During the years before the pandemic, (can you remember that far back?) pilgrimage was on the rise worldwide, even while church attendance was in decline. Many people were (and still are) in search of authentic experience rather than the tired truisms and stale ritual of churches. Instead of supporting institutional religion, many have been bringing alive two archetypal figures, one from Greek mythology, Hermes, the God of Travel and one from Buddhist mythology, Jizo, the earth womb bodhisattva who supports our pilgrimage through nature to return to the earth, our ground of being.
If we travel as genuine pilgrims, we step out of our groove and open to being reshaped and refreshed by the wonders of the natural world. Almost every summer in my childhood and adolescence, my family made extended hiking trips in the Sierra Nevada mountains. My father carried a John Muir guide in his backpack and Muir continually gave us tips on how to open up to the natural world around us.
“In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks. When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world
When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.
Between every two pines is a doorway to a new world.”
Although I didn’t know it then, Muir became my first spiritual teacher with passages like these:
“I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.
Keep close to Nature’s heart... and break clear away, once in a while, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.”
In hikes I have made over my lifetime, when I have gotten above timberline, it often seems as if I return to the bones of the earth---nothing but bare rock cropping after bare rock cropping---in many ways similar to a long meditation retreat, staring at the wall hour after hour, not really knowing where you are going or what is happening. The historical Buddha models for us staying on course when we encounter and feel engulfed in intangible, sometimes barren, interior space, with nothing but barely decipherable cairns that guide us through don’t know to a sense of deep interconnectedness. When this happens, our buffers of time and space dissolve and we may cry out joyously, with Buddha, “only I, alone and sacred.” As we do this, we may experience the dynamic movement of life coursing through the simplest objects we encounter. Then as Dogen suggests, when we look at something solid, like rock outcroppings or even mountains, all we see is a delightful dance.
The way into the mountain is the way into the realization that “mountains are walking” 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.
This orientation toward the sacredness and freedom of pilgrimages on foot is embedded in the history of Zen, going back to Bodhidharma, who walked along the Tea House Road from India to China in the 6th century. Two hundred years later his own example ushered in the golden age of Chan, when monks and nuns often walked for scores of miles to visit one teacher or monastery after another.
A pilgrimage through don’t know mind into intimacy may change our lives forever, as it did theirs.
It might be said that Buddhism and Zen, in particular, is a religion of the earth.
After Buddha attained enlightenment, he was approached by the three companions who had been with him on the path. When they asked him what he had discovered, he merely touched the earth, and the earth goddess emerged to honor him.
In the west, pilgrimages through nature are recognized and applauded from early on from Homer’s Odyssey to Thoreau’s Walden, and Steinbeck’s 20th century Travels with Charlie.
In Zen Buddhism we find this thread being passed on from Bodhidharma through Dogen to Basho’s Narrow Road to the Deep North as in:
Seek on high bare trails
My own Japanese teachers both left their own homes at a young age, on paths which took them through “don’t know,” each with a deep desire to touch the earth and help others do the same as in the Buddha story. Suzuki Roshi told his own teacher about his aspiration to come to the U. S. to guide people when he was in his 20s. But his teacher was not encouraging, and the war intervened. Finally, in his mid’50s he got the opportunity to move to the U.S. Although he thought this opportunity came late in his life, his vision of helping people like his very proper British student of Japanese, Miss Ransom, break through the crust of their egos was so strong that he jumped at the opportunity. Little did he know that the young people who began flocking to the San Francisco Zen Center, unlike Miss Ransom, were impulsive, enamored with drugs and wildly undisciplined.
He must have passed through many hours of “don’t know” himself before he learned how to support and guide them. But little by little he showed us how to move along our own interior trails, where often we were overcome and discouraged by “don’t know.” But many of us who stayed on what often seems a poorly marked path, (since Suzuki, like Dogen before him, did not teach it) finally realized the “place” we were searching realized that the place we were searching for was deeper than attachment to either the dominant culture or the counterculture of those times. And we learned to hear and finally sing what Basho, calls songs from the innermost part of the country.
This is my third piece on what I have been calling our pilgrimage through “don’t know” into intimacy. We get disappointed when we think our pilgrimage, or any important endeavor isn’t going well. But as any real pilgrim knows, part of being a pilgrim means, not saying, “Yuck, this experience, sucks, get me out of here”, but instead being curious about and acutely aware of whatever negative sensations, feelings, or thoughts we are having as we continue our journey.
Is it possible for you to simply notice all the thoughts and opinions busily vying for attention in your chatterbox café? Can you just be awake to those without a hint of judgement, just as my first teacher suggests in his book Not Always So? If you are facing a huge difficulty or barrier in your journey, might this be entirely about your perceptions and/or expectation rather than the pilgrimage itself? If Touzi’s statement from my last piece, "Moment-to-moment nonstop flow.” applies to all life, doesn’t it apply to the solidity of your so-called “difficulty” or “barrier” as well?
During my early time with Zen practice, I began to see how many fixed ideas and views I had, how much I judged my own and others’ behavior, and how strong my wall of preconceptions inhibited my appreciation of Beginner’s Mind.
As my months or practice turned into years, I developed the ability to notice this stuff sooner and I got trapped behind a barrier or wall less and less frequently.
If we don’t notice our preconceptions before they take over, they color everything we feel and do. How about trying out saying, “Oh, you again! Didn’t I just deal with you yesterday,” noticing a projection as it first pops up so the wall, we create with it is no longer impenetrable. Most preconceptions don’t have much to do with what’s right in front of you, anyway. “Oh, I think I’m just hauling that around with me. I don’t think it has anything to do with this.”
Maybe we can have a belly laugh as we do this, since laughter is a wonderful door into intimacy. Time and time again in the early koans, interchanges between Zen pilgrims during the Tang dynasty in China, humor is used to unlock a novice’s stuckness.
Not knowing is so often thought of as a negative experience, but it doesn’t need to be, as Mary Oliver reminds us in her poem, “When Death Comes.”
When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.
Can each of us be the bridegroom, taking the world into our arms? Can each of us “open the hand of thought” as Uchiyama Roshi says, opening our heart-mind and letting the sense that you need to know go completely... to be here, ready to meet whatever comes up, willing not to be an expert, allowing not knowing to be near and dear?
If we continue on our pilgrimage- our meditative journey- patiently and persistently through both our daily meditation and regular retreats, inevitably we will pass through the unknown into a clarity of seeing and being that is beyond anything you can imagine. This is what pilgrimage is all about.
Let me close by discussing a few words from Joan Stamm in her book, A Pilgrimage in Japan: The 33 Temples of Kannon:
“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.”
Whatever spiritual path we are on, let’s not be tourists, trying to only have “good experiences.” Let’s encourage ourselves to embrace uncertainty. Let’s risk putting ourselves out there and welcome whomever and what we meet on the road. The tourist is an impoverished version of the pilgrim, but as a pilgrim we step into the unknown with awe, feeling the sacred nature of whatever place we are in, no longer lulled by the familiarity of our habitual ways of being.
Tim Burkett, Guiding Teacher