English writer John Still described Sri Pada (Adam’s Peak) as “one of the vastest and most reverenced cathedrals of the human race”. As we began our assent, the pitch-blackness kept me from having any understanding of where we were headed or what I was getting myself into and the vast cathedrals John described were hidden from me.
I am quite sure if I had seen them, I would have turned back.
It turns out, the unknowing was the gift and as I placed one foot in front of the other I thought about how often we begin things without any real understanding of what it will take. Perhaps it’s the naive mystery of things that allows us to proceed.
Several hours before arrival, at around 9PM, we piled into the van. I had everything ready; warm clothes, cold clothes, various kinds of edible fuel. David, my trainer, met me 4 days a week for a long time. I knew my body could do it.
Early in route we abruptly pull over the van and our faithful driver jumps out and runs up to a street side temple. He gets on his knee’s bowing to the Buddha and then places money in the donation bin. He’s silent as he gets back in the van, no explanation needed. I could hear the gecko’s singing all around us, I didn’t even wonder for one second if we were making a good decision to go.
I have no clue how we got to the beginning, driving in the middle of the night it had felt like an hour or more since we turned off any kind of main road. Some villages had maybe one or two lights, many none at all. When the van stopped the monk with his giant smile says “ok, let’s do it, time to make compassion!” The local’s don’t say they are going to climb the sacred mountain, instead they say they are “making compassion”, a locally universal term for the sacred pilgrimage. When I ask further Bhante explains, “it’s very interesting what happens as we climb, people’s compassion just increases with every step. If you watch for it you will see, people don’t talk, they just do. Compassion becomes actions. When one needs rest, everyone in the group just rests together, when someone needs water, another hands it to him. When one struggles, the others naturally lend hands. Together, as we climb, we make compassion. Making compassion on the mountain is easy, keeping it once we are done, that’s the real work!” Maybe the point of the whole thing I quickly realize.
A young man meets us at the gateway, the head monk of the local temple has arranged for him to escort us. I look at his rubber Sri Lankan sandals in disbelief and think about my specially designed “ascending” shoes.
The tea huts are closed, the lights are turned off along the trail. Thankfully the stars and moon overwhelm us. Being a week before the pilgrimage season, we seem very alone on the trail. Every sign is in Sinhala, which I soon became grateful for. Not knowing how far we had gone, or had to go, saved me again and again.
We stopped at the base Temple, The chief monk was away but had arranged for our arrival. Other monks were sleeping, it was now 1AM. I ask our guide where we might see a Leopard, he smiled and opens his arms wide and says, “All around us, my friend, they are watching!”. I was happy, not yet realizing how dark our path would become. Many hours later I would return to this same spot and realize happiness is all about perspective.
As we began assent, I could hear waterfalls all around us. The blackness hid everything and I carried a flashlight torch that splashed a width of light maybe two feet to each side.
I never felt scared and never wondered.
That was the first thing I realized as we kept going—the work is in the steps and the steps are all you really think about. All the people who brought problems to ponder or issues to resolve must quickly realize that all that baggage will be unattended and burdensome.
Soon after we began I was surprised by the physical tolls and as we walked I thought about the ways people Pilgrimage. Many are simply within, states of mind and heart, but it’s undeniable the teachings from so many faith traditions that describe the importance of physical pilgrimages and as I stepped again and again, I began to understand. Buddha said to undertake pilgrimages with a “devout heart” and I had worked on my body, mind and heart in preparation. I’ve been on countless silent retreats and various kinds of inward pilgrimages, but this felt very different. As the step size increased and the slant of the path became more vertical, I began chanting our daily chant from the temple “mind is the forerunner of all states”. I knew my body could handle this; I just needed my mindfulness to cooperate.
Buddhism places high value on sacred pilgrimages and describes them as deeply committed acts of faith that can be physically demanding spiritual practices as well as “inward journey’s of the heart”. In the Pali Tipitaka, the oldest surviving body of the Buddha’s teachings, it says to try and make at least one spiritual pilgrimage in your lifetime. The pilgrimage is not really about destination, the journey itself is the most important part of the practice and, like meditation, The Buddha’s teaching suggests Pilgrimage as an opportunity to invest a significant dedicated amount of time concentrating on 3 qualities: Right speech, Right Action and Right thought.
I did none of these three thing, not even for one solid moment. The physical investment consumed me. I had no idea then that it would be in the hours and days after our pilgrimage that the true merits of our journey would reveal themselves to me.
As we rested at what was described as a half way point (certainly a lie designed to keep us from giving up) I was thoughtful for a moment about what I was doing on this path, mindful and a little sad I wasn’t able to concentrate on the three qualities. Before we began again I let it all go, reminding myself that true pilgrimage is an interior journey with the intent of training the mind and elevating the spirit. The path and destination are really the same, no matter where we are physically headed.
- The most sacred mountain
- A Spiritual High: Climbing Adam’s Peak in Sri Lanka
- Pilgrimage of the heart