By Edith Darmon
As the steps keep going up and up, my breathing becomes faster and faster. There is no end in sight. My eyes get a glimpse of the top but as I reach it, each apex becomes illusive. It keeps going further again past my eyesight up higher and higher. I am only concentrating on going up another level to get closer to the crest. I am in Japan, on Shikoku island, the smallest of the four main islands of the archipelago. I am out of breath and a sharp pain accompanies each step while climbing up these tall stairs. Through the bamboo forest, I can now see the light from the open sky. A few more heavy lungfuls of air and finally I hoist myself onto the top where I am blinded by the beauty of Anrakuji temple. I slowly recover my breath and take in my surroundings. In the setting of the afternoon fog, the deep ocean with its different hues of blue is emerging with the underlined coastline. At the forefront, the soft vision of pink flowering trees is overlapping the green meadow. I stare, allowing my tears to flow freely.
A couple of years ago, when the love of my life, the man with whom I had been living for twenty-five years was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, all equilibrium tilted towards a downward spiral. He died five months later and I lost my anchor. I was floating on a deflated balloon bound to crash. I hung haphazardly by a fragile thread. I let my instincts guide me instead of trusting my wounded brain. I went on walking treks as therapeutic healings. I walked in Spain, Canada, India. When I heard of a walking trail in Japan in the form of a pilgrimage, I was enticed with the idea but I never associated it with a clear need but rather with an instinctual behavior. I contacted a lifelong friend who also likes to walk as a way of life. The experience of embarking on such a journey held a significant amount of depth and unknown mystery.
Walking helps me calm my anxieties but also elevates my spirit to higher realms of reality. We are following Kukai’s steps. Kukai also holds the honorific name of Kobo-Daish – the enlightened one. He was the monk who brought an important sect of Buddhism from China to Japan around the year 800.
Over my five-week stay, each time I reached one of the 88 temples Kukai built around the island, I performed a suggested ceremonial from the Zen Buddhist tradition. This ritual was meant to restore peace within and helped erase conflicts at hand, or at least lessened their potency. I was eager to pray since I understood that the more I loved, the more I grieved. The prayers would help me go deeper within my grief and learn to fathom the magnitude of my lost love. On this journey, I also hoped for guidance towards my life choices.
Upon arriving at the imposing arched doors of the temple, I bowed in front of the statue of Kukai whose role was to scare off demons inside and outside of us. To do that, Kukai took on the terrifying features of the angry devils he was fighting. He was our protector although his intimidating appearance and his ferocious gaze were unsettling. I wanted to trust him to help me fight my dragons during the long treks. I traveled with them perched on my shoulders, coloring my mood from dark to grey to golden yellow as fear or faith would alter my daily reality. I proceeded to the temple ground on a stone path through an orchard of pink blossoming cherry trees with statues of saints aligned along the edges. Each saint was small in size and wore a pink-colored hand-knit bib as a symbolic image of childhood and a reminder to protect children. While murmuring a prayer for their safety, the children in the world winked at me.
I stepped forward to locate the dragon spitting water. This was the time to cleanse my hands with respect from left to right while I prayed for the healing waters to flow freely in the world and in and out of me. My body was bursting with worries which have impeded the natural flow of my own waters. It was time now to honor and feed the earth by pouring a little water down. My personal harmony was contingent on the balance of the planet. I could not reach peace if the world around me was distressed. The process continued towards the stone steps and striking the largest gong on the compound. The sound rippled in waves and the echo could be heard far and wide. The deep, cavernous sound expanded my desire to opening up to new beginnings and a return to my joie de vivre.
My yearning was also strong in forgiving my beloved for leaving me unexpectedly, all alone on the path of life. I believed that finding acceptance and compassion for myself through prayers would ease my journey. The gong announced my presence. My dragons filled with anger and rage were acknowledged and temporarily appeased. I wanted to believe that I was now protected while my steps took me towards the main temple. In one of the combed sand barrel rings facing the entry, my three sticks of incense were lit as the prayers began.
Each day, my prayers took a different tone as suited for the moment. The flow of my invocations guided me towards what I wanted to ask, hoped, or wished for. Afterward, I peeked at the rich and ornate altar inside the central room before chanting the sutras three times as recommended. The melody was unknown to me, therefore I invented a rhythm from my imagination or borrowed it from other chants from other ceremonies I have participated in. I have been deeply touched by the Buddhist practice in India in the province of Ladakh, which borders Tibet. Sitting and chanting next to a monk in cool darkness in the sanctuary of a temple vault transported me to another realm of serenity.
When I was fortunate and other pilgrims were gathered at the same temple, chanting in unison their well-known prayer, I joined in gingerly and felt grateful to be among Japanese pilgrims during their spiritual practice.
One week into my stay, the recurring rite at every temple had become habitual. My ritual was nearly finished, but not until I visited the office where I waited for my turn to present my special gold and black book to one of the monks. The monk’s signature was an ornate black calligraphic design enriched with three red stamps acknowledging my passage in this temple. The book was purchased at the beginning of the pilgrimage and would slowly get filled up at every temple. The monk presented me with a sacred image to store in my sacred book. The symbolism of the image was unclear but its energy was treasured. In return as a token, I gave the monk three hundred yens.
Today was a very special day because I felt honored beyond words. I managed to reserve sleeping arrangements on the temple grounds for my traveling companion and me. This was a rare occurrence since temples did not allow lodging for pilgrims unless they came as a large organized group. But once in a while, travelers had the privilege to sleep in the temple compound.
After recovering my backpack I had stashed behind a stone bench, my steps steered me around the corner, to look for a large building which should hold the sleeping quarters. Upon rounding the bend, another vista of the ocean greeted me with a striking wide expanse of crystal blue water. The warmth from the mesmerizing late afternoon light playing tricks with the sun embraced me closely. Another group of blossoming cherry trees was standing graciously in front of a building. Only then did I detect that the partially hidden building could easily be my temporary nest for the night. My traveling companion and I walked in; a monk was sitting chatting with visitors over tea. The monk was fully engaged and did not seem to discern our presence. We waited politely for a few minutes but no one seemed to notice the two western women still carrying their heavy loads on their backs while standing by the doorway. Therefore, I captured their attention. One of the women sitting next to the monk pointed out a room in front of us without looking. We were relieved. We took off our bags and our shoes. We slipped into the leather slippers provided and we let ourselves into what we believed was the waiting room.
The large and empty tatami room welcomed us. We were dazzled by a large bay window overlooking the landscape we just left outside. My head was slowly clearing up. I survived the exhausting although invigorating hike to let myself be revitalized by the meaningful temple ritual that always brought hope into my reality. Since my husband`s passing, burdensome darks clouds often obstructed my vision. This place was so inspiring in its beauty and its serenity that if any notion of paradise was pertinent, then we had attained it. We waited patiently. We thought someone would come soon, would ask us to fill out forms and lead us to our cubicle away from our captivating view – so little did we realize that we were standing in the room allocated to us. I found out by peeking outside because I was not able to hold my curiosity any longer. The mere view of my western face got the reaction I was looking for. One of the women motioned for us to stay put, indicated that she will unroll our futons at seven o’clock, the bath, the ofuro will be ready at five followed by dinner an hour later. We were also invited to participate in a ceremony after dinner. Meanwhile, I enjoyed a cup of green tea from the thermos sitting on the table.
Later, as we walked down the hallway towards the bath-house, I transformed into a new human wearing a blue indigo yukata covered with a dark blue heavy cotton jacket. The other pilgrims encountered on the stairs dressed in similar attire. The bath was composed of a large carved stone-heated pool surrounded by several individual hand showers with stools close to the ground where people were washing thoroughly before sliding delicately into the hot water. After cleansing and soaking my body at leisure in the healing waters, the moment had come to get some sustenance. I got dressed and followed some of the pilgrims through a side door towards the dining area.
Sitting regally among other fellow pilgrims in the grandeur of the temple dining room, it was time to savor a delectable feast of dishes displayed in front of me: tuna, snapper, and octopus sashimi fanned over grated daikon radishes, miso soup with wakame seaweed and morsels of baked tofu. I was fully present to delight in the cuisine from the attractive and mysterious culture of the land of the rising sun. There were perhaps twenty-five pilgrims in the room, all dressed in the same blue indigo yukata; everyone was lively. I smiled and observed quietly my surroundings since it was impossible to communicate.
After the meal was over, we were told to move towards a room at the back of the temple where instructions were given along with small brown paper bags. A friendly man came up gingerly and sat next to us explaining in hesitant English the different steps of the ceremony. It was said that this particular ceremony aimed to bid farewell to the deceased. My heart jumped to the point of badly hurting. When I entered into this pilgrimage I did not think it would affect and touch me so deeply. I thought I could separate my outer experience and let it float as a superficial layer while keeping my core protected and closed. In hearing the meaning of the ceremony, I realized that it would soon be three years since my husband passed. I knew his anniversary was approaching but I was attempting to behave as normally as possible and was hoping that the tornado would not hit as hard as it did in the past years. While my thoughts often converged towards him, and his name leapt frequently into my speech, I struggled between two lives careful not to impose on people around me by constantly talking about my beloved.
My eyes blur, my throat contracts, and I have difficulties breathing. I feel myself entering into a trance. I blindly follow my fellow pilgrims to the back of the temple where we penetrate the underbelly of a cavern filled with several Buddhas watching us. Everyone starts chanting sutras while my head rolls back and forth, following the rhythm and the sound. I am lost in a dreamlike state with intensely palpable sensations more vivid than images. A movement catches my attention, my eyes startle open to notice the pilgrims standing up and moving forward. I trail behind them, slowly advancing into a long, dark narrow passageway. We emerge into a curved room with a small stream along the side. As per instruction, I light the candle in the little wooden boat found in the brown paper bag. One by one, we delicately place the boats in the waterway.
My mind is busy now with strong visions crowding and fighting for attention. The boat of Charon, the ferryman of Hades takes the stage carrying the souls of the newly deceased through the River Styx. The fragile vessel is crowded. The frightened souls are led to the threshold where the world is divided between the living and the dead. Fear is vividly painted on their faces. I have often had this lingering vision after my husband left. I could clearly distinguish every feature in front of me inside my wide-open eyes. Once strong and detailed, these images had slowly fizzled away as months, then years went by. At this instant, however, the vision promptly flooded my consciousness again.
Another persistent and profound vision seizes my attention, one that followed me when awake since the first week after my sweetheart died: We are both sitting on the back of a small motorized boat, which is moving at a hurried pace. Suddenly, my husband falls out of the dinghy but I remain on board. I cannot stop the boat. I shout but no one reacts. It is as if I am alone but I know I am not alone. No one can hear me. I spin around, but my beloved has disappeared in the swift current of the fast-moving waters while the boat speeds on. The life force was pushing me forward while my husband plunged unexpectedly out of the boat, out of the living world, and into the mysterious realms of the deceased.
While in this cave still with tears running down my face, I push my little vessel off. I tentatively wave farewell to my departed, trying to put words to the unknown journey waiting for him. But I do not know anything about his voyage.
We slowly leave the water chamber and our group keeps walking towards a large round space where we burn our little sliver of wood, adding it to the dancing blue and yellow flames from a small pyre. I am filled with images connecting death to fire: Fire from hell that symbolizes the suffering but also the releasing. When my husband was dying, he kept telling me that he needed quiet. He did not want to be brought back to the daily reality of the chattering conversation or even peaceful music. He said he needed full concentration to let go of life because it was very hard and painful to leave the world of the living. My heart was wrenching to witness his strength as he released his soul.
I am blinded by the orange glow of the setting sun when I step outside, I am out of breath and unsteady. I hear my husband`s hearty laughter telling me to seize the day while the whiff of his morning brew fills my nostrils. I fully inhale the vision like a forceful breath helping me cope with the present.
Through the hidden side of the temple, I opened a sacred door into my soul today. I had not known why I came to Japan but at this instant, I get the hint that I am here to attempt to heal my bruised soul and to learn to remember the joy of waking up in the morning next to my beloved, drinking tea in bed, and welcoming the new day. This journey to the islands of the rising sun did not augur as a comfortable voyage but a necessary one.
The next day, I leave Anrakuji appeased and filled with hope even though the struggle will most likely return. While walking slowly towards the next temple of the pilgrimage, I take the time to hear the birds sing and pause as I bend to smell a cluster of pure white jasmine. My eyes follow the lines of the sea on the blue horizon. I find a friend in the constant presence of the ocean. My friend is faithful and stays with me along my journey. The ocean feeds my soul with its power and its infinity by refueling my life force when I am weak and desperate. The sky will not always be blue and serene, but I hope to be more prepared for the next invasion of black clouds hindering my eyesight.
Edith Darmon was born in Algeria and immigrated to France as a teenager. As a young adult, she traveled extensively throughout Europe, North, Central and South America. Edith is a retired Spanish and French teacher. Following many years of world travel, she has settled in the mountains of Northern New Mexico where she now gardens, writes, and frequently travels to Colorado to visit her daughter and granddaughters.