In May 1987, I gathered with friends and colleagues at the Director’s Guild Theater in Hollywood to premiere the documentary film we had been working on for several years, The Hero’s Journey: The World of Joseph Campbell
. After the screening, several of us gathered on stage for a discussion with Professor Campbell. Near the end of the session we opened up for questions and comments from the audience. When someone thanked him for his comments on Sam Keen’s documentary, The Faces of the Enemy
, Campbell responded by contrasting the demonizing of other cultures, especially during wartime, with the perennial purpose of the spiritual life.
“The main awakening of the human spirit,” he said, “is compassion. The main function of propaganda is to suppress compassion.”
At that point, our moderator, Richard Beban, asked, “What do you see as the way out?”
After spending years in the editing room looking over seventy hours of film footage and videotape, I thought Campbell’s response would be along the lines of “Read more Greek myths.” Later I learned from his wife, Jean Erdman, that she thought he’d say, “Go back to the Upanishads. That’s what saved me.”
Instead, the maven of mythology startled us all with a koan-like answer. “Tourism. I see the way out as tourism.”
The theater erupted in laughter.
I nearly fell off my chair.
His wife was in shock. She sat stock-still in her front-row seat, waiting for an explanation or at least a qualifier.
Campbell waited, like the old Irish raconteur he was, allowing for the laughter to subside. Then a certain gravitas descended into his voice. “Go somewhere and meet somebody else,” he continued. “Perhaps even learn another language.”
Later that month I telephoned Campbell at his home in Honolulu, and we spoke about the film premiere and my upcoming journey to Paris. I confessed how surprised I was with his comments about tourism. He countered that he was serious about his recommendation.
“But if we do go somewhere,” he added, “we should learn as much as we can about the place, including the language, the arts, the myths.” That’s how we learn to see past the artificial divisions of nations and cultures, he went on to say. When we discover what we have in common with others we learn how to demystify the stranger – and may even stop turning our neighbors into enemies. Eventually we can learn compassion, which is the real teaching in all of the wisdom traditions.
Those words resounded in me through my long stay in Paris, and for years afterward as I continued my own travels around the globe. The notion that tourism can do more than bring pleasure and provide escapism has helped me have more patience with the often aggravating elements of the travel business-the still rampant colonial mentality of the rich tourist lording over the poor locals, or the pandering for the almighty tourist dollar. I’ve learned that even your basic tourist trap has the potential for helping people pull out of their tortoise shell of provincial thinking.
The Campbell koan came back to me in the mid-nineties when I saw the first news items about the “swords-into-ploughshares” transformation taking place around the globe. By the year 2000, I read, the travel industry would surpass the armaments and automotive industries as the biggest business in the world. Moreover, as the decade drew to a close, another phenomenon was emerging. More people were embarking on pilgrimages than at any time since the Middle Ages. Millions of seekers were setting forth on spiritual journeys down the ancient pilgrim roads from Santiago de Compostela to Mecca, Rome to Jerusalem.
Curiously enough, pilgrimage is something I’ve taken for granted all my life. Raised in a French Catholic home outside Detroit, I was familiar with the pious tradition of arduous journeys to holy sites, but being the son of parents who also loved the arts I was equally comfortable with the notion of following in the footsteps of writers, painters, even ballplayers, to pay my respects. For me the task of tasks of our lives is to see for ourselves how the sacred is all around us, even if, ironically, we have to go halfway around the world to learn how.
So it’s not a long stretch for me to regard pilgrimage as one of those life-hints Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. had in mind when he said, “Strange travel suggestions are dancing lessons from God.”
No doubt, pilgrimage can be a rote experience, like anything else in life, but at its most genuine I believe it to be a spiritually transformative journey. As evidenced by the roots of the word pilgrim (from the Latin per agrum, meaning “through the fields”) there are sublime depths to the ancient tradition. The word-picture evokes a traveler with a spiritual purpose walking over sacred ground. What this really means is getting off the bus, off the train, away from the chamber of commerce sites. If real travel is travail, then pilgrimage is ordeal. By definition any journey is physically difficult, but pilgrimage is also spiritually challenging. It demands that we follow our spiritual compass and put the soles of our shoes to the soul of the world. It means getting back in touch with our earth, our roots, ourselves.
There are as many forms of pilgrimage as there are proverbial roads to Rome.
There are journeys to fulfill religious obligation, journeys of thanks, journeys of curiosity, homage, and serendipity, even journeys of penance (“Say three Our Fathers, three Hail Marys, and walk to Rome, my child”). All are journeys of renewal.
As pilgrims we go back to find something we lost; we return to the source to be restored, rejuvenated, revivified. I’ve traveled as tourist, traveler, adventure tour guide, and writer, and have been overjoyed to see things with new eyes, and as Pico Iyer writes, been forced to “shake up [my] complacencies.” But it has been as a pilgrim-to Angkor Wat, Easter Island, Chartres, Pablo Neruda’s house in Valparaiso, Chile, Rumi’s tomb in Konya, Turkey-that I have felt most alive. Something happened at each of these sites that vitalized me and helped clarify my deepest thoughts.
The bona fide soul journey echoes John Muir’s realization at Yosemite a century ago, “I only went out for a walk, and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found out I was really going in.”
As if brought to light by the lantern of a pilgrim circumambulating the shrines of an ancient landscape, the stories that comprise this marvelous anthology reveal the simultaneous inner and outer nature of the spiritual journey. The adventure that renewed the traveler now renews us through the telling of the tale. What comes to mind when I think about these stories is passion. Every one of these tales is brimming with passion for pilgrimage, the journey grounded in spiritual wonder.
In Tara Austen Weaver’s story about her pilgrimage around the island of Shikoku, she revels in the ordeal of hard cycling for which she wasn’t prepared. “Mountains became my challenge,” she writes, “a physical mirror of my inner struggles.” Initially she feared that her journey was a mere escape, as many pilgrims do, but she came to realize that it was indeed an authentic search when it dawned on her she had “found the peace and knowledge I was looking for.” Michael Wolfe’s account of his arrival in Mecca evokes the ecstasy often associated with sacred travel. “The first sight of the shrine was literally stunning,” he writes of the Ka’ba. Men and women wept the rarest sort of tears. “I also felt an urge to escape my skin,” he goes on, “to swoop through the crowd like lines in a Whitman poem, looking out of every pilgrim’s eyeballs.” Then he heard the cry, “We made it! We made it!”
Beyond the epiphanies of the lone traveler, pilgrimage also offers as one of its perennial attractions what the anthropologist Victor Turner calls communitas. Pilgrimages are often provoked by feelings of spiritual isolation. Alone in our beliefs, we embark on a journey and encounter kindred spirits, which can strengthen the sense of community. In his account of a journey walking in the footsteps of the Buddha to Bodh Gaya in India, journalist Nicholas Shrady writes with grace about the numinous scenes he encounters. But he also reports with unusual candor the lesson he learned sitting under the Bodhi tree among a swarm of other seekers and ascetics. “Better to be overcome with humility, I thought, than to be greedy for enlightenment.” In the excerpt from Roger Housden’s book about his travels in Algeria we follow the writer as he retraces his own footsteps back to a mysterious caravanserai called Tam, deep in the Sahara. There he finds “many young men in search of a real life,” and is haunted by the comparison with friends he left behind. “Most people I know in Europe have money and trappings but are in search of a real life, as these men are. I had come here, to the Sahara, because I too wanted to feel the real life that once again seemed to have slipped away from me.” Ann Hood’s dramatic story of her journey to El Santuario in Chimayo, New Mexico, in search of a cure for her dying father reminds us that pilgrimages are really “miracles of inner transformation.” Mark Matousek’s tale is a fine example of the “accidental pilgrim,” to paraphrase Anne Tyler. Through a series of serendipitous adventures he meets Mother Meera in Germany, where he compares his experience of Darshan, the bliss of her sheer presence, to a moment of awakening where you are “turning and stepping out the back door of your own mind.”
Many accounts from pilgrims remind us that the sacred is as much “out there” as it is “in here.” James D. Houston writes movingly of his journey to Hawai’i that he had “the urge to consecrate the moment” of his arrival, and felt that “I touched the place and the place touched me.” He adds that, “These sites that call forth reverence and awe and humility and wonder, we make them sacred, and the ancient ties are never lost, the oldest voices calling from within (stones).” In her story about a journey to Khembalung in Nepal, Anne Armbrecht Forbes writes, “…what the pilgrims see along the way depends on what they are capable of seeing.” And later, “At the moment I felt most alone I realized I was never alone. The sacred is always there waiting to wake us and be seen by us, like a tree waiting to greet our newly opened eyes.” Along a similar path, Rabbi David A. Cooper writes about Jerusalem itself as an opening into the spiritual dimension. There it became clear to him that the message of all great religions is essentially the same: separate identity is an illusion, everything is finally connected. “One day,” he writes, “I hope to celebrate the unification of all humanity.”
As the intrepid travelers in this inspiring collection attest, pilgrimage represents a model for all journeys. Ideally each one is as contemplative as it is adventurous. The boon of pilgrimage, we see here, is the revelation that the ground around our own backyard can be regarded as sacred as any famous site. This truth, known to many pilgrims, is beautifully portrayed in Ruth Kamnitzer’s parable-within-a-story of her journey to the hilltop temple of Murugan at Palani, in India. There she learns of the mythical contest that Shiva and Parvati conjured up for their sons Murugan and Ganesh. “Whichever son managed to go round the world first would win the piece of golden fruit,” she writes. While Murugan dashed off on his peacock, Ganesh merely walked around his parents, saying, “You are my world.”
These spellbinding stories also remind me of the wisdom of Chaucer’s invocation in theCanterbury Tales. The innkeeper at the Tabard Inn asks the departing pilgrims to tell two tales to strangers on the way to Canterbury, and two tales on the way home. Chaucer knew that the community at home needs stories as much as it needs food and water. We need tales of the stranger, as Campbell saw, to help us appreciate our common humanity. But we need news of other worlds and customs, much as William Carlos Williams described our need for poetry, because “the world dies every day for the lack of it.” News that people are crossing borders not just on the map, but in the heart and soul. Strangely, I’m also inspired by the tales in this collection to recall that we may also need to be occasionally reminded about how much we don’t know about why we travel. An old Zen story captures the spirit.
The wandering monk Fa-yen was asked by Ti-ts’ang, “Where are you going?”
“Around on pilgrimage,” said Fa-yen.
Ti-ts’ang asked, “What is the purpose of pilgrimage?”
“I don’t know,” replied Fa-yen.
Ti-ts’ang nodded and said, “Not knowing is nearest.”
What memorable tales from the old pilgrim roads give us is the gift of the courage of our convictions. They remind us that at the crossroads moments of our lives perhaps we should, as the Buddha reminded his followers with his last words, “Walk On.” Walk on, contemplating, ruminating, meditating, observing what is sacred in and around us.
North Beach, San Francisco
Phil Cousineau is a writer, filmmaker, photographer, and adventure travel guide. His twelve documentary film credits include The Hero’s Journey: The World of Joseph Campbell,Ecological Design: Inventing the Future, and The Peyote Road. Cousineau is also author or editor of more than a dozen books, most recently the best-selling The Art of Pilgrimage: The Seeker’s Guide to Making Travel Sacred, The Book of Roads, and the upcoming Once and Future Myths. He now makes his home on Telegraph Hill in San Francisco.
Part One-On the Pilgrim’s Road
Old City, Jerusalem
Rabbi David A. Cooper
On the Road to Santiago de Compostela
In Search of Miracles
Darshan with Mother Meera
In the Footsteps of the Buddha
Making the Hadj to Mecca
The Fruitful Void
The Road to Bethlehem
H. V. Morton
The Holy Land
Pilgrimage to Glastonbury
Jean Shinoda Bolen M.D.
Part Two-In the Pilgrim’s Heart
The Devil’s Wind
Kent E. St. John
Naked on Mount. Sinai
Black Stones, Ancient Voices
James D. Houston
Ann Armbrecht Forbes
Tara Austen Weaver
In the Dust of His Peacock’s Feathers
My Father’s House
Mount Kailash, the Throne of Shiva
Falling Out with Superman
I Am Always With You
Paul William Roberts
Index of Contributors