The Philosopher's Path parallels an old canal for three miles along the base of the mountains in the eastern suburbs of Kyoto, Japan. It is a popular place for walkers, joggers, and tourists. The neighborhood is picturesque and affluent. There are cafes, small curio and souvenir shops, new and renovated houses. I have read about the Path in Kyoto guide books and want to walk it -- not for the shops but for the Buddhist temples along the way. I am in Japan, and especially in Kyoto, as a pilgrim tourist and on this Saturday afternoon in winter set out to find the Path, which has become for me the heart of this pilgrimage. I do not yet know why.

The Path is not easy to find, even though it is famous. Once found, it is suspiciously neat, too perfect in every way. Midway in my journey, I sit in a coffee shop overlooking the Path and sip cappuccino while listening to Mozart. This is not exactly Pilgrim's Progress, although the temptation to stay here for the afternoon is real enough. Not far from the coffee shop I walk up a small hill to a Buddhist temple, Honen-ji, tucked into the woods. It is one of two temples I want to visit along the Path, although neither is my destination. The truth is I have no destination.

There are a few times in our lives when we can enter into such states, when we are separated from the ordinary not only physically but emotionally. These are states of emptiness, in which whatever comes along is perfect. We often picture the emptiness as a desert, which is our destination even as we travel through it. It is not a vehicle by which we accomplish something; it is itself. (Jesus empties himself so that we can enter his emptiness. That is what it means, I think, to leave everything and follow him. It is in that sense that he is way, truth, and life. The way is the end.)

As I walk up the hill toward Honen-ji, I begin to feel like the diminutive hermit in the typical Japanese scroll painting, a speck in the overwhelming landscape. One would have to look carefully to find me here. I ascend the stone steps from the road, along which sports cars covered in protective nylon are parked. The approach to Honen-ji is paved in cobblestone. On the ridge above is a Buddhist cemetery. I can see the gardener moving among the memorial markers. The winter day is warm. Sunlight graces the pines.

The Philosopher's Path, Kyoto. Photo by Kenneth Arnold.

There is a kind of Zen meditation that is done while walking. Every step is intentional. The body's motion frees the mind: as we pass through the landscape so do our thoughts pass through us. I feel I have stepped into this zone in which my walking is all that there is. I come and go as a thought, a memory, a snatch of song.

The Silver Temple, Kyoto. Photo by Kenneth Arnold.

In this temple there is an altar before which the monks place, every morning at 4:30, a dozen Chrysanthemum blossoms, representing a pantheon of Bodhisattvas (enlightened beings -- saints -- who choose to remain caught in time to help the rest of us instead of retiring in Nirvana). I want to see this altar, which is all I know about Honen-ji. Perhaps I am looking for the traditional beauty of flowers on an altar, the scent of incense, the exotic.

From the top of the steps at the entrance to the temple grounds, I look down on two rectangular mounds of dirt flanking the walk that leads to the gardens. A monk in a blue robe is carving out of the top of one of the mounds sinuous ridges that might be paths or mountains, his attention fixed on smoothing the surface of the mound. At first I see him from a great distance. He is a Buddhist monk in Japan; I am a Christian from the United States touring temples, with a camera around my neck. My home is Manhattan. His home is this tranquility.

So much of my life suddenly feels like the bullet train between Tokyo and Kyoto -- all speed in a landscape cluttered with the debris of the modern. The train seems to be running away from something, perhaps from everything, aggressively charging into anything new, the used landscapes eaten by ego. Although I cannot imagine this monk's life -- and probably would not like living it -- I desire this space. It feels like holy ground, a place where one takes off shoes because God is palpable -- not as in most of Japan because custom demands it.

I know that I am at the edge of the desert, where the spirits dwell, and that I have come to Japan to be with this monk carving the earth. God has created us for the same emptiness. The monk looks at me as I descend the steps and returns to his work.

When Jesus went into the desert following his baptism by John, he was called to this emptiness of reality. He was letting go, carving away from himself the extraneous matter that obscures the way. It is what we do as well as we mature spiritually, however painfully. The emptiness we seek is a letting go, a taking away, so that the Christ or the Buddha can be revealed as our journey, even as the monk in Honen-ji reveals his path, and mine, as a mound of dirt.

Honen-ji, Kyoto. Photo by Kenneth Arnold.

Walking through the monastery's small garden, I am aware of the newness of everything, even the carp in the pond. The paths disclose themselves as I come to them, as they seldom do in those transitions in ordinary time when I cannot be sure where to go or what to do. God shows the way, but only if I am paying attention, when in daily life I see each moment as indebted to the Spirit. The dirt mounds the monks carve at Honen-ji are only dirt mounds, and then they are icons of presence.

This monk shows me how to tend our paths in Kyoto and New York -- focusing on each moment, carefully sifting the particles of life, listening intently to what God has to say in our deserts, locating ourselves in God's time.


(This article was first published in Episcopal Life, March 1999.)

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Source: Cross Currents, Summer 1999, Vol. 49 Issue 2.