree with positing the existence of the rest of humanity as a group of separate conscious entities which could agree or disagree with him. He, rather, leaves open the possibility that the whole of humanity is one with him...

The non-dualist isn't interested in concepts. He is only interested in his true nature. After seeing his misconceptions for what they are, what remains is a non-state, a non-event devoid of fear and desire in which certainty and peace prevail. Because he starts from reality, he soon reaches his goal, reality. Reality reaches reality. Unity reaches unity. Because the scientist starts from a mere hypothesis, a misconception, his point of arrival is as shaky and unstable as his point of departure. He can never reach a completely satisfactory understanding. He is bound to be eternally dissatisfied moving from object to object in an endless process.

And now back to Genpo. For the Zen student, you get to this understanding through zazen, or, more accurately, doing zazen is like opening a window, through which we can look into those cracks between our thoughts and see the still, quiet center that is who we are. Genpo says:

The awareness that we cultivate in zazen allows us to simply be with whatever is in the moment. And because we don't attach to or follow the thoughts that bubble up, we can experience the fluidity that is our true Mind. Thoughts come and go, sensations come and go, things come and go. We practice not clinging to anything, neither pleasure nor pain. In this way we train ourselves to stop resisting life. And we learn something wonderful: the mind can be at ease regardless of what is happening. At last, we are liberated, free to enjoy and appreciate the greatest gift of all — this life.

And that, in a nutshell, is what the henro trail can be about. Practice non-clinging. Practice not resisting. Practice not attaching. Practice not avoiding. Practice surrendering. Practice living, without all the rules, regulations, and ideas that you usually bring to the process. Practice wholeheartedly, one step after another after another.

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