Pilgrim relief

The following is an excerpt from an upcoming book on the Shikoku Pilgrimage, expected to be released in 2017.  Edward J. Taylor will thus become our second WiK member to have a book published about the famed 88 temple pilgrimage, following the release of Running the Shikoku Pilgrimage (2013) by Amy Chavez.

We spent the morning walking a long straight line across Marugame. At the far end was Temple 78, Gōshō-ji, a small hilltop temple with very clean grounds. A trio of men was busy trimming the pines, one of them lying prone across branches that looked too weak to support his body weight. The man’s position reminded me of some of the aerial antics of the shugenja, who dangled themselves off precipices, climbing one-handed along chains over empty space.   In fact, this very temple had once been a center for the mountain ascetics who had fled the usual centers of a more orthodox Buddhism, seeking a life closer to the earth, closer to the truth, or at least whatever particular truth had animated them.

As we walked back down the hill, a man pulled up and handed us a tiny pair of waraji, with the Heart Sutra written inside on a small piece of paper, wishing us luck. There was an interesting, though unintended pun here, in these woven straw sandals representing the outward ritualized practice of the pilgrimage, and the attached sutra the inner. As Richard Payne wrote, “Where sutra is a thread used to string or sew things together, and also the warp on a loom (the lengthwise threads), tantra identifies the weft (also, woof, the crosswise threads) on a loom. As religious texts, sutras and tantras string together teachings.”

We spent the rest of the morning walking another long straight line across Sakaide. At the far end was Temple 79, Tennō-ji. Along the way, we watched an old man slowly bike up the road, stop suddenly, and put his hand over his mouth in reaction to something. He was watching a house being torn down, and I could almost see his mind running through memories he associated with the place, memories of people now moved on. A childhood friend, a high school crush. What was for the workmen just another job was for him the end of a history.


Tennō-ji was a small temple that had been nearly engulfed by the neighboring shrine. Now shaded by many pine trees, Emperor Sutoku had once been exiled here a millennium ago, his body kept in the pond so as to preserve it until news of his death reached the court in Kyoto.   The lotus stems in the water looked equally lifeless. This was the only temple on the pilgrimage where Miki and I were completely alone, not another henro in sight. We sat awhile, enjoying the peace. I could imagine the loneliness that the wandering poet Saigyo had found when he came here to pay homage to his lord, a loneliness broken when the dead emperor’s ghost arose to engage the poet in debate. The nōkyō-jō was in a different part of the grounds, but even here there was no one but a single monk.

As this region was once known as Sanuki, we very much looked forward to the famous, eponymous Udon. We saw on our map that there was a shop along the trail, but were disappointed by the “On holiday” sign hanging from the door. (Ironically, the three times that we tried to eat Sanuki Udon in Sanuki, we found the shop closed.) In the next town was a supermarket just off the trail. Leaving our bags hidden behind an abandoned house, we walked the short distance to the store, but found it had little in the way of ready-to-eat stuff. We had a poor lunch and stocked up for an equally poor dinner and breakfast to eat later on in the mountains. Ever since leaving Matsuyama, we had found restaurants and shops to be plentiful, food and baths easy to come by. Now we faced a sudden return to the insubstantial diet that we’d had in Kōchi, along with a tough climb ahead.

I had taken some time looking over our maps, and after judging distances both vertical and horizontal, decided to climb up to Temple 81 first, continue to the higher Temple 82 and spend the night nearby, then drop down to Temple 80 in the morning (Armin Howald jokingly compares the Shikoku Henro to the Tour de France, with its various mountain stages.) Most of the ascent up to Temple 81, Shiromine-ji, was along a winding road. A school must have been having a field trip of some sort, for a few hundred kids were now approaching from the opposite direction in small groups. Many yelled out the obligatory ‘Harro!” as they passed, to which I’d raise my hand and respond, “Henro!” Miki grew tired of this by the twentieth exchange or so, but the kids and I still laughed every time.

The final push was up an incredible flight of wide stone steps. They were a cliché out of a kung fu film, and I half expected to see Shaolin monks with buckets balanced across their shoulders, carrying water up and down, with a harsh and painful punishment awaiting any who spilled a single drop. The temple grounds themselves were equally magical, with many nods to esoteric Shugendo practices as well as references to Taoism and shamanism. A single building would be standing atop its own individual flight of steps, or at the end of a trail in the forest. A bus group from Kyushu was in front of the Hondo, singing more than chanting, resonating a beautiful energy that took both Miki and I in. It is said that the Heart Sutra’s 260 characters encapsulate the essence of Buddhist scripture, and here we felt it in the rise and fall of every syllable. We chatted with them on the way down, and found in them the only real spiritual feel out of the dozens of bus groups we’d thus met. Yet again, when Miki and I have grown most jaded, and begun to wonder if any of the purity has survived the commercialization, we meet people who set us straight.

Leaving Shiromine-ji, we climbed again, arriving at a saddle where a large statue of Kōbō Daishi sat at the confluence of trails to Temples 82 and 80. Images of the Taishi are easily recognized, and may even contain unintended Chinese elements. As Baquet has noted: “We’re told that on the pilgrimage, we should hold our beads in our left hand when we pray, without being told why.  A cursory inspection will show that statues of the Daishi always show him with a circle of beads in his left hand.  (A circle–remember that.)  In his right, he usually has his vajra if sitting, and his staff if standing. Freud calling.  The circle is feminine, the staff or vajra masculine.  The feminine symbol is in the left (yin, receptive, passive) hand, the masculine in the right (yang, creative, active) hand.”

Ted's Buddhist statue

After a short rest we climbed again. Where Shiromine-ji had exuded its power in spaciousness and light, Temple 82, Negoro-ji, was more severe. It too had all the feel of a shugendo training space, with darkened grounds and halls, and even the figure of a slain ox-demon back in the trees. Baquet again: “In the 16th-century an ox-headed demon was terrorizing the people of the Go-shiki-dai.  A samurai killed him with one arrow, cut off his Bull-headed gods–a motif from time immemorial. […]  This moon-connection runs deep.  A folklorist might look at the slaying of a cow-figure, representing the moon, as a triumph of a sun religion over a moon cult.  And in Shingon Buddhism, Dainichi–“Big Sun”–is the primary Buddha.”

To enter the Hondo, one had to walk through a series of long dark corridors, lined with barely visible Kannon. Chanting in front of the Hondo was a man dressed in black monks robes, carrying the ringed Shakujo staff of a shugenja, and chanting in a powerful voice. We’d met him and his wife a few times during the past few days, he never failing to greet me warmly in English. Here for the first time I saw his full power. We all left the Hondo at the same time, his voice strongly muttering a mantra, punctuated by the sound of his shakujo hitting the floor with a loud ‘Thwack!’

Miki and I moved back into the forest, the darkness pressing in. We had contacted a man about zenkonyado, and he’d offered us free lodging at a former Kokuminshuku. These were once quite the thing during the bubble years, a place where company workers could go to stay and play. This particular one had belonged to the Kawasaki corporation, so we were expecting a huge luxurious hotel that we’d have all to ourselves. Except that there was no one there to let us in. We rattled some doors and banged on some windows, then finally gave the man a call. It seemed like he’d forgotten about us entirely, and quickly came over in his car. There had been a sudden cancellation, so with some space available back at his lodging, he invited us to stay there. A few minutes later, we entered and saw about a dozen people sitting around a low table, waiting to eat. Oryoki style. We’d unwittingly come to a Zen Temple. I suppose the name, Kappa Zen Dojo should’ve been a clue, but as we’d found it on our list of zenkonyado, hadn’t really expected this. The temple was unique, isolated well out of sight upon the mountain, and used predominantly as a place to rehabilitee hikikomori shut-ins in order for them to return to being productive members of society. The meal was more casual than at other temples where I’d done Zen training, and it was followed by a half-hour of the residents talking about their day. Midway through, my hips were screaming as I sat cross-legged on the floor, having immediately come off a 30-plus kilometer day, over two high peaks. After dinner, the top monk explained the schedule, which we were expected to follow. Despite Zen being my primary Buddhist practice, one I’ve committed thousands of hours to, not one part of me wanted to be here. I was exhausted, my backs and legs sore, and I was being denied my own recuperative rituals of writing and reading.   For the walker, self-care and rest are crucial, and I began to worry about the following day. As my fatigue-fed frustration grew, I found myself nearly in tears.

Then I accepted defeat. This acceptance began to build, and I found the zazen that followed surprisingly relaxing. Breath following breath, step following step. Meditation wasn’t that dissimilar to walking in that you could rely on the repetitive rhythm, get lost in it. One could walk for hours in a semi-blank state of mind, and being well conditioned to weeks of that, here on the cushion it was easy to drop in.  Don Weiss wrote about emptiness in his great “Echoes of Incense.” “Hundreds of books have been written about sunyata (emptiness), but all of these books put together teach less than walking the pilgrimage day after day or sitting in meditation every morning. The intellect cannot grasp this idea. But to the heart, it is simple.”

As it was, it was a bit surreal to be sitting in the middle of this meditation hall, with black robed figures sitting completely still on one side and fidgety kids on the other, as if in detention. From somewhere within the hall a girl was crying, and the slumped, seated postures of the kids betrayed a defeat far greater than my own.

All photos courtesy Edward J. Taylor




Relief of pilgrims