Sunday, September 19, 2010

Longing To Be

Sitting quietly
Longing with all that i am
To be and no more

Someone sent me a few pictures of the henro trail on Shikoku this evening (thank you) and it has made the ache in my heart to go back so strong i don't know how i'll sleep tonight. If you haven't been a henro and walked all or part of Shikoku's trail it may be difficult to understand the feeling, but i get endless emails throughout the year, year in and year out, of people who have been there, and write to say nothing more than that they now understand and that they too can't wait until their next chance to go over.

Here's where it all begins, at Temple One.

The trail starts there, at a nondescript little temple on the edge of a residential neighborhood. If you're lucky the cherry trees have started blooming, bringing their beauty to your first day and offering their shared happiness with new beginnings as you set out to discover the person hidden under years and years of routine and habit.

Interestingly, though, the tools you will use to chisel through those layers of routine and habit are just other routines and habits. However, the new routines and habits will be guided by a constant mindfulness, as opposed to the complete blindness that allowed the original layers to obscure your life. Mindfulness of each step you take, each breath you take, each morsel of food you put in your mouth, each swallow, each sunrise, each sunset, each word spoken to you, each word you speak in return. Mindfulness of as many of each of the seconds that will pass through your life during the walk as you are capable of watching. This mindfulness is a powerful tool and will transform your life.

From this small temple you walk morning to evening, day after day, for a month and a half, sun, rain, hot, cold, hungry, starving, thirsty, tired, sore, happy, angry, depressed, ecstatic, with a half dozen other people, with a dog, alone, uphill, downhill, on flat endless roads, in the mountains, by the sea, through the woods, through rice fields, through farmers yards, through residential areas, through small villages, through major cities, morning to evening, day after day for a month and a half.

The life of a henro is simple: get up, walk, Be, go to bed. Every day. This becomes a habit very quickly, more quickly than you realize, and the habit becomes so strong that when you don't walk you feel as if something is wrong.

It can be hard, it can be a struggle. But there are handrails along the way, and as in this picture they are well worn from decades and decades of use. As you walk around the island you don't have to worry about where to go or how to go. Your job as a henro is simply to trust that the handrails take you to the next temple and to follow them as you walk along.

Some handrails are metal, some are sidewalks, some are 4 lane highways, some are guardrails, some are people you meet on the side of the road, some are people serving you coffee or tea, some are people pressing a gift can of juice or a few hundred yen into your hands, some are impromptu maps someone unexpectedly hands you, some are street signs or highway markers, some are silent fingers pointing the way from inside a car that has slowed to a crawl as you, too, crawl slowly along another highway in the heat of the day. Handrails are everywhere on Shikoku.

And after what seems like three weeks, the month and a half nears its end as you approach Temple Eighty-Eight. It is here where you say goodbye to the one companion that has been by your side every step of your journey. Someone who has shared in every adventure you have had, been with you when you were so happy you shouted in joy out over the valley, been with you when you were so tired and sore that you cried on the rock by the sea, been with you when you realized that the person who started the walk is no longer with you, that you have changed, that you have become someone new. And that companion was Kōbō Daishi himself, in the shape of the walking stick that you purchased at Temple One, and which you will surrender here at Temple Eight-Eight so that it can join all the other walking sticks that have made this same journey.

And you sit there and wonder about all those other people that have also made this walk, and you wonder who they were, and why they walked, and what they saw, and who they met, and where they stayed each night, and what they endured, and what made them happy and sad, and about everything they experienced. And if you're lucky you see that while countless millions of henro have started walking at Temple One, with few exceptions, only one makes it to number Eighty-Eight — and that One is you, and her, and me, and him, and us, and everyone else.

While the henro trail is comprised of 88 (or 108) temples, the Henro, the pilgrimage, is singular. And for the lucky ones, while who they were may have consisted of numerous pieces as they set out on day one, as they walk away from Temple Eighty-Eight on their way back to Temple One to close the circle, the realization that they too are singular has become a new habit that can carry them home.


Ben said...

Just finished the pilgrimage early November. I think you've summarized the Henro experience well. I'm already thinking about when I will return for a second trip.

'The life of a henro is simple: get up, walk, Be, go to bed. Every day. This becomes a habit very quickly, more quickly than you realize, and the habit becomes so strong that when you don't walk you feel as if something is wrong'

nicely put

Lao Bendan said...

Thanks for the kind words. But more importantly, congratulations on completing your henro.