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Deep rumbling chants rolled out of the cedar temple, pushed by the rhythmic precision of the perfectly timed drums, as the Buddhist monk led the daily dawn service. The morning air was crisp and carried the scent of pine and earth from the remote Japanese mountaintop. Prayer beads wrapped around my left hand, 108 plastic balls reminding me of my earthly sins, I knelt Japanese style in a dimly lit temple wondering if feeling would ever return to my feet. Gold ringlets hung from the ceiling, radiating above a thousand armed statue of the Bodhisattva of Compassion sitting directly in front of me.
One hour later, my prayers were answered. The monk concluded the ceremony and encouraged us to relax our legs before he spoke about the Buddha’s teachings. Sighs of restrained relief and pain filled the dim temple as seven Japanese pilgrims sitting on either side of me shifted their legs on age golden straw tatami mats.

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.”

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“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.

A pilgrim reaching the top of the long steep path to Senyuji

Like millions of pilgrims who came before me, I climbed the worn mountain path to Temple 58, Senyuji, on the 19th day of my pilgrimage. Clinging to the top of a mountain The Temple of the Hermit in Seclusion affords sweeping views of the Inland Sea below. A lazy summer breeze wound its way through the meticulously sculpted temple grounds as I sat under the large iron bell waiting for my breath to return.

The Inland Sea

I chanted Buddhist sutras, and received a smoothly inked kanji (Chinese character) and a vermilion stamp in my pilgrim’s book as proof of my visit. When the book is complete and filled with all 88 temple kanji I will be guaranteed to enter nirvana upon my death. Who else can claim they ensured their eternal salvation over a summer vacation? I was ready to move to the next temple when a short bald man, his face crinkled in a perpetual childlike smile with clothes deeply soiled by the earth, caught my eye.

“Would you like to stay and help me with my work?” asked Mukai-san, the temple’s groundskeeper.

Mukai-san

Taken aback by such directness, but infected by a smile that split his face in half and swallowed his eyes, I agreed to stay and help. Replacing my walking staff with a shovel and hoe, I spent a long but gratifying day under the hot sun helping to build a traditional forge for sword making.
The next morning everything changed as the old groundskeeper sat behind the monk and beat the drum that penetrated my soul. The Bodhisattva of Compassion looked over all of us.

“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.

Hard at work

Tired after work

I spent the following days working with Mukai-san. In the evenings the head monk would join us under the stars next to a ceder filled camp fire. We drank sake and ate various processed meat products. Mukai-san politely refused all but the vegetables and juice. We never talked about the monk’s speech, nor did politics come up again. However, in the haze of broken Buddhist dietary vows the monk and I came to a silent understanding of simple acceptance.

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.

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11 Responses to “The Hermit in Seclusion”

  1. MeredithNo Gravatar says:

    Thanks Todd…. Your writing is beautiful…hope you might think of putting it all together in a book! This story is so close to my heart ..as a traveler I have had many such experiences..and they all have changed me… the way I think, and the way I relate to others. May you always have the ability to recall the innumerable experiences of your life through your writing.

    I am 62, an American now residing in California but planning for a Shikoku pilgrimage in 2013. I lived in Japan for 5 years in the 70s and have dreamed of returning ever since. The country,the culture, the people and the spirit of the past in that place have captured my heart. You have stirred a whirlpool of emotions in me through this blog. Thank you.

  2. PriyankNo Gravatar says:

    Beautiful narration Todd – I hope some day more and more people can relate to this simplicity and minimalist lifestyles. Consumption and spending economy hasn’t made us any happier. Thank you for this wonderful post. :)
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  3. Todd,
    What a profound and moving experience it must have been for you…I know it was for me just reading through your narrative of your experience. You are incredibly fortunate to have such experiences in life. Keep this awesome content coming my friend!
    Jeff Titelius´s recent [type] ..The striking Piazza San Marco Clock Tower

  4. DavidNo Gravatar says:

    Awesome story! (I can’t believe I had never read all of your Shikoku posts before)
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  5. AdventureRobNo Gravatar says:

    Mukai-san looks like the most trustworthy person in the world with that smile ^_^
    AdventureRob´s recent [type] ..What Stuff to Travel With

  6. KevinNo Gravatar says:

    A beautiful account of your journey, Todd. Simplicity, acceptance, and living in the moment. That we should all have such an experience sometime. Mukai-san seems like such a humble soul. Thanks for sharing.

    • Todd WasselNo Gravatar says:

      Thanks Kevin. Mukai-san is definitly one of the most open and honest people I have ever met. They said I could come back and live in the temple for a year and study Japanese carpentry with Mukai-san. I wish I could have taken them up on the offer!

  7. Todo,
    I clicked the picture to see all the photos but only got one. Guess the site needs a little tweeking. I will say that the new site is GREAT!!!!
    Pop

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