Thursday, July 18, 2013

Japanese Pilgrimage: Entering Asia

Gio-ji, Arashiyama

I am alone in the garden of a tiny nunnery called Gio-ji, in the village of Arashiyama on the outskirts of Kyoto, and before me, in the late afternoon light, is a luminously green space, floored by moss, roofed by Japanese maples, the golden light streaming across it.

It is very quiet, all sound muffled by the maples in full leaf, the bamboo groves below. I have been alone in this dream-like precinct of temples and quiet lanes all afternoon, and my heart is simply bubbling over with happiness.

This last May I traveled to Japan for the first time in my life - my first time to Asia. This, despite nearly 30 years of Buddhist practice and ordination as a Soto Zen priest. For the first years of my Buddhist practice, I didn't have a strong desire to go to Asia, and later my life circumstances didn't allow it. Three years ago I almost traveled to Japan with a group of senior students from Everyday Zen, my home Zen sangha, but needed to take work in Alaska instead (you can read about those adventures here and here).

Finally, nearly miraculously, everything ripened for me this spring, and I was able to travel to Japan for nearly three weeks with the Mountain Rain Zen sangha from Vancouver, British Columbia, with old friends and dharma companions from my days of living just south of the border in Bellingham, Washington.

Mountain Rain in the onsen (hot springs) town of Yamanaka, wearing the cute little yukata one puts on after the bath

About half the time we stayed in temples: Rinso-in, the 600-year-old family temple of Suzuki Roshi (who brought Soto Zen to America); Eiheiji, the great 850-year-old mother temple of Soto Zen in the mountains near the Japan sea; and Koya-san, the complex of Shingon temples in the mountains south of Kyoto, dating from the 9th century. The rest of the time we were in a small, unpretentious ryokan (traditional Japanese lodging-house) near the train station in Kyoto, free to explore Kyoto and its environs on our own.

Like all truly transformative travel, it is all much too large to fit on the page, or the blog. I think that's what's kept me from writing about it, since I returned. I've been daunted by what to write - every day was filled with such richness and beauty. But I truly want to share it, somehow. I kept a journal during my time there, and did a lot of photography. Perhaps I will try to offer some of each, and see where it goes...

This ancient set of guidelines was offered to us by our friends/guides/teachers, Kate McCandless and Michael Newton, before we left.

The Five Excellent Arts of Pilgrimage, 5th century

Practice the arts of attention and listening
Practice renewing yourself every day
Practice meandering toward the center of every place
Practice the ritual of reading sacred texts
Practice gratitude and praise singing

Roadside flower arrangement, Arashiyama

So in the spirit of "praise singing", here's what I wrote as my plane lifted off from San Francisco airport on May 11th, turning west into the setting sun, above fog and the Golden Gate bridge, headed across the Pacific

Flying west
the way the dead go
When I come back
it will be a different life

Then, as we approached the Japanese coast the next day (two days later, because of the international date line), after a night in Honolulu and many hours of travel across empty ocean, a verse from the moment I first saw land:

I keep looking for land
but each time: ocean, clouds, the wide calm wing below me.
Asia, awaited so long, still just over the horizon.
Ah - mist-blue islands!
Mountains after mountains
soft as smoke or dreams

Mountains from the Women's Pilgrimage Trail around Koyasan

In Japan I experienced, for the first time, the deep roots of my own tradition and spiritual life. And it's changed me in subtle and important ways that I couldn't have imagined, that I can feel every time I bow, light incense, or sit zazen. The person who practiced Zen before going to Japan is not quite the person I am now.

Torii gates on the Women's Pilgrimage Trail, Koyasan

To be continued....


  1. beautiful. And so green. Your spiritual journey is green, too, like a green plant that keeps on growing.

  2. Thank you so much for these glimpses. I am so glad you got to go on your pilgrimage, and await more pictures, poems, and meditations.

  3. ...looking forward to reading more.

  4. What joy to visit in my mind my long ago visit to Japan. Thank you for sharing with us.

  5. Thank you so much for sharing. Such beauty.

  6. I loved seeing the mountains and gardens that were part of what was transformative for you about your time in Japan. Plese write more! I'd like to hear more about the nunnery you visited.