Heat and spectre

I couldn’t sleep, it was too hot and the wood deck too hard for my thin bedroll. After four hours of turning I decided to walk until I was tired enough to tolerate the pain in my shoulder blades. The memory of the atmosphere being too cold to sleep just fifty kilometers up the trail was still fresh in my mind, surreal from the same discomfort in the opposite situation. Fortunately Japanese mountain roads often have shoulders and just enough light to walk by.

After an hour I found an old henro koya, tucked into the darkness. Heavy doors were pulled shut, stuck with the swelling of the warping wood. With difficulty and a lot of noise I was able to pry them open. Inside a shrunken old man lay on a futon, his limbs barely more than bones. The light from outside cut a shaft into the musty room, the discomfort hit me immediately like a kick to the gut. Awkwardly, I shuffled inside to not stand gaping from the door. The man contracted even smaller for a second, then pushed his withered body up. I sat down on the a ledge and loosed my shoelaces. He said he’d been walking but grown weak recently and stopped in the lodge to rest. At first a few hours had become three days, apparently. My intrusion spurned him to slowly gather his things in embarrassment, while he muttered that he should continue if he had the strength. I was so tired, I needed just fifteen minutes of sleep. I lay down on the tatami mat as he rose and pulled his cart outside. Not knowing what to say, I was glad that he was gone. I thought the advent of a mat indoors would lead me to sleep immediately, but something blocked me, and for ten minutes I just stared at the ceiling. Still unable to sleep I shouldered my pack again and returned outside. I saw the old man still shuffling around the outside of the lodge, once I started walking he immediately turned back to the murky room, barely able to put one foot in front of the other. Dread of what would become of him pushed everything inside of me down, and I focused on the road.

7:45

The time for rest is when it’s time. Occasionally I start to focus too much on my watch when I’m tired, growing anxious for the next rest stop. In this case I usually end up putting the watch away and try to forget about it.

It’s in the back of my mind to meditate. I prefer to do so near moving water if I can find it. Discovering a set of stairs from the road that lead all the way down to the river is an unexpected treat.

Morning and instincts

Hiking in the morning is always best. The body is supple and the feet have healed somewhat. The pack always seems lighter, and all the world is quiet. Between five and ten the weather is coolest and it is easy to make progress. Unfortunately in summer this means the rocks are perpetually wet from the humidity and mountain streams. I’ve slipped a number of times but fortunately avoided injury thus far.

I’ve learned not to trust the maps too diligently. Each one has conflicting reports on inclination and distance. The key is to expect nothing, and above all watch your step. I seem to lose footing and take a nasty spill at least once each leg of the trail.

Changes

By this time in my life I have ceased to be very surprised by the big changes, perhaps because I felt all of them were cast by my own hand. I have wrapped myself in drama and romance for so long they are as natural to me as the autumn breeze or falling rain. Part of me is constantly examining the motivation for my choice and reflecting on what that means for my character. The other part is comfortable and grateful for the freedom of my choices and thus it makes every moment sweet and luscious.

To bask in the romance of my wandering likely defiles so much of the purity that is to follow the trail. Nonetheless, the time is spent in such deep introspection that I believe it is in fact quite beneficial for my growth as a person.

Each day is a gift of the infinite wonder; the journeying between the temples gives ample opportunity to practice gratitude. The austerities I place om myself, though decadent compared to the practice of clergy or the impoverished, is a large step away from the superficial nonsense sold by the integrated world. I keep small comforts in books and occasionally music, but for the vast majority of my indulgences are produced and consumed only the mind. Opportunities for contribution are rare, but respect for the environment and my prayers during meditation are a start.

The road is often empty, at times I walk days without talking to another human being. Yet I am not alone, humanity is omnipresent. The actions of others are what make my journey possible, even the mountain trail is passable due to the efforts from 1200 years of seekers before me. I cannot take a single step without some sort of blessing. The taste of the wind, the moisture on my back: every second a lifetime of stimulants wash over me, blessing the heart with a myriad of phenomena to examine.

I used to wonder if others could feel and appreciate exactly as I do, but less and less do I think it matters.

On zen

Today I will talk about zen. Zen is the road to enlightenment through the field of simplicity, a field that is so straight and far it disappears beyond the horizon, flawless in its truth and perfection, for not a single details stands out to catch the eye.

I do not pretend to know the thoughts and feelings of other men, but having studied them for decades I know my own. I have seen them sprout and grow, shooting off in a dozen directions, intertwining and thickening as much as they have bent in the wind like a narrow thrush. As time flows on my heart has grown stronger, gaining breadth from experience and depth from the graduation of pain.

I would hope to be a writer, for it is another channel from which my expression flows. Writing is like any other form of expression, noble in intention and clumsy at first, but with much study, thought, and practice, it can be sharpened to fell a tree like the mightiest of blades. There can be grace in its movement, and sweet life flowing through its veins. I have looked at many art forms and by no means a master, found enough skill and aplomb to satisfy myself in its application. There is nothing to be gained by waiting to express oneself. If heart is not put into practice, there will be no meaningful development.

Every moment where I allow myself to be, I have nothing but yearning to nurture the fire in my soul. It must be given fuel, and so I read, listen, and watch. It must also have air and freedom of movement, so I walk. Finally, it must have silence and emptiness, for the burning exists only between the moments when there is none. So lastly I give myself the joy of nothing, perhaps the most important celebration of all.

Breath drawn is a miracle. Though it means nothing to the void it means everything to me, and as I exist in my own reality, it is the only way I can be. The one way, the way of everything and of nothing.

Motivations

Almost a year has passed since I last wrote thinking of the trail. This year for various reasons I could not go back to Japan in the spring, and it seems I won’t have another chance for some time.

I started on the trail because I wanted to find something, to discover what was important to me, the thing that would lead me to the next step. In that respect I found what I was looking for and succeeded without finishing the journey. However after that first leg I found the road calling back to me, and a number of justifications to continue. Being on that road is something that speaks to me, and feels like an essential need I must answer. In that sense it is a very selfish wish, and far from the intentional of the pilgrimage. Knowing how much the romantic thrill of the journey lays in my motivation is slightly discouraging and taints the experience, but on the other hand that sort of worldly desire leading to suffering is at the heart of Buddhist teaching and somewhat consoling.

I think the essence of this lesson is to not pine for the man that I was, but to instead celebrate the man that I am.

What’s This Color

Changes in your life are rarely binary. Feelings don’t switch off, they just grow and fade, like needle-thin vines along a weathered fence. The thoughts are with me often, sometimes stronger than others. Sometimes the thoughts need a vacuum to get started.

The sun was warm and the air still; for the first time I could remember. Little of my decision to go out was based on the weather, but it loosened my soul just enough to let all the sensations through past my preoccupied vanity.

Asphalt welcomed the tires of my bicycle. The thin cast wheels spun freely. The humble click of a transmission left open, wind through my hair, and the heft of long, glass lenses in my bag all came together. Wet moss and silt dotted between clumps of dead grass, the hush of the distant highway… each granule of stimulus was noted and catalogued carefully.

I knew the way well enough to keep my nervous nature at bay, and so I took to enjoying really looking at more of the common variety I love about Sweden: rows of houses in a handful of styles tied together with scores of footpaths and bicycle trails. The intention seems to say that urbanization may only go so far; settlements are pockets of humanity along the way and should never become the dominant part of the land.

Paths wind up and down endless hills, through largely untouched fields, running apart and together in so many places. There is some odd sort of blend between relinquishing direction to the terrain and haphazard planning that makes me wonder how much of it is intentional. Is this part of the core of Swedish mindset, or is it pure chance?

Stopping in a field to shoot graffiti on another odd, secluded steel door in the side of a bluff, I begin to take the journey inwards. Where do the boundaries lie between adequate confidence and hubris, how much of the way I behave aids or impedes those around me? Can one explain his heart without words; would doing so form a stronger bond? What do the intangible things that mean so much to me mean, in turn, to others?

The gravel emits a pleasant sound with the twisting of my heel as I turn. I look deep, deep into the field, through it, over the highway, to the sole concrete palace six hundred meters in the distance. The heat and smoke in the horizon clouds the edges of my vision. How can I take a photograph that explains all of this to another person? Focus, composition, the blurring of the periphery, and the shadow layered through each blade of grass that makes up this exquisite tapestry of Söderort. It’s probably beyond my skill, but still worth trying. I hold the camera up to my eye, let out a long breath, and push the shutter. I stand still looking for a second, then move on.