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.
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.