Ducking under the roof of a covered shopping arcade to get out of a driving rain, I met a small Japanese man who asked the usual questions. While he smoked, I confirmed that I was indeed walking the pilgrimage road, yes, I had lived in Japan quite a long time, that I was from America and was married.
He asked if my wife was ill.
After a short pause to wonder why he was asking, I assured him she wasn’t. So, why, he wanted to know, are you walking? It’s usual for Japanese people to walk for someone or something. To have some purpose, something to which to dedicate your effort.
At the time I replied that I was doing it for myself. But thinking about it for a while – time to think being one of the great luxuries of walking 1200km – I decided there was in fact someone to whom I wished to dedicate the merit of my walk.
My father Harvey has for the past couple of years been living with Parkinson’s disease. Medication alleviates the most severe symptoms, but there is no cure. Life for him is not what it once was. He moves slower, he rests more often, his hands shake, he thrashes in bed. Every day must be a struggle. A struggle he did not choose, a struggle much greater than walking 40km a day on blistered feet with 10 kilos on your shoulders.
Buddhists believe that devotional or virtuous actions earn merit, a spiritual mileage club that create conditions for a favorable rebirth. Mahayana Buddhists, especially Tantric Buddhists, like to practice dedicating merit. Only the most literal minded think the gods or Buddha is keeping score, but in the symbolic act of giving away our merit it is believed we reinforce charitable behavior that may then more readily find expression in our daily lives, with real actions and real people.
There is something of a set ritual for making temple visits, including purification, offerings, thanks to Kobo Daishi for a safe journey, reading the Heart Suttra, and offering prayers for the enlightenment of all sentient beings. To this I have added my own personal dedication, that any merit I accrue from this pilgrimage be given to my father that his suffering may be reduced and that he may live out his life in ease.
This walk is for Harvey.