Nonduality: The Varieties of Expression
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Issue #1585 - Tuesday, October 14, 2003 - Editor: Jerry  


Echoes of Incense

A Pilgrimage in Japan


Don Weiss

(Excerpts from the website:  

The most pleasant times to do the pilgrimage are spring and
fall. June is the rainy season in Japan, it often rains on
more than twenty days in June. July and August are very hot
and humid. September is often nice, but it is also the month
when typhoons are most common. Winter, as you know from this
book, can be cold and some inns and temple shukubo are
closed. On the other hand, the inns are almost never full in
the winter.

Foreigners who want to walk should speak some Japanese,
should be able to read signs and maps, and should be prepared
to occasionally meet people who do not want to welcome you to
their inn because they are afraid you will be unhappy, rude,
or both.


It was January 7th. I was in Ryozenji, Spirit Mountain
Temple. It is also known as Temple One of the Pilgrimage to
the Eighty-Eight Sacred Places of Shikoku. In the following
six-and-a-half weeks I walked 1,100 kilometers on the
backroads of the island of Shikoku, visiting the temples,
reciting the Heart Sutra, photographing the mountains,
buildings and people, and searching, searching my mind.


Eyes to see the temples and statues, pilgrims and priests,
rivers and mountains. Ears to hear the prayers and sutras in
the temples, and the birds singing sweetly in the trees. Nose
to smell the incense and the spiciness of the cedars, the
great forests of the mountains of Shikoku. Tongue to taste
the food at the pilgrimage inns and the fruit and chocolate
that I ate as I walked along the roads. Body to feel the heat
and cold, the hard roads and muddy trails, the pilgrimage
clothes I wore, the walking stick in my hand. Mind. My mind.
Always at the center, to absorb all this, and be absorbed in


In front of the Hon-do is a wonderful garden. Trees, bushes
and rocks are shaped into low, rounded forms like spreading
sand dunes. The artists who created the garden used these
things to make a living poem. The eye and mind go from rock
to bush to path, becoming a part of the poem. Sometimes the
rocks, not the bushes, seem to be growing. Sometimes, in
different light, the rocks, bushes and walkways are all just


There is a standard routine for henro at the temples; wash
hands, rinse mouth, bow, pray, sing, light incense, ring
bells. But the heart of this, the heart of the pilgrimage, is
the Heart Sutra, in Sanskrit, Maha Prajna Paramita Hridaya
Suttram, in Japanese, Hannya Shingyo. It is chanted at least
twice at each temple, once at the hall dedicated to the
Honzon and once at the hall dedicated to Kobo Daishi. The
Heart Sutra is also written on the pilgrim's walking stick.
In addition, some henro copy the sutra every night and put
this calligraphy in special boxes at each temple, though I
didn't do this. It's one of the shortest sutra.

Avalokitesvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, doing deep
prajna paramita, clearly saw that the five skandas are
sunyata, thus transcending misfortune and suffering.

"O, Sariputra, form is no other than sunyata, sunyata is no
other than form. Form is exactly sunyata, sunyata is exactly
form. Feeling, thought, volition and consciousness are
likewise like this.

"O, Sariputra, remember, Dharma is fundamentally sunyata, no
birth, no death. Nothing is defiled, nothing is pure. Nothing
can increase, nothing can decrease. Hence, in sunyata, no
form, no feeling, no thought, no volition, no consciousness.
No eyes, no ears, no nose, no tongue, no body, no mind. No
seeing, no hearing, no smelling, no tasting, no touching, no
thinking. No world of sight, no world of consciousness. No
ignorance, and no end to ignorance. No old age and death and
no end to old age and death. No suffering, no craving, no
extinction, no path, no wisdom, no attainment. Indeed, there
is nothing to be obtained. The Bodhisattva relies on prajna
paramita with no hindrance in the mind. No hindrance,
therefore no fear. Far beyond upside down views, at last
nirvana. Past, present and future, all Buddhas, Bodhisattvas
rely on prajna paramita and therefore reach the most supreme

"Therefore know, prajna paramita is the greatest dharani, the
brightest dharani, the highest dharani, the incomparable
dharani. It completely clears all suffering. This is the
truth, not a lie.

"So set forth the prajna paramita dharani. Set forth this
dharani and say: "Gate Gate Paragate Parasamgate Bodhi


To record your visit to each temple, you carry a book, a
scroll, or both. After praying, you go to the temple office
where one of the priests or a priest's wife stamps the proper
page with the vermilion stamps of the temple's name. Then
they take a calligraphy brush and write the temple's name and
the Sanskrit "seed syllable" of the Honzon, the syllable that
symbolizes the Honzon.

A fee is paid for the service, providing a small but steady
income for the pilgrimage temples. Most visitors toss small
coins in offering boxes at each building. But these offerings
and the stamp fees only provide a small part of a temple's
income. Most comes from fees for funeral and memorial
services. This is true of almost all Japanese temples.


The henro route followed a road across the mountains. At the
top, there was a long tunnel, well-lit at the ends but dark
in the middle. As I was going through the darkest part,
looking far ahead towards the light shining at the end of the
tunnel, a phrase of the Heart Sutra came into my mind;
Nothing is Defiled, Nothing is Pure. Suddenly I breathed more
deeply and more freely, filling my chest with air, relaxing
the muscles I had held tight since the day before, thinking
about how this was no longer a pure trip. Nothing is pure,
not even a pilgrimage. Nothing is defiled, not even this
pilgrimage. I walked out into the sunlight at the end of the
tunnel, ready for the next stretch of road.


Ashizuri Cape, the site of Temple 38, is a famous place for
the search for Fudaraku, the Pure Land in the South. There
are four Pure Lands in Buddhist legend, places beyond worldly
longing, where the aspiration to enlightenment can easily be
achieved. Though orthodox Buddhism considers them stages in
the development of the mind, some people think they are just
out of sight, just beyond the horizon. Over the centuries
hundreds, perhaps thousands of seekers have taken to the sea
at Ashizuri, searching the horizon for the Pure Land of
Kannon (Avalokitesvara), The Bodhisattva of Compassion, the
Bodhisattva mentioned in the Heart Sutra.


Breakfast was standard, but I enjoyed it more than usual. I'd
walked three consecutive 30 kilometer days, yet I felt
refreshed, relaxed, and sensitive to the weather, the sights,
and the food. The rice tasted excellent. At each bite, the
flavor spread out in my mouth with a reminder of sunshine on
flooded paddies, farmers walking barefoot, planting by hand
to fill in the gaps left by the mechanical planters. Japanese
who grew up just after World War Two told me their parents
used to say, "When you are walking to school, bow to every
farmer you see. Without farmers, there can be no rice. And
you must eat every grain, never waste one grain of rice. A
farmer worked barefoot in the mud to grow that rice. Be


The tone of the shakuhachi is of infinite variety. It sings,
but also it whistles, hums, and speaks. Twice the music cried
out like a soul in pain. Then it sang of peace and green
grass under sunny skies. After he finished, the last notes
echoed in the Hon-do as if the statue were playing too. Then
the song ended, the echoes, like incense, drifting in
nothingness. The musician stood still a moment longer, then
did gassho, hands in prayer, bowed, and turned away.

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Nonduality: The Varieties of Expression