Cross-Cultural Journeys As Pilgrimage


By Don George  |  

One of the most rewarding trips of my life was a five-day solo odyssey I made a few summers ago around the Japanese island of Shikoku. Shikoku has been a place of pilgrimage since the ninth century, when the beloved scholar and monk Kobo Daishi established a path of 88 Buddhist temples that circle the island. Completing this circuit is supposed to give you great wisdom, purity, and peace, but I was on a pilgrimage of another kind. My wife grew up on this island, and I had first visited it with her some 20 years before. Now I had returned to see if the singular beauty, serenity, and slow pace of the place I remembered—and the country kindness of its residents—had survived.

A few hours into my journey, I stopped a wizened woman, clad in the pilgrim’s traditional white garb and cone-shaped straw hat, scuffling along a leaf-paved path. She was on her second temple circuit, she told me. “The thing about the pilgrimage,” she said, “is that it makes your heart lighter; it energizes you. It refreshes your sense of the meaning of life.” Then her eyes locked into mine, deep and shining as a cloudless sky.

During my five days on Shikoku, I ate fresh-from-the-sea sashimi with fishermen, philosophized in steaming public baths with farmers, spun bowls with fifth-generation potters, and talked baseball and benevolence with Buddhist monks. I lay down in rice paddies, lost myself in ancient forests, stared at the sun-spangled sea, and listened—with the help of an 80-year-old “translator” I had met as she was mending a fishing net on a pier—to the whispers of ghosts in the trees. By the end of my odyssey, I too felt lighter, refreshed, and energized, but not because of the sanctified sites. The island itself had become one big temple for me.

That trip confirmed a truth I had sensed during two decades of wandering: You don’t have to travel to Jerusalem, Mecca, Santiago de Compostela, or any other explicitly holy site to be a pilgrim. If you travel with reverence and wonder, with a lively sense of the potential and preciousness of every moment and every encounter, then wherever you go, you walk the pilgrim’s path.

A New Self in a New World

I began to learn this after I graduated from college and moved to Athens, Greece, to teach for a year. By the end of that year, the wonders of the world had ensnared me. I would sit for hours on the Acropolis, staring at the bone-white Parthenon, trying to absorb the perspective of the ancients. I consulted the crimson poppies and fluted marble fragments at Delphi. I meditated on Minoan marvels—bull dancers, mosaic makers—among the tangerine-colored columns of Knossos on Crete. I drank ouzo with fellow teachers and excavated the hidden truths of Aristotle and Kazantzakis on a sun-spattered terrace overlooking the Aegean. I danced with wild-haired women under bouzouki-serenaded stars. I fell in love with the world.

In his seminal essay, “Why We Travel,” Pico Iyer writes, “All good trips are, like love, about being carried out of yourself and deposited in the midst of terror and wonder.” Travel stretches us so that our mental clothes don’t fit anymore; it reminds us over and over that the anchoring assumptions of our youth lose their hold in the global sea. Travel to strange places can make us strangers to ourselves, but it can also introduce us to all the exhilarating possibilities of a new self in a new world.

Inspired by my experience in Greece, I applied for a two-year fellowship to teach in a place that was far more foreign to me than anywhere I’d been before: Japan. I knew nothing of Japan’s customs, history, or language, but something was pulling me there. Trusting and terrified, I won the fellowship and took the plunge.

It was while I was living in Tokyo that the first great lesson of travel revealed itself to me: The more you offer yourself to the world, the more the world offers itself to you. This revelation began with my getting lost. I have an uncanny ability to become lost in even the most obvious circumstances, and in Japan, this predisposition was heightened by my inability to read Japanese. Because I was always losing my way, I had to learn to rely on people. And they came through: Time after time, Japanese students, housewives, and businessmen would walk or drive 15 or even 30 minutes out of their way to deliver me to the proper train platform, bus stop, or neighborhood. Sometimes they would even press little wrapped red-bean sweets or packets of tissues into my hands when they said good-bye.

Buoyed by these kindnesses, I traveled to Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia for the summer. Once again, I knew no one and couldn’t speak the language; I was at the mercy of the road. But I was beginning to trust. And as it turned out, everywhere I went, the more I opened myself up to people and relied on them, the more warmly and deeply they embraced and aided me: A family at an open-air restaurant in Kuala Lumpur noticed me smiling at their birthday celebration and invited me to join the feast; two boys in Bali pedaled me to a secret temple set among glistening rice paddies.

The Real Journey

Looking back, I realize that I was refining my practice of vulnerability, a practice as rigorous and soul-scouring as any contemplative art. Becoming vulnerable requires concentration, devotion, and a leap of faith—the ability to abandon yourself to a forbiddingly foreign place and say, in effect, “Here I am; do with me what you will.” It’s the first step on the pilgrim’s path.

The second step is absorbing a lesson that grows from the first: The more you humble yourself, the greater you become. I have felt this in the Cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris, imagining the ceaseless processions of worshippers who had come before me and would come after. I have felt it in the main train station in Calcutta, adrift in a sweaty, sharp-elbowed, eternally jostling, cardamom-scented sea of humanity. I have felt it walking alone on the Karakoram Highway in Pakistan, between towering peaks so ancient and enormous that I felt smaller than the tiniest grain of sand. Travel teaches us how small we are—when we truly understand this, the world expands infinitely. In that moment, we become part of the larger whole; we lose ourselves to the Parisian stone, the Indian crowd, the Himalayan crags.

This truth has led me over the years to a third illumination: Every journey takes us inward as well as outward. As we move through new places, encountering new people and food and artistic creations, new languages and customs and histories, a corresponding journey winds within as we discover new morals, meanings, and imaginings. The real journey is the ongoing and ever-changing interaction of the inner life and the outer.

When we travel, we connect the external world with the one inside. On the best trips, these connections can become so complete that a kind of samadhi (union) is achieved: We transcend not just the barriers of language, custom, geography, and age but the very barriers of self, those illusory isolations of body and mind.

These moments do not last. We exit Notre-Dame, buy our ticket in Calcutta, climb back into our minivan in the Himalayas. But we come back from those moments—like the Japanese pilgrim I met—lighter and energized, with a refreshed sense of the meaning of life.

What I relearned on my circuit of Shikoku is that every journey is a pilgrimage. Every sojourn offers the chance to connect with a sacred secret: that we are all precious pieces of a vast and interconnected puzzle, and that every trip we take, every connection we make, helps complete that puzzle—and ourselves.

Thinking of this now, I realize that the goal of all of my life’s journeys has been to connect as many pieces—as many places, as many people—as possible, so that at some point, I could complete that picture puzzle within myself. Is this not the traveler’s version of the oneness that Eastern religions teach, the union that is the very meaning of the word yoga?

This completion hasn’t happened yet—but what rewards I am finding along the way! Travel has taught me to see beyond barriers. It has taught me to abandon myself to a sashimi celebration in Japan and the spine-tingling hush of Notre-Dame, to the gift of two bicyclists on Bali and the soul-plucking Hellenic stars. I may not know what I will encounter, endure, experience, or explore on my next journey, but I know that it will enrich and enlarge me, and illuminate a little more of the whole.

When I stopped that woman on Shikoku, I unfurled my map and was planning to ask, “Do you know how to get here?” But then I stopped—I’d found the answer in her eyes.