Saturday, September 1, 2012

Faith In Practice

I used this picture as the Picture of The Month on the henro web site this month and am sure the few words i wrote don't do it justice so a few follow-up words may be in order. (Be sure to click on the picture to enlarge it before continuing so you know what it is.)

The concept of pilgrimage fascinates me and there are three ideas included in my concept that define what it is for me: faith, practice, and liminality. On one hand, faith and practice define the two extremes of a continuum in different approaches to doing a pilgrimage. On the other hand, faith, liminality, and practice form one interlocking system that i see as a good way to approach the trail.

Looking at the continuum, on one end is faith — faith in Kōbō Daishi (aka, Kūkai, the Daishi), faith in his promise and his ability to assist all who call on him. In a sense this is very much like faith in Avalokitesvara's (Kannon, Kanjisai) similar promise, or Amida's vow to bring all who call out to him in sincere faith with Namu Amida Butsu.

At this end of the continuum, it doesn't matter what type of life you have lived, what kind of person you have been; if you request help with a sincere heart and a sincere belief, then help will be given. This was the Daishi's promise as he settled into eternal meditation on Mt. Kōya back in 835.

And this is the faith that a great many, probably the vast majority, of Japanese henro bring to the henro trail. It doesn't matter if you walk the trail, travel by bicycle, motorcycle, car, or bus, if your request to the Daishi at each of the temples you visit is sincere, then the Daishi will offer his help. For these henro, the only places of importance on the henro trail are the temples themselves.

On the other end of that continuum is the belief that a personal practice is more important than faith; that shūgyō is the all important ingredient for any successful supplication. On this end of the continuum faith in the Daishi is required, but before any intercession takes place you have to prove you worthiness by undergoing the appropriate amounts of shūgyō, you have to show your deservingness with the appropriate forms of spiritual discipline and asceticism. You do this by walking the henro trail and for these henro the trail is vastly more important than the temples. The trail is everything.

Another way to look at this is a practice that swallows this entire continuum. To begin with, faith is still needed, but not a faith in the Daishi alone. Instead, a faith that the shūgyō itself will lead you to the answers and solutions you seek. These may come from the Daishi, they may come from somewhere else, but it is the practice of shūgyō that leads you to them in all cases.

But, besides shūgyō, one additional ingredient is required — liminality. Victor Turner popularized this concept in his writing on pilgrimage and it points to the idea that as you set out on the path, the trail, you set aside your normal, worldly identity and take up the identity of a henro, a pilgrim.

After passing through this gate, you become, for all intents and purposes, a new person, a henro. Your sole purpose during this time is to fulfill the role of a henro. Everything you say, think, and do is done to bring you closer to the goal of your pilgrimage.

And once your pilgrimage is over, you pass back through that gate, back into your old world, but if you were successful the person that returns to that world is not the same person who left some months previously.

In this case, yes, faith is still required; also an unquestioning faith. But, this faith is a faith that your practice, your willingness to endure, to persevere, will be rewarded. And this is what i see in all those statues on the picture above. Statues of the Daishi himself walking the henro trail. Statues of Shūgyō Daishi.

The people who placed them there may not have had the ability, time, money, whatever, to undertake the required shūgyō, but that's OK because the Daishi has already done so on their behalf. The Daishi long ago accepted that challenge, passed through the gate of liminality, and found the answers. He had long ago become Kōbō Daishi and promised that his life would be dedicated to helping all sincere seekers.

The Daishi had long ago made it clear that if you can't undertake the henro yourself, then if you are willing to contribute the faith, he would contribute the practice and as a team solutions to your problems could be found.


Edward J. Taylor said...

There's a great book called "Tariki" about this very subject.

Lao Bendan said...

Thanks, Ted, for the recommendation. I've ordered it from the library and they say i should get it next week.

I don't read many Shin Shu books (or Jodo Shu for that matter) because i do firmly come down on the side of jiriki. But, if i understood the review on Amazon, Itsuki believes there is a sliver of tariki even in jiriki. Interesting.

I'll post something after i read it.