Book Report: The Way of the 88 Temples by Robert Sibley

This is a book that I have really come to love, for a bunch of reasons. The author is articulate and intelligent. His writing is very much “present” and “in the moment”. He is a Canadian. He is a writer steeping in philosophy, and continually learning and growing. He comes from Alberta, which is where I grew up. He traveled around Shikoku at a time I didn’t even know he was in the area. He could have walked right by my house.

And then there is this book. Compared to a lot of traveler accounts of “the road not taken” he stands head and shoulders above most. But as you read this book it is important that you are reading more about the pilgrim’s experience than temple information. Most certainly, there is a LOT of great background and snippets of culture, language, Buddhism, folklore, and personalities throughout, but they are all intrinsically linked to the immediate experience of Sibley. This certainly does not take anything away from the book. In fact, it serves to make the reading more intimate and intense. This is a book that inspires and touches, rather than lecture and expound.

There may be critics who claim that the book is light on data and information about the temples. This is not a guide book. This is Robert’s book, and his story. And he tells it well.

Highly recommended. I loved it. And he made me laugh out loud several times.

He also surprised me with a few moments that were particularly touching.

Thank you, Robert! When you come again, please drop me a line. Dinner and beers are my settai waiting for you here in Kagawa!

Robert Sibley has written a few other books as well, including one on the Camino. Please check out his site: http://www.rumourofgod.com/index.html

Mainichi Shinbun on Best “Omotenashi”

Check out this article by the Mainichi!

https://mainichi.jp/english/articles/20200112/p2a/00m/0na/002000c

“Omotenashi” is an expression you hear often in hospitality circles. It can mean a lot of things, but it is the term to best express the thoughtful and gracious reception we get as foreign visitors to Japan. There is kindness, empathy, care, and a desire to “share the moment”. Elegant, and very Japanese.

A Big Snit

Let me tell you a story.

Way back in the mid 1995 I was on a smooth wooden floor in the city of Uchinada, Ishikawa prefecture. I had trained very hard, almost every day, for three years to get to this point. I had sweated gallons, I had been cut, bruised, punched, kicked, and had a fair number of broken bones in my feet, a broken nose, and damaged teeth. I was standing in front of over twenty veteran Japanese karate teachers. It was time to earn my shodan (first degree blackbelt). It was the hardest day of my life.

The morning was filled with basics. Stepping. Punching. Kicking. Blocking. Combinations barked out, and you better be quick. Up and down the floor. There were about 30 of us grading that day for black belts. The floor was slick with perspiration. Then slick from blood from cut feet. This was no game. The air was thick and hot. My mouth tasted like iron. It was a grim start to the day.

A short break for lunch. I couldn’t eat anything, but I could keep down some water. I stood by an open window. I felt the air on my face. And before I knew it we were commanded to get lined up again.

And what I thought was a really rough morning was not much of anything because now we spar. Now we fight. I had a moment where my mind was blank. Then we got lined up and I was ready to go. I felt my heartbeat spike a little, and then it settled down. I was in my groove.

Thirty candidates facing off against all our teachers. Our well-rested teachers. And as they lined up to spar with us one after another we were told to stand our ground.

I stood my ground.

I was close to my prime fighting condition, and I fought with everything I had. I was lucky as I saw a few guys lose front teeth that day. But they fought on. We all did. It was rough, and a little bloody, but the style of Shotokan karate is also beautiful too. A man stands entirely still. Then in a single motion, with all muscles in synchronicity he moves like a barracuda. You may feel just a hint of a punch on your face, in your belly. And sometimes he will give you just a little more, just so you don’t forget how dangerous this art is. You probably won’t see it coming until it is too late.

And it is in those moments where you must let the front of your mind go, and let the body and subconscious mind look ahead, searching for “the tell”, the tremor of movement, and let the body react, let the counter whip out with a mind of its own, and remain there, on that spot. Standing your ground. You must always stand your ground.

The teachers, and their junior instructors cycled through the candidates, each trying to show the next how much punishment they can dish out. I should have been afraid, but I wasn’t. I decided that day to bring everything I had to the floor. I would not be put down. I would not give an inch to any man. And the air was full of shouting, and fury.

After about an hour or so, the raging thunder of karate teachers knocking us around, demanding you “STAND AND FIGHT” after each defeat, had subsided, we spent the next four hours working on forms and having every single nuance of each movement, hand position, block, turn, and stance micro-analyzed until they were good enough. In the end we had been on the floor, being tested and pushed, battered and bruised for ten hours. My feet were in ribbons, my karate uniform soaked through from top to bottom, and yet we all stood there. Not one of us let go. We had been pounded for hours, but now the study of kata was about the art, gracefulness, and precision of hands, feet, and spine.

I love karate. I love Shotokan karate. It has been the strength in my life from my twenties up to my fifties. It taught me a lot in terms of how to live, how to work, how to find compassion, how to be at peace with the world, and how to be a man.

From that day I continued as a karate student, then a coach and a teacher. Then a writer. I wrote a book called, “Karate The Japanese Way”. It was not an “expert” book about karate, as I am no expert. It was no “authority” on karate, as I have no authority. I am just a simple Canadian chucklehead.

But I love karate. And I love to talk about it, and do it, and meet other people who love it too. So, I built a website also called “Karate The Japanese Way”. It’s long gone now, but when I made it I, with a lot of help from web experts, it became pretty popular. People in the karate world started to read the book and got interested in the art. I received a lot of emails that the book was used to inspire new students coming in to karate. The book was even being used as a required text for some karate clubs at university. It was more than just a little unbelievable.

The tone of the book is “I do not know everything about karate, but come along with me and you can see the things I see. Then make up your own mind.”

I always write in this fashion. It’s my style, and it is my true mind. With everything.

After the book was doing reasonably well I decided that we would develop an on-line forum for karate, and have a place for “intelligent discussion” about all things karate. I managed to assemble a team of moderators from England, New Zealand, The Philippines, and America. After a few months we had a membership of over 30,000 karate teachers and students around the world. It was a pretty incredible thing.

One important thing to know about how karate organizations ran in the past is that they were very much top-down, in a pyramid shape. Whatever you were told verbally by your “sensei” was the law. And you were to obey. And you were to not think for yourself. And you were not to disagree, research, meet other karate people, or show any sign of “disobedience”. In fact, some karate organizations resembled cults. Members of our intelligent karate forum did not hesitate to point that out, and to welcome anyone to express their ideas and discuss any element of the art we cherish.

Several major karate organizations began to lose their steam, and several top “sensei” found themselves no longer “the fount of all wisdom”. The internet takes care of that. The free association of people is the antithesis to control freaks and “authoritarian experts”. Some karate leaders made demands that we stop talking on line about karate. You can imagine how well that went over. We decided to stand our ground, to remain intellectually honest, and continually curious.

I’m very proud of the discussions and headway we had with liberating otherwise intellectually and psychologically controlled women and men in a few bogus karate pyramid structures that were floating around out there. As a group we had great research, multi-lingual texts, meetings, discussions, seminars, papers written and published, and a wellspring of new publications came out as a result. We spoke and wrote without fear or favour. That is part of our Enlightenment heritage, and we will not throw it out, or put it aside for anyone.

How we gather information now is very different than when I was a university student in the 1980’s. There was no Internet then, so you had to get into the library as much as you could. And even then, the resources are only what you can manage to pull off a shelf. I love books, and I love to read, but I also love the free flow of data and information that we experience today with the incredible technology at our fingertips. That part of information gathering is much better now than before.

The Internet flattens pyramids, and we should be grateful for that. Access to information, throughout history, liberates the mind. It unshackles us from other’s opinions and grants us a better way to think for ourselves.

So, how does this relate to pilgrims on the Shikoku Pilgrimage?

Well, up until recently there have been only a few “sources” in English about the pilgrimage itself. Some have been trailblazing, thoughtful, articulate, well-written, well researched, and intelligent. Some have been just okay. But, all is welcome. Because there is not so much out there, at this time, we need to read everything that we can get. As a student of the pilgrimage, I am always looking for more to read and to understand. I’m hungry for information and for new knowledge. Even though my school days are long behind me, I still have the heart and mind of a student.

But there is this pesky thing called the Internet that disrupts pyramidal thinking about knowledge and expertise. And some “experts” have seemingly gotten their feathers ruffled because they are no longer the sole, singular, and primary sources of information or inspiration for a 1200 year old pilgrimage. History has moved up to their point in it and may move right through them. Sadly, instead of riding the incredible wave that is coming their way, they may just pick up their surfboard and kick rocks all the way home.

Frankly, I find this prima donna attitude disappointing. And childish.

Puerile.

I can’t prove anything, but I feel a “tremor”. Something is moving out there in the Internet regarding the Ohenro experience.  Some of the “big boys” are complaining and grousing. I have heard as much through third parties. They seem displeased that their sage voices are not the only voices that may be heard. They seem flummoxed that there may be information and perspective and people who also exist here in Shikoku who may want to lend a hand to incoming pilgrims. Apparently, and this comes from a few sources, this little website, and our community building of pilgrims and and ohenro from around the world on Facebook has deeply offended them.

I have somehow, in my enthusiasm and “je ne sais quoi” wronged them, these would be modern preachers and priests of the “true Ohenro tradition”. I am not sure how I have done that, considering I have written nothing and said nothing but nice things about each of the gentlemen I have in mind right now.

Screen Shot 2019-10-24 at 2.00.00 PMBut their hackles are raised, offended, and in a snit they are, and there is no undoing the grievous injury I have done upon their fair and thin-skinned sensibilities. I have no grudges to carry, for my part. But they seem to have some serious issues with Yours Truly. Their hand-wringing and angst has reached a certain pitch and they have reacted, not with any entreaty to talk or discuss, but with rashness and bitterness. I have heard the unpleasant comments about us, and it’s very disappointing.

They are picking up their toys and thinking about going home. Maybe their day is done, so maybe that is okay. The sun still rises and sets, just not on everything they have to say anymore.

There is still much to do for this project, for introduction of the Shikoku experience, for support of people coming here for the first time. I’m committed to see this work down the road as best as I can, and to be of service to my fellow pilgrim, the people in my neighbourhood, the people in my city, the people in the prefecture of Kagawa, and the country that belongs to my children.

I will stand my ground.

As a student. As a person with curiosity. As a fellow pilgrim looking to find my way.

As a man. As a person. As a heart and soul built on bones with muscle and skin.

Just like you.

This page in the latest drama will be turned. The next day will come. Pilgrims will wake up in the morning and get their shoes on. The next temple awaits. And the next. And the next. The unhappy “sage voices of English-speaking master ohenro” will be fainter until they either fade away, or they figure out that there is nothing more or less special about them than anyone else, and do what they were doing before.

I do not know what the next day will bring. If the “voices of English authority” dramatically cross their arms and have a sulk, that is their choice. Others will continue on to translate, to explore, to share, to discover, and to celebrate the Shikoku Pilgrimage anyway.

I’m not sure what the great Koubou Daishi would think. We all have our personal faults, foibles, and demons to wrestle.

And frankly, in the end, this website, my little book, and all the things I have said, songs I have sung, and every echo of every belly-laugh I have ever had, will simply fade.

I’m totally okay with that.

Travel safe dear pilgrims. Keep between the ditches.

 

Yamacha Ohenro Channel

Right now there is a rather nice channel you might want to follow if you are interested in walking the Shikoku Pilgrimage. You will get a day-by-day account with Yamacha! I’ve just started walking the videos and they look great. I also really like the music too.

If you have some time, sit back and let Yamacha Ohenro walk you through the daily journey of “Aruki Henro”, the “Walking Pilgrim”.

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCIUFJJYTiGZ2129tw0CZTMA/videos

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Hard Copy of Your Pilgrimage in Japan

Amazon is a speedy machine. I had put out the notice that the Kindle version was ready to go and when I woke up this morning I got the notice that the hard copy version is now also available.

I can’t describe how excited I am that this book is out there. I have written books before, and make a bunch of textbooks/homework books for our English student. But this one is a special book. It is one that I hope will serve as an inspiration to whet the appetite of people who are all over the world and thinking of doing something for their lives that may help them get “on a better path”.

Of course, no vacation or long walk through the woods and through temples will solve all your problems. But time away from the noise of things that drag you down, a bit of a disconnect from the white sound of television and media, and a chance to learn and explore the glorious Shikoku Pilgrimage may do one’s soul good.

So, if you are interested please get yourself a copy of the book. Available through fine internet connections everywhere:

https://www.amazon.com/dp/1701297779/ref=sr_1_1?keywords=your+pilgrimage+in+japan&qid=1571792058&s=books&sr=1-1

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Ohenro is not your Homeless Vacation

Hello one and all.

I am afraid that this blog will be set on an unpopular theme. The theme is that of foreign Ohenro coming to Shikoku and behaving like homeless people. Let me put out the caveat right away that I am deeply troubled to see homelessness in any country. As human beings we ought to have the right to have adequate shelter from the weather, a place to retreat to stay warm or cool as the season dictates. We need to have homes to be safe from people who might do us harm. We need homes for all, especially kids, older people, and the mentally ill who are too often thrown out into the street as trash.

Progressive countries around the world understand that homelessness is a social disease, it destroys the human heart, is bad for society as it becomes more dangerous, is inhumane, and is also counter-intuitive economically. People who are safe in shelters and homes can focus on other issues for life, employment, education, and participation in society. We all become better and safer for our active participation in wiping out homelessness.

So why is it, for the love of all that is holy, that we have foreign visitors coming to Shikoku to behave like the homeless? Why would anyone want to behave like that? I simply do not understand it. But here they come… and there are quite a number of reports that come to our ears about some very poor behaviour. Throwing trash on the path, sleeping in public places like schools and cemeteries, and using public handicapped toilets as showers and wash stations.

As an active advocate for the Shikoku Pilgrimage, an inbound consultant for local financial institutions, the JR Shikoku, local businesses, hotels, and merchants, the “homeless Ohenro” is something that we really do not need to see too much of. It has been a problem in the past and I hope to do my part to nip some of these lousy behaviours and attitudes in the bud.

There seems to be some former encouragement by “Ohenro experts” that anyone can come to Shikoku, wander through the route, beg for food and necessities on the way, and have an expectation of “osettai” as they hike down the road. This has been a very economically and socially damaging source of foolish advice. I strongly protest this message that has been sent out into the world so far that “osettai” is like some sort of “free lunch” or an “Ohenro entitlement”. It’s ridiculous, and stupid. I wish it would stop.

Yet, there are complaints from “Walking Ohenro” (called “aruki henro”) of how expensive the Shikoku Pilgrimage is. They complain that drink machines charge them money for drinks. They complain that a beautiful calligraphy stamp (which they will keep as a gorgeous and unique souvenir forever) in their beautifully embroidered stamp book (which costs only 25 dollars) will cost them 3 dollars. They complain that they might be “expected” to drop a coin into an offertory box when they come to each (access free) temple to pray. They complain that a hotel or inn is too expensive at about 30 dollars a night. They complain that buses and trains may ask for money for services. They use a vulgar term “Pay to Pray” as some kind of description that they are abused financially as they go around the whole of Shikoku, sleeping in public tax money funded parks and schoolyards, cemeteries, and bathe themselves in handicapped toilets.

Then there is the garbage left behind in their wake.

Good Lord.

There is some kind of weird expectation that while a Walking Pilgrim can completely lay out several thousands of dollars for high-tech backpacks, tents, sleeping gear, walking shoes, hiking underclothing, cell phone, sunglasses, hiking poles, and all manner of accessories, that when it comes to the actual walking the trail, staying at proper lodging each and every evening, paying for food and drink, and purchasing the most simple Ohenro materials that suddenly everything is “too expensive” and “Japan is trying to rip me off.”

Unbelievable.

Then they should feel that it is somehow their “Ohenro right” to sleep in the schoolyards that belong to the children who go to school here in Shikoku, and has been funded by their parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents. And the trail of garbage left behind should be picked up and disposed of through public funds and services.  I think that most Japanese people are too polite to say anything directly, so I’ll help out a bit with:

Who do you think you are?

Part of the problem is with the efforts to date to identify and explain what “Osettai” is. Yes, yes, I know that there are “experts” who tell you that as a pilgrim you receive the gift from people so that YOU can help THEM fulfill their wish that they take their burdens with you on the pilgrimage. That is a very nice image to have in mind. Sometimes that might be true, but sometimes a cup of tea or an orange is just a “have a nice day” kind of thing. You can say “thank you” and be grateful, and not behave that you are doing them some big favour by accepting things.

Most people receive an “osettai” and they are truly deeply thankful. That is beautiful, and wonderful, and a treasure for your experience in Shikoku. When done right, and approached right, it’s marvellous. But when there is an inkling of expectation in the osettai moment, the whole thing just turns to dirt.

If you are a walking pilgrim reading these words I hope that you understand the simple fact that no one owes you anything. The hope for osettai, or expectation of receiving osettai, or the unhappy feeling of not receiving osettai, should not be anywhere near your brain. Just walk your walk. In fact, it would be more psychologically useful to you to not want to receive anything from anyone. This is your walk. Go walk it. Focus on yourself and who and what you are. Think about what you can learn. Not what you can get.

Too harsh? Too much “on the nose”? I can’t say I am sorry about that.

I think that if you come to Shikoku you should pay for your vacation here. Just like you pay your bills wherever you go. Pay for your airplane ticket. Pay for a hotel, or inn, or AirBnB each and every night. No camping. No sleeping outdoors. No washing up in handicapped bathrooms (What if someone NEEDS to be in there while you are washing away? Why should anyone need to suffer in their wheelchair because you took their toilet unnecessarily? Please give that one a think.) And please, no “Well, I just used it for a minute. What’s the problem? trash talk. Is that the kind of thing a “real” Ohenro does to their fellow human? This is your walk of human discovery towards enlightenment?

I think that you should eat proper meals when you are here whenever possible. Sit down in a restaurant or a cafe and order off the menu. Eat something good and healthy and local. Support the Shikoku you say you love with your wallet. For real. The food is very reasonably priced. The accommodations are very reasonably priced. The only unreasonable thing is a homeless foreign Ohenro who eats in parking lots, washes in public spaces, and pretends that their public behaviour has no impact on others.

Oh, now here comes the objection….

“How can I possibly afford to walk the entire Shikoku Pilgrimage and pay for lodging all the way through for 6 to 8 weeks? That’s not fair!”

The answer is, my dear pilgrim, that if you cannot afford it, you cannot afford it. Just like if you can’t afford something in a store you don’t get to buy it. If you can’t buy a new car, or an old car, or any car you have to take the bus. If you can’t afford to buy super fancy shoes you will have to buy regular shoes. If you can’t afford to do the whole pilgrimage you can do part of it. That is simple. And it is what adults do. Whether or not it is “fair” is not even an issue. If you are determined to spend thousands of dollars in airfare and gear for yourself, you could probably find a way to take more time to work a job and save enough to come and have a zero-negative impact experience here in Shikoku.

Otherwise, you are arguing why the people of Shikoku need to take care of you, pick up your trash, and subsidize your vacation. I can’t think of any place in the world that permits a visitor to the country to behave in such a manner.

Grow up already.

If I have offended your sensibilities I can’t apologize for saying some things that just need to be said. Of course you are welcome and encouraged to explore Shikoku and have the walk of your life. That is great, and I really wish you all the best. But please do so at no one’s expense but your own. Do no harm. Do no damage. Make a place better by you having been there. Take nothing from anyone, except in a true osettai moment, but give your kindness and support to things that make a difference.

I have children that are growing up here in Shikoku. I don’t think that part of their future, and public obligation towards paying taxes needs to go anywhere near the subsidization of foreign ohenro experiences. We are supposed to make our world better for the next generation coming after ours. That is something that we as adults need to do better, effectively, relentlessly, and selflessly.

Pay your bills, and be a positive contributing member of the thousands and thousands of others who support the Shikoku Pilgrimage. Don’t be “a taker”. You’ll feel better for it. And you know it’s the right thing to do.