The Buddhist monk, dressed in flowing purple, orange and vermilion colored robes bowed his shaved head and said in impeccably polite Japanese, “Welcome to Senyu-ji, The Temple of the Hermit in Seclusion.”
“Where have you travel from?” he inquired of everyone. He quickly put everyone at ease by commenting on each hometown and making short conversation. However, he only nodded when I mentioned I was from the USA.
Pleasantries dispensed with, he began.
“I hate America,” he intoned, letting the force of his words pound into the still air.
“If it wasn’t for America the world would be at peace. America has ruined all chance for peace in the 21st Century,” the monk preached into an increasingly silent room.
I heard every eye turn towards me. The temple’s intricately crafted joints creaked and moaned as the harmony, so valued in Japanese society, raced out the sliding wooden shoji doors.
Twenty days earlier, I arrived on Shikoku, the smallest of Japan’s four main islands, and home to the country’s most popular pilgrimage route. For over a thousand years, henro (pilgrims) have visited 88 Buddhist temples that ring the island, traveling in the footsteps of Kobo Daishi, the founder of Shingon Buddhism. Born on Shikoku in 774 AD, he wandered the island performing acetic rituals, leaving a steady stream of miracles in his wake.
Each year only one percent of pilgrims (out of an estimated 100,000-150,000 henro who perform the route by bus, car, train or bicycle) actually walk the 750-mile route. They hike footpaths that plunge deep into isolated mountains, through villages dominated by evergreens and rice paddies, and along a weather beaten coastline assaulted by frequent typhoon. Dressed in road worn white, they peer out from under conical straw hats that protect from sun and rain. Bell topped staffs steady their tired bodies as they transform Shikoku into a constantly moving human prayer wheel.
“Would you like to stay and help me with my work?” asked Mukai-san, the temple’s groundskeeper.
“I don’t hate Americans, only your country and what it represents,” the monk continued into the awkward silence of the temple.
Taking little comfort in the monk’s attempt to clarify, I sat through the remaining hour planning my escape.
Immediately after the sermon I packed up my belongings. I was at the top of the steep mountain path when Mukai-san caught me and said simply, “Shall you stay another day? There’s lots of work to be done.”
I was torn between my insulted ego and the open generosity before me. I searched the face of the man who had renounced all of his possessions seven years earlier, dedicating himself to the temple. He received nothing in return except room and board. In that moment, I understood what it means to accept without judgment and I left the monk’s words behind in the temple.
Tired after work
I left the mountain two days later with a light heart, certain I had met the true hermit in seclusion, disguised as a simple groundskeeper.