The Way of the 88 Temples

Published Sept. 24, 2013

Compelled to seek something more than what modern society has to offer, Robert Sibley turned to an ancient setting for help in recovering what has been lost. The Henro Michi is one of the oldest and most famous pilgrimage routes in Japan. It consists of a circuit of eighty-eight temples around the perimeter of Shikoku, the smallest of Japan's four main islands. Every henro, or pilgrim, is said to follow in the footsteps of Kōbō Daishi, the ninth-century ascetic who founded the Shingon sect of Buddhism. Over the course of two months, the author walked this 1,400-kilometer route (roughly 870 miles), visiting the sacred sites and performing their prescribed rituals.Although himself a gaijin, or foreigner, Sibley saw no other pilgrim on the trail who was not Japanese. Some of the people he met became not only close companions but also ardent teachers of the language and culture. These fellow pilgrims’ own stories add to the author’s narrative in unexpected and powerful ways. Sibley’s descriptions of the natural surroundings, the customs and etiquette, the temples and guesthouses will inspire any reader who has longed to escape the confines of everyday life and to embrace the emotional, psychological, and spiritual dimensions of a pilgrimage.

An excerpt from The Way of the 88 Temples

Published by the University of Virginia Press.

I wanted to walk alone through the cathedral-like silence of the forest. About two kilometers below the temple, I turned off the asphalt road to follow a path that I thought would lead me back to the city of Komatsu by a less-traveled route. But I didn’t pay attention to where I was going and ended up somewhere on the side of the mountain, wandering through a criss-cross maze of logging trails and farmers’ tracks.


An hour later I was sitting on a half-rotten log at the edge of a trail, studying my map to figure out where I was. I looked at my watch: 1:44 p.m. I had plenty of daylight left, lots of time to get off the mountain before nightfall. Not to worry.


The map showed two pilgrim trails leading from Komatsu to the temple of Yokomineji but not the logging trails or the farmers’ tracks. I retraced on the map my last hour’s walk, locating the fork in the trail that I’d taken after leaving the road. I figured I had two choices: retrace my steps back to that fork and return to the highway, or go on. The prospect of climbing the mountain again had no appeal. I decided to stick with whatever trail I was on, figuring that sooner or later it would reach the valley floor where, presumably, I’d find either the pilgrim route or a road back to Komatsu.


On the basis of such vague reasoning, I ended up having some of the most memorable hours of my entire pilgrimage. I might have been lost in the geographic sense, but I was also lost to the senses. After nearly seven weeks of walking, I perceived the world in a different way. Psychologically, my sense of time had shifted as the pace of walking literally forced my mind to slow down. The landscape of cedar forest and distant vistas, the downpour of sun and rain, the shower of birdsong and prayer--instead of work, traffic, bills, television, and radio--had cast a spell of enchantment. I now attended to more important things: sunlight in the trees, flowers in a ditch, birds in the bush.


So it was on this day, too. I was absorbed by mountain air pungent with damp cedar; trails edged with blue wisteria, azaleas in pink, yellow, and red, along with purple iris; slabs of sunlight falling through gaps in the trees; the shuffling sound of my feet on leaf-strewn paths; nightingales singing hō-hokekyo, hō-hokekyo. And then there was the enchantment of the inner voyage. I seemed to float above myself, watching as my body did the hard work of climbing up a slope or scrambling over rocks while my mind wandered on its own. Images from the past weeks replayed in my head: the green glow of a sunlit river; black-bellied clouds far out to sea; a parade of low-lying clouds floating through a mountain valley; a village street silent except for the rain gurgling in the gutters.


My mind was a pilgrim mind now. There were even moments in the silence of the forest when I was willing to believe, as Buddhist tradition claims, that I was never alone, that Bashō and Jizō and Kōbō Daishi were my constant companions, walking nearby but just beyond my field of vision.


As it turned out, it was Jizō, the bald-headed deity who keeps an eye on children, the souls of the dead, and, as it seemed, inattentive travelers, who restored me to the proper path. I’d been following a farmer’s trail that consisted of two rutted tracks and a line of grass running down the center. High grass and bush edged the trail, and a wall of trees loomed overhead. I didn’t know where I was, only that I was heading north and would presumably reach civilization sooner or later. Rounding a corner, I came to an intersection with three trails leading off in different directions. I squatted in the middle of the crossroads, looking up one path and then another. I had no idea which one to follow. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I caught a flash of color. There, at the edge of a track, poking above the grass and drooping weeds like a child playing peek-a-boo, was a small statue of my pilgrim hero, Jizō. Bless his tiny red toque.


Always follow the Jizō, I told myself. Where there is one Jizō, there will be more. I wanted to prance down the trail, singing, “Jizō loves me, this I know, because the Buddha tells me so.” I straightened Jizō’s toque and splashed him with generous dollops of water from my bottle. Two hundred meters down the track, I came to another Jizō and another intersection. This one turned onto a two-lane asphalt road with a beautiful yellow stripe down the middle. I splashed more water on Jizō by way of thanks.


But the little deity wasn’t done with me yet. The road dropped steeply around a sharp turn. Trotting down the hill, I saw below me on the right side of the road, through a gap in the treetops, the roof of a temple set in a narrow gorge. I could hear a waterfall. At the bottom of the hill I found a small gravel parking lot and a pathway that disappeared into a grove of cedars. I looked at my watch. It was nearly 3:30 p.m. I hesitated to stop, uncertain how far I was from Komatsu. But instinct--Jizō demanding his due?--told me not to pass this temple without offering a prayer. It doesn’t pay to ignore the gods, especially when they’ve been good to you. I crunched across the gravel and through another tunnel of trees and found one of the strangest and loveliest places on the Henro Michi, a place that, as it turned out, provided me with one of my most meaningful pilgrimage experiences.

The Kōōnji okunoin, as I later learned, is a bangai, an unnumbered temple that isn’t counted among the eighty-eight temples that make up the formal Shikoku pilgrimage circuit, although it is officially attached to Kōōnji, Temple Sixty-One. Okunoin means “inner sanctuary,” and, in the case of this bangai, Buddhist ascetics use it to perform some form of suigyō, a meditative technique that involves standing under waterfalls, immersing yourself in icy water, or dousing yourself with buckets of freezing water as a form of spiritual discipline. The discipline, which has various names in Japanese and has a long tradition, reflects the belief that rigorous physical exertion is a means to greater spiritual awareness. The essential idea is to push the body to its limits in order to break down the barriers of reason and logic and interrupt the incessant chatter of everyday consciousness. The idea, as I’d read, is “to achieve the ‘dropping off of body and mind.’


I had no such expectations as I followed the footpath toward the shōrō and rang the bell to announce my presence. Next to the bell tower was a wooden building. The door was unlocked, and I peeked inside. Rows of benches were set against the walls and ran the length of the building on each side. Lines of plastic flip-flops were lined up in neat formation on the slat floor in front of the benches. It looked like a gym teacher’s dream of a high school locker room, only much cleaner and better smelling.


Beyond the tower was a small courtyard. High cliffs enclosed the compound. A gurgling creek ran through the courtyard on the right. Benches, statuary, incense urns, and candleholders were set against the sheer rock face on the left. At the far end of the courtyard was a waterfall guarded by three statues, green with age. Two were set in alcoves on each side of the waterfall, and the third, larger one stood on a cairn of rock at the top of the falls.


The place was empty and silent save for the cascade of water falling into a pool. The cedars on the cliffs formed a canopy overhead, filtering the sunlight to give the courtyard a green glow. Shafts of late afternoon sun fell in a sharp slant through gaps in the trees to create pools of light on the ground. Mist rose above the creek, floating in the cool air like a batch of newly minted souls. I wondered if I’d stumbled into a secret retreat where kami and bodhisattvas took their breaks after tending to all those beseeching humans.


I sat on a bench against the cliff face to listen to the waterfall and to absorb the peacefulness. The sound of the water was hypnotic. After a while I strolled across the courtyard to the pool to study the statues. I recognized the one at the top of the waterfall as Fudō Myōō, the fierce-faced protector of the Buddhist faith. Below him, beside the pool, were his child servants, Kongara and Seitaka. A line of stepping-stones stretched across the pool from the edge of the courtyard to a flat rock shelf under the waterfall directly beneath Fudō Myōō.


According to legend, Fudō Myōō appeared to a ninth-century priest named So-o, a Grand Patriarch of the Tendai sect of Buddhism, as he stood under a waterfall. The shock inspired the priest to establish Tendai Buddhism’s main temple on Mount Hiei, near Kyoto, and to begin an ascetic discipline known as kaihōgyō--the practice of circling the mountain--in which practitioners try to transform themselves into the living embodiment of Fudō Myōō. The discipline of kaihōgyō symbolizes the monk’s willingness to withdraw from the community of the living and to recast himself as a wanderer in the land of the dead. After years of initiation, a would-be Tendai monk is required to complete the hyaku-nichi, a practice in which monks walk forty kilometers a day for one hundred consecutive days, repeatedly circling Mount Hiei.

They sleep maybe two hours a day and eat little more than a couple of rice balls and a bowl of soup. With only straw sandals on their feet even in winter, the monks walk the mountain’s rough trails, enduring blisters, frostbite, and fever. The point is to die to this world and become a living embodiment of the divine.


The hundred-day practice is nonetheless basic training. There are more rigorous seven-hundred-day and thousand-day practices. Not everyone makes it. Mount Hiei’s trails are dotted with the grave markers of monks who died during their training. Those who do make it, however, apparently acquire amazing perceptual powers. I’d read about Gyosho Uehara, a senior monk at Mount Hiei Temple--and one of only fifty or so monks who have successfully completed the thousand-day kaihōgyō in the last four centuries--who claimed that some monks could hear the sound of ash falling off incense sticks.


Standing in the courtyard at the Kōōnji okunoin, staring at Fudō Myōō, I envied those Tendai priests their self-discipline. What kind of mental strength did it take to go beyond physical limits? Compared to them I was a spiritual dilettante. Beyond the walking, I hadn’t imposed many austerities on myself. If pilgrimage involves self-discipline and functions as a symbolic act of death, I’d chosen to party. I’d taken advantage of vending machines and convenience stores to indulge in bottles of Pocari Sweat and cans of Georgia Café au Lait. I’d gorged on sashimi and udon. I loved my end-of-the-day o-furo and fresh-smelling yukata, not to mention the beer and shōchū. True, so did everyone else, but that’s hardly an excuse. Was I on a religious pilgrimage or a gastronomic holiday? Isn’t a pilgrim supposed to die a little?


My self-induced--self-indulgent?--guilt might explain what I did next. Hustling to the bathhouse, I stripped off my shoes and clothes, stuffed my watch in a pocket, donned a pair of the too-small blue flip-flops, and toddled back across the courtyard clad in a small white towel. I stepped gingerly on the stone path across the pool, trying not to lose the flip-flops in the water. I slipped only once, but Kōbō Daishi--my walking stick, that is--saved me from an embarrassing plunge.


There’s probably a technique for stepping into an ice-cold waterfall, but I didn’t know what it was. As I stepped forward on the flat rock under the water, I could hear my doctor back home saying, “You idiot, you’ll give yourself a heart attack.”


There was no heart seizure, but I certainly got a shock. The icy water drilling into the top of my head and shoulders not only stripped the towel away but also ripped the breath out of my lungs. I lasted all of a nanosecond before I leapt out, gasping and shrieking. Of course I couldn’t accept such humiliation. I gritted my teeth and plunged under the waterfall again. This time I tried chanting the Heart Sutra, getting in as many “gyate, gyate, hara gyate” as I could before stepping out, shaking and shuddering. I tried a third time, stretching out the chants for as long as possible, clenching my teeth and willing my body to stillness. This time I stayed in the icy shower chanting away until my shoulders and head felt numb. I stepped away when I could no longer catch my breath and everything started to go dark before my eyes.


Fudō Myōō didn’t reward my meager effort at asceticism with his presence. The only witness to my effort at spiritual discipline was a jeering nightingale. I made my way back across the courtyard to the bathhouse, towel in hand, wincing at the sharp gravel on my bare feet after my flip-flops had flown off and into the pool. There was no way I was going to retrieve them. I was shivering and shaking like a wind-blown scarecrow on a winter field. I used three towels to scrub myself dry and restore my circulation before I dressed. I folded the wet towels and hung them on a rack to dry and then left two 1,000-yen notes to pay for my trespassing and for losing the flip-flops.


I felt lightheaded and unsteady as I walked back across the courtyard. At the same time, I was exhilarated. I sat on a bench near the candle stand again, waiting for the wooziness and the occasional shiver to pass. In terms of spiritual conditioning, I was seriously out of shape.

I checked my watch. It was just after 5:30 p.m. The sky had turned overcast. Without the sun filtering through the treetops, the courtyard took on a twilight luminescence, as if the light were rising from the earth instead of falling from the sky. The maples and cedars on the cliffs lost their distinctiveness in the absence of light, blurring into a solid gray-green canopy. Yet I remained, waiting and listening to the waterfall and the faint stir of the trees. As I waited, the sound of the waterfall seemed to fade into the background. And slowly, through some alchemy of solitude, silence, and the day’s exertions, stillness settled on me. The world fell away, and the memory of an all-but-forgotten incident from my childhood took over my mind: the day I fell off a playground swing and knocked myself out. The image surfaced like an iceberg emerging from the water.


I was eight or nine years old again, at a playground in northwest Calgary, with a neighborhood girl, Carol Papworth. We were standing on separate swings, pumping with our legs to see how high we could go. Carol’s blonde hair flew like a flag. The swing’s metal links screeched and groaned as we sailed back and forth. The rush of wind pulled at my clothes as the swing plunged downward. I bent my legs to push myself higher. As the swing reached its apogee, I felt a mix of fear and thrill as I leaned back, legs stiff and straight, arms rigid and pulling on the metal links, to enjoy the fall backwards and the momentary weightlessness. But that day, either my grip wasn’t strong enough or my foot slipped on the seat, and I fell.


I have no memory of hitting the ground. So I can only assume that I lost consciousness for a few moments, because the next thing I remember was looking up at Carol bending over me, her eyes wide and scared. It was odd, though, because I wasn’t seeing her from the perspective of where I lay on the ground. Simultaneously I was looking down on the scene as if I were floating above it. I heard the metal-on-metal squeak of the swaying swings, sensed the grit of sand in my hands and the ground against my back, and felt my chest clawing for air. But I also saw myself, from above, lying on the earth. In that bifurcation I knew a moment of sheer terror: the separation of the boy on the ground from the boy overhead.


My psychic split lasted a couple of seconds at most, but staring at Fudō Myōō, I again felt something similar to that childhood sense of dislocation--as if, like a kite lost to an unexpected tug of wind, I might drift away, never to return. I could remember the relief that flooded me when the floating boy and the boy on the ground slammed together again like a pair of clapped hands. I was back in my body, whooping for air. I experienced nothing so intense at this okunoin, but for a moment, with my eyes locked on the deity gazing back at me, I was close to that bifurcated boy and felt the strangeness of my existence, aware that my connection to the world was tenuous and temporary.


Japanese Zen practitioners describe the point in meditation when a practitioner can experience hallucinations, resurgent memories, or other unusual mental phenomena--anything from talking statues and marching Buddhas to ghostly apparitions and feelings of disembodiment--as makyō. According to Zen teachings, the experience of makyō indicates the emergence of the mind’s subconscious elements. Makyō is not enlightenment, but it’s generally a good sign because it suggests that the hard effort of zazen, or sitting meditation, has finally broken the mind of its obsession with logical argument and instrumental reason. But makyō can also produce psychosis--Zen madness--if a master teacher doesn’t properly direct it.


Had nearly two months of walking up and down mountains, reciting the sutra, and occasionally sitting zazen in my room at night driven me around the bend? My periodic chats with Jizō or bathing with Fudō Myōō might suggest a suspension of normal behavior. On the other hand, I couldn’t deny the tide of peacefulness that had washed over me in recent days, the sense that I had received balm for the soul. The restoration of an all-but-forgotten childhood experience was another enchantment. But then, as I thought about it, it seemed to me that my entire pilgrimage had taken on an aura of enchantment. When I began it, I’d assumed it would be an adventure in cultural exoticism. That was no longer the case. A combination of time, geography, and circumstance had produced a much different journey along with experiences I couldn’t have imagined at the beginning.

The Henro Michi is one of the oldest and most famous pilgrimage routes in Japan. It consists of a circuit of eighty-eight temples around the perimeter of Shikoku, the smallest of Japan's four main islands. Every henro, or pilgrim, is said to follow in the footsteps of Kōbō Daishi, the ninth-century ascetic who founded the Shingon sect of Buddhism. Over the course of two months, Citizen senior writer Robert Sibley walked this 1,400-kilometer route, visiting the sacred sites, walking with Japanese companions, absorbing their lessons on Japan’s culture, traditions and religions. Here, in this excerpt from his new book, The Way of the 88 Temples, which will be available online and in book stores beginning Aug. 14, we catch up with him in the latter weeks of his trek when he gets lost on a mountainside, and, to his happy surprise, finds something he couldn’t have imagined at the beginning of the journey.