Pilgrimages: Walking With Your Demons
In early 2001 I took part in a very small slice of an interfaith walking pilgrimage to twenty-two prisons and jails in California, the 500-mile California Prison Dharma Walk. It started in Oakland and went first to San Quentin State Prison, and wound inland through Fresno, Riverside, and Los Angeles, eventually ending at Lompoc Federal Correctional Complex. My brief participation was in the trek to San Quentin, where a small group of us drummed, chanted, and contemplated the prison industrial complex.
From the road, we could see the prison in the distance, stark and fortress-like in the southern-most lip of one of the richest counties in the United States, home of California’s death row. Surrounding it, much closer to us but still fenced in, was a small village of almost bucolic small homes where prison staff lived. To keep about 5,200 inmates confined, fed, and alive, a small community had been built. We stopped beside the road, and as cars whipped by, some of them honking in support, we drummed and chanted in the bright sun.
Sister Jun Yasuda of the Nipponzan Myohoji Buddhist order initiated the walk, and it was joined by different religious leaders, including indigenous spiritual leaders. Nipponzan Myohoji is known for its peace walks. The one that first drew my attention retraced African slave trade routes, starting in the Americas and Europe, and ending in West Africa. What a tremendous vision, and a difficult yet powerful journey.
During the prison walk to San Quentin, I encountered both the beauty and the challenges of such an active dhamma practice. Having come from a Burmese Theravadan lineage that prioritized sitting meditation and long silent retreats, this was a different practice. We were walking miles at a time in a very public manner, no matter what the weather (though it was beautiful while I was there), with robed monastics continuously drumming and chanting loudly, carrying banners and flags, in the company of people who for the most part I did not know. It did not feel like dhamma practice as I knew it at the time. I wanted to be by myself in silence, but that was impossible. We had to be a community, look out for one another, and bear the physical challenge of walking, which of course also brought mental challenges. Along with this, we had to move forward with dignity and try to practice the peace we were walking and praying for. It was a walking meditation period with no real end. It was life, concentrate.
I left the walk in San Francisco as they prepared to embark the ferry to Alcatraz Island. There in the midst of ultra-touristy Fisherman’s Wharf, the walk’s simplicity of existence and purpose was a stark contrast to the distractions of overpriced shops and restaurants.
Though I was with the prison walk briefly, I came away with a strong feeling of respect for the monks and nuns of Nipponzan Myohoji. Here was a small Buddhist order, probably among the smallest, yet its vision of walking for peace and healing was so compelling that it magnetized allies and supporters wherever it went. Its senior monastics were humble but powerful people, and earned respect in every community they stopped in. As people joined and left the walk, disparate communities became connected. Their practice of walking, drumming, and chanting drew attention to a multitude of social issues, created community, provoked thoughtful reflection and difficult discussions. It was, and is, a kind of non-violent direct action.
From the outside, it might seem as if walking for peace and healing is so simple an activity that it can’t possibly have an impact. Perhaps at one level this is true, since many of the problems these walks try to address are so large—the prison system, nuclear power, the legacies of slavery, war—but for those who participate, it does change them. It is a kind of purification process to face the traumas and injustices of the world, while single-mindedly turning your mind and heart to peace. It brings up personal demons, and you have to walk with them. For those who witness the walkers and really stop to observe, there can’t but be a recognition that you have just witnessed something wholesome and meaningful, something incredibly rare. Human beings at their best.
Recently, a group of seven young Cree walkers completed a 1,700 kilometer (1,056 mile) trek from Whapmagoostui in Northern Quebec to Ottawa, Ontario, inspired by the Idle No More movement. Between January 16, 2013 and March 25, 2013, their walk swelled to close to 200 walkers.