Conversations and Post-scripts
We are walking down deserted city streets, Uosaki and I, navigating by means of a map.
Everything is familiar. But there are some immediate differences.
We are using a tourist map, marked with destinations, not the red thread of paths, and my shoes are fashionable winter boots, loose and ill-fitting. A slight ache in the calves reminds me why I had been resistant, initially, to walking across this small-sized city rather than take a bus.
“Do you know,” he says suddenly, “that when I reached the last temple, I was just relieved that it was over. Not happy, relieved. I didn’t expect that.”
He had left the pilgrimage path halfway during the spring, and only returned to complete it in autumn of the same year. But halfway, I recall, was a high. Halfway is the point of exhilaration; a growing confidence in the gifts of the road, and exultant optimism about the future.
“It gets more and more difficult after some time,” I offer, “and I don’t know why. Emotionally, mentally, not physically.”
“It’s like you expect things to only go up, like this,” he says, sweeping up a hand like an airplane taking off, “but then,” drawing a line that peaked and curved sharply down. “I expected a big change, like I would burn with passion at the end, but somehow didn’t. When I got to the last temple, it was just another temple. It made me angry. The place where you leave your sticks? I threw mine into it. And left, fast.”
I had brought home my stick. But buried whatever odd dragging feelings with a quick exit of the temple. We had held a social celebration of the occasion at the nearby restaurant, a reunion of friends, which was a genuine gladness that temporarily covered up the underlying emptiness.
“I don’t understand it.”
“I don’t, either.”
We are both silent, walking.
“Do you think there’s a hole in our hearts?” he asks suddenly. Eh? Did I hear right?
He formed a circle with both hands and placed it over his chest. “A hole,” he repeated, “and it only got bigger.”
The walking toward the last few temples, I realise now, had been with the weight of quiet desperation.
I had been expecting a great resolution. In the last stretch, the terrifying lack of sensation had made me want so very badly to believe in a some joyful closure, some transformative event, something that would take away the invisible heavy shroud. Then the temples had ended before I could snatch a final chance, and in the days immediately after, with no more walking path to cling to, an awful insidious sense that the emptiness had increased.
Then, at Mt Koya, a quick shattering, expansion and ecstasy, and over the next few days during the return to normal life, a gradual lightening, a letting go, leaving pieces of myself behind, leaving gaps where things went unexplained.
That emptiness, that absolute isolated desolation, had been a widening gap of darkness I feared to look at. In its wake, a porosity, a thin-ness, feeling stretched but somehow lesser, somehow greater, a hole?
“Then I thought,” he continued, startling me anew, “that maybe this is a natural state of human beings.”
“And I think, it must have been there from the beginning, that in normal life we never notice because we bury it. Humans bury their holes because they can’t bear to look at it.”
and grow heavy and calcified, locked into the prisons of daily life.
“It’s only when you walk long enough that you discover the hole inside you, and don’t try to ignore it, that’s the beginning of learning,”he concludes.
Learn what? I wonder. So far there have been no answers.
My sister has been silent. She formed an invisible third to the chattering of our philosophical pair, wandering off every now and then to take pictures of the nondescript park we are walking through.
It is December in 2010, over a year and a half later, and we are here for a couple weeks of sightseeing in Japan. A standard tourist schedule, except that I have brought her along while I meet strange friends and make strange conversation, about thoughts I have barely scratched, and topics I have avoided.
I wonder how much she had understood, with her beginners’ Japanese, and then I wonder, how much have I?
Uosaki has decided to become a monk. It is his last chance, because next year he reaches the age limit for taking the scripture exams.
Morita went to agricultural school, to learn how to be a vegetable farmer.
Kuroda and Matsumoto got together and started a business selling organic vegetables, occasionally paired with shochu and sake. While he is half the country away, Morita will probably join them in future.
Yamaguchi seems to be enjoying his retirement, and occasionally emails beautiful pictures of temples.
Urazaki is busy working in an office, but still keeps his love for pickles.
Hayashi remains in Tochigi, living near an amusement park.
Hirao is studying, with renewed vigor, how to be a monk.
Takahashi is part of an artist collective in Tokyo. Once he sent me beautiful sepia-toned photographs of the henro-michi.
And Fukao is still taking short trips to Shikoku whenever he has time off from work. Walking in reverse, and about twenty more temples to go, I find a fragment of an entry in his blog,
It is said that people who become henro have been called to it by Shikoku.
Everybody’s story has changed. Or perhaps, everybody has a new story, divergent paths snaking out from our common protected realm of the henro. The end of the pilgrimage road is only the beginning, the pilgrimage itself a preparation and gestation, a painful shedding of useless parts.
Again I wonder, learn what? What next? Where is the meaning that must exist, if hundreds of thousands of people over a thousand years have seeked out solace from this road?
But if I didn’t understand the reasons then, why do I expect that understanding will come, with time?
I do not understand, and for the first time, I do not care if I do. True resolution can never be merely received. It can only be created, with faith, with surrender, with a willingness to be unravelled and changed.
Some things are not ours to know. But all learning is in the living, and the unveiling is in the living, and I am both glad and scared that the wide vista of the world is open before me, with no path to be seen. The walking has to continue, but inward, into the hollow spaces of the human heart.
I am not ready yet. But someday I will be back.