Jan 24, 2013
“Pilgrimage to Anywhere,” by Rijumati Wallis
As winter grips the northern hemisphere, many imagine heading south to warmer places. In this book, those of us unable to make a physical journey beyond our routine, can still make a journey of mind and heart alongside Rijumati; asking challenging questions of ourselves even if our bodies recline in an armchair or browse in bed.
Buddhism is quintessentially a journey of the mind and heart: an invitation to refine and purify our thinking and emotion, wherever and whenever we can build this awareness. It’s an inner journey, yet the metaphor of the outer journey remains as powerful for Buddhists as it does in theistic faiths. Throughout Rijumati’s accessible and very readable book Pilgrimage to Anywhere, he models a Buddhist attitude to our mental states which offers a chance to move beyond our habitual sense of ourselves and to imagine how we might be otherwise.
For those with the spirit to move, pilgrimage is a reflexive appointment with our deeper selves and our highest aspirations. Yet our familiar, habitual selves must fall away for new insights to take root more firmly. As Rijumati writes in his chapter, Falling Apart in Ala Archa:
“There was part of me that didn’t despair; it knew that I was falling apart and that in a way it was a necessary evil. The stories I was telling myself about my journey, my identity and even my life were crumbling and the little mind that tries to hold it all together was losing control. But I caught a glimpse of something deeper, something more, something unnameable. The sense of death was very present. Without any great feeling of concern I thought ‘Perhaps I am going to die up here in the Ala Archa’. Or perhaps part of me was going to die.”
Rijumati’s book – like the man himself – is ideal company on the journey. Warm, open, moderate and steadily questioning, he offers a window on his outer and inner journeys in a quest to re-discover a life of fuller meaning. The life he left in England, as an ordained member of the Triratna Buddhist Order, already involved steady self- questioning in his spiritual practise, but the time came when, perhaps even surprising himself, he asks: “Why was I undertaking this journey, what was I doing with my life, who was I now apart from all I had left behind?”
I ought to declare an interest. Rijumati is a friend for many years. I even spent a couple of days on the traditional pilgrimage trail in India. I’d been robbed in the badlands of Bihar and left only with what I wore. Fortunately, I heard that he and a group of pilgrims were due to arrive in Sravasti, home of Anathapindika’s park, where the Buddha spent over twenty rainy season retreats and gave key mindfulness teachings. I remember the moment when a bus arrived, and he tumbled from the dusty steps along with other friends and my own journey could resume. Pilgrimage to Anywhere offers further enjoyment of his company in this very readable account. His journey has a twin movement. It is both true to enough to honour his dissatisfactions with life in the UK, whilst being inspired to leave his daily routine and seek deeper answers.
On the road he is a pleasant companion but don’t underestimate the gentle tone. His quietly persistent questions return the attentive to the central quest of a spiritual journey. It is this attitude of mind, allied with the resonance of Buddhist traditions in many of the places visited, that gives depth to this necessarily aimless journey of experience and inquiry.
The Buddha (in the Mahaparanibbana Sutta) recommended ‘clansmen’ to visit the four principal sights. Lumbini, Bodhgaya, Sarnath and Kushinara are joined here by Rajghir, Sravasti and Vaishali. Rijumati looks for resonances in the Buddha’s stories from these places and his own personal connection to the teachings like an impulse to use work as a way of being generous.
One of the joys of Pilgrimage to Anywhere, is the unorthodox track of Rijumati’s travels, from India, through Kazakhstan, Russia, Japan, Cuba and the USA, Rijumati’s wanderings turn on outer and inner journeys of land and spirit. He embraces experience, from falling in love to falling apart: navigating the mysteries of ferry and bus routes in unlikely places. From Lake Issyk Kul to Irkutsk, it is the journey of a man looking for new meaning:
“My voyage into the Unknown had inadvertently called into consciousness mighty untamed creatures of the Deep… I was on a pilgrimage to find myself”.
The ellipses of Rijumati’s itinerary take a scenic route to spiritual questions. Sticking to an inner principle of why he is making this journey keeps it distinct from tourism or holiday. “The pilgrim looks for a way to express delight at life’s mysteries and devotion to people and places worthy of reverence” he says.
Rijumati does not stick to a rigid pilgrim’s script. He notices what is happening in a travelling mind. It is not a journey of austerities and self-abnegation but (like the route of the journey itself) his reflections on spiritual development meander towards a broader goal. He rounds on consistent themes of happiness and exploration that refresh and build with a quiet persistence. If the existential questions are challenging, the practicalities of getting a bus ticket out of somewhere give him plenty of challenges to stay grounded. He says what he sees, however uncomfortable:
“At the temples of Koyasan and Eiheiji I was struck that in this faultlessly polite and welcoming country the only two places where I felt unwelcome were two of the holiest Buddhist sites”
The book is organised in short, bite-size chapters, with enough for travel enthusiasts and Buddhist pilgrims. In Takada, Japan, his own journey and those of lineage teachers inter-twine. “I was touched by the particulars of Shinran’s life: his courage in recreating himself after a spiritual crisis, his emphasis on surrender to the Buddha Amida and his abandonment of attempts to use self-power as a means of spiritual growth seemed to resonate with my own unfolding journey”.
At his London Buddhist Centre book launch, Rijumati says what every pilgrim will learn “Just visiting the places isn’t necessarily spiritually significant in any way – it’s about receptivity. The quality of pilgrimage is about opening yourself up to significance of what happened in these places.
In so doing, Rijumati describes himself as loosening the labels so often hung around us. He found himself less English than before; discovers some limits of a Eurocentric worldview and even embraces falling in love as going beyond the self. “We need a story to function in the world” he says “but any story can become a prison in the end. Letting these stories fall apart at the right time is essential.”