In the footsteps of Master Kukai

Aryapala on pilgrimage in Japan

Life is short


Aryapala wearing the Henro’s (pilgrims’) iconic white tunic as a shroud, staff as a gravestone, hat as a coffin and Kesa as a robe. Pilgrimage is a very important and effective
practice in Buddhism, it prepares you for death
– literal and spiritual.

Shikoku Island’s roads and mountain passes are littered with a thousand years of pilgrims’ unmarked graves and shrines to Buddhist saints, full of miraculous powers.

Have you not seen, O have you not seen,

This has been man’s fate, how can you alone live forever?

Having stumbled across the Shikoku Henro, one of several important Buddhist pilgrimages in Japan, I at once knew I would walk it; especially as Master Kūkai inspired it: the 8th century Japanese esoteric Buddhist Master.

Circling the island, one visits 88 temples, walking 744 miles (roughly 1200km) over breathtaking mountain passes, following rivers and coastal roads; temple stamps and calligraphy in a book is ones only proof of making it, if, make it you do.


Pilgrimage is difficult. In preparation, you’re building up spiritual momentum. You need it to keep perspective in times of dismay. Like any Buddhist practice, preparation is half the practice. Worship and offerings, confession and rejoicing, mantra recitation and sutra readings; listening to Dharma talks on freebuddhistaudio.com were among many of the preliminaries I undertook to prepare for this gruelling walk.


Completely alien culturally Japan, outside all the usual familiar references; I wasn’t able to communicate apart from a few sentences and had to adapt fast to: different styles of Buddhist practice and worship; eating out of convenience stores, sleeping rough; trying not to get lost in the woods; nude public bathing; remembering to take shoes off to go inside; chopsticks; eating rice for breakfast, lunch and dinner; needing an instruction manual to work a normal toilet – all ‘eye-openers’ for me.

Difficulty is the food of Buddhists; pilgrimage on an unknown rural island is therefore a banquet! It’s a natural reflex, not a bad thing, to habitually cuss about the situation. We reckon X is the best thing to do under the circumstances.

Karma means action and karma-vipaka, fruits of action. Pilgrimage helped deepen my appreciation of karma: that you don’t abandon the Great Work because you got a blister, someone looked at you funny or your feet wake you up at night screaming, every night for two months. You can’t expect to be met by the Great Bliss of Liberation if you can’t even see your habitual shabby actions having consequences.

Discard pride in earthly gains;

Do not be scorched in the burning house, the triple world!

Discipline in the woods alone lets us soon enter the eternal Realm

Imagination & Devotion

Pilgrimage brings perspective and engages the imagination with body, speech and mind. Tibetans prostrate from Tibet to Bodh Gaya India; the vast majority of Japanese take a coach package-deal; when in London I visit the LBC, walk to Watkins Books & No. 14 Monmouth Street where fundamental activities & insights for our movement began through Urgyen Sangharakshita.

Along the way you come to reflect that you are participating in a devotional practice of sorts. The Imagination is a doorway between everyday observations and the world of archetypes.

Japan is steeped in Buddhism: surrounded by images and cultural pursuits pointing to higher aspirations. Even at a basic cultural level, people can intuit something more. The gods are alive and changing natural elements; beautiful and terrible are everywhere.

 You ask me why I entered the mountain deep and cold,

Awesome, surrounded by steep peaks and grotesque rocks,

A place that is painful to climb and difficult to descend,

Wherein reside the gods of the mountain and the spirits of trees

You enter something much bigger than yourself when on pilgrimage. A myth. In the sense you are the archetypal devotee; performing, enacting, living out ones love for what’s deeply satisfying and holds ultimate meaning for you.

Kūkai performed austerities on mountains and lived in caves where he attained Enlightenment. I find this deeply inspiring as, he himself says:

I have never tired of watching the pine trees and the rocks at Mount Kōya;

The limpid stream of the mountain is the source of my inexhaustible joy


The culture of osettai is unique to Shikoku. When locals and friends along the pilgrimage give you gifts, such as food, this is called osettai.  Japanese and non-Japanese alike are surprised and deeply moved when they receive osettai while walking the pilgrimage.

Because osettai is seen as having a religious value, it is believed that a pilgrim cannot refuse it when offered. Pilgrims are seen as representing Kūkai (honorifically known as Kōbō Daishi) and seen as someone who could visit faraway temples on local peoples’ behalf. Pilgrims therefore have a religious or archetypal value.

Have you not seen, O have you not seen,

The peach and plum blossoms in the royal garden?

They must be in full bloom, pink and fragrant,

Now opening in the April showers, now falling in the spring gales;

Flying high and low, all over the garden the petals scatter

Daily Practice

…essentially a circle: [the Shikoku Henro]…  has no beginning and no end. One goes all the way around and returns to one’s starting point… not the destination but the act of getting there, not the goal, but the going. ‘The Path is the goal itself.’

Oliver Statler, Japanese Pilgrimage.

In a simple ceremony at Temple #1, Ryōzenji (Vulture’s Peak Temple), I dedicate the pilgrimage for the benefit and happiness of all beings. Then, here’s something of what my day looked like…

4:30am Wake up. Meditate on loving-kindness and Manjughosha, Buddha of Wisdom.

5:30am Pack up before shops open, eat breakfast.

6:30am Head out. Walk and chant, walk and chant constantly, constantly, invoking the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. Reflecting on benefits received from Urgyen Sangharakshita, his Triratna Sangha, and on “holding to nothing whatever”, all the while making offerings to small roadside and mountain shrines as I go.

9-11am Morning tea.

1-2pm Lunch.

Visit temples somewhere in all this: Offer candles and incense, reciting The Heart Sutra at Main Hall then again at the Daishido. Make offerings to Fudō Myōō and other shrines.

3pm Begin determining a good place to sleep.

4pm Food shopping.

5pm Arrive at rest area. Set up, eat dinner. Write in journal.

7pm Perform the Seven-Fold Puja, devoted to those I received osettai from that day, a special link.

8pm Fall asleep in exhaustion.

…One dwells more intensely on how one acts within one’s environment, and on the effect of that environment upon oneself. Such intense concentration, coupled with reflection on the life of the Buddha and on the lives of the great sages who followed him, brings about a deep sense of faith which flowers as inspiration.

Dharmachari Suvajra The Wheel and the Diamond.

Transference of Merits

All Buddhist practice ends with Transference of Merits as we call it. At Kūkai’s mountain retreat centre on Mt Kōya, strengthening my resolve to become a better practitioner, I make offerings and prayers. Then finally, in Hiroshima; at The Peace Shrine, I dedicate all my effort for the peace, happiness & benefit of all beings.

The singing halls and dancing stages have become the abodes of foxes.

Transient as dreams, bubbles or lightening, all are perpetual travellers.

To a Nobleman in Kyoto. Kūkai, Major Works ■

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