Kate Grant sets out to renew the tradition of the pilgrim
Late last year, when the news came that Sangharakshita was seriously ill, my mind went straight to my last meeting with him. I had seen him eighteen months earlier, at the end of a 200-mile journey on foot from the library where he borrowed books as a boy in Tooting to his new home – and library – at Adhisthana.
The journey had lasted seventeen days, spread over nine months, each stretch picking up where the last had left off. In London, it took in Monmouth Street and Archway, where groups that would become the Triratna Buddhist Community first met, and Watkins Esoteric Bookshop, where the teenage Sangharakshita hung out, before joining the Thames Path and heading west. Having reached Oxford, I set off across the Cotswolds, the Vale of Evesham and finally the Malvern Ridge. I arrived at Adhisthana not knowing whether Sangharakshita would be well enough to meet me or not.
I got lucky and the following day, as I sat with Sangharakshita in his conservatory, he told me how as a young man he had walked across India barefoot, sleeping at railway stations, being given food without asking by people who easily recognised him as a spiritual traveller. He asked if people had recognised me as a pilgrim too. In fact I had mostly found people surprised to meet a woman walking such an inexplicably long way, often alone and on a bizarre route, and I didn’t explain my rather esoteric mission any further.
Of course, I did have my reasons. I was recovering from cancer treatment, and had been reading Sangharakshita’s childhood memoir, Learning to Walk. My heart went out to this little boy who had been kept immobile for two years in the mistaken belief that any level of exertion could cause his heart to fail. I could not imagine how a child had tolerated such confinement; apparently a stream of books from Tooting Public Library were his lifeline to sanity and the world. My physical restrictions were minor next to his, and as I read, I felt connected with suffering as a common human experience.
I had long been interested in making a pilgrimage, having read the pilgrimage classics John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress and Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Chaucer portrays pilgrimage as a commonplace activity in mediaeval society, one so outward and communal as to have an almost festive atmosphere. Despite this, the main purpose of pilgrimage was to seek divine help or as penance for sins. Bunyan had been imprisoned for preaching a newly emerging Christian non-conformism at a time when religious gatherings outside an Anglican Church were illegal. By the time he was writing from his seventeenth-century prison cell, his pilgrimage was an allegory, ‘delivered under the similitude of a dream’, as he put it. It represents the profound personal change of an inner journey, his pilgrim often needing to break with conformity and set off alone. European pilgrimage routes still exist, but I wanted to find a new destination to reflect new spiritual traditions.
Mydiagnosis had brought with it a visceral sense of my own fragility and how we all in fact face a precarious future. At times this realisation came with a flood of fear, at other times it made the simple wonder of the present moment shine. As time elapsed I became more aware of the inner journey that unfolds at times of deep uncertainty and I had the urge to give material form to this. The aim would be to cultivate a larger perspective, a deliberate merging of inner and outer change.
This spirit of pilgrimage was really put to the test on the day I crossed the Chilterns with a friend. We ran into a storm which flooded the local roads. Our clothes did not withstand the three-hour deluge, and tired, cold, sodden and unable to see much in front of us, it really sank in that the pilgrimage was not about having fair weather or beautiful views, or being comfortable. Instead it was about something bigger, which did not exclude any particular experience.
I noticed that there would be a change in mood following a day’s walk, a slight but familiar impatience which crept in as soon as I was no longer ‘on pilgrimage’. I found myself wishing the train would come quicker, wanting a good curry house to appear, trying to close my ears against noisy fellow passengers. These were fractious mental states compared with those of the day’s walk, and I wondered if I could approach the whole of life as a pilgrim.
Having said this, most days of walking were fine and punctuated by glorious views and wild swimming and fleeting encounters with wildlife. I did get lost a lot once off the Thames Path, and needed to abandon some of my come-what-may-ness in favour of an OS map. To my utter surprise I was met by a welcome party at Adhisthana and hailed as the first pilgrim, perhaps the first of many, to arrive there on foot.
Looking back over the eighteen months since I completed the pilgrimage, I can see that there have been subtle changes in my approach to life. I suspect life’s journey through sickness and health have been at the bottom of this change, but made plainer by the deliberate act of a walking pilgrimage. I have noticed a little less concern with who I am and what my prospects are, leading to a slightly more relaxed attitude, a slightly greater sense of flow and confidence.
I’ve found myself wondering about Sangharakshita’s childhood illness and his direction in life, and about his recent experience of the fragility of existence. As a boy, once Sangharakshita’s supposed childhood heart condition had finally been debunked, he attempted to walk again, but his muscles were wasted and the process of growing stronger was slow and difficult. My own body had been weakened by my treatment, too, and it had been upon reading Sangharakshita’s memories of his own convalescence that walking became for me a metaphor for wellness. As I regained my strength, longer and longer walks became possible, and I began to walk out of gratitude for my life. I wonder how he’s getting on with walking this time around – inner and outer? ■