|Introduction to Shikoku Henro - The Modern Day Significance||by Hiroshi Kushima|
(translated by David C. Moreton)
It is said that today 100,000-200,000 people travel around the Shikoku pilgrimage route annually with most people going by car or bus, however around 1,000 people walk. The standard motives for doing the pilgrimage are 1) to pray for safety in the home and 2) remembrance of ancestors. However, in the case of walking pilgrims, who might do it for such reasons as mentioned above might also the pilgrimage for ascetic training, just to walk it or for a spiritual reason such as to "find oneself" or "to soothe one's soul" or for personal training.
The pilgrim attire, such as the white vest and Kongo staff, act as a way to clearly separate pilgrims from regular travelers and if one also includes the hat, gloves and leg bands one becomes an even more full-dressed pilgrim. Even in the present day, most pilgrims wear such attire and walk the mountains and roads of Shikoku and although this appearance may look strange in the big cities, it fits in with the landscape of Shikoku.
While there are many motives for journeying on the Shikoku pilgrimage route, in most cases, people return home with a greater degree of satisfaction than they had expected to have before they departed. And while the struggle and conquest over bad roads, bad weather and onefs stamina are important as experiences to help one focus on oneself, the one thing that impresses all people the most is the receiving of charitable gifts along the way which is the representative way of interaction between the pilgrims and the local people.
Osettai is the action of giving presents, such as food, by the local people to pilgrims. In olden times, vending machines and convenience stores did not exist so due to this form of giving pilgrims were able to survive the journey. Rice and tissue were important items of osettai. On one hand, from the religious viewpoint of the local people, giving to pilgrims was important because they are considered to be the transformed body of Kobo Daishi and that pilgrims will go around to each temple on my behalf. As well, the gifts given will not only act as a form of assistance to someone struggling along the pilgrimage route, but that those goods are actually gifts to the Gods.
The custom of osettai is still prevalent today; however those who travel by car and bus while have few opportunities to experience this charity. On the other hand when one becomes a walking pilgrim there will be many occasions to receive osettai from people one passes on the road or from people who live in the homes one passes. By wearing the garb of a Shikoku pilgrim, one is recognized as an OHenro-san and one can exchange warm greetings with others who will be receptive and show you the way. This experience is quite removed from the present-day lifestyle in which one must obtain and maintain onefs place in society through self expression.
I believe that through this unique experience, the modern meaning of experiencing the Shikoku pilgrimage becomes clear, that is, that one obtains a new outlook on the role of society, culture and oneself. This differs slightly from the prayers of the people long ago but is something that remains within oneself.
Putting this meaning aside, the religious factors of the Shikoku pilgrimage, in other words, doing such things as wearing the clothing of a pilgrim, lighting a candle, placing incense at temples, and reciting the sutras perhaps does not seem to be the true essence of the pilgrimage. However, I do not think so. Actually by taking on this form of the pilgrimage and by assimilating the ways of a pilgrim, at last, I could experience what I mentioned above. For those who are not religious or even for those of other religions, one unexpectedly becomes a follower of Shingon Buddhism and obtains something unseen while on the Shikoku pilgrimage.
When I write something like this comment, people who do not live without any religious affiliation perhaps might think that it is a nuisance to become a full-fledged pilgrim. Certainly, there are rules which tell of the procedure of worshipping at a temple or that the beads should be held in the left hand etc. However, strictly speaking, is it absolutely necessary to follow such conventions? I feel that by following the example of others one will become a "true" pilgrim as one proceeds around the pilgrimage route to the 88 temples. At each temple, it is common to recite the Hannya Shingyo - a short sutra of 266 characters but, in most cases, people say it while looking at the book of sutras. Clearly, there is no need to memorize it ahead of time. It is perfectly alright just to put onefs hand together and not do such things as recite a sutra.
Actually until I became a Shikoku pilgrim I had no connection with religion in my life except for lighting incense sticks at funerals. My family is not Buddhist and, if I must confess, my elementary school was run by Catholics. As well, even though I have become a pilgrim, I do not intend to become a Buddhist. At first, I was embarrassed to read the sutras and only put my hands together. As well as a non-Buddhist to say the prayers observed as part of etiquette of Buddhist teachings I felt blasphemous to myself and to the pious followers of the Buddhist faith.
However as I progressed to each temple along the pilgrimage route and met other pilgrims who continued to watch and mimic others, I began to feel that I slightly understood the meaning of "pulling the form (of a pilgrim) together". Based on the religiosity of the Japanese, people get married in the Shinto style and die in the Buddhist style which shows the leniency amongst the Japanese people concerning religions. Therefore, while I was a pilgrim I tried to act in the ways of a Buddhist and said my prayers and as a result, I felt a small change occur within me. As well, the interaction with other people warmed my heart and it seemed that I would return home with a very good feeling about the pilgrimage.
If you make up your mind to do the pilgrimage (called hosshin - "heart being activated"), the Shikoku pilgrimage route is something that anyone can do, is good training and is a "diet for the soul". Whether you plan to travel by yourself or in a group, I would like to share with you this rare experience of mine.
However, even though one says, "I will do the pilgrimage", in most cases, one cannot easily suddenly discard one's present lifestyle. One must accept the challenge to become a Shikoku pilgrim while continuously maintaining one's life in society. In this case it will become necessary to prepare and plan. (continued)
(translated by David C. Moreton)
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