Tradition is living and active, but convention is passive and dead
Thomas Merton 1915-1968
Japan is...this might not be the best way to start a sentence. I am reminded constantly that one's experiences define one's reality and one's experiences are categorically defined by the overuse of the word IS. It seems to me that it is impossible to say anything objective at all, about anything at all. Everything depends on a point of view and every point of view pivots on the word IS. Think about that. He is a ..... America is.... The people of Japan are....etc. All history books become suspect even science becomes suspect as we are all learning via the highly political movement called global warming which I have vigorously opposed from the start. After meeting Al Gore I was doubly sure that the real agenda is control and not helping us all save the planet. When he got the nobel prize a high level British group condemned his theory on at least nine points saying it was not science at all. You cannot save us from nature. We are part of it. It is like saving the baby whilst allowing the mother to die on a island where there is only the baby and the mother. The baby dies too. We are categorically not the cause of global warming and climate change as I see it. Such hubris. Our fate and Earth's fate are one. Unless we leave Earth.
So before I can write about tradition and convention as it relates to the pilgrimage in Shikoku let us remember that I am talking about my pilgrimage. You, the reader may be inspired to hit the road at some point. But you will definitely not experience my pilgrimage. Yet you will be part of a tradition that has been going on for hundreds of years. It is the convention I am concerned about here because as we shall see there is not much to recommend about simply joining the convention of donning Buddhist garbs and going through the motions of a pilgrimage. In the same way there is not much point in going to temples and churches and mosques to outwardly appear spiritual, mostly to yourself, if the living heart of spirituality is not alive and awake in you. So let's get etymological to prise open the meaning of Trappist monk Merton's quote above.
Tradition: inherited, established, or customary pattern of thought, action, or behavior. A religious practice or a social custom or a belief or story relating to the past commonly accepted as historical. The handing down of information, beliefs, and customs by word of mouth or by example from one generation to another without written instruction.
Well that is fairly clear. We have a tradition in Scotland of asking the most handsome man who has got black hair ideally to step outside on New Year's eve with a piece of coal in his hand. He will then cross our threshold as the new year is entered and present it to the family as a sign of good luck. In Japan the tradition is to visit a shrine at midnight and bring in the new year with the blessings of the Shinto gods. In Europe there is an old tradition of walking the Camino to Santiago as a form of penance and self reflection and in Japan it is of course the 88 temples around Shikoku as a means of gaining Buddhist merit from the hardship endured.
Convention: Is a general agreement about basic principles or procedures accepted as true or correct by usage or custom especially in social matters and a rule of conduct or behavior. Aha! The word rule has surfaced and that is where we must focus the keen eye of discrimination because when rules are applied to any tradition it surely starts to die an ornate death dressed up as righteousness. But what has all this word play got to do with pilgrimage and more importantly about our experience of the world and thus the very IS that defines our reality?
Most of us think that tradition and convention basically mean the same but we are playing a semantic game here for a reason and that reason is to show how these two core concepts actually encapsulate the root of our current dilemma. What dilemma? The entire planet is currently being infested by an insidious form of mental cancer known as globalization that promises to make us all happy by making us all the same under the marvellous banner of democracy. As I write this a gutsy Brazilian tribe called the Kapayo have had it with the conventional understanding that white men in business suits know what is best for us all. One thousand indigenous Indians have just arrived on a fleet of beaten-up buses for a massive protest against a proposed dam on the Xingu River. The dam will help aluminium companies in the area by providing electricity but it will basically wipe out the fish these indigenous people have depended on for millenia. Their tradition of eating fish from that river will be eradicated through the conventional understanding that progress is good for us. Us. Do we depend on fish from that river? Our conventional minds destroy traditions. Right now it is happening. In the past Sting and Anna Roddick the founder of Body Shop were able to halt dam construction in the Amazon. Now, I doubt it can work even with the internet at our disposal. Convention is clearly destroying tradition. Pilgrimages are perhaps turning into Lohas vacations for those who have lost the connection with tradition and applied the rules of convention to an ancient body of spiritual practise. But Merton says it so much better because he saw how the beautiful tradition of monasticism was being perverted by rules and regulations about how to be a monk and thus how to be spiritual. As if there was a way to be spiritual!
In this matter of monastic tradition, we must carefully distinguish between tradition and convention. In many monasteries there is very little living tradition, and yet monks think themselves to be traditional. Why? Because they cling to an elaborate set of conventions. Convention and tradition may seem on the surface to be much the same thing. But this superficial resemblance only makes conventionalism all the more harmful. In actual fact, conventions are the death of real tradition as they are of all real life. They are parasites which attach themselves to the living organism of tradition and devour all its reality, turning it into a hollow formality.
From No Man Is An Island (Shambala Library)
Merton saw the danger of following outward conventions without understanding the heart of the matter. The heart of a pilgrim cannot be gained by dressing up alone, as in the picturesque and quintessential pilgrim above. I remember walking up to a temple at the South of Shikoku where the famous monk Kobo Daishi had gotten enlightened after reciting a mantra a hundred thousand times. (was he counting?)It is a particularly popular destination for those who might not make the whole journey but cannot miss a visit to the spot where the legendary Kukai (his other name) literally saw the light. At the bottom of the mountain I had been talking to my wife in Kobe on the cellphone to dictate the Japanese blog entry for that day. I had really pushed myself that morning and had walked 18 kilometers in 3 hours. She was not in any mood to feel the fatigue of my situation and we were having communication problems as the reception was bad. Anger welled up. I yelled at her that if she didn't want to help me with the blog I would find someone else. I stopped for a smoke half way up the mountain from where a marvellous view of the sea presented itself.I had to settle down before going into the temple. Just then a disheveled looking man walked past me at very high speed. Obviously a really dedicated walker he had none of the usual pilgrim accoutrements and seemed very concentrated, even intense. I immediately recognized a man in deep pain. Something had happened in this man's life, something dreadful perhaps. He really was doing internal penance I felt, he was not in the slightest bit interested in what I or anybody else thought of him, or of whether he was being a good pilgrim or not. The speed of his walking indicated that he was perhaps trying to distance himself from something but of course since he carried it the penance was 24 hours a day. You cannot walk away from yourself.
Merton saw all the rules and regulations of the monastic order he was part of as being only partly successful in producing true monks. And his understanding of a true monk was a person who really was capable of loving his brothers, his community and by extension the whole world through the voluntary simplicity and single mindedness of renunciation. Monks are stationary pilgrims when seen in this way. They may not wander the roads externally but they most certainly face the spiritual challenges acutely. The main challenge of the traditional pilgrim as with the traditional monk was dealing with long periods of solitude. The pilgrim experiences this walking in his own company, the monk praying in his own heart. Both have communities around them but the real work is done alone. Merton with his acute directness tells us in no uncertain terms what we are asked to do if we really do want to continue the ancient spiritual tradition of the monk and the true pilgrim:
To live alone with God a man must really be able to live alone. You cannot live alone (or walk alone) if you cannot stand loneliness. And you cannot stand loneliness if your desire for solitude is built on a frustrated need for human affection. To put it in plain language it is hopeless to try to live your life in a cloister if you are going to eat your heart out thinking that nobody love you. You have to be able to totally disregard the whole issue, and simply love the whole world in God, embracing all your brethren in that same pure love,without seeking signs of affection from them and without caring whether or not you ever get any. If you think this is very easy, I assure you that you are mistaken..
Still wracked with a feeling of impotence at not being able to talk kindly to my own wife through simply being tired from overstretching myself, and from realising the enormous difficulty of the human condition, I rang the hanging gong at the temple above. The heart Sutra was being recited all around me but that was not my prayer. It is of course a convention to religiously recite the same prayer, the heart sutra at every temple. But that was not my tradition and with my craggy looking unshaven face, the white towel wrapped around my head and the hand rolled tobacco in my hand I had reached a point in this pilgrimage where I had to face hard facts. At the grand old age of 55 I was no closer to living a spiritual life, of being a real pilgrim, than when I had nievely set off on my first trip to India at 18 and was pretty sure the sacred landscape there would sort me out. Ah, such is human pride. I stubbed out the cigarette and headed for the next temple...