Our President walked the legendary Shikoku Pilgrimage in Japan this summer. He tells us why he went, what it’s like to walk 370 km, and what he learned about himself along the way.
What was your reason for making this pilgrimage, and what challenges did you encounter?
I didn’t go into this pilgrimage with a specific agenda. Instead, I decided to let the journey reveal itself to me. I wanted to be open to its lessons, whatever those would be. There were many challenges. For one, there was physical pain. I walked many hours each day in 44C heat with high humidity, and suffered blisters and severe heat rash. The pilgrimage also requires you to be alone most of the time. The result is deep self-reflection, which isn’t always an easy thing.
What is the Shikoku Pilgrimage, exactly?
It’s a 1,200 km pilgrimage through 88 Buddhist temples on the island of Shikoku. I visited 40 temples. I wanted to experience it the original way as much as possible, so the only transport I used was a train to travel from the south to the north of the island.
Like all the pilgrims who walk, I had a pack, a special hat, and a staff that is much more than a walking stick: it is meant to represent Kobo Daishi, the first monk to make this pilgrimage, and the Japanese word for this stick actually translates into “two people walking.” When you stop at an inn for the night, the innkeeper washes the staff as they would wash Kobo Daishi’s feet, and each room has a beautiful receptacle meant only for the staff.
What did you reflect upon as you walked?
I thought about the way I am in the world, how and why I behave as I do, and how I treat other people. I asked myself if I was the best version of myself that I can be. I hope that I always treat people with kindness and respect, but I was faced with the possibility that I can do better. I discovered that we all too easily forget the most important things: to be in service to a cause greater than ourselves and to approach others with generosity. In the silence and solitude, I was also able to see the compartments of my life. It’s easy to think that our tasks and everyday activities are equivalent to our souls, but there is a “me” that is not just about those things. Recognizing that can help you do those tasks better because it helps you approach them with a little bit of distance and perspective.
Did you have any especially meaningful moments that you can share with us?
My journey was filled with remarkable encounters and experiences. In Japanese, Shikoku pilgrims are called Henro, and it is customary to offer them gifts, which are called Seitti. One day, I saw a small boy running toward me, calling out “Ohenro! Oseitti!” The “o” is an honorific that adds formality to the word. His Oseitti to me was a frozen, wonderfully cold bottle of tea. Another man, an innkeeper who housed me for the night, paid for us both to get haircuts. A Caucasian man familiar with the custom gave me 700 Yen, and we were surprised to discover that we were both Canadian.
I also passed by an area that had been hit by terrible landslides that left many people dead. I was willing to end my pilgrimage to help, but they were still in the process of determining how help should be organized. I walked on, and yet it was a stark reminder of the harsh struggles so many human beings face.
Tradition tells us we will encounter Kobo Daishi on the Shikoku Pilgrimage. There was a moment during my journey when I was walking through a grove of trees in a mountain, and a deep and powerful wind suddenly arose. I stood there, just me, the trees, the mountain and the wind, and became intensely aware of a presence I can only describe as divine.
This sounds like an incredible journey. Do you think you will do it again one day?
That is my hope. Maybe next time I will see the remaining 48 temples. And maybe my self-reflection will lead to new and different insights.