The difference between a pilgrimage and a tour
Whenever I travel to a new country, I am most interested in the way the people there experience their lives --- what's important to them, where do they look for inspiration and connection, how do they combine spiritual and daily life? This was the theme of our trip to Japan in 2010 and of the tour we are planning for September 2014. In 2010, we were there not only to see and experience the sacred sites of this bustling culture, but to also experience the attitudes which the Japanese people bring when they visit these sites -- what are they looking for, what do they hope to experience, what does being in a temple or garden or monastery bring to their awareness?
One morning, as we walked through the sacred grounds of of the great “city of temples”, Mt. Koya, we heard Japanese pilgrims reciting the same chants that we had just been introduced to that morning at the monastery where we were staying. Hearing their voices, I could feel the power of participating in a many centuries old tradition that still unites the Japanese people across generations and over thousands of years. The sutra we all chanted, the Heart Sutra, is so much a part of modern Japanese consciousness that there are comic books written about it. We experienced the power behind the chanting this sutra to open us to looking at the world from the Buddhist pilgrim’s point of view.
To walk where generations of saints have walked.
The Japanese people have long practiced pilgrimage as a way of connecting to their cultural and spiritual heritage. To walk where generations of teachers and Buddhist saints have walked, to experience the deep quiet that is present in the temples they have written about, to see the beauty of the gardens and art that have been inspired by their teaching, is to enter into the wordless teaching behind all words. At every temple and garden, we encountered Kuan Yin (Kwannon in Japanese), the Buddhist female bodhisattva, who “hears the cries of the world”. There are small shrines to her along the city sidewalks put there by those to whom she has heard and helped. Another popular sidewalk “deity” is Jizo, who protects children. The roughly carved stone statues of Jizo holding a child in his arms soon became a familiar and welcome sight reminding us of the love that is behind all Buddhist teaching.
The meaning of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas.
In the morning meetings of our group, I introduced people to the meaning of the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas that we would meet that day. We talked about the history, art and meaning of each one, so that when we toured the thousand 40 armed statues of Kuan Yin, we knew what inspired such devotion to detail. These 5 foot statues were sculpted over the course of centuries of work so that all who see them can feel the heart of those made them. Japanese culture is extraordinary in its preservation of these works of art for this very reason, that these ancient temples and grounds continue to carry a living energy that connects us all, Japanese and non-Japanese alike, to the same Spirit that lives in everyone.
I think that to tour in this way, to be pilgrims in a foreign land, to open our hearts and minds to a new world that opens up when we attempt to look through Japanese Buddhist eyes, this is the joy of travelling with the heart of a pilgrim, taking both inner and outer tours through space and time.
Upcoming tour click here