Thursday, 20 August 2015

Zen pilgrimage walk: What’s it all about and why I did it

"When you said you'd been on a walking holiday, this isn't quite what I had in mind..."

I’ve just got back from a 4-week pilgrimage walk through the country, which I did as a Zen monk – carrying no money, just living from my alms bowl. In the next few weeks I’m going to publish a series of articles on different aspects of the walk. This week I’m going to approach the question
that quite a few people have asked me: “why would you do such a thing…?!"

Good question!

Why would I do such a thing

I’ve been practising Zen now for close to 8 years – all of it under the guidance of Zen master Daizan Roshi. About 6 months ago Daizan asked me if I would be interested to do a pilgrimage walk (similar to the walk he did when he first got back from Japan 8 years ago). As we discussed it, there seemed to be two main reasons for asking me: firstly it would be a way to continue and deepen my own personal practice, but also it would provide some opportunities for me to practise teaching. For a few years now I’ve been part of Daizan's Junior Zen teacher training programme, but it’s difficult to find many opportunities to teach since I attend and practice at the same dojo as Daizan and everyone comes to see him (as it should be). Getting out and about, away from Daizan's large and wise shadow, I would be able to flap my tiny little Zen teachers wings... I would be putting myself in the situation of having to explain myself – "why are you doing this walk?", "why are you dressed so funny?", etc.

Daizan gave me the option of doing the walk as a monk or lay person, and with or without money – it was my choice. After a week or so pondering this, I decided that if I was going to do this I should do it properly, in the traditional way: ordain as a monk and do it without any money.


Ordination ceremony

So on 12th July, the last day of our 5-day Zen retreat down at Gaunts House in Dorset, I ordained as a Rinzai Zen monk in the Inzan lineage under Shinzan Roshi and Daizan Roshi. The ceremony lasted about 30mins and included a certain number of precepts that I was expected to live my life by: 

The 10 Bodhisattva Precepts (given to all lay people)
  • Do not take life
  • Do not steal
  • Do not indulge in abusive or inappropriate sexuality
  • Do not lie
  • Do not abuse intoxicants
  • Do not criticise others
  • Do not boast of your attainments and belittle others
  • Do not be mean in giving Dharma (teaching) or wealth
  • Do not harbour anger
  • Do not defame the three treasures (do not deny the Buddha within yourself or in others)
Together with one modification and 5 more precepts for a novice-monk
  • Do not engage in any sexual activity
  • Do not eat after midday (except whilst travelling)
  • Do not sing, dance, play music or engage in any kind of frivolous entertainment
  • Do not wear jewellery, perfume, or make-up
  • Do not sit on high chairs or sleep on luxurious beds
  • Do not handle or accept money

Because it wouldn't be possible for me to continue keeping these precepts when I got back to life after the walk (I would have to go back to earning money, and I'm getting married soon so abstaining from all sexual activity doesn't seem like it would be very conducive to a good marriage...!), my monk-hood was always going to be a temporary one. Unlike in the Christian tradition where monks and nuns typically ordain for life, it's very common in the Buddhist tradition to become a monk for a period then go back to lay life. In many Buddhist countries, young people (mostly men) are pretty much all expected to do a stint in the monastery – typically 1-3 years. I was going to do about 4 weeks.

After I'd taken on these precepts ("will you take this precept?" "YES" to each one), I was given the koromo (robe), the shukin (belt) and the kesa (ceremonial outer robe) to put on, and the hatsu (alms bowl). There was also the ceremonial shaving of the last of my hair (I'd had my head shaved before the ceremony, leaving what's known as the 'Buddha curl' – just a tiny patch over your crown) with the usual homage to the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha.

Me just after I'd become a monk, with Shinzan Roshi and Daizan Roshi

After the ceremony, Shinzan Roshi (who was leading the retreat we'd just been on) was adamant that no matter what you did in your life – how many stupas you built, or good deeds you performed – becoming a monk was of the highest merit.

I'll take that...

After the merriment and then lunch that followed the end of the ceremony and the end of the formal retreat, people gradually went home, leaving me to stay the night at Gaunts House by myself preparing to leave the following morning. I had no money at this point, so slept on the floor in the Gaunts House library, and ate some kindly donated left-overs in the fridge for dinner. That evening was full of a whole mix of emotion, with tears and excitement all swirling around together.

I was a monk. I couldn't quite believe it! What did that mean? My partner, Jo, Daizan and everyone else had left – and now I was by myself. It was up to me to actually do this walk. What if I couldn't do it? What if, what if...

Next week I'll write about the walk itself and some of the challenges that the footwear gave me.

I am a member of the Zenways sangha led by Zen master Daizan Roshi, and I teach meditation, mindfulness and yoga at the ZenYoga studio in Camberwell, London. See my website for further details.

I'd love to hear from you

Leave a comment below, join the discussion.

Pass it on

Enjoyed this post? Then please tweet it, share it on Facebook or send it to friends via e-mail using the buttons below.


  1. Can't wait for the next installment ...!! :)

  2. Good stuff Mark. Great achievement. Looking forward to chatting in person about it.

  3. This is fascinating stuff Mark - much respect to you for doing this