Like any good millennial, I’ve enjoyed (read: am still enjoying) a brief wander period. A couple of weeks ago, my wandering took me to Japan in search of meaning and self- knowledge (but also sushi.) A week into my time on the island, I found myself on a trail with a monk. On a trail with a monk taking the same spiritual pilgrimage. On a trail with a monk talking about, of all things, the Grand Canyon.
For those who don’t know, Japan’s Kii Peninsula is home to a huge system of trails that weave in and out of shrines, temples, several UNESCO World Heritage sites, and a bunch of sacred trees and rocks and stuff. Considering the trails/shrines/rocks/stuff, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that I would meet a monk on the trail. The one I met, Katsumi Ueno, is a Shugendō/Yamabushi priest of the Shugendo sect of Buddhism, the mountain worshippers. Shugendō Buddhism includes the philosophies and practices of Shintoism, Taoism and Buddhism, the combination of which produces a mantra-based faith that is wholly rooted in nature. Neat, right?
Just by looking at his robes, you could tell how connected to the land this guy (and his faith) was. His split-toe shoes had treads on them for scaling mountains, climbing ropes hung off his hips, an animal hide protected his backside along with several other accouterments that paired as spiritual accomplishments and mountain-worthy gear. His headband doubled as a water mug, his conk shell as an unorthodox radio, and his sun-cap as a reiteration of a temple. All of these things allow him to always be in a state of practice, no matter where he ventures.
I noticed these items as I walked behind him, in complete silence. We walked like that for a full 90 minutes: him ambling along the Kumano Kodo sacred path, me about 5 feet behind him, wondering what in the world you say to a monk. I knew what I wanted to say. A philosophy major in college, I had a few questions about life, death, meaning and the like. But I didn’t know how to ask.
Are you allowed to talk to monks? Was he in walking meditation? Did he speak English? If I’m too ignorant to know the answers to these questions am I allowed to even try?
Finally, as I felt the immanent end of the trail, I bucked up the courage to ask a question.
“So, do you like being a monk?” Ough. Stupid question. Like the ‘you come here often’ of spiritual pickups.
“Of course, I do,” Katsumi San responded in perfect English. “It gives me balance with my businesses, travel, and family.”
“Where did you learn to speak English?” I asked. Really? From Buddhism as it relates to business, travel, and family, that’s your second question?
“I’m an international kayak guide certified in the US and Canada,” he responded, like he had just told me the weather forecast.
Oh. I thought. This monk isn’t like a regular monk. This is a cool monk.
And so our conversation began. We dove straight in. I, gaining enough confidence to ask the big questions, quizzed him on his practices with regards to life, death and everything in between. We talked about what a life looks like when it’s not on a linear scale, how the concept of rebirth frames that of death. How one’s past, present and future contribute to who we are in ways that Westerners don’t usually consider.
We were on the subject of death when he circled back to that of kayaking. He explained that the combination of the two led him to his monk hood. As a young man, he traveled all around the world to chase rapids. At the height of his adventures, at only 27, a personal tragedy led him to feel lost and depressed, and a family member suggested he try practicing mantras to clear his mind and regain a sense of self.
“In Shugendō, kayaking can be a mantra,” he told me. Such a realization led him to find meaning in his practice, and pursue monastic life alongside his business pursuits as a guide and B&B owner (I told you! He’s a cool monk!). His faith believes that when you’re in nature, you’re surrounded by deities, spirits, and history. Buddha is built into the trees, energy pulses between rocks, rivers and hills. By embedding oneself in the trails, and engaging in sitting, walking (or kayaking) meditation and worship, monks like Katsumi San find synergy with that energy.
OMG, I thought, am I a mountain monk?
Outdoorsy folk certainly like to entertain the idea of monastic mountain life. We refer to the peaks as our churches, scaling them on weekend mornings to feel the inevitable power of our rocky landscape. We exercise regular mantras on the trails in pursuit of self-betterment (and/or the righteousness of getting rad). We haul gear as tokens of our accomplishments, banning together in cliques of equally spiritual and ambitious people, even if just for a morning ride. While it may not be a religion, it is a mantra. It is a way of life.
But how can you validate that way of life? How, in our working, capitalist society can a mountain mantra go hand-in-hand with a more typically successful path?
“You must live this life, otherwise you are already dead,” responded my monk. In other words, if you feel compelled to pursue something, you must do so, even if that something is two wheels and a dusty path. Otherwise, in the scheme of a karmic cycle of many different lives, you’re just wasting time. That’s how Katsumi San ended up in the Grand Canyon. One of his kayaking buddies got a last-minute permit, and, in the face of logistics, money and personal commitments, he almost didn’t go.
However, the rareness of the chance convinced him otherwise, and he took the trip down the Colorado. On the water, looking up at the cracked canyon walls through the dry, western air, he found synergy with the landscape. He found his mantra so far away from his home, and so close to mine. We dove into discussions of the desert, how it had shaped us, why we had to return. Just like that, some beautiful giant rocks brought together two people who were seemingly worlds apart.
As I recall our conversations on life and nature, there is one question I wish I had asked Katsumi San. I wish I had asked what he thought about the public land disputes going on in the States. I wish that, as we talked about the significance of the mountain west, we could have delved into what it means for protected land to be privatized. Not just what it might mean for mountain mantras and recreationalists, but for the people and cultures that place true religious significance upon our national monuments. The people that made the trees and rocks and stuff sacred, worth protecting, in the first place.
I know what I’d want him to say. I’d want him to say that spiritual spaces are irreplaceable. That anywhere that someone feels synergy with landscape is worth protecting. That energy and beauty and tradition are sacred enough to prioritize, especially in the context of the vast history of the west. That, if we truly consider ourselves ambassadors, worshipers or apprentices to those lands, we will protect them.
The public comment period for Bears Ears and Escalante have passed. However, as a democracy, our government takes comments, letters, and calls 24/7. To learn how the land in your state is threatened and who to talk to about it, click here.
That’s what I’d want him to say about public lands. But here is what he did say about personal experience, about pursuing passion, about the secret to choosing a successful and fulfilling life:
“There is no wrong choice.”
I didn’t respond to his answer. I suppose this blog is somewhat of a response. Because, as I’ve reentered my world of pressure and choices and uncertainty, reflecting on my walk with Katsumi San has inspired in me a certain sense of faith. Faith in the energy of the environment, faith in the goodness of the universe, and faith in the idea that, if either of those things appear otherwise, I have the power to make something meaningful of every choice and opportunity.
I just hope that faith remains when I really need it, and hope you feel a little bit of it, too. And, if you run into a Japanese monk looking for a couch to surf and a river to kayak, feel free to send him my way.