Thursday, February 7, 2013

87 > 88?

You're standing in front of Temple 87 and, like most mornings recently, it's already warm. Somewhere deep inside you know that today, this very day, in not all that many hours, you will reach the 88th temple of this pilgriamge. Today. Soon. Number 88; of 88.

Those thoughts flicker through your mind as you set out, adjusting the weight of your pack like every other morning; trying to find a place of comfort, a place where the weight is supported even without thinking about it. But the strange thing is, this morning you notice that these thoughts are flickering through your mind. You notice, maybe for the first time, that in recent weeks, a lot of thoughts haven't been dancing here and there as you set out; that when you set out each moring you do so with a certain calm acceptance, a certain calm and quiet knowing that this is what you do in the mornings and there isn't anything to think about.

And as you notice the thoughts this morning, you catch yourself wondering about them. Where did they come from all of the sudden? Are they really all that important? Is there any reason to follow them? As they start to slip off the radar, is there any reason to pull them back and attach some importance to them? This is the 88th temple, after all. And then they just slip away and you walk.

In the end, it doesn't matter what you think. As you set out and settle into the now subconsious-level familiarity of just walking, peace settles over you again without your even trying. If you thought about that, you'd be surprised how good it feels. If you thought about that, you'd find immense amounts of comfort in this complete freedom of doing, while not doing anything. It's like crawling back into the womb where all is well, everything is taken care of, and all you have to do is Be. Yet in the back of your mind knowing that you will soon, very soon, accomplish what you are here for.

This is one of the milestones on the henro trail. A few lucky ones will actually notice it. This is one of the milestones on your pilgrimage, not just here on Shikoku, but the pilgrimage you sometimes flippantly call your life. That moment when you realize that it is now inevitable, that there is no longer any question that you will realize everything you had been working to realize. It will happen. Soon. And yet, you just can't get worked up about it any more. You'll be there soon enough, there's no reason to get excited. Even though the milestone is right there, right in the middle of the road where all who are attuned can see it, you know that while this was your aim, it turns out not to be where you're headed. There's still further to go.

Getting to the final temple turns out to be nothing more than the place where you can quit counting. From there you can leave behind your walking stick if you want, but even if you didn't want to, your body would take you back to Temple 1 where this all begain. And you are even aware, still standing here in front of Temple 87, that that's not the end of the walk, the end of this process you have committed to. Like a spark that aims to ignite something, anything, once the fire is started realizing that unless the flames are used to keep somebody warm or prepare their food, they are a waste of effort.

Or realizing that after a bachelor degree, a masters degree, and finally that long dreamed of Ph.D., unless they are put to use, the effort has been wasted. Likewise, all those countless kilometers, all those long hard days of walking mean nothing if everything ends at Temple 88. Once the flame has sprung to life, what will it be used for? To what purpose will it be applied? Over what wounds will the benefits of these efforts be spread in order for healing to begin? What lock will this key turn, allowing that long imagined door to finally open?

Certainly not your's, because as you take those first steps this morning, shaking your hips to get the pack to settle, there is no you, there is nothing noticable except the sound of a walking stick hitting the pavement and a breath that comes and goes more easily than it has in many years. A breath that seems to be all that you are. The sky is grey, the asphalt is black. And this walking brings Temple 88 closer with each step.

Yes, in many ways, what you see and learn at Temple 87 is vastly more important than anything you can learn at Temple 88. That day, those days, when sitting is still your daily practice, your daily focus. Those days before the teacher says it's time to move on, you've accomplished what we were supposed to accomplish. My spark is now your fire. Use it wisely. Use it well. Use it widely. Never think Temple 88 is the objective.

1 comment:

Damian said...

When I was on the pilgrim trail, I was often tired, sometimes wet, or hot, or lost, or unsure of where I would sleep that night, but I don’t believe I ever didn’t want to be there. Many a time, I remember thinking, regardless of what is happening around me, I don’t want to be anywhere else, doing anything else. Once I was about one-quarter or so along the way, perhaps somewhere on the way to Cape Muroto, I was confident that I could do this thing I’d embarked upon. And from that point forward, it no longer mattered where I was, I was just happy to be there. And when I reached Temple 88, and returned to Ryozen-ji, I had no sense of having finished something, only of being back where I started, and knowing it was a good place to be. Now, two years later, I do not much like to talk about my pilgrimage. I know I have thereby disappointed some of my friends who seem to attach importance to it, and who want to hear about my experiences on the trail, but I do not think of myself as having had “experiences” there. I just “was” there. Not very interesting, really. But when I was there, I always wanted to be there, and I would return tomorrow if I could.