Sanscrit letter

Echoes of Incense

A Pilgrimage in Japan


Don Weiss

Sanscrit letter

Chapter One, Part One


ShakamuniI stood in front of the statue of Sakyamuni. Around me, incense rose up, curling, drifting. The sticks glowed at the tip, changing to smoke. The smoke rose and disappeared, a fragrant nothing. I stared at the Buddha. I tried to see myself, my true nature. I saw a statue, a piece of wood, a symbol of someone who died a long time ago.

The main hall of the temple was filled with noise and incense. Noise of the traffic on the road outside. People praying. Priests selling prayer books, bells, beads, incense, pilgrim's clothing. . . Pilgrims in white chanting the Heart Sutra, the theme song of the pilgrimage.

It was January 7th. I was in Ryozenji, Spirit Mountain Temple. It is also known as Temple One of the Pilgrimage to the Eighty-Eight Sacred Places of Shikoku. In the following six-and-a-half weeks I walked 1,100 kilometers on the backroads of the island of Shikoku, visiting the temples, reciting the Heart Sutra, photographing the mountains, buildings and people, and searching, searching my mind.

About 100,000 people do the pilgrimage every year, nearly all by bus or car. They begin with a wish for health, wealth, or happiness, for themselves or another. My wish was for understanding. I wanted to know what the pilgrimage meant to other pilgrims, what it could mean to me. My tools were my senses.

Eyes to see the temples and statues, pilgrims and priests, rivers and mountains.
Ears to hear the prayers and sutras in the temples, and the birds singing sweetly in the trees.
Nose to smell the incense and the spiciness of the cedars, the great forests of the mountains of Shikoku.
Tongue to taste the food at the pilgrimage inns and the fruit and chocolate that I ate as I walked along the roads.
Body to feel the heat and cold, the hard roads and muddy trails, the pilgrimage clothes I wore, the walking stick in my hand.
Mind. My mind. Always at the center, to absorb all this, and be absorbed in it.

Ryozenji is both the first and the last temple the pilgrim should visit on Shikoku, for the pilgrimage is a circle. You walk around the island, holding it in your mind as a great mandala, from the first temple to the last. Then you return, back here, to write your name in the book of completion.

My name appears twice in that book, on February 23 and May 5, 1993. In this book, I describe what I saw, felt and did in that time. As I walked, my mind tried to understand what my body saw, heard, smelled, tasted and touched. I invite you to do the same. Let your mind be in my body as I walked the pilgrim's path in winter and again in spring.

I went twice because I wanted to experience the pilgrimage both alone and with another. Priests who walk the pilgrimage go alone, often in winter. They usually walk the route in reverse order, from Temple One to Temple Eighty-Eight and then counterclockwise around the island, 87, 86, 85 . . . and back to Temple One. I wanted this experience so I walked alone, backwards, in winter. Other people usually go in spring or fall and don't travel alone. So in the final days of my marriage, three weeks after I returned from my Winter Walk, I guided my wife Phyllis in a pilgrimage to say good-bye, A Walk Into Spring.

The pilgrimage is done in the memory of the famous priest, Kobo Daishi, who went to China in 804 a.d. and brought back a form of Buddhism closely related to the Buddhism still found in Tibet and among Tibetan exiles. It is known as Shingon Buddhism. Shingon means true word. It refers to the mantras, very short prayers of mystical power, that are one of the means used to turn the mind towards an understanding of its true nature.

Shingon was, for a time, one of the most influential sects in Japan. However, this influence waned. Today only about five percent of Japanese belong to Shingon temples.

But Kobo Daishi's influence was far greater than that of the sect he founded. He is one of the great cultural heroes of Japan. He is famous as a painter, sculptor, civil engineer, educator, calligrapher, and miracle worker. Most of the people who do the pilgrimage belong to other Buddhist sects, but all love Kobo Daishi.

Kobo Daishi walks with each pilgrim. You hold him in your heart and in your hand. In your heart, because that is where any true teacher and guide must live, to lead you on the true path. In your hand, because the pilgrim's staff is said to be Kobo Daishi. The motto of the pilgrimage is Do Go Ni Nin, Two Traveling Together.

Phyllis drove me to Ryozenji, then returned to our house, 15 kilometers away. As she got in the car, I said, "Keep warm." She laughed.

"That's for you to do. I'll be warm, at home. Good luck."

Don Weiss at the startAt one time, such a long separation would have been impossible for us. Once we were the closest of married couples. Now, after more than 20 years together, we were almost ready to end our marriage. And so I set off to walk for six weeks, alone, in winter.

As I left Ryozenji, I looked back at the old wooden gateway. On either side, three-meter-tall statues of the two guardian kings, the Ni-O, stood behind wooden railings. The proper henro, as the Shikoku pilgrim is called (when speaking Japanese, people always say, politely, o-henro-san), bows to the Ni-O both on arrival and on departure from a pilgrimage temple. I had my own personal salute. I pointed a finger at each statue and said, "Yo!" It's not really a word, but the sound carries the message, "Hello" or "Good-bye" or "I am here. " Then I put on my pack and left.

It was about four degrees Celsius, but I was dressed warmly, like for cross country skiing. My walking stick, my guide, Kobo Daishi, clacked on the pavement. My boots felt stiff and solid as they thumped in time with my stick Thump-Thump-ThumpThumpClack. I wore nylon athletic pants over polypropelene long johns and a polypropylene top and hooded nylon sweatshirt under my loose, white cotton henro shirt. The rubbing of all that polypropelene felt like a strange, soft percussion instrument, something for a drummer playing in a blues band. My body kept time with the Thumps and the Clacks.

Walking in the cold, my body warm, is a simple pleasure. Cold air touches my cheeks, warm cloth embraces me. Mouth closed against the air, I am in but not of the place. The air connects us, the umbilical chord between me and the world.

Almost immediately, I met two men dressed like me in traditional henro clothes, a baggy white shirt with short, loose sleeves, a bowl-shaped straw hat, and a thin stole with the name of the temple where they started the pilgrimage embroidered in gold thread. Like me, they each carried a kongo-tsue, a Vajra Walking Stick, the symbol of Kobo Daishi. Even henro who go by bicycle or motorbike usually carry a kongo-tsue in a little umbrella holder. Bus henro always have them. Because the kongo-tsue symbolizes Kobo Daishi, it is treated with respect. When you arrive at your inn each night, you are supposed to wash off the bottom of the kongo-tsue as if you were washing the Daishi's feet. Then it is placed either in a special basket or, more often, in the tokonoma of your room, with the flower arrangement and scroll found there.

The two men sat on a bench in front of a tiny store, sipping hot coffee from cans. I bought some hot tea from the vending machine next to the bench and joined them.

One man was 45, a year older than I. The other was about half our age. We spoke briefly, the usual questions, Where are you from? Are you walking the whole pilgrimage? How old are you? My Japanese was not very good, although I had lived on Shikoku for two years, but these questions were so common that some people thought I was fluent. I left before they had a chance to ask anything else and find out the truth.

AmidaI soon reached Temple Two, Gokurakuji, The Temple of the Pure Land. This temple is surrounded on three sides by small hills. The smallest, on the east side, is said to be artificial. According to a local legend, Kobo Daishi carved the Honzon, the principal statue of the Hon-do, the main hall of the temple. It is a statue of Amida, The Buddha of Boundless Light. According to the story, the statue shone brightly, scaring the fish in the ocean 15 kilometers away. So some fishermen built the little hill to protect their livelihood from this excess of holy light. Another name for the temple is Sun Light Mountain.

In front of the Hon-do is a wonderful garden. Trees, bushes and rocks are shaped into low, rounded forms like spreading sand dunes. The artists who created the garden used these things to make a living poem. The eye and mind go from rock to bush to path, becoming a part of the poem. Sometimes the rocks, not the bushes, seem to be growing. Sometimes, in different light, the rocks, bushes and walkways are all just there.

AmidaThe garden looks best in soft light. The first time I was there, ten years before, it was raining. I think I prefer it that way. When rain falls on the garden, the different sounds it makes on rocks, leaves and gravel blend like the flowers, leaves and vase of a fine flower arrangement. Each is itself, but all together are something more.

From Temple Two, the henro path followed the old main road along the northern edge of the Yoshino River Valley. To the south, Highway 12 cut across fields that in summer were flooded to grow lotus root. Now the fields were mud flats, dark and fragrant. The scent of earth surrounded me as the incense had in the temple.

Along the road, houses stood closely together. Most had heavy, silver-gray tile roofs. Many were new, but here and there an old house curved into a shape that reminded me of the bent old women who walked down the street, heading for the neighborhood stores.

Eight and a half kilometers of walking brought me to Temple Three and then to Temple Four, Dainichiji. It is named for Dainichi Nyorai, the principal Buddha in Shingon Buddhism. Dainichi symbolizes the ultimate nature of Reality.

Cherry BlossomsI lived nearby, so I've visited Dainichiji at all times of day, in all seasons. It's always peaceful. Small birds always sing from high in the trees that lean out over the buildings. One spring day when cherry trees filled the courtyard with silver light, I sat there for an hour, just listening. I could hear the sweet sound of birds and the breeze singing with the leaves. But the loudest sound was the quiet bubbling of water in a fountain 20 meters away.

Like most of the pilgrimage temples, Dainichiji was founded over a thousand years ago, but it has been destroyed and rebuilt many times. It was last rebuilt in the 17th century so the two remaining halls of worship look old and tired. In fact, that is one of the reasons I like this place so much. The trees grow over the buildings like the bushes and rocks in the garden at Gokurakuji. They seem to be silently saying the Heart Sutra.

There is a standard routine for henro at the temples; wash hands, rinse mouth, bow, pray, sing, light incense, ring bells. But the heart of this, the heart of the pilgrimage, is the Heart Sutra, in Sanskrit, Maha Prajna Paramita Hridaya Suttram, in Japanese, Hannya Shingyo. It is chanted at least twice at each temple, once at the hall dedicated to the Honzon and once at the hall dedicated to Kobo Daishi. The Heart Sutra is also written on the pilgrim's walking stick. In addition, some henro copy the sutra every night and put this calligraphy in special boxes at each temple, though I didn't do this. It's one of the shortest sutras.

Avalokitesvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, doing deep prajna paramita, clearly saw that the five skandas are sunyata, thus transcending misfortune and suffering.
"O, Sariputra, form is no other than sunyata, sunyata is no other than form. Form is exactly sunyata, sunyata is exactly form. Feeling, thought, volition and consciousness are likewise like this.
"O, Sariputra, remember, Dharma is fundamentally sunyata, no birth, no death. Nothing is defiled, nothing is pure. Nothing can increase, nothing can decrease. Hence, in sunyata, no form, no feeling, no thought, no volition, no consciousness. No eyes, no ears, no nose, no tongue, no body, no mind. No seeing, no hearing, no smelling, no tasting, no touching, no thinking. No world of sight, no world of consciousness. No ignorance, and no end to ignorance. No old age and death and no end to old age and death. No suffering, no craving, no extinction, no path, no wisdom, no attainment. Indeed, there is nothing to be obtained. The Bodhisattva relies on prajna paramita with no hindrance in the mind. No hindrance, therefore no fear. Far beyond upside down views, at last nirvana. Past, present and future, all Buddhas, Bodhisattvas rely on prajna paramita and therefore reach the most supreme enlightenment.
"Therefore know, prajna paramita is the greatest dharani, the brightest dharani, the highest dharani, the incomparable dharani. It completely clears all suffering. This is the truth, not a lie.
"So set forth the prajna paramita dharani. Set forth this dharani and say:
"Gate Gate Paragate Parasamgate Bodhi Svaha."

In this English translation, some words are left in Sanskrit. The most important word is sunyata. It is usually translated void. Hundreds of books have been written about sunyata, but all of these books put together teach less than walking the pilgrimage day after day or sitting in meditation every morning. The intellect cannot grasp this idea. But to the heart, it is simple.

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Published by Don Weiss ( -- All rights reserved. You may read this electronic copy on the web or print it out for private reading but no part may be sold or included in any work for sale except for short excerpts used for review purposes.All photographs and maps are likewise copyrighted and may not be reproduced without permission except for private, non-commercial use. Updated May 11, 1999.