I Was a Walker Who Put the Temples First

I recently read Making Pilgrimages: Meaning And Practice in Shikoku by Ian Reader, which is about Buddhist pilgrimage (specifically the 88-Temples pilgrimage) on the island of Shikoku. One of the observations he makes is that pilgrims who travel by motor vehicle (buses, cars, etc.) generally focus on the temples, whereas pilgrims who travel by foot generally focus on the journey.

I doubt I am ever going to return to Shikoku in my life, but the mode of pilgrimage which I am much more interested in is the walking kind, not the bus kind. However, as I said in one of my posts about my mini-pilgrimage, if I had lots of time to explore a rural area, I would probably choose a rural area other than the 88 Temples pilgrimage. Based on what little I saw, most of the 88 Temples pilgrimage consists of areas which have been built-up so much that, on the surface, they are indistinguishable from much of rural Japan (and as a pilgrim, I doubt I would get enough below the surface to learn about, say, local village traditions) and is not particularly scenic. Making Pilgrimages: Meaning And Practice in Shikoku also claims that, even though much of the media about the pilgrimage focuses on a serene trek through “nature”, only about 10% of the route could be considered scenic nowadays.

And before I went to Shikoku, I figured the pilgrimage would be more about the journey than the temples. It’s pretty clear from my own travel style that I care a lot about the ‘journey’ aspect of travel.

Then, on my own mini-pilgrimage, even though I insisted on walking the entire (short) route so because I felt that would be a more meaningful experience for myself, I ended up focusing on the temples. It certainly helped that I was not exhausted and the temples were close to each other.

Really, without the cultural/folk/religious traditions of the pilgrimage which, nowadays, are most readily accessed at the temples, what would be the point of walking in a circle around Shikoku instead of, say, Taiwan? Walking in a circle around Taiwan, I suspect, would have much better scenery. (And yes, walking by foot around Taiwan in a circle is becoming increasingly popular, though it is a pilgrimage inspired by patriotism rather than religion – though Ian Reader notes that some pilgrims on the 88 Temples circuit may also be motivated by patriotism rather than religion). And considering my own life history, walking in a circuit around Taiwan would probably also be more meaningful to me personally than walking in a circuit around Shikoku.

I was also struck by the comment from a temple priest, reported by Ian Reader, that doing the pilgrimage by bus was preferable to doing it on foot, since the bus pilgrims focus more on prayer and understanding the spiritual aspects, rather than always being in a hurry to walk to the next temple.

My point is that, due to my own circumstances, I was atypical of walking pilgrims in that the temples were the greatest point of interest to me, and I was atypical of the pilgrims who would focus on the temples in that I travelled between them on foot. Of course, the fact that I only did it for one day and only visited five temples also makes me atypical as well.

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4 thoughts on “I Was a Walker Who Put the Temples First

  1. I just had to reread that for my examinations! I ultimately have some…doubts about some of Reader’s scholarship; Making Pilgrimages is one of the ones I have fewer doubts about, but Practically Religious has some stuff that definitely comes across as cherry-picking. (If you haven’t read that one, his basic argument is that people do religious stuff in Japan for this-worldly benefits, and even if they say that they’re doing it for other reasons, they’re wrong.) So whenever he says, “Here is the dominant narrative for [whatever group of people],” I always have to wonder. (That said, Making Pilgrimages definitely is better at admitting that people may have other reasons beyond what he mentioned.)

    • Making Pilgrimages is not the first (nor the last) book I’ve read about the 88 Temples pilgrimage, and Ian Reader is not the only one who suggests that a lot of pilgrims do it for this-worldly benefits (though the other books I’ve read are less academic, and the writers are making less claim to being An Expert on the subject).

      I was rather intrigued by Ian Reader’s suggestion that the bus pilgrimage can be as meaningful/authentic/spiritual/etc. an experience as the pilgrimage on foot, and perhaps in some ways even more so than the foot pilgrimage. All of the other books I’ve read have the attitude that ‘real pilgrims do the pilgrimage on foot, those bus pilgrims are just tourists’.

      • I’d be curious which other books you read and how they compare to Reader’s. (The brother of a friend wants to walk the pilgrimage route and was asking me about it, and I really only knew Reader’s book, because I don’t study Shikoku or pilgrimage or Buddhism…)

        There’s actually a dominant theme in scholarship on Japanese religions that’s really interested in people doing things for this-worldly benefits. I think some of the focus was originally fueled by somewhat of a false dichotomy (Western religions are about doing stuff because belief whereas Eastern religions are about doing stuff because you want to get stuff!), which is why I tend to side-eye it a little. I do think Reader handles this-worldly benefits better in Making Pilgrimages than his earlier works, which can come across as…reductive at times.

        I actually thought Reader’s sections on bus pilgrimage were some of the more interesting sections, mostly because other people haven’t done that kind of research before. People tend to want to research more “traditional” subjects, I think. I just finished my “modern” (1868 to present day) unit for my examinations, and pretty much everything is either focused on the Meiji period or post-war New Religious Movements, which is disappointing, because obviously other things exist and religion has changed with the advent of new technology.

      • The books I’ve read are:

        Echoes of Incense by Don Weiss – Don Weiss, IIRC, considers himself to be a Buddhist, and did the pilgrimage on foot partially for religious/spiritual reasons. The most interesting part of his pilgrimage memoir was his psychological journey, both in relation to Buddhism and his marriage (one of the things he realized during his pilgrimage is that he was heading towards divorce, and he needed to learn how to let go of his wife)

        Neon Pilgrim by Lisa Dempster (eBook is basically the only edition which is easy to obtain outside of Australia/NZ) – another pilgrimage memoir, this time by a fat Australian vegan who did the pilgrimage in an attempt to treat her own depression. This is the one which has the most practical information about doing the pilgrimage, both because it’s the most recent, and also because Lisa focuses more on the logistical problems than the other books I’ve read (Lisa did it on foot, slept outdoors a lot, and did it in summer – some of her problems could be avoided by not doing the pilgrimage in summer and staying overnight in minshuku, but that would be much more expensive).

        Making Pilgrimages by Ian Reader – of the books I’ve read, this is the best overview of the history, background, and general practice of the pilgrimage. Good for better understanding the pilgrimage, not useful as a source of practical advice.

        Japanese Pilgrimage by Oliver Statler – this is the most literary/artistic book about the pilgrimage I’ve read. It also has a lot of background information, though it is more artistic and less scholarly than Making Pilgrimages. Lots of good anecdotes. Thin on practical advice, and even if it had more practical advice it would probably be out of date by now. For someone who really wants *information* on the pilgrimage, Making Pilgrimages is better. For someone who wants to read a good book which has merits other than the information it contains, Japanese Pilgrimage is better.

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