Ep. 069: Thoughts along the Pilgrim's Path

What goes through a man's mind as he walks over 300 miles?

Walking gives one plenty of chances to cogitate. So, on my 300-plus-mile saunter down the Old Tokaido Highway from Tokyo to Kyoto in the Autumn of 2001, I had plenty of opportunity to just think. When time permitted, I wrote down some of my more cogent thoughts at the end of the day--some 35 times, as it happened. Let's take a look at a few of the more palatable results of all this brain-work in this episode of--

TEMPLE TALES

I'll give you just the slightest bit of context, then copy-paste the old journal entries from my walk (with any changes or notes made necessary by the passage of time).


At the barrier where Tokyo used to end

Thinking vs. Walking (Sept. 6, 2001)

On my second day on the road, still in Tokyo proper, I realized I had done a lot of planning, and was still in "anticipation" mode. Here's how I dealt with that.

Things I'm learning about LIFE by walking...

My friend Robert Urich liked to say, "It is one thing to talk about bulls; it is another to face the bull." (It sounded better with his put-on Spanish accent.) The idea here is simple: talkin' ain't doin'. So if I sit and plan, and estimate, and revise, and guess--I don't move forward a millimeter. But if I walk, it's amazing how fast the mileposts fly by.

This is as true of life as it is of walking. Many of us spend more time planning than we do doing. We think instead of act. The two are different. Sure, thinking has a purpose, but one of the central tenets of most religions is that the mind can be an enemy, tricking us into doing the wrong thing--or, more often I suspect, tricking us out of doing the right one.

Gotta go. Gotta walk.


Think those shoes are comfortable? (Original caption: "You meet all kinds of pilgrims on the road... ")

Focus Point (Sept. 9, 2001)

I had moved past busy Yokohama into some slightly quieter stretches of the road, and I was regretting the poor quality of my footwear. Read on.

Comedian Tim Conway once talked about his father's cure for toothache. When Tim had a sore tooth, his father made him wear his little sister's shoes. "That way," he said, "my feet hurt so much I didn't notice my tooth!"

You know what's coming next, don't you?

Yeah: My feet hurt.

But what's funny is, they hurt in different places than they did before. Because of the rain, I'm walking in my tennies instead of my sandals. And the tennies hit in different places. So what was killing me in the sandals doesn't affect me now. I have all new pains.

When the sky opens up on me I forget about my feet entirely. When my camera's slipping off my shoulder I forget about the rain. And so on.

But this focus on one thing can work positively, too. When I'm captivated by the song of a bird, or enthralled by a child's shy smile (I get a lot these days), or entranced by the sanctity of a temple--I forget about all my woes.

Maybe the secret is this: ac-cen-tu-ate the positive, e-li-mi-nate the negative, latch on to the affirmative. If we fill our hearts and minds with what's good around us, there's no room left for what's bad.

This is a good intermediary step until we learn to transcend categories of "good" and "bad" and just see what is. I wish I could learn to say, "My feet hurt. This is neither good nor bad, it just is." But I'm going to have to walk longer before I reach that stage--a lot longer.


Say, who is that walkin' man?

Feet (Sept. 10, 2001)

Seeing a trend? A "walking man" walks... on his feet. Almost nothing is more important. This was written the day after the previous Journal entry.

It's easy to take 'em for granted. But they are our connection to the earth.

Look at some idioms:

  • knock you off your feet

  • have your feet on solid ground (or firmly planted)

  • get your feet under you

  • be back on your feet

  • be dead on your feet

  • jump in with both feet

  • put your best foot forward

  • have cold feet

  • drag your feet

  • let grass grow under your feet

  • land on your feet

These virtually all have to do with one thing: initiative and ability. The negative terms--cold feet, drag your feet--are about reluctance. The positives--back on your feet, best foot forward--have to do with moving ahead.

A walking man thinks a lot about feet.


One of the lovely people I met along the way. And her lovely old dog.

Teach Your Children Well (Sept. 12th, 2001)

This was the day after September 11th--yes, that September 11th, when I had been stuck in my room due to a typhoon, and a whole lot was passing through my mind. Still, observing the places and people around me, and reflecting on them, was becoming a good habit, one I still try to practice.

Imagine a mother and baby coming toward you on the sidewalk. In almost every case, they are both facing you. The baby might be in a stroller, or in the extra seat of a bicycle. But this is crucial: you can see both of their faces, and they can both see yours, but they can't see each others'.

Got it?

Now, as I walk along I get a lot of reactions from a lot of people. Some smile, say "Konnichiwa," wave, even stop and chat. Others gape openly. Still others avoid eye contact completely: "Pretend the big gaijin (foreigner) in the goofy outfit isn't there and maybe he won't hurt us."

Now, I've noticed something. Almost without exception, when I meet a mother and baby together, whatever reaction the mother has, the baby has, too. Remember, they can't see each others' faces. If the mother smiles, the baby smiles. If the mother looks away, so does the child.

Is it nature, temperament? Maybe. Is the baby picking up Mom's vibes? Perhaps. But my gut instinct is this: moms teach babies what's good and what's bad. They don't necessarily do this with words: "Gaijin are good" or "Be afraid of gaijin." Rather they do it by example.

Every reaction we have teaches. Ponder this, and you'll see how enormous the implications are. Optimists train optimists; pessimists likewise. So what if we all worked on being realists, not judging everything as "good" or "bad" but just trying to see it as it is? Could we nurture a bunch of realists around us?

I wonder.


Some of the killer stone paving I met

Fear (Sept. 14, 2001)

On this day, I faced my greatest challenge: a climb from sea level to over 2,700 feet in elevation, much of it on slippery stone paving. Hence the topic.

Almost every religion teaches that fear is one of the great enemies. The Buddha labeled two such enemies: Fear and Desire. (Some add social duty as a third hindrance to enlightenment. If Gautama had stayed home and done what was expected of him, he would never have become The Buddha...)

I learned something about fear while facing today's climb to Hakone. My imagination is powerful, and I pictured all sorts of terrible things happening. But when I just walked, and kept my mind on the task at hand, fear disappeared. In other words, if I filled my mind with Purpose, there was no room for Fear.

Imagine the proverbial deer in the headlights. His mind is so filled with Fear that there's no room for Purpose. Road kill.

Joseph Campbell taught that you should "Follow Your Bliss." BUT, many object, how do I know what my bliss is? It's self-defining: Bliss is what makes you happy, or what brings you peace. Follow that, and life will be good.

Here's my point: most of us already know what makes us happy. We're just afraid to follow it. Fear fills our minds and keeps us from our Purpose, which is the same for all of us: to live a full life.

I'm fairly well known for coming up with more ideas than I have time to accomplish. (That's putting it nicely; some would say I'm just all talk.) But this time, I'm doing what I said I would. Hakone is said to be the toughest part of this trip. But the REAL toughest part was the "first step" everyone talks about. The real toughest part was overcoming inertia. The real toughest part was overcoming my fear and just doing it.

Who's next?


The grave of Hakuin Zenji at Shouin-ji Temple

The Gods (Sept. 17th, 2001)

On this day I said my "prayers" at the grave of Hakuin Zenji, one of Japan's greatest teachers of Zen.

Not so long ago my buddy Paul wrote and asked a pertinent question (though I'm sure he meant it to be impertinent) regarding the prayers that I'm saying on this trip:

"To whom are the thoughts being directed?"

Here's an edited version of my response, with a clincher at the end:

As for "To whom are the thoughts being directed?": Exactly. You may recall that my philosophy is that there's something there, but anything we say about it is merely metaphor. So it doesn't matter if I'm directing them to the Buddhas, or the Shinto gods, or the universe. Last night (September 14th) I more or less directed them to Lake Ashinoko.

As I mentioned in my journal of 9/12, "I don't know if my prayers help the people I pray for, but they definitely help me." Cultivating a prayerful attitude improves me, whether anybody out there is listening or not.

Jung spoke about living "as if." Does God exist? Who knows? But living "as if" God exists can be ennobling. (I know what you're going to say--it can also cause war, terrorism, etc. Personally I think people who do such things are living "as if" God DOESN'T exist.) Is there such a thing as "true love"? Who knows? Even though the evidence seems to be against it, most of us live "as if" it exists. To put it in your terms [Paul's a huge baseball fan]: every baseball fan goes into the season "as if" their favorite team is going to win the pennant. As the season progresses, if this becomes unlikely, they still keep faith to the extent that they live "as if" the team will win today's game.

Call it faith. Call it hope. Call it self-delusion. But whatever you call it, I think we live richer, deeper lives because of it.

One more, merely human, result of this prayer thing: people have been revealing to me their deepest hopes and fears. People I've known for years, who never said much, have come to me and told me the most amazing, heart-wrenching stories about family problems, illness, etc. It has opened up new dimensions in relationships that were hitherto pretty much moribund. It has been very fulfilling.

And as I mentioned in the Sept. 10 Logbook, even monks asked me to pray for them! Totally screwy.

Finally, a joke about who's listening:

A guy falls off a cliff and catches a bush on his way down. He starts yelling for help, "Is anyone up there?" After a few moments a deep voice like thunder says, "I'm here." And the guy says, "God?" and God answers "Yes." So the guy says "What should I do?" and God says "Trust me. Let go of the branch." And after a minute of thought the guy yells "Is there anybody else up there?"

That's the end of the letter to Pauly. Now here's the clincher:

A few days later, at Mishima Taisha (Grand Shrine) I picked up a pamphlet that said something intriguing about the gods. Listen:

"In ancient times people looked at the beauty of nature with admiration and held it in awe and respect. As a result of belief in it and thanks for it, the gods of Japan were formed in the hearts of the ancient Japanese people...."

Oh, my gods! This major religious institution says that the gods were created by people. Blasphemy! Everyone knows that God created people! I'm a Western man! This goes against everything I've been taught.

But wait. Didn't some ancient Greek say, "If triangles had a god, he would have three sides?" And hasn't the question long been asked: "Did God make us in his image, or did we make God in ours?"

So the question has been on the table for quite some time. I guess it's just the matter-of-fact way the pamphlet states it: "So the people made up the gods." Wow.

But look again. It doesn't say "made them up." That's a mental thing. It says they were formed in the people's hearts. There's something that rings true about this.

Your thoughts?


Pretty much home wherever I go

Home (Sept. 19th, 2001)

I've lived in two more countries since I wrote this; at one point I was living and working in China, owned a home in the Philippines where I spent long vacations (and where I now live), and had my stuff at Mom's in L.A. (most of it's here now). So this issue has become more and more complex. I was walking away from the home of a good friend and her family--one who had stayed six weeks at my family home--so there was a little of that feeling mixed in, too, I think.

As Dorothy said, there's no place like it.

By Western reckoning, my birth sign is Cancer. Among the strongest traits of the Cancerian is a love of home. In the Japanese/Chinese zodiac, I'm a sheep--also a homebody.

So what's a home-lover like me doing living in a foreign country? Even more, why did I choose to become homeless for three months? When I sign in to lodging, I have to give my former office address, because I don't live anywhere.

How can this be?

My buddy Eric made a cogent observation once. He told me that even though I've opted for a sort of alternate home (this was before my current homelessness, when I lived in an apartment), I seemed to really crave time alone in that home.

Put another way: whatever situation I have defined my "home" to be, I grow really attached to it.

I accept this observation.

When I was a little kid, pre-school age, my aunt took me to visit my grandmother a day's drive from home. Everyone marveled that I didn't cry to go home. Someone said, though, that it meant I was secure enough about home that I wasn't troubled by being away from it.

Maybe. All I know is that for as long as I can remember, wherever I'm going to sleep that night is "home." And I do love it.

In 1995 I put my things in storage and moved in with actor Robert Urich and his family. (That's another story.) My stuff is still in storage. [2020: Since 2016, it has been here with me in the Philippines. At last.] I lived with the Urichs in Park City, Utah, for half a year, then with my folks, then in a Urich-sponsored apartment in Santa Fe while I worked on a show with Robert. Then back to Mom and Dad's, then to Japan, where my apartments were arranged by Aeon, the language school I worked for here. [2020: Then back to L.A.--mostly with Mom and Dad--then to China for 11+ years. And now settled in the Philippines.]

I haven't signed a housing agreement, or paid rent directly to a landlord, in almost seven years. [2020: Now I own one!] Yet every night, I love to get into my room and shut the door.

Someone said, "Home is where the heart is." I know what they meant, but I think I need to tweak that. For me, home is in my heart. I am fortunate in having a kind of peace when it comes to that sort of thing, evident even when I was a child.

It has its down side, though. I'm often late to appointments, and one reason is that I'm just so happy wherever I am that I hate to leave! On this walk, it's hard to get out of my room in the morning, and just as hard to leave wherever I am and return at night--though once I'm here, I'm ecstatic.

People in America ask me when I'm coming home.

Well folks, I'm home. Wherever I am.


Out in the countryside

The Road (Sept. 20th, 2001)

On this particular day, I walked out of a pretty big city and, crossing a river, found myself in the countryside.

There are some interesting things about this road I'm walking. To sum them all up, I would say that this road has human dimensions.

Here's what I mean.

Going up Hakone, I noticed that sometimes the cars would be switching back and forth while I went straight up, using stairs. At other points, the cars were doing a bee-line while my road meandered. After crossing the Fuji River on my way to Kambara, where the various Tokaidos intertwine, I noticed that often the various roads paid heed to various needs: level for the railway; in a cleared, sometimes elevated right-of-way for the new expressway; and along the hill for my road, the easiest place to walk.

Until recently, the mileage on my road has actually been less than that of the car roads, so we would walk less distance. And the road never climbs unnecessarily. A couple of times I've avoided becoming lost by saying, "Wait a minute. There's no reason for the road to go up here," and casting around 'til I found the correct--level--road.

This human-ness manifests in funny ways. Often the road parallels a larger road, yet the bus line runs on my road. It's as if, despite the "convenience" of the newer road, the old bond between the road and (walking) humans can't be broken.

I have walked superhighway and country lane, hiking path and crosswalk. I have walked on earth, stone, grass, gravel and asphalt. I have climbed stairs, and pushed through brush. I have breathed pine incense and truck exhaust. There is no single defining factor about this road--except its humanness.


The Road goes ever on and on, / Down from the door where it began. / Now far ahead the Road has gone, / And I must follow, if I can... (Tolkien)

What if...? (Oct. 2, 2001)

The end of the first leg of my journey was fast approaching--I hit the end a week later--and my thoughts were already turning to the next leg, and the last. This attitude--that there's usually a way, and if not, SO WHAT??!!--has become a kind of mantra for me.

What if...?

"What if frogs had wings? They wouldn't bump their butts when they hopped."

These and other such phrases are often used to discourage children from saying "What if...?"

But "what if" is one of our most important questions. Our greatest hopes--and fears--are often expressed in sentences beginning "what if."

Today I faced all the negative possibilities I could about this trip. Don't get me wrong: I'm not being pessimistic. But I have to face the facts about myself, my abilities, and the demands of this journey. In a nutshell, I'm just not moving as fast as I expected to.

The Buddhist practice of "seeing things as they are" often leads to thinking about the next step. So here are some of them:

  • What if I don't get to Kyoto on time? (I'm already so late!)

  • What if I can't see everything I want to see in Yamato?

  • What if (gods forbid) I can't finish in time, and have to break off to return to the U.S.? (I have a ticket for December 17th.)

The answer to all of these questions is: "SO WHAT??!!"

I'm having a great time. I'm meeting kindness everywhere. I'm seeing new things every day. I'm producing pages that are bringing pleasure to readers. I have the satisfaction of doing something I've longed dreamed of doing.

The last question--"What if I can't finish?"--was the one that bugged me the most. After all, I had vowed to do it!

But traditionally, there's a way out: the pilgrim vows to finish or die. That doesn't mean he'll finish in one trip. So if I don't finish? Hey, I'll come back and finish next year. If I'm too goal-oriented (gotta walk 800 kilometers today!) I'll miss a lot.

There are two vital and complementary ideas in the Japanese national mindset. One is the idea I hear every day: "Gambatte, kudasai!" It means something like "fight on" or "hang in there." In other words, don't quit. It carries with it a strong sense of encouragement to do your best.

The other idea is "shoganai." It's tough to translate, but would often be used where a North American would shrug and say, "Hey, what can ya do?" It's resignation to things as they are, things that can't be helped.

Taken together, these two ideas mean, "Do your best, but sometimes--due to things beyond your control--you won't succeed. In that case, accept things as they are."

Remember "The Serenity Prayer"?

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

Courage to change the things I can,

And Wisdom to know the difference.

Well, the first line of this prayer sounds uncannily like "shoganai," and the second like "gambatte"!

So I will fight on until the deadline overtakes me, wherever I am. Gambarimasu. Then, with a joyful heart, I will return to Tokyo and Los Angeles. If there are still some temples to finish, I'll nail 'em down next time around. Shoganai.


The grand gateway to Ishiyama-dera, one of the best on the route

Temples (Oct. 7, 2001)

I had thought this would be my last full day on the Tokaido road. As it turned out, there was one more. But the thoughts still work!

If you look at my "Prayed at" along the way (or at the summary table), you'll see a trend. At first--near Tokyo--it was easy to find big-name, five-star temples. Then, out in the country, I started praying at small shrines, roadside shrines, even once in my room.

Tomorrow, all that is going to change. I will hit Ishiyamadera tomorrow, one of my favorite temples. The next day, I'll probably be in Kyoto. Then in rapid succession the Nara area, Asuka, Mt. Koya, and finally Shikoku, where your prayers will be said at each of the 88 temples of the pilgrimage.

Question: where is a prayer more effective, in one's room, or standing in front of the Great Buddha of Nara?

The answer is obvious: prayer is effective depending on the heart of the pray-er, not on where he's standing at the time.

And yet. And yet.

We still go to church. We still visit temples. We still immerse ourselves in awe-inspiring natural beauty.

Why?

Because we are a soul in a body. And that body's sensations and perceptions do affect the heart. The church defines a sacrament as "an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace." Why do we need such signs? Because we are body and soul.

I have been as faithful as possible with your prayers, putting everything I have into them. But there is no doubt that this was easier in inspiring places (by definition). And beginning tomorrow, may become easier still.


On Kyoto's Sanjo-Ohashi Bridge, official end of the Old Tokaido Highway

A Final Letter (from this part of the journey, anyway) (Oct. 9, 2001)

At last, I reached my goal! For the "fanfare," please read this letter I wrote to a girl I met--as you'll see, it was never sent--as a summation of this first leg of my journey, and the last one I completed entirely on foot.

To the College-Aged Girl at the Sanjo-Ohashi Bridge,

You'll never know what you've done for me. It wasn't so much the cash as the kindness.

You couldn't know this, but I had just walked from Tokyo to Kyoto on the Old Tokaido. It took me a month and five days. Some days I walked a little, some days a lot, and some not at all. I walked in the city and the country, on empty Sunday morning sidewalks, through busy train stations and deserted rice fields. I climbed mountain passes and crossed rivers.

And after all this, I was having an easy day, just an hour or so's stroll downhill to the goal.

But for the past hour, something had been bugging me. The basic thought was: what's next? There will be no celebration at the bridge, no news teams or friends to meet me. I'll just snap a couple of photos--as I have so many times--and catch a bus toward Kyoto station.

About 30 meters from the bridge, I had an extraordinary experience. A group of about 30 grade school kids, with 3 or 4 teachers, was coming toward me on the side walk. So I stood aside, as I usually do, getting ready to smile and greet the kids as they alternately freaked out, then smiled at me. The leading teacher passed, and then the first two little boys behind him, with big smiles on their faces--flipped me off! Gave me the finger, blew me the bird.

Wow, I thought. Welcome to Kyoto. Is this my celebration? I'm sure they didn't know what the impact was; the other kids greeted me as usual. But it was a little surreal.

Then, as I reached the cross-street just before the bridge, you and I waited together at the signal. After some not-uncommon brief eye contact, we waited on, then crossed. As my foot hit the bridge--literally, as I stepped onto my goal of 35 days--you said "sumimasen," dug into your purse, and handed me a thousand yen. With a quick request for a prayer, you turned and left as I was still saying "arigatou."

You'll probably never see this. I had no time to give you a card, or my name, or anything. I've heard that this sort of thing happens on Shikoku, but this is Kyoto, a place so thick with temples and religion that I would have thought the people here would be a bit callous about all that. I've received tomatoes along the way, and some monks gave me cash. But no one has just walked up to me and handed me money and walked away!

I cannot express the depth of feeling I experienced then--several hours ago--and am experiencing still. I prayed for you at Toji today, and will continue to.

May you find peace.

May you achieve your dreams.

May the world become a place in which you and your children and their children can live without fear of war.

Bless you. Bless you. Bless you.

James

--------

Well, that's that. I hope I gave you something to reflect on!

Until next time, may you and your loved ones and all sentient beings be well and happy.

Adios, Amigos!


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In the next episode: Let's take a ride with a crazy monk up a Chinese mountain covered with temples: Tian Ma Shan in Fu'an, Fujian.