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.
Tim Burkett, Guiding Teacher