by tendo zenji


Searching for Solitude

In last months talk on Solitude I described it as a process of letting go. Of putting yourself into a place where you abandoned distractions, entertainments, modern life.  Pilgrimage is in one view “searching for solitude.” It is a way, in our world, in our culture to make that space for solitude. Consider  how it was in India for Buddhists:

It was common in ancient India for yogis to remove themselves from society to practice in solitude in the forests. There they would beg for alms and offerings from ordinary people who respected them. In China there was no such tradition. Someone who went around asking for alms was simply a beggar. Practitioners had to work to survive and sustain their practice. For this reason Chan has traditionally placed great emphasis on applying practice to daily work.

-Sheng Yen, The Method of No-Method (pp. 42)

Being a hermit in the West means that you are a bum, down and out, maybe crazy. Pilgrimage means you are a vagrant. But this can be worked with. There are activities we can engage in that have the veneer of respectability that allows us to engage solitude, to be on pilgrimage. 


The essence of pilgrimage is commitment. Being completely committed to the path. More than just traveling to sacred places this is a form of practice itself a way of life. It ties together individual and monastic practice.  The model is the method of practice in China.

Historical Precedence

Whip for Spurring Students Onward Through the Chan Barrier Checkpoints by Yunqi Zhuhong

“The Chan Whip was conceived by Zhuhong as a portable, convenient, no-nonsense “pocket companion guide” that addressed practitioners directly , providing not just method but morale. As such its selections deliberately eschew abstract discussions of theory in favor of sermons, exhortations, sayings, autobiographical narratives, letters, and anecdotal sketches dealing fankly—and encouragingly—with the concrete ups and downs of lived practice.”
–Jeffery L. Broughton, Chan Whip, p. 2

As an example of the life of practice (gongfu) incorporating the elements of pilgrimage  Xueyan’s story (Ch’an Whip, p. 17). In the recording of the talk below you can hear the whole story with commentary.

The story gives an outline of how Chan practice (gongfu)  was approached in the Song.  This is what I mean by pilgrimage.  In this story you can see that Xueyuan is completely dedicated to the path. He has his ups and downs–which are themselves instructive and part of the aim of the Ch’an Whip is to show the human side of these great teachers–but he stays with it and pushes pasts his low points.  This is further an exemplar of continuous practice. Where even as he travels, is on the pilgrimage practice is ongoing.

Xueyuan, like the other longer anecdotes in the Ch’an Whip, ordains and works with a particular teacher and then begins traveling from practice place to practice place.  This is the standard practice, typically one traveled after one has had an insight to test it and to push oneself deeper. Then seems to be an understanding that working with one teacher can be limiting. That is even a very awakened teacher has a style, a set of teaching devices and their own limits.  All of these masters-to-be came to deeper awakenings and into their own mastery under other teachers.  Not only these Ch’an Masters but all of the great Zen masters of Japan, Dogen, Hakuin Ekaku, Torei Enji, Gassan Jito, Bassui, Bankei all followed this path of pilgrimage.


Zeal, Effort and Naturalness

To be fully committed to the path is a matter of zeal. A real hunger for awakening.  This is often confused with effort which cannot be anything but directed by the self.  Think about how you chose to apply yourself to something.  Committing to exercise you put in a great effort.  Effort is needed to get oneself started in practice, but very quickly it becomes self-reenforcing and just another barrier. So what then do we do?  Consider Gongfu:

Gong-fu we translate as “practice” or “training” but that is a much more self-directed notion.  Gongfu is directing our energy, which is core notion going back to ancient Taoism.
–Jeffery Broughton, Chan Whip, p.4

This is the flowing of energy to the endeavor as opposed to a conscious effort. We can see here how we can begin by self-directing our energy, putting in effort. But when we have eased the obstructions the energy flows naturally.  This naturalness, which is what Linji meant when he said ‘we have nothing to do’ is our natural energy going where it is required. In the same way that the practice of wu-wei is moving though the world without obstruction, responding to circumstances.

The Master instructed the sangha: “Stream-enterers! The buddhadharma is not a matter of putting in exceptional work. It is just a matter of the usual nothing-to-do–shitting, pissing, putting on clothes, eating meals; and when tired, laying down. Idiots will laugh at me, but the wise are in the know. An ancient said, ‘One who makes exceptional effort at practice directed outside [the usual nothing-to-do] is, in the final analysis, a dullard’.
Jeffery Broughton, The Record of Linji, p. 43

Commenting on the above quote from Linji, the Japanese Master Kōunshi noted:

‘Not a matter of putting in work’ means not a matter of karmic performance.’ Scholars of the teachings call the stages up to and including the seventh ‘the path of putting in work’ because the bodhisattva applies effort in practice. From the eighth stage onward it is called ‘the path of no putting in work’
Jeffery Broughton, The Record of Linji, p.175, note 111

We follow the path of effort until like the rest of the provisional practices we have to let it go. Let the energy direct us through the remainder of our practice. In pilgrimage we are able to practice wu-wei directly, to flow along with circumstances instead of led around by our self-directed efforts.

Practice of Pilgrimage

I take pilgrimage as this lifestyle of practice.  Yes you can embark on a limited, direct pilgrimage to a “holy site”, whatever that may mean to you. It is just like what I spoke of regarding solitude last month.  Solitude is a practice of letting go and that is valuable whether it be for a day, a week or a lifetime.   Pilgrimage is a practice of commitment, adapting your life to the practice. Doing this for a week, or a month or a lifetime all has value.

I have undertaken pilgrimage via bicycle on long bicycle tours lasting many months. These are endeavors that in their own right bring you down the essentials. A small tent is your hermitage moved from place to place.  Your meals are small and simple. Work practice is moving yourself from place to place, setting up and breaking down camp, cooking meals.  Zazen can be done inside one’s tent or sitting outside in the environment.  The outside practices I have described in past teachings can be put in to practice while traveling, or at stopping points.  Traveling this way, or on long backpacking trips allows us to engage in a type of hermetic practice, which is how I see the practice of pilgrimage, that works within the confines of our modern society.  Bicycle tourists and backpackers do things and most people do don’t but enough do that it isn’t outside of the norm. These activities and many others are simply vehicles for our practice a way to engage with this time honored practice of pilgrimage today, right now.

The practices that I have outlined over these last six months they all are informed by my practice of pilgrimage.  The gazing practices in particular can truly be cultivated when we travel. In motion or in at rest. We can make the “topic” of our meditation what we gaze upon. Or it can be a huatoa, a koan or awareness itself.  There are many distractions whatever we do and pilgrimage is no escape from that. But we can easily turn our lives to the essentials, let everything else fade away and just observe the topic.


The Chan Whip : A companion to Zen Practice
Jeffery L. Broughton with Elise Yoko Watanabe
Oxford University Press 2015 New York, NY
ISBN: 0190200723

The Record of Linji: A New Translation of the Linjilu in the Light of Ten Japanese Zen Commentaries
December 11, 2012
by Jeffrey L. Broughton and  Elise Yoko Watanabe
Oxford University Press; Bilingual edition (December 11, 2012)
ISBN-10: 0199936439

The Method of No-Method: The Chan Practice of Silent Illumination
Ch’an Master Sheng Yen
Shambhala, 2008