The Practice of Pilgrimage

by Eido Carney

At the opening ceremony for our sesshin we chant, in part, in the Eko, “May each person’s powerful presence—dignified, profoundly introspective, and deep—have peaceful consequences that cannot be fully foreseen, affecting visible and invisible worlds throughout time and space.” This entreaty speaks to the notion of pilgrimage, for it carries with it a sacred intention for the pilgrim, the one who steps forth on a journey and inevitably meets unknown, life-changing situations that bring about a clarity of seeing and of being in the world—the peaceful consequences of practice. This is what our sesshin is, what one period of Zazen is, and perhaps what our whole lives are—a pilgrimage through the bones of earth meeting the essence of mind. This journey may be experienced through a rapturous and varied landscape, but at its core it is an inner expedition traversed through intimate, intangible, interior space wherever we go and in the terrain in which we discover ourselves.

In her upcoming book, A Pilgrimage in Japan: The 33 Temples of Kannon, (in press) Joan Stamm writes that, “More than one expert on global crises and the environment has suggested that changing “tourism” to “pilgrimage” would have a significant positive impact on the world. In other words, bringing “sacred intent” to travel, to the land, people and places we encounter when traveling, whether domestic or international, could transform the planet.” It is what we do when we travel, we step into the unknown with an awe and anticipation that to be in a new place, a new environment, reshapes and refreshes our lives by right of the sacred nature of place. Our travels are constituted of an inner, hallowed exploration regardless of where our feet take us; the nature of place in pilgrimage affects us inwardly and transforms our world.

Untitled-95The practice of pilgrimage is on the rise worldwide, even while church attendance is in decline. Many are in search of an authentic experience tending to avoid religious institutions while searching out pathways of self-exploration through nature’s landscape. Our more common Western backpacking trails show signs of inner purpose. Stone upon stone is carefully placed by hikers at trailheads as a rite of passage, a sign of the tradition of Hermes, the patron and protector of roads and travelers for the secular culture, just as Avalokiteshvara is the guide for practitioners in Zen. For everyone, the way into the mountain is the way into the realization that “mountains are walking” as Dogen Zenji says. The place where we walk has a way of walking in us. The mountain is the mind and body of the walker, and the walker is the mind and body of the mountain.

Pilgrimages that include describable journeys, in ways that Zazen cannot be described, are written into the mythic narrative of our Buddhist literature and practice. It is the function of such a narrative to turn us to examine our own stamp. Shakyamuni Buddha’s first engagement with society is a pilgrimage beyond the palace to explore the outer regions of the city. These experiences changed his life such that the entire history of earth/body/mind received the peaceful consequences of his footsteps and his thorough investigation. Bodhidharma went from India to China. Dogen Zenji traveled on his pilgrimage to China. Ryokan san made his whole life a pilgrimage beyond the gate of Entsuji. The world is vastly transformed. We cannot imagine their never having lived and demonstrated the Dharma by walking on this Earth.

fall color roadOur literature is rich with the endeavor of search: Basho in Travels to the Deep North; Homer in The Odyssey; Thoreau with Walden; Steinbeck through the US in Travels With Charlie; Moby Dick is Melville’s passage; Borges’ Labyrinths; the journey to Kailash is recounted in Thubron’s To a Mountain in Tibet; Robert Louis Stevenson, Travels With a Donkey; John Muir, The Yosemite; Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust. Truly the list is continuous in the act of leaving home, going forth in search of the Self, or something new, or a new horizon, or a deep learning that gives insight into our lives. This is primal in the human need to explore.

Our Zen literature is ablaze with pilgrimages of unsui, novice priests, venturing on an outward path to visit Zen Masters to inquire about the Way, that they may truly examine the inward path. Dogen Zenji, in Shobogenzo, “Hensan, Thorough Investigation,” points out that although one may go about the countryside in search of a Master with whom to study and train, it also is not necessary to leave our original training place because the true nature of pilgrimage is within oneself. The one we are seeking is our own True Self. Dogen Zenji recounts the story of Nangaku Ejo who remained with Daikan Eno for fifteen years to thoroughly explore the great matter of life. Ejo entered the Temple gate completely, and one by one and episode by episode, he encountered the myriad delusions and “saw through, and beyond, the flesh of the Master’s face.” This is far greater exploration, Dogen Zenji suggests, than the casual moving from one temple to another. Planting oneself in the hard face-to-face encounter is the landscape of Awakening.

gate1Further to this teaching, we learn from Zen Master Chosa Keishin that, “The whole Universe in the ten directions is the whole human body.” So in pilgrimage there is no such thing as coming from one temple and going to another even as we climb from mountain to mountain. When there is no gap between coming and going we can say there is being pilgrimage in the thorough exploration of the body and mind. We might even say that to appear in human form is pilgrimage itself from the very beginning for the whole of one’s life is Hensan. Hen meaning “everywhere” and san meaning “to visit” or “to study through experience.” Everywhere we go we are the study of the whole body of truth. As we practice, we cannot help but affect visible and invisible worlds throughout time and space.

The daily practice of taking a quiet moment to ask with deep serious intent, “What am I seeking?” is the entry to the gate of realizing we are on a lifelong pilgrimage to uncover consciousness of Awakening. This is the activity of pilgrimage in realizing the trees and bushes, the birds and flowers of everyday life. As we walk in the garden, or travel by car or train, we seem to go places, but it is the sacred intention to fully presence ourselves in whatever place or space we find ourselves in the vast perimeter of mind.

Nevertheless, there is much to be found in a new landscape, even the landscape of literature to explore with the author in the journey of an unknown unfolding. That path becomes our own in the creative act of the imagination as we read. Other’s pilgrimages become our own and we are shown a land and a way that gives us new evidence and experience of the myriad things and what is absorbed. The act of reading deeply and comprehending Shobogenzo is the act of Hensan, Our Thorough Investigation into the interior pathways through which we are turned upside down and right side up. Dogen Zenji writes of those who have made a pilgrimage for the practice of Ango: “. . . you need to do the practice and training out of a desire to emulate the ancient ways. Once the fists and noses have all taken up residence in the halls of the monastery, they hang up their traveling bag in their place for the duration of the retreat.” This means that the retreatants become the fists of thorough investigation by putting aside conceptual thinking and idle language. Their noses are the breath of Dharma, tense with inner spirit. Each stopping place, each day another point in the pilgrimage of an entire life. Each footstep a sacred intention with peaceful consequences that cannot be fully foreseen, affecting visible and invisible worlds throughout time and space.

Eido Carney

Eido Carney bwEido Frances Carney has been teacher and abbess at Olympia Zen Center in the State of Washington since 1995, after returning from five years in Japan which included priest training at Shoboji in Iwate Prefecture. In 1997, she received Dharma Transmission from Niho Tetsumei Roshi of Entsuji Temple, Ryokan san’s training temple in Kurashiki. She has taught writing, language, literature, and world religions at San Francisco State University, Notre Dame Seishin University, and South Puget Sound Community College. She is a former president of the Soto Zen Buddhist Association and founder of Temple Ground Press, publishing Dharma books by Transmitted Soto Zen women priests. She is editor of Receiving the Marrow: Teachings on Dogen by Soto Zen Women Priests, and author of Kakurenbo Or the Whereabouts of Zen Priest Ryokan. She lives and practices full-time at Olympia Zen Center which promotes the writings and teachings of Daigu Ryokan Zenji. She is also a painter and poet and the mother of three with two grandchildren.