Thursday, 15 October 2015

Zen pilgrimage walk: The endless end

Earlier this summer I did a 4-week pilgrimage walk through the country as a Zen monk – carrying no money, just living from my alms bowl. So far I've written a number of articles about the walk (including why I would even do such a thing, the pain in my feet, and how I lived from the bowl on people's generosity, and sleeping rough).

The destination for my walk was a hill in the east of Lancashire, near the town of Burnley, called Pendle Hill. 

Pendle Hill as I approached it

Why Pendle Hill?

I am British, born and raised, but I practice on a path that originated in India and has been refined through the centuries in Japan. I took ordination in the Zen tradition and donned the robes of an Unsui (novice) monk. Walking up the country, I was a curious site: white British, but wearing a distinctly Japanese outfit, practising a "foreign" religion.

Pendle Hill is an important place in a home-grown British spiritual tradition – Quakerism. It was the place where it's founder, George Fox, had a great "opening" or revelation back in 1652. He described his vision on the hilltop :
As we travelled, we came near a very great hill, called Pendle Hill, and I was moved of the Lord to go up to the top of it; which I did with difficulty, it was so very steep and high. When I was come to the top, I saw the sea bordering upon Lancashire. From the top of this hill the Lord let me see in what places he had a great people to be gathered.
    — George Fox: An Autobiography, Chapter 6


Fox initially just wanted to transform the existing Christian structures in England to a more accurate following of Christ. For this, he and his followers were persecuted by Cromwell's Puritan government and then the "restored" Charles II Catholics. Fox argued, based on the teachings of Peter (Acts 2 & 3), for an egalitarian, spirit-filled Christianity that would not be oppressive of people on account of race, sex, or class. By 1655 a national Quaker organisation had been founded.

Although Quakers have their roots in Christianity, they value the teachings and insights of other faiths and traditions, making them a very egalitarian and accepting group. They strongly believe that faith is lived through action, which is lived out through their social and political engagement to building a more just and peaceful world.

Quaker worship (called 'meeting for worship') normally lasts for an hour. They sit in stillness and quiet, listening and reflecting, looking for a sense of connection with those around, with themselves, and with God. During worship people may feel sufficiently moved to get up and speak, pray or read aloud. This is called "ministry", and can be done by anyone in the meeting. There are no priests, preachers, songs, set prayers or talks, and the table in the middle of the meeting circle often has the Bible, maybe the Qur'an, and a book called "Quaker faith & practice" – a collection of writing and experiences of Quakers from their 350-year history.

Over the years, Quakerism spread out through the world – notably into North America. Pennsylvania was actually established in 1681 by a Quaker. Here in England Cadbury's, Terry's, Fry's, Rowntree, Lloyds Banking Group, Barclays, and Clarks shoes were all set up by Quakers (although I'm not sure all these companies still operate with Quaker morals...)

So not only are the Quakers a British home-grown spiritual organisation, they are also very Zen-like. They practice by sitting in silence, sensing their connection with others and the world, and they put a big emphasis on living their faith (in Zen the phrase is do-zen, meaning "moving/acting Zen").

This made Pendle Hill a very appropriate place to end my own pilgrimage and connect what I was doing back to my own spiritual culture.

The endless end

At about 6pm on Thursday 6th August I got to the top of the hill, accompanied by a dear friend Kim Bennett. It was quite a climb, but totally worth it! They sky was blue with scattered fluffy white clouds, and you could certainly see "the sea bordering upon Lancashire".

It felt wonderful to be up there. Exhilarating!

We sat on the edge of the hill and did 30mins of zazen (sitting meditation) together. I could feel the earth, the history, and the moment vibrating up through me.

Did it feel like the end? No it didn't. I'd spent so many hours and footsteps over the previous weeks focussing on just being in the present moment – allowing the sensations, the experiences, the people to come and go – that this was just another moment. I was here... then I would come down the hill, come back down south, and get on with the rest of my life. It was an endless end. Just another event in the tapestry of life.

Sean's inspiring poem

Somewhere along my journey, another dear friend, Sean Collins, gave me this beautiful poem which I wanted to share with you. My monks name was Kuren.
All the practice you have had
When sitting on you Zafu pad
A Buddha balanced on your rear
Aware of what you see or hear
Present with what you love or fear
Who are you?

Draw your sword and slice the bonds
That tie you to, or keep you from
The lessons that await you
Ancestors who create you
Those people who may hate you
Who are you?

Get up,
wake up
and walk to meet
the road that falls beneath your feet
in sun, wind, rain or sleet
Who are you?
(Kensho means seeing your own true nature)

All of life is a pilgrimage

Near the end of my walk someone pulled over in their car and offered me a lift. I couldn’t accept, but after talking for a while he said he thought we are all on our own kind of pilgrimage. I think he was right – life is like a long pilgrimage and we're all walking on our own path.

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

Do you feel like you're on your own pilgrimage of life? Leave a comment below, I'd love to hear your thoughts.

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  1. Mark, I've really enjoyed reading your blog and appreciate you sharing as much of the experience as you have in this way. I wondered if you had any thoughts on how it might be different if you did the same activity as a lay practitioner and without the Monks robes. I could see that walking boots and normal clothes would bring some increased comfort. I suspect this would initially be good but would it lessen the experience? I wondered also how peoples reaction to you might change? Would there be a difference between supporting a monk on a pilgrimage Vs some guy on a walk begging for food.
    I appreciate you wouldn't know for sure but I was interested in your thoughts.
    Be blessed and enjoy the moments,

  2. Thanks Mark - reading this has been interesting, inspiring and most uplifting.

  3. Also .... I like and appreciated your comments and links with Quakers. All too often 'religious' people disparage other peoples faiths and beliefs. Hence it's very encouraging to read your thoughts on the commonality between Zen/Buddhism and Quakers - and you 'paying homage' to them by ending your quest at Pendle Hill. Again .... much respect to you Mark.

  4. So cool! I've heard about Pendle Hill and its link to witchcraft in the past, this was very interesting to read! I'd like to visit myself some day.

    1. Thanks! I just gave a talk about my walk at the weekend at a library in London. I videoed it and will try to post it up soon.