I have been reading Japanese Pilgrimage , Oliver Statler’s masterly 1983 account of a famous pilgrim trail in Shikoku , the southernmost of the Japanese islands . The trail connects 88 temples sacred to the memory of the Buddhist holy man , Kukai, better known as Kobo Daishi( 774-835). He was a remarkable man ,a scholar , a traveling evangelist , miracle worker and civil engineer who founded the Shingon sect of Japanese Buddhism . The route is scenic but arduous, traversing high mountains and deep valleys, and pilgrims have been tracing it for over a thousand years . In the beginning , they used to do it on foot ; the hardiest of them took over two months to cover its approximately 720 miles . Nowadays , however, most henro ( pilgrims) do it by bus .
I enjoyed the book ,but less than I had expected . The tales of the Daishi and other holy men ,the ceremonies at the temples, and the stories of individual pilgrims are wonderful but the descriptions of the route itself , good though they are, become repetitive and wearisome . What does remain green in the reader’s memory is the faith and devotion of the pilgrims.
At one of the temples early in the pilgrimage , Statler comes across an old woman facing the altar, her hands pressed tightly together in prayer. Tears streaming down her cheeks , she says again and again “ I am eighty-four years old , Daishi-sama , and I am so grateful to be able to come here again.” She tells Statler she is from across the Inland Sea and she knows this is the last time she will be able to make the pilgrimage . She has no family left, she says , but some neighbors invited her to join them. They have climbed further to the temple proper but she is unable to accompany them and she is waiting for them to come down . “ I am quite ready to die at any time, ‘ she declares. ” I ask only to be buried along the pilgrimage route.”
Such intense devotion is to be found among those who undertake pilgrimages whether they are following in the footsteps of Kobo Daishi on Shikoku , seeking to expiate their sins by taking a dip in the holy Ganges or walking the pilgrim route to Santiago del Campostella in Spain . They may have different motivations . Some do it as a penance for past sins ; others because they seek divine favor . Still others walk the pilgrim route in gratitude for boons already granted . During its thousand-year history , the pilgrim trail in Shikoku has had many , many of each kind. Beside the trail are scores of graves , hundreds of unobtrusive mounds, each marking the last resting place of a pilgrim.
Statler’s book tells the tales of some of these pilgrims , ancient and modern. Perhaps the most remarkable is that of Mohei Nakamatsu who made his first pilgrimage in 1865 when he was just 18. Over the next fifty-seven years , he was to complete a total of 280 pilgrimages before dying in 1922 in the course of his 281st. Not only did he walk the trail, he erected innumerable stone guideposts to mark the way for future pilgrims . Many exist to the present today.
Mohei Nakamatsu’s story is extra-ordinary but the other tales that Statler relates are interesting too. One is the story of Mr. and Mrs. Ishii , retired farmers from Okayama City , across the Inland Sea. Mrs. Ishii had been in poor health , having suffered from headaches, sleeplessness and malaise for the past twenty years and more. They went to doctor after doctor but none was able to do anything for her. Finally ,the year before , when the Ishii’s were at the end of their rope , they decided to undertake the pilgrimage . They had always been fervent worshipers of Kobo Daishi and he was their last hope . At first , it was agonizing . They were only able to go a short distance each day but they persevered and , at every step of the way they prayed.Oh , how they prayed ! Gradually , Mrs. Ishii’s health improved and their path became easier. They went all the way around and by the time they reached Temple 88 , Mrs . Ishii was cured. Now , a year later , they were doing a part of the pilgrimage again in gratitude and they planned to do so each year for the rest of their lives.
How does one explain what happened ? True believers will say that it was the Daishi’s blessings that cured Mrs. Ishii. Sceptics will say that it was the physical exercise that restored her health. Both camps , however , will agree that Mrs. Ishii’s intense faith had something to do with it ; good things happen when one lays one’s problems in the lap of the Almighty . Letting go her worries and trusting in the Daishi undoubtedly helped Mrs. Ishii.
There is an old Hindu story that makes the same point.
In ancient India , there once lived a learned Brahmin of advancing years. In those times , it was the custom that when one reached the age of seniority , to renounce the world and set off to Benares to wash away one’s sins in the holy Ganges. It was not a journey that one returned from, so the Brahmin made the necessary arrangements . He distributed his worldly goods among his sons , bade them farewell and set out on his pilgrimage carrying with him only the barest necessities.For many months he made his way north struggling through forests , over steep hills and through deep valleys, in constant fear of being attacked by robbers . After much difficulty , he finally reached the Ganges and settled down to a life of austerity and prayer. For five long years , he led a life of prayer and devotion when another pilgrim came by .
” What are you doing here ? ” the pilgrim asked the Brahmin .
” I am praying beside the sacred Ganges . ” replied the Brahmin .
At this , the pilgrim laughed loudly . ” This is not the Ganges ,” he scoffed . ” This is no more than an insignificant tributary. All your penance has been in vain.”
Chastened , the Brahmin packed up his meager belongings and set out once again . Finally , after many months of travelling , he reached a mighty river , so wide that he could not see the further bank. This surely must be the holy Ganges , he said to himself as he settled down to his austerities. Alas , five more years passed when he was once again disabused of his notion by another traveller.
Once again , the Brahmin made his way northward but , by now , he was old and feeble and he died before he reached his goal . When he appeared at the gates of Swargaloka ( Heaven ) , the minions of Yama , the God of Death denied him admittance. Yama , however, intervened . ” It does not matter that this Brahmin never reached the sacred river” , he said. “In his heart , he thought that he was praying on the banks of the Ganges , bathing in it every day. That is enough. Admit him forthwith.”
It is the journey that counts , not just the destination . The only thing that matters is Faith.