In the spring of 2017, I walked almost 900 miles through Japan. I was a rare foreigner on an obscure pilgrimage which connects 88 temples scattered across the island of Shikoku. Pilgrims, known as Henro, trace the path of Kobo Daishi, a monk who first brought Buddhism from China to Japan in 804 CE.
Embodying a Henro means donning a traditional straw conical hat, white vestments, a sacred sash, and carrying a walking stick with a bell mounted atop at all times. As with most things Japanese, there’s a richness and depth of meaning to the traditions, but practically speaking, it meant that it was 100% clear to everyone that I was a pilgrim, on a pilgrimage, at all times.
Shikoku is by far the least developed and most sparsely populated Japanese island, but much of the route follows along modern roads, through small towns and several cities. This means that almost every day you’re coming into contact with regular Shikoku residents, going about their routine: driving to work, meeting with friends, picking their kids up from school. Henros stick out like sore thumbs in the modern world; imagine a filthy, backpack-hauling through-hiker on Appalachian trail if it passed through the middle of Washington DC en route to Maine.
But there are advantages to wearing an outfit from the 9th century. First, it gives you access to the magical tradition of ossetai, or alms-giving to the pilgrims. Almost every day for six weeks — and often multiple times daily — someone would stop to give me food or money, or to offer me lodging. On such a solitary and isolating trip, it meant the world, and often brought me to tears. I lacked the vocabulary to sufficiently express my gratitude, and I knew I would never be able to repay their gifts.
Second, it’s an outward display of inner struggle. While very few people who witness the pilgrims on a daily basis have done the walk themselves, the pilgrimage has a reputation for its difficulty. Back in the real world, most of us are suffering somehow or another under the surface. Pilgrims wear it on their brows and the soles of their shoes. For six weeks, it turned me inside out, displaying my physical suffering and spiritual search on the surface.
Returning to the US, the importance of ossetai stuck with me, but I struggled with how to enact it with strangers in everyday life. People can easily detect pregnancy, and it sometimes squeezes out some humanity and creates connection, (oftentimes, as most pregnant women experience, the wall drops a little too low and people’s best intentions to be compassionate cross the line.) But how to tell if someone is hurting, or on a journey needing encouragement? Unfortunately, we don’t all have a pilgrimage running through our backyard to hone our compassion.
About a month ago, my desire to experience ossetai in the US arrived in the form of a torn ACL. Normally one to impatiently (read: obnoxiously) pass people on hiking trails, and generally drag friends on physically trying adventures, I’d never before had a bodily setback of any sort. After the injury, I was amazed at how the mere presence of my crutches moved people to connect with me. On public transportation, people of all shapes and sizes insisted I take their seats. In airports, security whisked me to the front of lines, despite my insistence to the contrary. Normally frenzied offices gave way and packed elevators cleared. One woman looked at me with earnest concern and asked: “I hope it’s not permanent?”
Looking to experience a little empathy? If you have good health insurance and a hankering for spending a few months indoors, tearing your ACL is a reliable option. Otherwise, I don’t know. Perhaps we can take a bit of extra time to offer ones’ seats to strangers, let people who look like they’re in a rush gain the last entry into the subway, or earnestly ask cashiers how their days are going while we’re ordering. Walking across an island in Japan, and tearing my ACL helped me to elicit a sentiment often attributed to various philosophers: “be kind to others, for everyone is fighting their own difficult battle.”