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Aki Meguri

History: To Be a Pilgrim


The first rule of the pilgrim: Never turn down a free lunch.

As flip as this sounds, it is in fact true that the pilgrim in Japan is required to accept virtually all offerings. Although I won't be eating flesh (as usual) or drinking alcohol (a novelty), if people hand me these items, I must accept them. I can then either (a) pass them on to another pilgrim, or (b) place them before a statue as an offering.

I am allowed to turn these things down at the table, and when I'm a walking "henro" I can turn down rides.

I have completed one of Japan's most extensive pilgrimages--100 temples. It's in three parts: 33 in the Kansai area, 33 in the Kanto area around Tokyo, and 34 in Chichibu, a mountain valley near Tokyo. The first two I did by public transportation; the last one, I walked (about 60 miles). These pilgrimages are dedicated to Kannon, the goddess of mercy--China's Kwan Yin.  [More about these pilgrimages will be found in The Temple Guy's Furudera pages.]

Along the route of the "Nihon Hyakku Kannon" (Japan Hundred Kannon) pilgrimage, I have received everything from "baby bamboo" fresh from the ground, with dirt still clinging to the roots (I gave it to the old woman at the temple where I was staying, as I had no means of cooking it) to a sweat cloth for my face imprinted with an ink drawing of the temple where I received it. Near-frozen tomatoes on a hot day, hot tea in winter, brush calligraphy done especially for me, countless cups of cold water--and all this without begging! I mention this because the old pilgrim rules require begging. Some say you must make 64 requests per day, as a humbling experience.

The modern Japanese use a word, "o-settai," to indicate business entertaining. "I went out with my client last night for o-settai." Funnily enough, even some of my students who are older and interested in religion don't realize that the origin of the word is related to pilgrimage: "o-settai" was any gift given to a pilgrim, including everything from lodging to cash, and gained merit for the giver. Funny how things change.

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