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Monthly Archives: February 2019

 

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by Traude Wild

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How much is our life centered on securing ourselves from ever-changing circumstances? We want to be safe and feel in control of our life situations. Quite often, if we are honest with ourselves, we want to control other people in order to guard our safety. We build walls, distance and isolate ourselves, so we may be protected from uncertainties and the things we fear. However, instead of being protected, we become prisoners in the walls we have built.

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In order to regain our vitality, youthfulness and joy for life, we must have a willingness to step into the unknown and be changed by life itself.

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When I walked the 88 Temple pilgrimage – an 800-mile hike around the fourth-largest island of Japan – my steps into the unknown began before I left home. I wanted to be well-prepared and intended to hike up Piestewa Peak in Phoenix at least once a day. But several weeks before my departure, I became so ill and weak that I ran out of breath after walking 30 feet uphill. My physical problems intensified my major doubts about walking alone in an exotic foreign country. Voices whispered to me in silent moments: “You are not prepared enough. You are too old. You will get lost. You will not be able to communicate without knowing Japanese.”

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At my lowest point – when fears, doubts and my body’s weakness nearly overtook my consciousness – I took a pen and scribbled a drawing with my non-dominant hand. I called it “simply just walking.” It expressed my determination to walk the pilgrimage, regardless of my fears and the potential disasters.

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When I boarded the plane to Tokyo, I carried all the insecurities and doubts with me. I had to accept who I was, facing my vulnerability and fears. In my mind, I was ready to accept every experience I would encounter, even death. This may sound strange and I did not want to die at all. However, in reflecting back on this attitude, I realize that the intention to accept every experience helped me to start the pilgrimage without fear. It was like stepping through the entrance gate of a Shingon Buddhist temple where often a wooden beam was placed on the bottom of the gate. The pilgrim had to be careful not to touch this beam while stepping over it. I had to be careful not to give in to my fears and insecurities.

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I started the pilgrimage at temple number one, Ryōzenji, in Tokushima Prefekture. Stepping through the entrance gate, a world utterly unknown to me unfolded in front of my eyes. The sound of bells mixed with the voices of chanting pilgrims. All were Japanese. They wore sedged hats and white pilgrim’s outfits and walked naturally through the temple area. They knew how and where to bow, to purify their hands and mouth, to ring the bell and gongs, to light candles and incense, to donate name slips and money and, especially, how to chant.

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My friend Shigeo and I in front of the main Hall in Ryōzenji.

I, on the other hand, was totally overwhelmed and confused. I constantly made mistakes – forgot to bow, rang the small gongs in a bumbling way and stood in the way of other pilgrims without realizing it. My feelings of awkwardness and being out of place intensified with every temple I visited. Should I give up my intention to walk the pilgrimage like a traditional pilgrim? Following the pilgrim’s etiquette did not have any religious purpose for me. I wanted to use it for training in mindfulness. I could escape my self-imposed requirements and simply not do it.

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When I reached my lowest point, when my voice cracked while chanting the sutra and the feeling of being out of place made me want to disappear into the ground, a miracle happened. Another Japanese pilgrim suddenly appeared beside me, and we chanted the Heart Sutra together in a steady, strong voice. The Japanese words suddenly sounded grounding and assuring. They lost their strangeness. From that moment on, I continued with the rituals, and I loved it till the end of my pilgrimage. By simply just walking forward despite my strong feelings of awkwardness, my perception changed.

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Walking a pilgrimage is following a path to a destination. However, for me, the destination is never the goal. The goal is to be wherever I am right now. This was especially true in Shikoku. The 88 Temple Pilgrimage is a circle with no beginning or end. Although there is a physically marked path, it only becomes a path by walking it. The poet David Whyte states, “By walking, you make the path.” Each step is a step into the unknown. How do you deal with the uncertainties? You have to trust in life, be connected to silence and listen.

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During my pilgrimage, I often walked through remote areas with nobody around. Although I always looked for the little red signs, sometimes I could not find any marker and thought I had lost my way. Getting lost was one of my biggest fears.

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One time, on my way to a mountain temple, I had walked for hours through a dense cedar forest without meeting anybody. Nearly at the top of the mountain, I had to climb an iron ladder over an almost vertical rock. Not far away from this climb, I came to a crossroad with signs pointing in three directions – back where I was coming from, left and right. The signs had only Japanese words on them, which I could not read.

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I was sure I had lost my way. What should I do? My heart pounded stronger, and I felt light panic creeping up. I decided to stop, wait and go into silence. Suddenly, I heard a sweeping sound in the distance. I followed it uphill, and to my surprise, in the middle of the forest, there was a man sweeping the path! He assured me I was on the right way. My fears vanished in a second and were replaced by deep gratitude.

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But I faced my biggest time of uncertainty when I approached the entrance gate of Zuiōji. This temple belongs to one of the most traditional Sōtō Zen training centers in Japan. I got a permit to stay there for eight days. When I walked up to the gate in pouring rain, with heavy mist hanging over the treetops, the outer world seemed to reflect my inner one – not seeing farther than my immediate experience.

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I had read stories about foreigners staying in Japanese temples that made me shudder – they felt totally abandoned, crushed and lost. Maybe I was making a big mistake to come here. In my dripping wet red raincoat, I entered the kitchen, the only place I could find anybody. Two cooks were working there. One of them immediately spotted me, welcomed me with a big smile, and greeted me using my Buddhist name: “You must be Garyo-san! Welcome to Zuiōji!”

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Although I was the only foreigner and only woman, I was able to practice with the monks the traditional way of Zen. The stay in Zuiōji became the highlight of my pilgrimage.

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Saying good by to the over 90 year old

abbot of Zuiōji, Tsugen Narasaki Rōshi

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The walk into the unknown did not end with my Japanese pilgrimage. Back at home, I unexpectedly felt depressed and disoriented. Familiarity threatened to take away the freshness I had experienced in Japan. Over and over, I had to train and discipline my mind to stay alert in my familiar world, to be open and stay in resonance with life around me.

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While writing my book, the unknown became more of a fine aroma or a hardly felt breeze. However, this radically changed when publishing the book. Insurmountable obstacles seem to prevent me from putting the book into the world. Suddenly, I was confronted with a situation I feared most – I had to walk the last steps of publication on my own. Computer technology is an overwhelming world to me, like a dangerous jungle with many unexpected traps. I felt abandoned and helpless. However, I had to dare to take these steps, despite my insecurity and fear. With a friend beside me, I walked through the jungle of electronic book design and unfamiliar technical language. And at the end, a miracle happened – the book was accepted and published.

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A pilgrimage is not different from the journey of life. Whether we’re on an unfamiliar trail or simply waking up to a new day, we have to step out of our narrow space and into one of the most challenging and scary situations in life – the world of the unknown. To let this happen, we have to let go of the identity we hold onto and the stories we tell about ourselves and give ourselves away to the direct experience of life. This requires openness, vulnerability and a willingness to become intimate with silence. It is not easy to do.

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Rilke, one of my favorite poets, describes it in the following way:

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God speaks to each of us before we are, before he’s formed us –

then, in a cloudy speech, but only then, he speaks these words to each,

and silently walks with us from the dark: Driven by your senses,

dare to the edge of longing. Grow, like a fire’s shadow casting glare,

behind assembled things, so you can spread their shapes on me as clothes.

Don’t leave me bare. Let it all happen to you: beauty and dread.

Simply go – no feeling is too much –

and only this way can we stay in touch. Near here is the land that they call life.

You’ll know when you arrive by how real it is.

                         Translated by Leonard Cottrell

You can find more information about my pilgrimage in

SHIKOKU, THE 88 TEMPLE WAY: POETICS OF A JAPANESE PILGRIMAGE

available for Kindle or in paperback from Amazon.com or on my blog: simplyjustwalking.com

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Traude Wild, a long time member of Spirit of the Senses, who resides in both Vienna and Phoenix, has been a lecturer of art history and practicioner of Zen Buddhism. Her passion is walking, especially walking pilgrimages. Two of her books describe her walks in Ethiopia and Nepal. Her current book is  ‘Shikoku, The 88 Temple Way: Poetics of a Japanese Pilgrimage’.

 

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